Restaurants come and go, leaving memories in their wake. Along Interstate 80 between Dixon and Vacaville is the classic sign marking the once-upon-a-time site of the Milk Farm.
The grand Nut Tree restaurant ("California's legendary road stop" since 1921) is an echo. The family park closed in 2009, reincarnated into a much-smaller play plaza lost in a sprawling shopping mall (though there still is a train).
However, another roadside attraction the vintage Black Oak lives on. The original restaurant opened in Paso Robles in 1960, then a second opened in Vacaville in 1970. It became a destination for family dining and special events, burned to the ground in 1982, was rebuilt in 1984 and was packed last Sunday ("Dorothy, party of four!").
Inside, the first thing we did was page through the guest book at the entrance, where we saw many testimonials to the Black Oak's durability. Among them, "When we were kids, our mom and dad brought us here every Sunday after church."
The Black Oak is a third- generation family-owned and -operated landmark, said administrative assistant Donna Suihkonen by phone Tuesday.
Who's the clientele?
"Skiers going to the mountains, shoppers from the (nearby) Vacaville Premium Outlets, families. We get an awful lot of people who get off Interstate 80 and Interstate 505 just to eat here," Suihkonen said.
Our wait for a table allowed for a look around. A glass case held a few pastries (was there a morning run on them?) and the store's signature date nut loaf. The gift shop area is a profusion of faux flowers, which also dominate the planter box-dividers in the dining room.
We spotted vases, teacups, greeting cards, nightlights, jewelry, framed artwork, antique wood cabinets, plush toys, old-fashioned candies, and artificial cattails, ivy, magnolia and many pine trees (but no oaks, other than the store's logo cutouts).
Part of one dining room wall is dominated by a hand-painted tile mural showing a woodland meadow populated with animals in a style reminiscent of Disney. It was installed in the 1984 rebuild.
In our booth, beneath the cork ceiling, we were a bit overcome by dozens of breakfast and lunch choices ($4.99 to $15.39). Waffle or omelet? Soup or homemade chili? Hamburger or steak? Patty melt or tuna? Pasta or salad? Muffin or a slice of date nut loaf?
Soon our server delivered a steaming, house-baked blueberry muffin, freshly made chicken-rice soup, deep-fried Monte Cristo sandwich (dark, crisp and cheesy) with pedestrian french fries, two perfectly scrambled eggs with a trio of fat link sausages, fresh fruit cup and sourdough toast.
How's this for retro: "Free coffee refills."
We agreed: big portions of fresh food at slightly elevated prices, but with house-made sauces, dressings, soups and baked goods.
Before the 1984 rebuild, when her grown daughters were girls, my lunch pal would make the Black Oak a day-trip lunch destination.
"It evokes the same general feeling of the original, only with more flowers," she said. "I miss the big selection of breads at the counter. And I remember milkshakes."
You've got to try this soup
Not to exaggerate, but here's a dish for a bucket list. It's composed of Carmoroli risotto (white rice from northern Italy), wild hedgehog mushrooms from the California coast, duck confit (house-cured duck poached in its own fat), Grana Padano (the hard, grainy cheese that dates to 12th century Milan), butter, saba (a sweetish reduction from the must of Trebbiano grapes, which make balsamic vinegar) and Italian parsley.
The heavenly concoction is at Piatti Ristorante at the Pavilions center in Sacramento, but only for the next five or so weeks, until the end of hedgehog mushroom season. The starter bowl is $12, the entree is $17.
The dish is the creation of Piatti executive chef Ryan O'Malley, who's led the kitchen there for three years. Previously, as a sous chef, he helped open the Grange at the downtown Citizen Hoteland Hawks at Quarry Ponds Center in Granite Bay.
I asked chef O'Malley for a sound bite:
"We take the duck off the bone, discard the skin and shred the meat," he said. "We roast the mushrooms in the wood-burning oven and hit them with a little extra-virgin olive oil and a splash of balsamic vinegar. They soak that up.
"We toast the rice until it starts to crack, add onion and a good amount of white wine, and keep adding chicken stock a little bit at a time, stirring until the rice is creamy.
"At the very end when I add the duck and the mushrooms I'm stirring constantly to emulsify the cheese and butter."
Wow a perfect marriage of ingredients and flavors.
The restaurant is at 571 Pavilions Lane, just off Fair Oaks Boulevard and just east of Howe Avenue.
For Piatti: (916) 649-8885, www.piatti.com.
Where: 320 Orange Drive, Vacaville
Hours: 7 a.m.-3 p.m. daily
Food: 2 1/2 stars
Ambience: 4 stars (for the kitsch factor)
How much: $-$$
Information: (707) 448-1311; www.blackoakrestaurant.com is under construction
By Allen Pierleoni