McKITTRICK – A veritable fast-food cornucopia – enough to make Michael Pollan go apoplectic – awaits travelers along Interstate 5.
All the fine establishments are represented, from Jack in the Box to Taco Bell. Oh, and Subway. There's always another Subway; they sprout like so many star thistle weeds aside every offramp.
This morning, though, I'd like to recommend you travel a wee bit (OK, about 12 miles) off the interstate just before, or after, the Grapevine for a dining experience you won't soon forget. This has nothing to do with cuisine, mind you. I'm no food critic, wouldn't know a brochette of beef from a charcoal briquette.
But I do know places with character. You know, joints, dives, out-of-the-way holes in walls as long on atmosphere as they may be short on culinary mastery.
These are places where townsfolk eat, not necessarily because they choose to. It's just, you know, the place to go. You might end up eating a month's worth of saturated fat in a single big-plate lunch entree, but your memories of the experience will stick to you like adipose around your beltline.
By that criteria, I give Mike & Annie's McKittrick Hotel Penny Bar & Cafe (even the name is a mouthful) five stars. I've put it on my personal Michelin rating for kitsch, awarded it a perfect rating on my personal Urban Greasy Spoon for originality and authenticity. And I'm not just saying that because one of the oil workers dining nearby picked up my check on his way out. And, no, I had not identified myself as a reporter to score a free lunch; I do have some ethics.
So what makes this restaurant deep in the oil fields of rural western Kern County so special?
The bar, to start with.
It is covered with pennies. They are everywhere, in excess of a million of them, according to Annie Moore, of the eponymous Mike & Annie's. We're talking pennies, affixed by Elmer's Glue, covering every inch of the floor, the bar counter, the walls, ceiling, billiards table, even the bathroom doors.
The artiste was Mike Moore, whose motivation was a heady combination of spare time and spare change. It is either an epic exercise in pointless kitsch or a work of performance art that would've impressed Marcel Duchamps or Andy Warhol.
Heck, it might be both.
But you've got to see it in person, stand amid a sea of copper Abe Lincoln visages following you with their eyes. Visiting the Facebook page doesn't cut it.
The bar is like any other small-town pub, dimly lit and replete with rowdy regulars, but its gimmick has landed it on the "Today" show and the National Examiner, something only the likes of a Lindsay Lohan usually accomplishes.
Mike and Annie never thought it would capture people's imaginations. They just wanted to put their stamp on their dream enterprise after they sold their bug-extermination business in Eureka 15 years ago and looked to open a small-town cafe-slash-watering hole.
Annie said pennies made sense because, during their tenure performing cockroach and termite genocide, the couple was always telling each other "for 2 cents I would do anything to keep from crawling under houses ."
So she considers all million-plus coins true "pennies from heaven."
But, yeah, she said she's also glad Mike eventually stopped being all ob-com with the glue and pocket change.
For a while there, you didn't have to give a penny for his thoughts to know what occupied his mind.
"He insisted on doing every single one of them by himself," Annie said. "It was a point of pride. He wanted full glory. At one point, he was lying on the floor of the bar gluing them in and people had to step right over him. He didn't care."
Annie swears it wasn't a penny-ante publicity stunt. But she doesn't mind the notoriety in the least. And it also didn't dawn on her to think about what it all might be worth until the "Today" show's Lester Holt visited a few years back to do a live segment.
"He told us it costs 93 cents to make a single penny," Annie said, "and that got me thinking, 'You know, we've got a million pennies, and ..."
Well, that obviously means the couple has $10,000 in "savings" in the bar. But, at 93 cents for the copper, the place could bring in $930,000 if you stripped the joint and melted it down.
Alas, Holt got his figures wrong. The U.S. Mint states that it costs 2.4 cents to make a penny, meaning the pennies at the bar are worth "only" $24,000.
Still, copper thieves, pretty darn ingenious, might be tempted. Haven't you read the news reports?
Well, Annie has. But she's not worried. In fact, people insist on giving the couple more pennies, even after Mike has stopped obsessively squeezing the Elmer's.
"We put (the new pennies) in a glass pig in the back of the bar," she said.
And the pennies stay there. Mike has no plans for a sequel. He just likes to sit back and watch the wide-eyed looks of wonder on newcomers' faces.
About the only visitors who aren't captivated are hard-core coin collectors.
They grouse, Annie said.
"They actually have a fit, because some of our pennies are wheat-back pennies," she said. "Those were the ones minted between 1909 and 1958, before the back was replaced by Lincoln Memorial, and they're special."
According to cointrackers.com, some "wheat" pennies in good condition can net you at least $10. If you had a 1943 "wheat" penny, the website says, you can get $60,000 or more on the open market.
But Mike glued the "wheat" pennies, face down, "so that people could see the two stalks of wheat," Annie said. "So the collectors don't know if it's an expensive 1943 one. Who knows? We might have something valuable."
They do. It's the business itself. The cafe, situated in front of the bar, is popular in this one-horse but many-oil-derrick town abutting the Lost Hills. On one lunch hour, the place was packed with workers from the Chevron Oil Fields and a nearby power plant. It's elbows-on-the-table, no-collar casual. The walls are adorned with homey touches such as a Spam clock, snarky signs such as one warning "No Pissy Attitudes" and a framed schematic of the construction of an oil derrick.
"I gotta say, it's been enjoyable being here," Annie said.
Oh, if she had a penny for every time she said that
Wait, she does.
THE PENNY BAR
Mike & Annie's McKittrick Hotel Penny Bar & Cafe is at 23273 Highway 33 in McKittrick, 12 miles west of Interstate 5 in Kern County. For more information: www.facebook.com/pages/Mike-and-Annies-McKittrick-Hotel-AKA-The-Penny-Bar
Call The Bee's Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145 Follow him on Twitter @SamMcManis.