Quite saddening news: the Noriega Hotel Restaurant in Bakersfield, California has closed its doors for the last time, after over 120 years.  This is yet another consequence of the pandemic that is shuttering businesses all over the world, making us see we’re much more fragile than we’d thought.  That even such a respected and beloved institution as this restaurant should have to close is proof of that.

It’s true that we’re talking about just a business, not someone who’s passed away.  But inside those walls, among the tables and halls and recipes and pots and pans, there was also a huge part of the history of the Basques in California, a renowned history.  Its closure is the loss of not only a bit of Basque cuisine in the US, but also, more than anything, that projection of the best essence of what’s Basque in the States.

We’ve spoken on many occasions on the blog about how highly regarded the Noriega Hotel was among its diners and critics.  It even received one of the five 2011 James Beard Foundation American Classics Award, which is given to restaurants which are “distinguished by their timeless appeal,” serving “quality food that reflects the character of their communities”.

The New York Times dedicated an awesome report to them, covering their quality, tradition, friendliness, and all the other things that a diner could love when sitting down at a Basque restaurant.

Its closure has not escaped media notice, both locally and prestigious national-level ones on both coasts.  There are many articles covering this loss.  We’ve chosen three.

One is in Eater Los Angeles, penned by Farley Elliott.  Another is a report in a column about California by Jill Cowan, published in our always admired New York Times.  Amazing they saw fit to talk about a small-town restaurant 4,000 miles from the Big Apple.  The third is a beautiful article by Robert Price in the Tehachapi News, which we loved so much we’re doing something we never do.  Since this paper is blocked to Europeans because of EU data protection laws, we’ve copied it here (we hope this is considered a peccadillo and we’ll still be allowed into “copywriter heaven”).

We were never able to go eat there, and unfortunately, that debt we owe Basque culture in the US we’ll never be able to pay.

Eater Los Angeles – 27/4/2020 -USA

Bakersfield’s 89-Year-Old Basque Institution Noriega Hotel Closes Permanently

Famed Bakersfield Basque restaurant the Noriega Hotel is closing permanently, reports the Bakersfield Californian. The legendary large-format restaurant is a James Beard Foundation American Classic category winner from 2011, and has been in operation since the 1930s. In a note posted to the restaurant’s social media, ownership said the property would “not re-open after the COVID-19 closure.” The loss has stung many in the Central Valley, home to a surprising accumulation of Basque restaurants and other timeless dining gems.

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The New York Times – 27/4/2020 – USA

CALIFORNIA TODAY

In 2011, The Times wrote about Bakersfield’s Noriega Hotel in an article whose headline declared, “The Spotlight Finds a Basque Shepherds’ Canteen.”

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Tehachapi News -27/4/2020 –  USA

ROBERT PRICE: Noriega Hotel closing? Now it’s really hitting home

(PHOTO: From left: Ignacio Maisterrena, Alfred Saldubehere and Pierre Arrayet — regulars at Noriega’s — speak and joke in their native Basque language in this undated file photo. “You don’t see family-style too much anymore,” Saldubehere, who came to the U.S. from France in 1958, said that day. “It feels like home) Californian file photo
PHOTO: From left: Ignacio Maisterrena, Alfred Saldubehere and Pierre Arrayet — regulars at Noriega’s — speak and joke in their native Basque language in this undated file photo. “You don’t see family-style too much anymore,” Saldubehere, who came to the U.S. from France in 1958, said that day. “It feels like home –  Californian file photo
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In Kern County, as around the world, we count the consequences of COVID-19 in terms of lives lost, lives saved and testing kits back-ordered.

But another metric matters, too: Institutions closed.

Most California businesses have temporarily shuttered, as they should, despite all the theories about government oppression your uncle might be regurgitating onto Facebook. Most businesses, we hope, will return when this is over, but some may not. Restaurants will be especially vulnerable because restaurants are especially vulnerable anyway.

But now it’s getting personal. An establishment that helped define this community has succumbed to the coronavirus — or rather to the likely hardship that waiting for the virus to dissipate will create.

The Noriega Hotel, whose modest consistency and honesty acquired fame endured across parts of three centuries, has closed.

“This (pandemic) was the killshot,” said Mike Ladd, whose wife, Rochelle, had been running the place with her sister Linda Elizalde McCoy since 1987. Their grandparents, Juan and Gracianna Elizalde, purchased the restaurant in 1931.

“The location, east Bakersfield, was tough,” Ladd said. “Then this hit. We were losing money. No income.”

Add age and health issues and it’s clear why the owners have chosen to use the word “permanently.”

If they are certain about that, though, we have a tragedy on several levels.

The first tragedy is the loss of that garlic fried chicken. The second is the lost opportunity to share platters with complete strangers who, well before the vanilla ice cream arrives, would be strangers no more. The boardinghouse-style seating arrangements forced diners to acknowledge their shared humanity in the same way they shared pinto beans and pickled tongue.

The third is the blow to Old Town Kern’s glacial but undeniable momentum. The Baker Street area is Bakersfield’s great, underappreciated attraction, a quirky surprise for visiting foodies who enjoy mild adventure with their supper and dislike even the faintest whiff of pretension. Pyrenees Cafe, Wool Growers, Luigi’s, Arizona Cafe, Los Reyes — they’re all still there, or at least we hope they will be — but the granddaddy is the Noriega Hotel, 525 Sumner St.

The area’s oldest Basque restaurant — and, so it is said, the world’s last surviving establishment of its kind — was founded in 1893 by Faustino Noriega, a Basque immigrant who beat the railroad here by six years. The hotel, which Noriega ran with partner Fernando Etcheverry, catered to young Basque men engaged in what was then a common vocation for imported workers from the Pyrenees mountain range of northern Spain and southwestern France: sheepherding.

“Its history sounds like a rogue chapter from a John Steinbeck novel,” Jeff Gordinier wrote for The New York Times on the occasion of Noriega’s black-tie acceptance of a James Beard Foundation Award for American cuisine in 2011.

The market for sheepherders eventually faded, but interest in the Noriega Hotel did not.

By 1938, according to The Californian, it was the “pivotal center of the Basque population in Kern County and its social nucleus … a gravitational point for the Basques when they enter the city.”

In 1948, John Kovacevich and two friends, Dominic Corsaro and M.R. “Babe” Lazane, all rejected for membership at the Stockdale Country Club, convened a meeting of interested parties at the Noriega — about 75 men, some perhaps also rejected by Bakersfield’s one and only private golf club. They started their own club: the Bakersfield Country Club, on the cool, green hills east of the city, and their founding document still occupies a place of honor on a dining-hall wall at the Noriega.

No doubt a thousand other deals were struck there on Sumner Street as well, many in the presence of Noriega and Etcheverry but many more in close proximity to the Elizaldes, who ran the operation until their granddaughters declared it was time to stop.

That day was coming anyway, but the COVID-19 outbreak gave them the last little shove.

But if Noriega’s closes, really closes, Bakersfield and the world will be deprived of a working-class charm, and an entertainment niche, that the upscale chains along westernmost Stockdale Highway can’t match and would never attempt to duplicate anyway. Even some of the successful ones will seem dated in a few years; they must reinvent or die.

Contrast that to the Noriega, whose spartan, frozen-in-time, wood-paneled bar, built around 1940, still qualified as the new addition. The menu was set, dictated by the day of the week: Thursdays were garlic fried chicken and spare ribs, Saturdays oxtail stew and more fried chicken. Many patrons arrived early, well before seating time, to enjoy a Picon punch (but not more than two, as the late TV travel-show host Huell Howser once advised viewers).

And now, unceremoniously and matter-of-factly, it is over.

“The Noriega Hotel will not re-open after the COVID-19 closure,” the restaurant’s Facebook page said Friday. “We appreciate all the people that have dined with us for the last 89 years.”

Those words would have broken the heart of Jonathan Gold, the late Los Angeles-based, Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic, whose odes of appreciation about the Noriega have been reprinted here too many times already. Suffice to say, he enjoyed it.

We, then, are the ones left to mourn — if not for the loss of a specific restaurant experience, then for the realization that something old, grand and unique to this city has been lost.

Robert Price is a journalist for KGET-TV. His column appears here on Sundays; the views expressed are his own. Reach him at [email protected] or via Twitter: @stubblebuzz.

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