OK, I'm the first person to admit that I'm an absolute sucker for one-of-a-kind restaurants, that serve American diner fare to locals, cops, truckers and 5th wheelers. To located restaurants that serve this fine cuisine, I use all methods, including surfing the web, reconsidering the area when I get there, and asking around. When I arrive in a town, I look for streets that used to be the highway before the arrival of the interstate, as that's where the retro diners are almost usually located. Modern, fast food restaurants are always clustered near the interstate, but I shun the interstates and fast food in general, as I prefer to sample the real deal: Local cuisine. In Needles, California, in the beautiful, yet sometimes inhospitable Mojave Desert, there is no better example of my preference of a diner than Wagon Wheel Restaurant.
Photo: Wagon Wheel Restaurant is a truck stop favorite place to eat, located along Business Route 40, also known as historic Route 66.
Wagon Wheel Restaurant is located on the west side of the city of Needles, along Business 40, now named West Broadway, but at one time was Route 66, probably the most notable and famous highways for American diner cuisine. As a child of the 1960's, I read in school John Steinbeck's famous book, "The Grapes of Wrath," and have been interested in Route 66, and it's legacy of diners, ever since then. It also helps that's I'm an avid railfan, and most of Route 66 parallels the busy BNSF mainline; click on the link to take you to our sister web site for BNSF Needles Subdivision railfan adventure.
Saturday morning, October 23, 2010, I pulled up to Wagon Wheel Restaurant and immediately notice green, or maybe checkered flags: Lots of big rigs parked in the big rig parking lot, a couple of cop cars, a few 5th wheelers, mini-vans, and a lot of pickup trucks. Holy smokes! Before even entering the restaurant, I knew I'd hit the jackpot, as the vehicles parked outside told me that I'd arrived at my kind of restaurant. Unlike judging a book by it's cover, I can always judge a restaurant by the variety of vehicles parked in front of it, as I especially look for big rigs and cop cars. I could see that Wagon Wheel Restaurant was everything that I was looking for in a restaurant, from the view of the parking lot.
Photo: Check out the wagon mounted just above the entrance, and the Historic Route 66 designation marker, not to mention my truck, with the radio antennas is parked in front place. This place is sooooo Western!!!
Photo: Here's the cashier's station and the gift shop, with the camera-shy gal at her station. When I asked her name and for a photo she refused... some folks are sort of shy for my digital camera, which is all in a day's work.
As you enter the restaurant, the first thing that catches your eye is the well-equipped gift shot to your left, that also, quite conveniently is the cashier's station, which makes it a two-for-one experience. If you like Route 66 memorabilia, you'll love the gift shot, as it features a huge selection of Route 66 stuff, such as tee shirts, curios, photos, local history books, Route 66 books, coffee cups, and just about anything related to the legendary Route 66. Unlike some restaurants located along historic Route 66, I noted that Wagon Wheel's management is not out to gouge customers, as the prices were very reasonable, e.g. $14.99 for an official Wagon Wheel Restaurant tee shirt, which is the de facto uniform of the Wagon Wheel staff. Of special note, there is a "quarter horse," which is one of those mechanical horses that used to be located in front of every grocery story during the 1950's and 1960's (when I was a boy, after accompanying Mom on a trip to the grocery store, she's reward me by letting me take a ride...) and, like the dinosaurs, have disappeared, but Wagon Wheel Restaurant has one, and yes, you can feed it quarters and take it for a ride. If you're older than about 8, you'll want to bypass the "quarter horse," and make a turn to your right through the door to the restaurant, under the large, a.k.a,, Buck Owen's style bull horns, that bid you "Western Welcome."
Now you've arrived... the dining room is paneled with cedar, decorated with Route 66 photos and memorabilia, and is pure 1960's retro. The only 2000's upgrade that I could see was a Hi-def flat screen television monitor tuned to CNN for the pleasure of the truckers who don't have satellite reception or Internet connections, but outside of that, it was pure 1960's gold, complete to the order wheel for the kitchen, the waitresses taking orders on a pre-printed notepad, the laminated countertops and everything else. Since I was on a solo mission, I bellied up to the breakfast counter, near the kitchen, and was immediately greeted by friendly Sam, who presented me with a menu, a cup of delicious coffee, and a smile.
Photo: The "quarter horse" and the Buck Owens bull horns welcome you into the dining room, where you await some of the best dining offered along historic Route 66.
Photo: Just before you enter the dining room, you can see the daily specials offered, and a vast array of souvenirs from local businesses, and what-to-do-in-Needles pamphlets.
I'd heard about their legendary chicken fried steak, but I just wasn't hungry enough for such a gigantic breakfast, so I browsed other selections on their breakfast menu. I noted that the menu reads, and I'll quote you exactly from their menu, sic, "Welcome to Wagonwheel. The Wagon Wheel Building was originally built in 1955 as Lynn's Broiler & became Wagon Wheel Restaurant in 1973. Our homemade food, our historic Route 66 location & of course our longterm employees have made Wagon Wheel a favorite among locals, travelers & truckers. Mike, Susan, Sharon, Vickie, Johnnie, Jesus, Martin & rest of Wagon Wheel staff welcome you to Needles, California. Thanks for visiting us at the Wagon Wheel!" History aside, when Sam asked for my order, I chose Cajun hot link, fried eggs over easy, home style potatoes, complete with diced bell peppers and onions, coffee to drink (of course) along with a side dish of a biscuit and a bowl of gravy. Now that's a breakfast!
You know what... when I'm dining solo, I always sit at the breakfast counter, as it offers a unique view of the staff in action, and there's always somebody to chat with, whether it's a trucker just off the road, or a cop taking time off the beat, or maybe even a tired fifth-wheeler - or a lonely hear or two. In the ten minutes or so before me breakfast arrived I got to watch the staff of Wagon Wheel Restaurant in action, on this busy October Saturday morning... and I got to chat with a visiting trucker, Mort, sitting next to me at the breakfast counter, who was on his way to Los Angeles, with a cargo of canned milk to deliver that afternoon. Oh the memories!
Photo: The dining room is divided with partitions, so it's sort of hard to snap a panoramic photo, but this photo will give you an idea of the dining room. The counter is to the right of the photo. Note the "for sale" tee shirts fastened to the wall, and the bearded dude looking at me, as if saying, "Why the heck are you taking this photo?"
Photo: Mostly not appreciated, but a behind-the-scenes view as friendly Sam gets ready to hand my breakfast to me, as she's just received it from the kitchen, near her shoulder level. Yep, I was able to photograph all of this from my vantage point on the breakfast counter.
As Sam delivered my breakfast to me, she graciously allowed me to take her photo, and that's when I chose to tell her my mission of free-lance write-ups of restaurants. She asked me why didn't I tell her about what I was up to at the get-go, and I told her that I wanted to see how she treats a dumb, Joe-blow customer, as I didn't want any special treatment as a free-lance journalist. She replied that "You caught me on a good day," and I told her that "Everyday with you must be a good day, as you're a friendly, competent hostess, and willing to put up with my photo taking - long before I tell you what I'm up to..." With that, she giggled, and thanked me. Honey, thank you for being a gracious hostess and putting up with my anti-social behavior!
Then came the inevitable question which almost everybody asks: "Why are you taking photos? Are you a television breakfast critic?" Well... I explained to her, not exactly. As you can see, I do publish breakfast reviews, but I'm a free-lancer, and I'm mostly out to publish restaurants where I enjoy good food, good service, at reasonable prices.
Note that all of the staff wear a de facto uniform of Wagon Wheel Restaurant tee shirts, obviously furnished from the gift shop, although the shirts are in different colors, but all feature the Wagon Wheel logo. True to the menu, most of the staff appear to be long-term employees, in fact my server, Sam, appeared to be one of the younger members of the staff, as most appear to be seasoned veterans.
Photo: My friendly server Sam, delivers my breakfast to me. She graciously allowed me to take her photo. Notice the de facto uniform of Wagon Wheel Restaurant, the tee shirt that is available for purchase in the gift shop.
Photo: Sam set down her coffee carafe so she could snap my photo, as I had yet to sample my delicious breakfast. Thanks to Sam, and the staff at Wagon Wheel Restaurant for providing such a memorable breakfast dining experience!
Comments aside, what about my breakfast? It was delicious, and typical of what you'd expect in a Route 66 diner... and by that I mean the supreme compliment, as the breakfast that I enjoyed at Wagon Wheel Restaurant was a pure slice of Americana, and a wonderful example of diner cuisine. The first thing that I judge a restaurant by is the eggs - you can't believe how "easy" it is to mess-up an order of eggs over easy. Not the case at Wagon Wheel Restaurant, as my eggs over easy arrived as ordered, over easy, not hard, and not broken. The home style fried potatoes were fried crispy golden on the outside, and chewy on the inside, and we accompanied with lots of diced bell pepper slices and white onions, as ordered. The menu advertised the Cajun sausage as spicy, but to me, it was on the mild side: If you'd want to rate it on the "hot" pepper scale, I'd rate it at about the "heat index" of Anaheim pepper... with a little kick, but not much more... but grilled perfectly, juicy, but not at all greasy. The biscuit and bowl of gravy arrived on a separate plate. I basically cut the biscuit into slices and dipped it into the gravy, and when I'd eaten all of the biscuit, I poured the extra gravy onto my potatoes. Breakfast heaven!
Photo: Check out my breakfast... bowl of gravy, fresh baked biscuit, mug of fresh-brewed coffee, perfectly grilled Cajun sausage link, two fried eggs over easy, and golden brown home style potatoes, with grilled bell peppers and onions. Add it, and it equals: Delicious!
Whatever review of this restaurant you've read about on the World Wide Web, forget about, as this restaurant serves breakfast as good as it gets. You get priceless Route 66-era diner atmosphere, great food, friendly, superior service, gigantic portions, at a fair price. Wagon Wheel Restaurant was everything that I was looking for in a breakfast restaurant and more... you can't go wrong dining where the Needles locals dine, at Wagon Wheel Restaurant. Highly recommended by the staff at eRench Productions.com.
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