Norman Alexander paused on the steps of Castaic Landing Restaurant before walking to his big rig in the crowded truck lot nearby, looking back at the large wooden building as though saying goodby to an old friend for the last time.
"It's just a shame," Alexander said, shaking his head. "It's getting to where a truck driver can't find a place to sit down and have a real meal. I don't know of any other place like this between L.A. and Bakersfield."
Castaic Landing, a favorite of truckers across the nation, will serve its last meal tonight. A few months later, the restaurant's towering sign, which for years has been a landmark for travelers along Interstate 5, will be replaced with a more widely known trademark--the golden arches of McDonald's.
The Castaic Landing sign will be covered next week, said Ken Porter, the restaurant's owner.
The 6,000-square-foot restaurant with its high ceilings and nautical motif will be demolished to make way for McDonald's. Some of its furnishings, which include antique shelves, chests, chairs and tables, will be sold at auction.
"We looked into trying to move it," Porter said. "But the cost was prohibitive."
Nor could he afford to buy the acre on which the restaurant sits and the three acres of truck parking it provides, Porter said. Thus, those and three other acres were sold three months ago to McDonald's Restaurant Corp. by its owner, Newhall Land & Farming Co. The price tag was about $400,000 an acre, Porter said.
The restaurant's closing after 13 years is "strictly a matter of finances," he said.
On a sunny day last week, the restaurant's customers and workers talked of little else but Castaic Landing's demise.
Alexander, a Hayward resident, said he had been stopping at the restaurant once or twice a week on his run between Los Angeles and the Bay Area for 13 years.
"Now, I don't know where I'll go," he said. "Who wants McDonald's?"
Truckers shun fast-food restaurants, Alexander said, because they like to linger over home-cooked meals such as those served at Castaic Landing. And, too, they need a place where they can park their trucks.
"Those are few and far between," said produce hauler Jeff Stanley of Lodi as he sat in the bar sipping a beer. "I've been stopping here for 10 years--in the summer three times a week. This is a friendly place."
Los Angeles County has few places for truck drivers, waitress Vicki Rendley said. "This is one of the last places in the whole area," she said. "It's just one of a kind."
Waitress Barbara Mills, who has worked at Castaic Landing 5 1/2 years, said she met her boyfriend, a trucker, when she waited on him at the restaurant.
"I'm going to miss my regular customers," she said.
"Tomorrow's my last day, so if I don't see you, take care of yourself," cashier-hostess Patty Hartman told a customer as he paid his bill.
"This restaurant's known all over the country because of the truckers," she said. "Nobody's happy about its closing."
"A lot of business deals have been made here," said Michael Anaradian of Costa Mesa, who was waiting to meet an oil business associate from Bakersfield. "It's kind of a central location to meet. I'll miss it."
The restaurant was built by Newhall Land & Farming Co. 13 years ago about the same time the State Water Project opened Castaic Lake as a recreation area.
"I know it seems like the restaurant's been here longer," Porter said. "I think that's because of the high visibility of our sign. People driving down I-5 have seen it so often."
As vice president of food services for Newhall Land, Porter ran the restaurant for the company since it opened. Then, he quit the company and took over the business five years ago.
"I had a lease on the building and land with an option to buy," Porter said. "But it was just much, much too much for me to handle."
When he bought the business, he had no idea that land values in the now fast-growing community would skyrocket the way they have.
Thirteen years ago, Porter said, there were 2,000 people in Castaic "at the most." Now, there are 5,000 with a population of 25,000 forecast by the year 2010, according to Los Angeles County Regional Planning Department statistics.
Since the restaurant opened, Porter, 50, has catered to customers with home-cooked meals such as country gravy and ham, a roomy bar with a jukebox, video games and a big-screen television set and a pleasant, friendly atmosphere.
He has provided a large parking lot for the truckers. He has also let people who were down and out work off the price of a meal, employees said. In the winter, when traffic was at a standstill on I-5 for hours because of snow and ice, Porter said, he opened the dining room to families so "the kids could sack out."
He estimates 40% of his trade are truck drivers, 40% are locals and the remainder are tourists passing through Castaic.
Porter said it will be business as usual on the restaurant's last day today.
"We're just going to shut down Sunday night after the normal dinner hour--about 10 o'clock," he said. "The last one out will turn out the light."
The restaurant's 40 employees will hold a farewell party on Monday. Most have already found other work, Porter said.
Linda Rush, a waitress for six years, said she will work at a school for Christian ministers in the mountains.
"For a waitress, this was just the best place to work that was left around," she said.
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