...let's go back to 1946 for awhile.
Ed Mullen's wasn't completely out of his mind. He had worked as a steward on a real dining car and he knew that the old cars were surplus that could be had for virtually nothing. All he had to do was haul them up the coast from Los Angeles where they originally ran and find a piece of property to put them on. Some twenty years earlier a crazy Dane named Anton Andersen had made a name for himself in the town of Buellton selling split pea soup from a tiny diner. Why wouldn't the novelty of two dining cars sitting at the side of Highway 101 between Los Angeles and San Francisco attract a following?
The ten acres just north of town was relatively cheap allowing Mullen's room for expansion if his business succeeded, so why not give it a try? No, Mullen's wasn't crazy, he was just ahead of his time and a little too far out of town. When people were reaching Buellton they were looking for the pea soup place, not a pair of dining cars. If they were arriving from the south they had already stopped and eaten at Andersen's. If they were coming from the north they blew by the dining cars as if it were a mirage, never expecting to see such a place in the middle of nothing. By the time they hit the brakes they were in the middle of Buellton and there was the pea soup place along with a lot of other choices for food, gas and restrooms.
By the middle of 1949 Mullen's decided to give it up and let someone else have a try. He leased the restaurant to Louise Lane, who despite her connection to Superman, didn't last long either. From there it was a succession of attempts to make the novel idea work and a series of train wrecks in the form of failed businesses in the dining cars.
One of the more interesting ideas proposed to Mullen's came in 1950. It didn't involve the dining cars, but the property behind them, although it held promise for improving business at the diner.
The Lompoc Model T Club, along with some Buellton race drivers persuaded Mullen's to lease them his land for an oval race track. The club had been sanctioning races in Lompoc since 1936 building race tracks where ever they could convince landowners to let them run for a season.
With the return of the young war veterans, the old T cars fell out of fashion as the young bucks started building hot rods out of the 32 and 33 Ford's with their flathead V-8's. In addition to the faster cars, series racing had become increasingly popular in California and the T-club wanted to create their own series of central coast tracks. Several of the Buellton boys had been running their cars over to Lompoc so they were happy to participate in the development of a track in their own backyard.
From this grandstand view the Dining Cars are in the upper right side of the photo. The straight line running across about the top third of the picture is Highway 101. This location is about a mile north of Buellton on the west side of the highway in Santa Barbara County, California. You may be able to find it on Google Earth.
Mullen's tried and failed at the Dining Cars even as the a highway expansion began in Buellton in 1948.
By 1955 another entreprenuer was willing to give it a try, this time with the addition of a Seaside Service Station. George "Jack" Chester was an experienced service station owner, but was new to the diner business. He hoped that gasoline would attract diner business when he advertised "Eat Here, Get Gas". Unfortunately all he heard was the wind blowing throught the mostly empty diner.
With more plans for highway expansion in 1955, the California State Highways Department all but ended the prospects of success at the Dining Cars Cafe when they blocked access from the access road that was the earlier Highway 101.
The barrier stopped the traffic and ended the decade of the Dining Cars in Buellton, although they would stay parked at the siding for years to come.
For nearly fifty years the almost abandoned Dining Cars have sat at the side of an empty highway. When Mullen's sold the unique property it was bought by the Smith family. Mrs. Smith was a hairdresser. She opened a hair salon in the small house next to the cars where they resided. Many women from Buellton made their way to the house next to the cafe to have their hair done and swap the local gossip.
A For Lease sign sat in front of the cars for many years with the hope of finding an enterprising entrepreneur to take a chance on the Dining Cars again. Unfortunately, the site violated the three basic rules of real estate, "Location, location, location" and no one was willing to risk it. Occasionally a film crew made use of it, but nothing of widespread fame or notoriety.
Even into the eighties the abandoned gas pumps graced the empty parking lot until some local petro-holic made off with them for their collection. More recently a developer began building houses behind the Dining Cars on the property where the Buellton Speedway once ran. Local rumors suggest that the Dining Cars may be moved soon to make way for more houses and finally leave the station in Buellton.
In the meantime, my friend, and owner of our local tool and party rental company persuaded the owner to allow him to use the dining cars to celebrate his wife's birthday. The cars had been unused for fifty years and needed a thorough cleaning, but one of the biggest surprises was the neon ceiling; it still works!
I helped him with the 50's props by supplying the car hop, a juke box and other little things. He supplied the real waitresses in period costumes.
For one night the Dining Cars lived again in Buellton. People were so stunned to see them lit up that they actually pulled off the freeway and back tracked to see what was going on.