Vacaville, Calif. — The very last stretch of Interstate 80 -- the eight-lane superhighway that splices through the brown hills west of Sacramento -- may seem to some travelers to be nothing more than the dull last leg of the route to San Francisco.
They have never stopped at the Nut Tree.
Those who have know that a meal at this restaurant -- Californian right down to its avocado slices, individual loaves of fresh wheat bread, and cheerful note of casual elegance -- is any journey's welcome denounced a satisfying finish to skiing in the Sierras, camping a Tahoe, or taking a trip across the country.
But an excellent restaurant is only part of what legstretching travelers get out of this stop. The sprawling grounds, under a grove of ancient black walnut trees, also include a gift shop, bakery, toy shop miniature railway: even an airport where small planes swoop down bringing passengers to sample the Nut Tree's pleasure.
for those who associate California with a lack of tradition, with an ever-changing, plastic, fast-food culture, eating at the Nut Tree is something of a revelation. Ever since it began as a modest fig stand in 1921, the restaurant has pioneered (some say created) the concept of "Western food" -- a blend of American, Mexican, and Oriental dishes accompanied by a bountiful array of the region's fresh fruits and vegetables. And although restaurants around the world now serve individual bread loaves, it was first done here.
A good part of this California essence is visual -- it is seen in the design of the dining room and even in the way the food is arranged on the plates. diners situated in the light, airy room splashed with sunburst colors can gaze on a glass plantfilled atrium complete with resident tropical birds. The prodigious fruit salad, garnished with a Vanda orchid, is so skillfully arranged with regard to size and color of the fruit that it would make a stunning still-life painting; an appetizer of barbecued spareribs is spread invitingly on a fig leaf next to a ring of fresh pineapple.
For years this traveler's favorite has been the turkey tamale that must be unraveled from its corn husk cocoon to get to the spicy, meaty interior. Like other Nut Tree dishes it has an interesting history: On the menu since the early 1930s, it was first created by an Arizona family who left California in the 1870 s because they felt the state was too crowded.
The dining room opens at 7 a.M. when it starts serving its breakfast specialties like walnut waffles and hot, buttered slices of fruit nut breads from the Nut Tree bakery. On a typical day more than 3,000 travelers will have turned off the highway exit and partaken of the dining room delights before closing time at 9 p.m.
Nothing on the menu comes in a skimpy portion, so most diners usually spend some time after a meal walking about. Inside, adjacent to the dining room there is the gigantic gift shop that sells Nut Tree specialties such as breads, coffeecakes, candies, nuts, and dried-fruit packages in addition to imports, souvenirs, books, and kitchen wares. Outside is the small railroad that runs on a mile of track through stands of walnut and fig trees, and orange grove, and orchards to the airport where deplaning passengers can catch a ride to the restaurant.
It is difficult for one to believe, while walking the grounds, that all this owes its orgin to the single black-walnut tree Josiah Allison planted along the Emigrant Trail (now Interstate 80) in 1860. By the summer of 1921 that tree had grown to mammoth proportions, providing the needed shade for the fruit stand his granddaughter Helen and her husband, Edwin (Bunny) Power, set up beneath it.
The stand, consisting of a six-foot tray of fresh figs, a rocking chair, an American flag, and a Saturday Evening Post, also provided drinking and radiator water for motorists chugging down the dusty two-lane road. In a few weeks the couple added the more refined touch of a permanent counter placed on top of eucalyptus logs.
It was such a big hit with passersby that a small restaurant was contructed on the site that fall. From the start it produced such innovations as beautifully packaged fresh, dried, and glaced fruit. Bunny Power began manufacturing papier-mache items, one of which became the Giant Orange vending stand (actually a replica of what its name suggests) in which fresh orange juice was sold. The Mission Orange Company bought the rights to the stand design, which became a roadside landmark throughout the country during the 1930s.
Helen and Bunny Power, with the aid of their growing family, steadily expanded their enterprise through the years; the present dining room was built in 1958. Sadly Josiah Allison's tree, the restaurant's trademark as well as its name, expired in 1952. But although the Nut Tree's outward appearance has changed a great deal since 1921, its basic purpose hasn't. It's still a welcome break in the long stretch of road to San Francisco Bay.