Before wannabe starlets were first drawn to Hollywood, before the Beach Boys wished they all could be California girls, before televised Rose Bowl games showed sunny Southern California to people freezing their asses off everywhere else, folks back East had nothing but word-of-mouth and Horace Greeley to entice them to drop everything and go west.
At the Covered Wagon Restaurant and Bar—just down Harbor Boulevard from Disneyland in Anaheim—OC pays homage to the brave souls who hauled themselves and their worldly possessions out here through ferocious weather, uncharted trails and relentless phalanxes of marauding Injuns.
The dcor looks as if it had been bought at auction from Knott's Berry Farm. A cougar skin, rusty iron equipment, and Old West signs and photos line the walls. You half expect the lights to dim and the mounted deer or elk heads to crack jokes and sing songs like they do at Disneyland's Country Bear Jamboree. There's even a hitching post for your horse—if your horse could fit through the door. And carried a Diner's Club card.
What truly stands out, though, are the booths that encircle the outer walls of the round restaurant, whose shape suggests that in a past life, it was one of those windmill eateries or cool diners like the ones they keep tearing down in LA. Each stall is tented with cloth in the shape of a covered wagon, America's precursor to campers, trailers and motor homes.
The food this place is known for is on the hearty side: ribs, steaks and barbecued chicken. Salads and entres are served on dishes that resemble those blue metal camp plates. Chest-hair-raising coffee is poured into heavy ceramic cups—the perfect receptacle for thick globs of mud. Most meals come with a side of baked beans—just like what the cowpokes were eating in the campfire fart scene in Blazing Saddles.
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To appeal to today's out-of-towner, there are culinary nods to modern cuisine. You'll find grilled cheese sandwiches, shrimp on skewers and boneless chicken breasts prepared Cajun-style. When did "Cookie" ever serve boneless chicken breasts prepared Cajun-style on the wagon train?
Unfortunately, the Orange Countification Factor further spoils the atmosphere—the restaurant is surrounded on three sides by budget motels. Chances are if anyone who made it over the Rockies had encountered a Motel 6, they would have stopped in their tracks and California would still be in the clutches of Russians, Mormons and Spanish missionaries.
Hearing the strains of—yecch!—modern country music competing with the Spanish-language telecast of a soccer game and the yelps of the kitchen staff any time a "GOOOOOAAAAALLLLLLL!!!!!!" is scored also dents the ambiance. The Cartwrights never would have put up with such an outburst from Hop Sing.
But the most disconcerting thing about the Covered Wagon Restaurant and Bar was on the window next to our covered stall: it appeared a bullet had recently been fired inside. No wonder they've circled the wagons in this place.