Vista Ranch, located five miles of Merced is a very unique and welcome food and entertainment destination for Mercedians, as it's a wine cellar, picnic ground, event center, and a restaurant, all combined in an attractive, friendly rural setting. During the warm Merced summer months, every Thursday and Friday evening, Vista Ranch hosts "Summer Nights," which features live entertainment, beer, wine, and most important of all... great food!
As with all of reviews that I publish, I have no affiliation with the restaurant reviewed, and there is no monetary gain on my part, as I am simply a person who likes to eat, and I love to write-up, and publish my dining experiences.
Photo: What is Vista Ranch? Is it a wine cellar, a restaurant or an event center? It's all of the former, plus a lot more, and if you're on the way from Merced to Yosemite National Park, Vista Ranch is a must-stop-at destination. Wine tasting happens every day, starting at 9 in the morning, special events occur as scheduled, and on Thursday and Friday evenings during the summer, "Summer Nights" happen, which features a beer and wine bar, live music, and amazing food, including pizza, cooked in a oak wood-fired oven.
It's early Thursday evening, just before the 6 o'clock opening of "Summer Nights," August 03, 2017. The event center is open, and there is a gentleman assisting in parking the nearly 500 guests who attend this event on this warm August evening.
Vista Ranch is located on a portion of the former "Bear Creek Ranch," also known as "Fancher Ranch," which was owned and operated by a Merced pioneer, George Fancher. As an historical aside, the highest obelisk in the State of California, the "Fancher Obelisk," standing 68 feet high, and weighing 1000 tons, is located a mile or so west of Vista Ranch. After Mr. Fancher passed away in 1900, his heirs erected the "Fancher Obelisk" in his honor in 1911, and it has been an area attraction/curiosity ever since.
As a teenager in the late 1960's, I worked for a couple of summers on the ranch, which at the time was owned by the Del Monte Corporation. The wine tasting building, in the photo, was located at the center of "Camp 2," and was the home of the ranch superintendent, T.D. Osterhaut. When I "hired on" the ranch, I was interviewed, and signed my employment paperwork in the living room of Mr. Osterhaut's residence, which is now the wine tasting room. I spent two summers hauling peaches in a Korean War-era weapons carrier, irrigating peach orchards, propping up peach trees, and driving tractors for the princely sum of $1.65 an hour! Such for being a teenager in Merced, circa 1970!
Photo: The main order counter is located near the wine tasting room, near the center of the grounds. This is the place to order beer, locally produced wine, and food, which is cooked in the kitchen, just in back of the order counter.
The restaurant relies on a "taqueria" format, in that you make your selection from the menu, posted above the counter, you pay the cashier, and you receive a plastic "number" to place on your table, and when your order is ready, it will be brought to you, with a smile, from one of the friendly staff members.
Photo: The menu for "Summer Nights" is posted on a very classy, chalk board, above the order counter. "Summer Nights" happens on Thursday and Friday evenings during the hot Merced summer, but the wine tasting room, is open every day, and the ranch hosts many special events.
Photo: The order counter, with the screened kitchen located behind the counter. What is the big yellow thing to the right of the photo? It's the oak wood-fired pizza oven. Yes, the pizza is cooked, using oak as the heat - and taste - source, as oak trees grow plentiful in the Merced area. For the uninformed, food grilled over oak tastes very similar to food grilled using hickory, as oak and hickory are both hard woods, and both make for excellent grilling. The menu also includes grilled corn, known in Mexico as "elotes," and the corn is grilled over a charcoal and oak fired grill.
Photo: By the time we arrived, shortly after 6 on this warm Thursday evening, the line had formed to order food and beverages at the main order station. Actually, it was not a problem, as the line moved very quickly, so if you're like me and you detest waiting in lines, your wait will be very minimal. The window in the center of the photo is one of the windows to the kitchen.
Photo: After placing my order for an "El Capitan" pizza, and a Corona beer, I receive change, the number "30," and a friendly smile in return.
Photo: Meet super-friendly Lynn, who was the bartendress at the "short bar," which kept the many guests supplied with beer and wine. If you wanted to order food or non-alcoholic beverages, you would need to go the order counter, in the center of the complex.
Photo: I take a peek into the kitchen and watch the staff hard at work making pizza. The gentleman wearing the red shirt is putting a pizza into the oak-fired pizza oven. The photo is blurry as it was taken through window screen.
Photo: Corn is grilled outside the kitchen on a charcoal and oak wood-fired grill. The grilled corn at Vista Ranch reminds me of elotes, which is corn grilled on the streets of Mexican cities. When you order a grilled ear of corn, a side of chile, mint and lime butter is included, which would make you feel like you're in Mexico.
Photo: Tonight's live music was performed by the Nashville-based husband and wife band, known as "Cottonwood Creek." The evening at Vista Ranch is very family-friendly, as children enjoy the evening as much as the adults. You're encouraged to bring your lawn chair, and relax in front of the stage. Note the zinnia flowers in front of the stage, which are picked from the huge zinnia garden in back of the stage. Later in the evening, the area in front of the stage blossomed into a dance floor.
Photo: "Cottonwood Creek" perform on stage to a very enthusiastic crowd at Vista Ranch. I didn't count heads, but I estimate there were 500 or so people attending the event, which seems to be great for a Thursday evening in Merced.
Photo: "Cottonwood Creek" is a two-person, country music band, composted of husband and wife team, Maggie and Scott Little. Maggie and Scott are both locals to the Merced area - Maggie is from nearby Los Banos, and Scott grew up in Mariposa - and are a true success story, as they're now based in Nashville, and perform on nation country music circuits. They've been the opening acts for traditional country acts such as Mark Chestnutt, and they are focused on traditional country music, but also blend in a few "modern" country songs, along with a smidgen of rock an' roll. It all works, and it's all good!
I especially enjoyed the traditional country songs they covered on this evening, including renditions of Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb and Hank Thompson tunes. I'm a true fan of traditional country music. Period.
Photo: Meet Sara, the friendly server who delivered my "El Capitan" pizza to my table, complete with a smile. After I ordered and paid for the pizza, I received a plastic number "30" to place on the table near me. Sara is a member of the delivery team who have a big task: Locate and deliver pizza. That's a big task when you consider you have around 500 guests, along with 50 tables or so, and you have to match the number sitting next to the guest with the pizza order. Sara, and her team mates completed the task with a smile!
I have read various revives on the web complaining about slow service at Vista Ranch, but in my experience, I highly disagree. My pizza was brought to me, hot and ready, in less than 30 minutes after I placed my order. As you can see, my pizza arrived with a smile.
Photo: My brother Michael, and my sister-in-law, Margie, toast my camera, as they are ready to enjoy dinner. The zinnia flower is not part of Margie's dinner, as each table was decorated with a zinnia flower, which no doubt came from the awesome zinnia garden located behind the bandstand. I love the fruit jar vase for the flower, as it adds to the rustic decor.
Photo: Margie ordered the "Slow Smoked Tri-Tip" sandwich, along with the included side of pasta. The sandwich is served on a toasted Italian roll and is garnished with apricot barbecue sauce, smoked Cheddar cheese and onions. She loved her sandwich!
Photo: I just can't live on traditional country music and pizza alone, as I had to visit Lynn at the "short bar" a couple of times to enjoy a Corona beer, or three. Thank goodness I wasn't the designated driver!
Photo: I'm pretty smug, as I'm ready to enjoy my "El Capitan" pizza for dinner tonight. Great minds think alike, as my brother, Michael and I ordered identical pizzas. Unlike me, he chose wine for his beverage of choice.
Photo: Michael and I enjoyed the same order: A single-person "El Capitan" pizza, named after the famous "El Capitan" granite monolith in nearby Yosemite National Park. "El Capitan" is a personal-size pizza, and includes smoked ham, salami, pepperoni, spicy salami, mozzarella cheese, tomato, onions, bell pepper, olive slices and tomato sauce. Like the other pizzas the restaurant offers, it's cooked in the oak wood-fired oven, and it's delicious.
Photo: Close-up of a single slice of my "El Capitan" pizza. The pizza is just plain delicious!
Vista Ranch is truly a food and entertainment destination for all Mercedians, travelers on the way to Yosemite National Park, and everybody who enjoys great entertainment, and delicious food. When you're in the Merced area, mark your calendar for Thursday or Friday evening to enjoy good times, good people, good entertainment, and a great meal at Vista Ranch.
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