Roadside America: Samoa Cookhouse, Eureka, California

There’s something about roadhouses that fascinates me. I don’t just mean dodgy watering holes of the kind Patrick Swayze kicked some butt in, but old school diners that cater to working folk. The food is often great, and there’s just something honest about them.

For over a decade, I’d longed to visit the famed Samoa Cookhouse just minutes from Eureka, California, after reading about it in a food magazine. Built in 1893, it’s at the crossroads of Northern California’s fishing and lumber industries, and the last surviving cookhouse in the West. It sounded like the kind of place I’d love, what with the communal dining hall seating and hearty, family-style prix fixe menus. There’s even a Logging Museum located at one end. The restaurant is still largely patronized by those in the industry, along with fisherman and other assorted blue-collar types.

This past July, my parents, brother, sister-in-law, niece, and nephew took a family vacation up to the Klamath River. We also spent a couple of days in Eureka, using it as a base to visit the nearby Redwoods National Park. When the inevitable “What’s for dinner?” question arose, my brother (whose teenaged nickname was “Garbage Disposal”), 16-year-old nephew, and I lobbied for Samoa Cookhouse. The rest of the family wasn’t so keen on this (cholesterol level issues/desire for a light meal/finicky 12-year-old niece who subsists on white foods).

It turned out that my brother, parents, and I had actually eaten at the Cookhouse when I was about 8. It’s strange that I can’t recall the visit, because most of my memories are centered on food, even at that time in my life when I, too, refused to eat anything but starchy carbs. This made me even more curious to see what I’d apparently blocked out.Even if you don’t enjoy stuffing yourself senseless, the Cookhouse is a historian’s dream. It’s as authentic a place as you can get, right down to the red-and-white checked plastic tablecloths (my brother and I were immediately reminded of the camp we both attended as kids), utilitarian, lumber camp-style of the dining hall and friendly service.

For $15.95, you’re offered the evening’s menu: soup, salad, homemade bread (hot, exceedingly wonderful, I dare you to not fill up on it), entree (in our case, pork chops and pot roast) potato, vegetable, dessert and coffee or tea. Lunch ($12.95) is along the same lines, while breakfast ($10.95), as you’d imagine, involves massive quantities of eggs, flapjacks, sausage, biscuits and gravy, and hash browns.

The food is a key part of the Cookhouse’s appeal – from our thick, nourishing, beef-barley soup to the sublime pot roast. It’s working man’s fare, done right. But it’s so much more than just a great meal (although the original Cookhouse menu items are today considered on-trend and command top dollar at the nation’s best restaurants: freshly churned butter from the Cookhouse dairy; homemade preserves, etc.).

The Cookhouse is also a vital piece of California history that’s often overlooked. The logging legacy of the late 19th and early 20th centuries in large part helped the state prosper and brought many of the immigrants who helped establish Northern California’s “melting pot” culture. If nothing else, visit the museum, which contains an astounding array of photographs, relics, and some seriously badass cross-cut saws.

To get to Samoa Cookhouse, take the Highway 255/the Samoa Bridge over the bay from Eureka, and make a left. You’ll see the white dining hall perched on a hilltop. Open seven days a week.

[Flickr image via TrishaLyn]

Dine for charity at The Palm

If you’re looking for a reason to splurge on a restaurant meal, here’s one. The Palm Restaurant group, as part of its aim to raise money for the non-profit organization Dress for Success, has a special menu for lunch and dinner through October 31.

If you order from the Fall for Success lunch or dinner menus, part of the proceeds will go to this charity that provides “economic independence of disadvantaged women.”

Menu items are creative and yummy. Ordering a meal isn’t required. There are appetizers, side dishes, salad and a desert if you’re on a tighter budget.

I’d go for the Parmesan Truffle fries for $8, or for a splurge the Nova Scotia Lobster Nachos for $18. Molten Chocolate cake is the desert offering. (Click here for the rest of the menu.)

The history of the restaurant is another reason to head here regardless of giving money to a worthy cause.

Although there are 25 Palm restaurant locations from Boston to L.A., and in Mexico City and San Juan, the Palm Group is still owned by the family who founded it. The original Palm Restaurant on 2nd Avenue in Manhattan, now a historic landmark opened its doors in 1926 as an Italian eatery featuring dishes from Parma Italy.

This restaurant is one of those famous places worth heading to for its history alone. Back when it first opened, the family couldn’t afford artwork so whenever local newspaper men came to eat, they were given a free plate of spaghetti in exchange for a drawing on the wall. The walls still boast the caricatures and cartoons of their efforts.

Here’s a detail that anyone who has traveled to another country and has struggled to say the name of a place correctly can relate to. The family really wanted the name of the restaurant to be Parma, but when applying for a business license the person who applied had an accent that made Parma sounded like Palm. Considering the restaurant’s expansion to California, perhaps this was unwittingly visionary.