“A lot of guys tell me this is their church,” says Newcomb’s Ranch manager Fred Rundall III, the son of owner Fred Rundall. Sunday is the restaurant's busiest day. Motorcyclists ride up California Highway 2 together in large, rumbling packs. Some take the mountain on their own, navigating the asphalt’s curves and rolling vistas until they find their friends at the bar for a bloody mary.
There will be helmets above the stools. There will be recorded motorbike races on the mounted TVs and in the large adjacent dining room, which gets packed. Here a Ducati stands on display beside a tall grandfather clock. “I’ve known them for years and they have wives and kids I’ve never met,” Rundall says of the droves of regulars who make up the majority of his customer base. “This is their time to get away.”
Newcomb’s Ranch is at 5,340 feet elevation, just to the side of the Angeles Crest Highway. It’s the only cold drink, the only hot burger, the only Wi-Fi or cell reception for about 30 miles in either direction of its wide, pine-filled lot. Angeles Crest Highway (California 2), is the state’s most dangerous highway. “I’ve had to call 911 three times already today,” Rundall says. “It’s not something I like to talk about.” The turns on the 2 are highly technical. They are handled with speed. A course like Mulholland Drive, Rundall explains, is taken at 35 mph and in lower gears. Highway 2 is a 55 mph, two-lane road. You take it to third, fourth, fifth. Pine trees stretch indefinitely below it, the drop becoming more sheer as you wind your way up.
California 2’s ferocity is part of its seduction. Serious bikers are told to ride it at least once. Hundreds of its hopelessly devoted make its sky-skimming mounds a regular ritual. At the bar in Newcomb’s Ranch, there is a map of the crest with its stretches labeled endearingly the way pirates might name treacherous patches of sea: Just Gettin’ By; Twist of Faith; Gravity Cavity. Bikers hover around it, helmets in hand, and point out to one another spots where there are likely to be cops. On a shelf below the map wall is a stack of old-fashioned photo albums — one so ancient its cover has fallen off. The exposed front page holds a snap shot of Jay Leno. He stands in the parking lot with his arm around another avid motorist.
The parking lot at Newcomb’s Ranch may be its most sought after section. Rows of shining bikes wait like horses for their owners. Classic European convertibles sunbathe with their tops down. Other drivers pace, by admiring them, or huddle in small groups, deciding which route to cruise today. In the dirt path that leads out to the woods beyond the restaurant, five leather recliners are set side by side. The bartender, a man with long wavy hair and a backwards baseball cap, says people “absolutely” sit in them. ONLY YOU CAN PREVENT WILDFIRES warns a sign on the outside of the cabin, with its color-coded gauge of the day’s fire dangers. The mountain air is still: hot and heavy with the ash from a fire in the Santa Clarita Valley. The danger level is “very high.”
“Chilao” is the region in which Newcomb’s sits. This comes from “Chillia,” meaning “Hot Stuff,” a nickname given to an infamous bandit who, in 1874, was rumored to have killed a bear using only his knife. Fire tore through most of the cabin’s second floor in 1976, when, according to Rundall, a disgruntled employee committed arson after being laid off. “He got fired and then he fired,” jokes Rundell.
Only six small apartments remain upstairs in the large cabin structure. Rundall rents them out to his employees, who have either fled Los Angeles or split their week between the city and the mountains. (Newcomb’s is closed Monday through Wednesday). He himself has worked at the restaurant since he was a teenager, when his father bought it from Lynn Newcomb Jr. in December of 2001. Lynn Newcomb Sr. erected the place in 1936, and opened it in 1939. In the early years, its slate walls and stone chimneys housed a general store, gas stations and a brothel. Rundall III noted in Newcomb Jr.’s Los Angeles Times obituary that “word of mouth had it that you could drive up to Newcomb's and get a shot of whiskey or a beer, and it was very unlikely that the sheriffs would drive up there to arrest you.”
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Waitstaff at Newcomb’s may wear tall leather boots or have facial piercings or a fresh hiker’s tan. Tap water will cost you, a sign warns. There are two reasons for this: it is sourced from a private well on the property and people were wasting by ordering water when they didn’t really want it. The menu is simple. There are a few egg dishes for breakfast, and a “San Gabriel Short Stack.” Overgrown kids can order grilled cheese with avocado or tuna or BLT-style. They serve chili in a “cornbread roasted cauliflower puree bowl.” It’s hearty food that warms you on an icy day or fills a hungry stomach after a summer morning spent sweating in clean air. This is what Newcomb’s Ranch offers: a shot of whiskey, a game of pool, a side of fries before you and the road are alone again.
You’re on your own for dinner. Newcomb’s Ranch closes at 4 p.m.
California 2 Mile Marker LA 50.93, La Canada Flintridge; (626) 440-1001, newcombsranch.com.