If you’ve visited the Southern-food mecca that is Cracker Barrel, you’ve probably experienced the eggs’ and grits’ gravitational pull. You’ve probably played checkers on the front porch, swaying in a rocking chair and waiting for your table while family members shop for glass jars of bubble gum and soda pop in the old country store. You’ve most certainly dined on full-fat-dairy-blessed rectangles of hash brown casserole, hunks of meatloaf and one of the 200 million handmade biscuits they serve a year. It’s maybe one of your earliest dining memories. But months ago, when this Angeleno read that Cracker Barrel would open the very first California outpost—restaurant number 649, sitting 80 miles outside L.A. in Victorville—only one question came to mind: What the hell is Cracker Barrel?
When you’re born, raised and still living in L.A., you, like me, might’ve heard of the iconic restaurant chain, but not enough to seek country-ham knowledge, so you, like me, are more than likely Alicia Silverstone levels of Clueless on the matter. And I’m just an L.A. boy in his watching-carbs-more-than-NASCAR L.A. bubble, but times change, and it’s time to find out if this restaurant’s legend is valid or just nostalgic nonsense run amuck. It’s time to dine at my first Cracker Barrel.
Before enlightenment, a drive’s in order. I scale a freeway maze to the newest location, which sits just off the 15 and historic Route 66, surrounded by desert dust I only recognize from drives to Vegas (I remember nothing about drives from Vegas except for pain and regret from not flying home). It’s an area mostly ignored by freeway commuters who can now be enticed to exit the highway for a recharge inside a newly poured concrete strip mall in front of a drought-thirsty, barely-snow-capped mountain backdrop. This is a distant place in what seems like the middle of nowhere; a safe place where an Angeleno can feel free to live the American dream by stuffing their recently facial-ized head with more calories and saturated fat than an eating contest at Smorgasburg because there isn’t a drop of Earthbar green juice or a Soulcycle bike for as far as the eye can see. I’m not hating this concept.
It’s 30 miles south of Barstow where I step onto the same front porch every Cracker Barrel welcomes guests with: Dozens of new rocking chairs are on display, their price tags blowing in the wind. Every piece of furniture—including the giant outdoor checkers board—is for sale. A revenue stream stockholders surely laud, but it’s easy to look past the economics and see it for what it also is: one good old country time of a waiting area, where everyone from grandma to your baby sister can find comfort and amusement while being tortured by the escaping aroma of those biscuits and bowls of black-pepper-flecked white gravy. Can the food actually meet the hype? Have I been duped into driving nearly three hours round-trip to experience the equivalent of a Denny’s with a Matthew McConaughey accent? Is this the first time I’ve actually stood on a front porch? All valid questions.
The scent pulls me in closer, so inside I go, to the old country store where a manager assures me, “you can find a little bit of everything here.” Cheese boards, toys for all ages, candles, local sports and military apparel and old-fashioned foods are piled high. It’s the anti-Joan’s on Third or anywhere else you’ve ever been excited about Instagramming from, and because I’m a nice big city outsider, I muster a fake-news-level smile to match the manager’s cordialness. That is, until a genuine happiness forms as I begin scanning the candy section, seeing sugar bombs for the first time since a long-gone childhood. Just as my discipline is about to wane, while reaching for a tub of crunchy peanut butter and toasted coconut Chick-O-Sticks I would surely finish in one sitting and pick out of my teeth the entire drive home, I’m whisked to an antique-draped dining room. And food comes with Defending Your Life-type speed.
The biscuits and gravy, Southern ham and grits slap me upside the head with a “you’re-not-in-Southern-California-anymore” welcome, but it’s the service and smiles I’ve encountered that end up tasting best. And when a handful of cheerful employees check in on how my meal is tasting, I don’t tell them there’s at least 15 better handmade restaurant biscuits back at my not-exactly-a-Southern-bastion home, where decorative rifles on walls don’t exist. It doesn’t really matter anymore.
All around me enthusiastic fans pile in, sip coffee and carve into stacks of pancakes while studying the dining room walls decorated in regional antiques—one of the only design differences amongst all locations. There’s a UCLA flag from the 1950s and California Sun Prince Orange labels next to a Big Bear Campground sign near the stuffed deer head hanging above the gas-fueled fireplace, and I hear an employee reminding a picky eater “you can have it your way.” When an 80-year-old man challenges me to a game of checkers, a manager approaches us saying, “Welcome to your Cracker Barrel.”
The quick Google search into what the hell this 49-year-old establishment is would have turned up a lifetime of websites detailing Cracker Barrel’s Southern cuisine and hospitality, but this kind of life experience is always best felt. You’re a restaurant regular on day one, and for the rest of your hash brown casserole and meatloaf chomping time. And there’s value there. Especially if you enjoy a great grandfather in a cowboy hat destroying you in a board game you assumed took no skill whatsoever.
California’s first Cracker Barrel is located at 11612 Amargosa Road in Victorville, CA. It’s open Sunday through Thursday from 6am to 10pm and Friday and Saturday from 6am to 11pm.