As you enter the restaurant, a warm, leathery scent mingles with the pop! pop! of crackling oil. Two or three hot pots of coffee, one with a faded orange cap, steam behind the counter. On the walls, plaques of visiting luminaries — Theodore Roosevelt, say, or Gene Autry — hang near kitschy decor. Wisecracking servers with stained white aprons chat up the barstool regulars about the drought, the president, the vandals who live nearby.
The picture in your head, it turns out, is sure to describe one of the shockingly well-preserved greasy spoons in the Santa Clarita Valley. In a world of $15 avocado toasts on one end and $5 Grand Slams on the other, the survival of local mom-and-pop coffeehouses here remains something of a wonderful mystery.
The most recognizable of the bunch is probably Halfway House Café, a charming, shacklike joint on the northeast edge of town. It’s possible, however, that on a quick drive to Six Flags Magic Mountain, you caught a quick glimpse inside the Saugus Café, a homey late-night hangout across from Newhall Station. At more than 100 years old — it is thought to be the oldest restaurant in the county — Saugus Café is the spitting image of coffeehouses of yore.
Both establishments have featured heavily in the public’s visual imagination. In the early 20th century, Saugus Café was a frequent filming location for legendary directors like John Ford and Charlie Chaplin. Some years later, Halfway House appeared in a wildly popular 1991 Pepsi advertisement featuring Cindy Crawford, though it, too, has since been used in dozens of other productions: ER, Melrose Place, Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny.
These legacy businesses are among the most treasured features of Santa Clarita Valley's culinary landscape, with longtime customers who rely on their cost and quality. But even those greasy spoons far less prominent in the zeitgeist have found success with similar approaches.
Way Station Coffee Shop, complete with weathered knick-knacks and a rusty jukebox, has since its founding in 1971 become a favored counter-suggestion for devotees of the more modern (and spacious) Egg Plantation two blocks west. And in the same town, Newhall, there is a small, locally owned and operated shop called Lily’s Café sandwiched into a den in the Valencia Lanes bowling alley.
Old-timey nostalgia is fundamental to their shared longevity, of course; but it is far from the only factor in their renown with locals and tourists alike. The comforting mix of affordability and generosity of portions cannot be overlooked.
Saugus Café, for instance, may not have New York steak for the price paid by Theodore Roosevelt on his 1903 visit, but it still offers a muscular Pancake Special #6 (two each: flapjacks, bacon, sausage, eggs) for just over $7. The eggs here are typically handled with some mastery (it’s rare to see poaching done beautifully at this price), though frankly, their pancakes don’t reach the heights of nearby competitors.
Way Station’s famous “short stack” ($4.95) is actually two gargantuan, pleasingly gristly discs, bites of which expand inside the stomach like Sea Monkeys. Arrogant or ambitious eaters are simultaneously encouraged and warned against the onion-rich crispy hash browns ($2.95 for a side): many customers complain of ever-lasting bloat from the overwhelming amount.
Elsewhere, idiosyncratic options, rather than oversized portions, offer respite from the cold artificiality of corporate pancake houses. While Lily’s offers its own combo platters — the inscrutably named Max I and Max II — the café’s Hawaiian-style loco moco ($8.45), sloppy and savory, is a reliable choice. The eponymous proprietor has developed a reputation for singing while serving coffee.
In 2015, the Antelope Valley–founded Crazy Otto’s Diner opened a behemoth SCV location, which nowadays draws winding lines on weekends. With its enormous four-egg omelettes and its ironically tacky tchotchkes, Crazy Otto’s is to greasy spoons what Johnny Rockets is to fans of 1950s diners: an eager, ambitious co-opting of so-called “vintage” style, without the flavor, the legacy or the warmth.
Historicism, one hopes, is the secret weapon that will keep these greasy hubs alive. But perhaps Santa Claritans just want to imagine they’re splitting breakfast with Gene Autry.
Halfway House Café: 15564 Sierra Highway, Canyon Country; (661) 251-0102, thehalfwayhousecafe.com.
Saugus Café: 25861 Railroad Ave., Santa Clarita; (661) 259-7886.
Lily’s Café: 23700 Lyons Ave., Newhall; (661) 259-9656, bowlvalencialanes.com/lounge.
Way Station Coffee Shop: 24377 Main St., Newhall; facebook.com/WayStation1971.