Looking Back at Visalia’s Restaurant Scene
Food! We love it and we love the places that serve it. Clearly, something magical happens when delicious bites pass by our taste buds. And it’s even more special when these tasty morsels are served by purveyors who know the food trade.
So why are we awestruck by those that feed us good food to the point that we jump at the opportunity to go to our favorite restaurants? Our motivation is complicated no doubt, but English historian and writer Virginia Woolf may have summed up our attraction best when she said, “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.”
And to many of us, dining well is what Visalia is all about. We are known for our enticing collection of fancy and not-so-fancy eating places, chains and locally owned, with more than 300 establishments sprinkled around town.
Mondo Apodaca, the well-known and respected Visalia restaurateur, with 45 years of local restaurant experience, opined, “I have long believed that Visalia restaurants have made Visalia a destination. Not just from surrounding communities, but from around the world. Because of the diverse and unique culinary culture, many celebrities and dignitaries have visited our Visalia restaurants.”
The same seems to be true historically. Today, of the hundreds of eating establishments, a dozen or so have been serving delicious food for half a century or more. These select few have passed the test of time and include Las Palmas, Taylor’s Hot Dog Stand, the Vintage Press, Hong Kong, Rosa’s, Picnic Sandwich Shop and the oldest of them all, the Visalia Tea Garden, a restaurant that has been pleasing customers since 1922.
But Visalia’s food scene dates back long before that. Although early restaurant information is scarce, in 1857, when the town had less than 500 people, there were four places to eat. A year later, the dining room in the Billups Hotel opened, and it began the long tradition of hotels with restaurants.
By 1870, the town, with a population of about 900, had two hotels with restaurants and three additional eating places. One was a new one built by Dack Lee. He kicked off his grand opening with a sumptuous free dinner. All those who partook, including a “Visalia Weekly Delta” reporter, gave it the equivalent of a five-star rating.
In the latter part of the 1800s, the trend of hotel and restaurant combinations continued, and none was more elegant than the dining hall in the Palace Hotel. The Palace, which opened in 1876, served delicious meals with an international flair. For example, in August 1892, potential customers were tempted with a newspaper advertisement for an upcoming Sunday dinner. The soup was chicken à la reine, and entrée options included ham in champagne sauce, calves brains a la vinaigrette and prime rib of beef au jus with mashed potatoes. Dessert choices included vanilla ice cream, and plum and blackberry pie.
The Visalia House served meals since it opened its doors in 1859. In the 1890s, the pioneer hotel boasted good service and delicious food. During the same time, the Cosmopolitan, Enterprise and Post Office restaurants offered tasty meals. Authentic Chinese cuisine was provided by Quong Jan Low Restaurant, Chinese Pagoda, King Far Low and a host of others catering to the growing Chinatown population.
As the 20th century arrived, more restaurants sprang up wooing customers. The Palace Hotel dining room continued to be the fanciest culinary spot in the town of about 3,000. In addition, Japanese restaurants such as the Yokohama, Miyama and Higachi’s, and Sumida’s began appearing, taking their place in the restaurant lineup.
But by 1917, the glow of the Palace Hotel eatery had faded. J. Sub Johnson’s new hotel and fancy restaurant named after his family had taken over as the most elegant place in town. When the Hotel Johnson opened in 1917, it enticed diners to enjoy Thanksgiving dinner with luscious entrees like filet of halibut, prime rib, turkey with all the fixings – all for $1.50 per plate. For the next several decades, the food was a tempting lure, but by 1950, the hotel and kitchen were showing age. Management spent thousands of dollars on a face-lift that included a new walk-in ice box, a quick cooking infra-red broiler and a “pre-rinse garbage disposal,” the first of its kind on the West Coast. The hotel makeover resulted in a new kitchen, a coffee shop and the Mirror Room – a separate space for luncheons and banquets. By 1953, the hotel was known as “the meeting place of Visalia.” Not just for families, it became the gathering spot for luncheon meetings, especially for service clubs. All that ended when the Hotel Johnson caught fire in 1968 and was demolished.
Another landmark restaurant left its culinary mark on Visalia. Louise Estrada opened a tamale parlor in about 1914 and it grew into Estrada’s Spanish Kitchen. It was a popular eatery for many years, then closed its doors in 1992, leaving many fans disappointed. One lamenting devotee was Pete Cowper, who recalls their “freshly made fat tamales, stuffed peppers, sizzling tostadas and compuestas.” Needless to say, he misses the legendary eatery and salivates at the mention of its name.
Not all of the restaurants of yore were elegant or had a long history, but that does not mean that they were forgettable. Ofelia’s Drive-In at the Lincoln Oval had no inside seating and wasn’t fancy, but owner Ofelia Mora’s little place became a favorite for many. Our daughter, Lyndsay Ommen McCollum, remembers eating the amazing rice and chicken tacos, freshly made by Ofelia herself. And she also recalls the owner, who “treated her customers like family. When your order was ready, she would ‘arrive’ at a cost which was always less than the posted menu price.”
So many other places were simple and short-lived, including Ford’s Nibble Nook, El Sombrero, Seven Seas and the Wunder Stag Café.
For more than 150 years, Visalia has had a tradition of interesting and amazing eating places serving sumptuous food. Each holds a special place in our history. Today, we are fortunate to have an impressive array of epicurean delights, so it appears that our long tradition of good food will continue. So with that, let’s eat!