DISCOVERING THE UNITED STATES THROUGH ITS
ROADSIDE ATTRACTIONS, MUSEUMS, PARKS, CITIES, AND TOWNS
REVISITING THE WAY STATION – NEWHALL, CA
In the fall of 2008, I was with my family visiting relatives in Southern California. We were staying at a motel in Santa Clarita where my uncle lived. My brother asked about a good, basic, local diner, and we were pointed to the Way Station Coffee Shop. Upon entering the establishment, I was truly delighted to see license plates all over the walls, because I am a license plate collector. They came from all states and there were some from other countries as well – even a souvenir Antarctica plate with a penguin on it.
Food quickly became secondary. I inquired about the plates, and the general manager Eric Leeser came out to meet me. We discussed license plates for some time. He had heard of the Automobile License Plate Collectors Association (ALPCA) but didn’t presently belong. The plates were all part of his collection, to which patrons occasionally donated.
The results of that discussion bore fruit in the form of an article I wrote for PLATES, ALPCA’s bimonthly magazine. Published in February, 2009, “Blue Plate Special” was the first of 11 articles I have written for the magazine thus far. As such, the Way Station has always held a special spot in my heart.
So in 2017, when I was off to Ontario, California, for ALPCA’s annual international convention, I made sure to include a visit to my uncle and to the Way Station. The diner sits in a charming area of the city comprised of similarly-designed and painted, old ranch-style-looking businesses. This area goes by the name of Newhall, the name of the community that was formerly an incorporated section of Santa Clarita. It is best known for its association with entertainer Gene Autry, who bought a ranch in the area in 1953.
I was pleased to see that very little had changed in the nine years since my last visit. There were still license plates everywhere, and just as before, colorful signage and advertising, much of it vintage, also adorned the walls. The diner had the same local, down-to-earth vibe.
After re-touring the establishment, I sat down to enjoy a quality tuna melt and a very delicious chocolate shake. Mr. Leeser was there, and I only needed to briefly mention the article to spark his memory. He said he had been very appreciative of it (I sent him a copy of the magazine after its publication) and that it inspired him to get back into ALPCA. Further, his mother (who recently passed) really enjoyed reading it, and his girlfriend had joked with him about my description of him as a “middle-aged looking fellow.”
He said he still has lots of plates he will probably put up on the walls one day. As it is, there’s little real estate available, so they’d have to be rotated. He pointed out one area he wants to look better, where he started a string of California base plates, and said his emphasis currently is getting foreign plates (with Australia still on the Want List). He also rummaged around in his extra stock to show me a recent acquisition.
The Way Station could be described as a “hole-in-the-wall” or a local favorite. It is the kind of place where waitresses address customers by first name, the counter is always open, and been around for decades because they’re doing something right.
According to the American Diner Museum, “The word ‘diner’ is a derivative of ‘dining car’ and diner designs reflected the styling that manufacturers borrowed from railroad dining cars.” The Way Station definitely matches the motif, in an area which is perfectly associated with railroads.
Credit for the diner generally goes to Walter Scott of Providence, Rhode Island. In 1872—99 years before the Way Station was born—Scott quit his day job as a pressman and type compositor to sell food at night from a horse drawn wagon parked outside the Providence Journal newspaper office.
Similar outfits took shape across New England. Portable lunch wagons gave way to retired streetcars conversions. Often operating on small budgets, décor and maintenance were not a priority for most owners. But by the 1920’s, these “greasy spoons” were modified to appeal to women, and in the 1930’s, according to ADM, “modern materials were fabricated into streamline forms to symbolize speed and mobility.”
The diner really took off after World War II, as evolving economic and demographic factors set in. New technologies in mechanical systems further increased the attractiveness of the diner for the American public.
Fast food restaurants cut into diners’ dominance, but in the late 1970’s nostalgia and longing for old values helped spur an appreciation of diners. Some chains, such as Denny’s, adopted a diner feel, and today preservation efforts are made for vintage diners everywhere. As the Museum states, “Diners evolved into community gathering places where people from all walks of life and origin shared a home-cooked meal in a small and comforting atmosphere.” At the Way Station Coffee Shop, I can say (despite only two visits) that this holds true. For this license plate collector, there is the added treat of the best kind of wallpaper.
More on the Way Station: http://www.scvhistory.com/scvhistory/waystation.htm
All pictures are from the author and subject to copyright except exterior shot, which is from the shop’s Facebook page.