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I absolutely love doing a write-up on a restaurant like the Cinema Caf, as this restaurant is unique, a feaures great food, friendly service, and is truly a hidden jewel, within the boundries of a newly vitalized, downtown Merced.  The restaurant also holds a special place in my heart, as I can remember, as a kid, in the early 1960's, when the restaurant was a greasy-spoon diner that went by the name of Lonnie's Caf, owned and operated by Lonnie himself.  So after all of those long years, on Saturday, October 29, 2011, I again had the opportunity to enjoy a delicious meal at Lonnie's... errr... Cinema Caf.

 

Photo:  Cinema Caf is located in the Strand Theater complex and offers limited table seating inside, and maybe a dozen stools at the breakfast counter.  Outdoor dining is comfortable and attractive, on the sidewalk in a newly-revitalized downtown Merced.  The outdoor dining is shaded by umbrellas, and lots of recently planted banana trees.  You can go bananas in Merced!!!

 

Photo:  Inside Cinema Caf... this is it... a couple of small tables for two, a dozen barstools or so, and lots of kitchen, where you can watch your meal being prepared before your eyes.  If you close your eyes, ignore the electronic cash register, the newly upholstered stools, the refurbished counter, and the fresh paint, you'd almost think that you were at Lonnie's Caf, circa 1961.  

Downtown Merced in the early 1960's was a very different place than it is today, as today's "Main Street," was 17th street, there was no Highway 99 - the highway went through town on 16th Street, one block south of 17th, there were no shopping malls, and the big thing to do on Friday night was to "drag the main."  Lonnie's Caf was located at the corner of 17th and "N," within the Strand Theater complex, which was, even in those days, the second-rate theater in town, as it always trailed behind the Merced Theater.

My father worked for a major financial institution, and his office was two doors east of Lonnie's Caf, as Cinema Caf was known as in the 1960's, and since dad was in the business of loaning money, he knew practically everybody in town, which wasn't hard to do in Merced during the early 1960's, as the population was less than 20,000 Mercedians.  Dad would eat at Lonnie's practically every day... sometimes breakfast, but mostly lunch, as he loved the burgers Lonnie served.  Lonnie's was - and Cinema Caf is - a locally owned an operated, hole-in-the-wall restaurant, with a couple of small tables, and mostly counter seating.  Dad always raved about Lonnie's unique sense of humor - they would discuss football and compare the latest stock market prices - and Dad appreciated Lonnie's burgers and fries.  Every couple of months, usually on a late Saturday morning, Mom and Dad would load us kids into the 1957 Plymouth station wagon, and head to downtown Merced, while Mom would shop for notions and yardage at the nearby Montgomery Wards, and Dad would take my brother and I to Ralph's Barber Shop, just a few doors down from today's Cinema Caf, for our bi-monthly haircuts.  Muskogee wasn't the only place in the world that frowned upon guys with long hair...  Ah, the halcyon days of Merced, circa 1961...

 

Photo:  I'm at the extreme rear of the restaurant, and I'm looking toward the entrance... note the blackboard that advertises the daily specials.  Cinema Caf is quite retro, but I love everything about the restaurant, as the food is good, the prices are lowball, the people are nice... and it's a great Merced dining experience, any way you look at it.

 

Photo:  Your friendly server, Veronica, brings our burgers to the table.  My friend Linda and I both ordered bacon avocado cheese burgers, but we differed, in that she ordered a green salad on the side, and I ordered fries. Veronica, like the other staff members, seemed to enjoy her job, and her mission seemed to make our visit as pleasant as possible.

 

Photo:  My friend Linda seems pleased as Veronica dusts off the pepper shaker.  I arrived about a half hour prior to Linda, and the staff was happy to seat me, and allow me to enjoy cup after cup of their delicious coffee.

Like most towns in the San Joaquin Valley, in the late 1960's,  the freeway came through Merced, the shopping mall was built, and the downtown shopping district withered, and died on the vine, and was reduced to boarded-up buildings, bars, thrift stores, pawn shops, and other third-rate businesses.  For thirty years, downtown Merced languished, caught in a time warp, somewhere between 1970 and 2000, but not having roots in either, and lacking any purpose, or any way to go.  

Fast forward to Saturday, October 29, 2011... things are different on Main Street, as the city fathers have done a tremendous job of making downtown Merced a vibrant, attractive, pedestrian-friendly place to shop, dine, socialize, and just hand-out.  Most of the "seedy" business have moved out, and have been replaced by boutiques, restaurants, night clubs... and parking is plentiful, convenient, safe, and FREE!!!!  Main Street is now beautifully landscaped, the buildings are well-maintained, the vacancy rate is very low, and most of all, it's a fun place to "hang," especially when you get a chance to enjoy a lunch at the Cinema Caf.

 

Photo:  Linda Young, and your author, Eric Rench, pose at the table, as we enjoy delicious burgers at Cinema Caf. Linda and I went to high school together, and despite young adult craziness, cross-country moves, and other life issues, have managed to remain friends for 40+ years...  Since we're both Merced natives, and were both free on this late Saturday afternoon, it was great to meet for brunch.

 

Photo:  Cinema Caf claims to serve the best burger in Merced, and since I haven't eaten every burger in Merced, I can't verify or dispute that claim, but I can say that Cinema Caf serves a delicious burger.  Linda and I ordered bacon avocado cheese burgers, and each burger featured a half-pound patty, perfectly cooked, place on top of a large, freshly-baked, sesame seed roll.  We both requested "everything," so the burgers were garnished with red onion slices, tomato slices, and lettuce... with avocado, bacon slices and cheddar cheese.  Wow!  What a good burger!!!

Cinema Caf advertises that they serve the best burger in Merced, and I can't confirm, nor can I deny that statement, but I CAN say that they served a delicious burger, made from fresh ingredients, and served by very friendly people who seem to enjoy their job, and strive to make you feel welcome.  Oh the fries... sheer heaven! Any way you look at it, Cinema Caf serves a delicious burger, and is a definite Merced dining treasure...

Cinema Caf
661 W. Main St.
Merced, CA 95340
209 722-2811


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