For a certain dining demographic, nostalgia is always the go-to dish. For instance, Placer County is now abuzz over the return of Dingus McGee's, housed since Nov. 18 in the gorgeous space once occupied by another iconic dining destination, Headquarters House.
For context, here's a helping of history as told by Danielle Nelson, co-owner (with husband David Nelson) of the resurrected Dingus and the adjoining Gator Creek golf course:
Dingus opened in Colfax in 1974 and quickly became locally famous as a roadhouse with good eats.
"I worked there as a waitress and bookkeeper from 1985 to 1989, in its heyday," Danielle recalled. "It was a hopping spot for locals and travelers."
The Nelsons bought the restaurant in 1997 and "brought back a lot of the kitchen staff from the '80s, along with much of the original menu, trying to remake Dingus into what it once was," she said.
Business was brisk, but the building was sold in 2001 and Dingus closed. During the following decade, the Nelsons negotiated for three potential sites in Auburn for Dingus' reincarnation, but no deal.
Meanwhile, Headquarters House was undergoing its own transformation. It was opened as a steakhouse in 1975 by rancher Jack Parnell, who kept cattle on the property, which ended up as steaks on customers' plates.
A demanding career in politics (one job was as deputy secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture) ended his days as a restaurateur. He sold, a new restaurant moved in, then the space became a special-events center, then closed and changed hands again.
"In May 2011, the new owner called and said Headquarters House was available if we were interested," Danielle said. "It was a perfect fit, a marriage between the nostalgia of Headquarters House and the (customer base) Dingus McGee's always had."
Reaching back in time, the Nelsons rehired seven of the eight original Dingus cooks cq to staff the kitchen, and "brought back the Dingus dinner menu in its entirety, with some updated items," Danielle said. "The response from the community has been overwhelming. Dinners have been manic."
Which brings us to three lunch pals and me sitting at a table inside Dingus on a rainy Friday. Our view through the tall windows was of a massive wood deck, with Highway 80 in the distance and forested hills beyond. Upstairs is another dining room with views of more decks and several gazebos.
"This is a perfect place to spend a rainy afternoon," said one lunch pal.
"We were at the bar one night last week and it's great," said another.
In fairness, the dinner menu is the star of the show (eight steaks, seafood, chicken, pork, pasta, $9.95 to $26.95; smoked prime rib Fridays and Saturdays). The Nelsons cobbled together the current lunch menu ($5.95 to $12.95), and will debut a revised version in about two weeks, Danielle said. A longtime Cajun influence is still around in some dishes (bayou scampi, Cajun seafood fettucine).
We ordered alligator nuggets (a batter-heavy novelty item; look for Dingus' Gator Fest in June); fresh button mushrooms marinated in sherry sauce and sautéed in butter and garlic; Manhattan clam chowder based on well- seasoned fish stock made from halibut bones; tropical-style voodoo salad; delectable shrimp po' boy; shepherd's pie (a pre-St. Pat's Day daily special); and two house specialties spareribs and Dingus stew. The portions were generous; the crusty bread is Bella Bru.
Tops were the shrimp po' boy with Cajun relish, and the voodoo salad topped with excellent grilled prawns and mango vinaigrette (the coconut flakes were a nice touch, but the plantains were mealy and tough).
We couldn't figure out the stew, which was more of a dark soup with pieces of tough beef and veggies sunk at the bottom. The broth was bitter-tasting with what? Vinegar? No, the cook said, there's no vinegar in there, and he wouldn't give up any of the ingredients. Could the culprit have been an overload of Worcestershire sauce?
The shepherd's pie was the same stew layered in a ramekin with fluted mashed potatoes on top.
Some diners favor their pork ribs heavy with sauce; others prefer it on the side, for dipping. Dingus' hefty spareribs are smoked for 2 1/2 hours, oven-baked for another 1 1/2 hours, then quickly grilled when an order comes into the kitchen.
Our meaty, tender ribs were thickly coated with an OK sauce, which the lunch pals liked. I scraped off most of mine, sparing the lives of many paper napkins.
Where: 14500 Musso Road, Auburn
Hours: Lunch is 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Thursdays-Sundays. Days and hours will soon be extended; dinner is 4-9 p.m. daily
Food: 3 stars
Ambience: 4 stars
How much: $-$$
Information: (530) 878-1000, wwwdingusmcgees.com
By Allen Pierleoni