“Ask if the haunted room is available,” Rich said as we approached the front desk at Hotel La Rose in Santa Rosa, CA.
“Seriously?” As a rational, modern woman, I do not, of course, believe in ghosts. But as a fourth-generation Californian, I was raised to respect vibes, and it seemed to me any room in which an entire family had been killed, even 90 years ago, would have very bad vibrations indeed. On the other hand, I try never to wimp out on adventures.
“Can you give us Room 42?” I asked.
The clerk checked and shook his head. “Occupied.”
Rich and I were on what we’d dubbed “Our Whistle-Stop Tour of Diners and Ghost Haunts.” Having recently enjoyed old-school diners in New York, I was curious to see how their California counterparts compared. We’d discovered some gems along the route of the region’s new SMART train and felt that a day spent riding the rails followed by a night in a haunted hotel would add up to a fairly zippy excursion.
Obviously we’d need to be fast on our feet to fit it all in, and we quickly decided to take no luggage whatsoever. We’d done this once before, in 2015, when I finally agreed to go along with Rich’s lunatic desire to travel with nothing but a few essentials in our pockets and fast-drying clothes we could launder every night. We loved the freedom and vowed to repeat the experiment. And this week, we did.
We hopped a local bus to San Rafael, where the SMART train starts, but before boarding we headed to Lundy’s, a diner we’d walked past a hundred times without a glance. What a hidden gem! The homestyle potatoes were so outstanding I asked how they were made. The secret, the chef confided, is boiling the potatoes first, to soften but not cook them completely. Then you fry them on the grill with onions and bell peppers. “I’ve tried it at home,” a waitress told me. “It’s good, but it’s not the same.” Diner lore says old grills, seasoned by decades of use, impart a special flavor no home kitchen can match.
After breakfast, the SMART Train whisked us to Petaluma, where we spent a pleasant morning strolling around the downtown shops and parks. When we felt we’d worked off enough of the potatoes, we hiked a mile outside of town to another diner we’d often passed but never visited: Mr. Mom’s.
Perched at the counter, I skimmed the enormous menu hoping to find something on the lighter side.
“How’s the veggie burger?” I asked the waitress with the tattoos, tunnel earrings, and friendly smile.
“Terrific,” she said. “I have it a lot. Another way we serve it is in the Dan salad. It’s not on the menu. We made it up in honor of Dan, our bookkeeper, who passed away.” She brought me a platter heaped with lettuce, avocado, hard-boiled egg, tomato, and crispy brown strips. “We like to deep fat fry our veggie burgers,” she said. “Gives ‘em some texture.” And nicely offsets any pretense of being healthy, low-fat cuisine.
We’d arrived at 1:30, just half an hour before closing, and while bustling around cleaning and prepping for the next day, everyone made a point of chatting with us. The owner, Midge, stood pouring fresh, hot coffee into huge plastic jugs without spilling a drop, all the while reminiscing about starting the place back in 1986 with her husband. She said he loves working with youngsters — their own kids, various nephews, and staff. As he wrote on the menu, “My name is Tom! I am Mr. Mom!”
I asked if we could take a few pictures; Midge immediately stuck her head into the kitchen and summoned the entire crew.
We left on a high tide of good will, promising to send copies of the photos and return soon.
Another short train ride brought us to our last stop, Santa Rosa. Just a few steps from the station stood the Hotel La Rosa, built in 1907 and considered by some to be #6 on the list of California's most haunted hotels. Having done considerable online research, I can report that the rumors about spectral hauntings at the La Rose are vague, unsubstantiated, and almost certainly unreliable. Nobody at the hotel could produce so much as an eerie feeling in all the years they’d worked there, much less a sighting of the ghost boy who supposedly rides the elevator at night, or the woman who allegedly passes through doors. It was deeply disappointing.
Things looked up when we wandered into Disguise the Limit, a costume shop around the corner. “This building is haunted,” the owner, Iliana, told us. “It used to be a tavern back in the day. No doubt some rough stuff went on here. Every once in a while I feel a breeze on my back where there shouldn’t be one; it makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Others report similar sensations. But the spirits seem friendly enough, so we don’t pay them much attention.” And of course, they’re good for business.
En route home the next day, we stopped into Flying Goat Coffee across from the railway station. The atmosphere was relentlessly modern, the staff utterly uninterested in us.
“So has business picked up since the train station opened?” I asked the world-weary young woman preparing my cappuccino.
“Nah.” Full stop.
And this is why diners will always have a place in the American landscape. When you go there people talk to you. They share recipes, tell you stories, listen to yours, and remind you that you are not alone, invisible, or irrelevant. You get all that and homestyle potatoes. Who could ask for more?
Have you been to any great diners? Haunted houses? Railways? Tell me all in the comments below.
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I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
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