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'Noriega Hotel will not reopen,' signaling the end of Bakersfield as we know it

Bakersfield will never quite be the same.

The family owners of the Noriega Hotel, the oldest Basque restaurant in town, winner of a James Beard Foundation award, and a destination that could transport visitors to another era, said the landmark restaurant will remain closed following the end of the coronavirus lockdown.

"The Noriega Hotel will not re-open after the COVID-19 closure," the Elizalde family announced Friday in identical Facebook and Twitter posts.  "We appreciate all the people that have dined with us for the last 89 years."

The announcement brought an outpouring of emotional responses and shared memories to social media as Bakersfield residents wondered how such an important and historic eatery could suddenly vanish from a city where losing its history seems like a lingering illness.

Reached at her home Friday evening, Rochelle Ladd, who owns the historic restaurant with her sister, Linda Elizalde McCoy, said the decision had been a long time coming, beginning well before the COVID-19 shutdown, which nonetheless may have sealed the decision.

"It's sad, but it's just a sign of the times," Ladd said. "So many changes in the restaurant business. A Basque, family-style restaurant is pretty much not a possibility any more."

Social distancing in a family-style restaurant, where diners eat shoulder to shoulder at long tables covered with platters of hearty food, is certainly a contradiction.

But the decision was building before COVID-19, Ladd said. Frequent break-ins and vandalism in the Old Town Kern neighborhood had already been a burden. And the hard work required to run a restaurant meant the sisters had lost time that can never be recovered, time with family members and grandchildren.

The boardinghouse and hotel began long before Jean and Grace Elizalde became the proprietors in 1931. When Elizalde passed away two years later, his widow continued the dream they started together until her death in 1974.

Noriega’s was the go-to place for wedding receptions, celebrations and community meetings and in 1940, the restaurant and bar were added to the hotel.

The true spirit of what the Noriega represented to the Basque community was conveyed in The Bakersfield Californian on March 18, 1938, as the “pivotal center of the Basque population in Kern county and its social nucleus … a gravitational point for the Basques when they enter the city.”

Eighty-nine years after the Elizaldes took over duties at the hotel, their descendents continued to own the establishment and keep the traditions alive.

Jonathan Gold, the Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic for the Los Angeles Times who died in 2018, wrote many times about the meals he enjoyed at Noriega Hotel.

It wasn’t just the food he loved. It was the history, the fact that it wasn’t in the “nice” part of town, and the way it could transport visitors to another place in time.

"If you are sitting down at a long, oilcloth-covered table and there is a tin bowl of beans in front of you, a tureen of thin vegetable soup and a bowl of mild tomato salsa, you know you're at a Basque restaurant even without looking at the maps, the paintings of sheep-protecting dogs and the reservation books in which Echeverria is a more common name than Smith," Gold wrote in the LA Weekly.

Local artist and school library technician Jennifer Williams has a silver dollar a bartender at Noriega gave her parents when he learned Williams had just been born.

"He told them it was a traditional gift for luck for new babies," she recalled in a Facebook comment. "My Mom was very touched and made sure to tell me the story when I was older and she gifted me the coin. It's a very worn liberty dollar!"

The memories are legion. The affection for the restaurant is sewn into the fabric of Bakersfield.

The love longtime customers have for the place will be hard to give up, Ladd said. But at 67, she noted, she's "not getting any younger."

"The customers, they quickly become family," she said. "We will miss a lot of them.

"But everything has its time, and it's time for Noriega to be in the history books."

Steven Mayer can be reached at 661-395-7353. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter: @semayerTBC.

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