History

At the Table

Cowboy Cuisine

Written by Bill Staggs

Featured in Diablo Magazine in January 2000

 

            Casa Orinda’s customers have said it for nearly 70 years: Whoa! Don’t change a thing.

            Before the Caldecott tunnel pierced the Berkeley hills, before Highway 24 grew to eight lanes and long, long before BART trains blurred through the landscape — there was Casa Orinda, the original roadhouse that has survived decades and trends to become an institution.

            The 67-year-old Casa Orinda — Contra Costa County’s oldest continuously operating restaurant — has grown more than a bit from its tiny original 1932 building at the long-gone Orinda Crossroads. The four-way stop is now a freeway interchange, and traffic whirs by at 70 mph instead of a lazy 35.

            The landmark rooftop neon sign — a cowboy whirling his lasso — disappeared long ago, and once-open land has given way to shops and offices and hillside houses: home to 17,000. But step inside the Casa, as devoted regulars call the place, and you’ll find yourself in a restaurant outside of time. The decor is pure cowboy and purely comfortable, with dark wood and soft light, with giant oil paintings depicting chuck wagons and stagecoach robberies, with oversized photographs of rodeo studs and smiling cowgirls. An antique gun collection, displayed in glass-fronted, wall-mounted cases, never ceases to draw swoons from boys and murmurs of covetousness from collectors.

            Old black-and-white photographs hang above the hand-carved wooden bar, pictures of local rodeo riders or a long-ago retired bartender. A small silver plaque, embedded in the bar where a recently deceased and favored customer used to perch, says just how much the Casa is for many a home away from home.

            To say the theme is Western is misleading. “Theme” conjures up the image of a designer creating an interior — and, hopefully, a mood — in a broad sweep and all at once. Not here. The Casa grew up and thrived and healthily survived over seven decades precisely because it wasn’t done in a day, because art and fixtures were added one by one over the years, and because, through the energy and personality of just two owners, it managed to become a place where people simply wanted to be. And they are still coming.

            Back in 1932, the Casa sat smack on the corner at what locals and passersby called the Crossroads, a four-way stop with restaurants on every corner. The Willows, the Crossribs, the Crossroads — all  are long gone, swallowed up by freeway and the BART station, by business and houses, and in one instance by fire.

            The neighborhood was not really a neighborhood then, not even a close-in suburb, but an uncluttered horizon of cowboy rangeland, with cattle grazing on steep hillsides and a sky as clear as the water in San Pablo Creek. The landscape was dotted with monochrome sedans and pickups. The occasional gas station provided a perfect place for filling up on the way back to Oakland for city folk returning from a day in Brentwood, picking fruit for canning, for fisherman returning from the Delta.

            The Casa had the most modest of beginnings. Founder Jack Snow, a Montana cowboy who had come South to work on the Caldecott Tunnel, opened a small restaurant and bar where Highway 24 crossed San Pablo Dam Road. Photographs taken around that time show just how spare the neighborhood was, with a scattering of early hillside houses and few trees save the native Oaks.

            Snow brought his younger brother Tommy in to help with the growing enterprise, and in a few years Casa Orinda had become a center of local life, a place as favored for a drink (or three) at the bar, and for catching up with friends, as for settling into a steak or some fried chicken. They prospered and poured money back into the restaurant, putting together an impressive collection of old firearms, purchasing oversized oil paintings, and creating a bar and hearth that are still at the center of the Casa’s warmth and appeal.

            In the tradition of roadhouses, those out-of-the-way places beyond city limits and out of the eye of officialdom, Casa Orinda even saw some gambling. In fact, it became a thriving sideline to dinner and drinks until an ambitious district attorney in the 1950s campaigned on a platform of cleaning up the county. But even without the draw of a poker table upstairs or a slot machine, the restaurant thrived as Orinda grew up and grew wealthier with families fleeing urban squeeze “over the hill.”

            Tragedy struck in 1965 when Tommy Snow, the day-to-day manager of the restaurant, was found murdered in his car on a back road between Orinda and his Pleasant Hill home. His killer was never found, and Jack Snow never seemed to have the same passion for the business after his brother’s death.

            Three years later, former county supervisor and contractor Ivan Goyak — long a Casa Orinda customer and a friend of the Snow brothers — joined Jack Snow as a partner. Goyak brought his son John in to cook, and his wife, Mary, and daughter Charlotte pitched in to support the staff of longtime waiters and cooks and bartenders — some of whom had been on hand for 30 years. The Goyaks assumed full ownership in 1978.

            John Goyak, who has done every job in the restaurant, except tend bar, for 32 years since his busing days, says he is determined to maintain the uniqueness and tradition of Casa Orinda while continually working to improve it. He admits to a healthy obsession with cleanliness, a friendly staff, and respect for customers. He even continues to offer valet parking, a disappearing amenity that sets this dinner-only restaurant apart.

            “What I found out a long time ago that I could not do was change things,” Goyak explains, “unless I was ready for a lot of comments from faithful customers. They don’t seem to want me to change a thing.”

            He says the changes he has made since he bought out his sister and partner, Charlotte Guppy, almost 14 years ago have been subtle, incremental, careful, and few. The extravagant fresh flower arrangements are new in “Casa Orinda Time” (in place for the last ten years), and a small cocktail area near the carved front door has been expanded to a cozy corner that accommodates a small party close to the action of the bar.

            The younger Goyak started working as a busboy in 1967, just about the time his father became a partner. He remembers some of the employees from the Snow era, including Gordon Sproat, the crusty cook who aged sides of beef right there in the restaurant.

            Sproat ruled the kitchen for 38 years before retiring in the early 1970s. Jairo Gomez — who started as a dishwasher in the late 1960s and spent many years as chef — still works part-time after handing over the chef”s role to Micheal Catalli, who came to Casa Orinda two years ago.  [see editor's note*]

            Throughout the years, the focus has remained on steaks and fried chicken, though Italian dishes introduced during the tenure of an East Coast chef, are to this day, a part of the repertoire. Sautéed veal and chicken entrees have followers as dedicated as those coming in for a slab of prime rib.

            But the spirit of Casa Orinda has always been the ample and hearty food of the West, beef and chicken and enough mashed potatoes to make a Sunday supper what it ought to be. And you can still get a plate of ham and eggs that would make three meals for some eaters.

            One addition John Goyak made a few years ago has proven to be a favorite, a pan-fried chicken cutlet with a pool of gravy and a mound of creamy mashed potatoes.

            Current chef Catalli, a Contra Costa County native, saves his creative urges for the handful of daily specials, mainly pasta dishes and fresh fish, grilled or sautéed. It takes a long time for a special to make its way to the two-page menu. Tradition at the Casa builds at a slow, slow pace.

            Even with his attention to recipes and to details, Goyak doesn’t trumpet the hallowed names of his big name purveyors, believing that the quality shows up in what’s on the plate. But the list of suppliers stocking his kitchen cover the range of quality foodstuffs, from Berkeley’s Acme Bread Company, and Monterey Fish Company, to Niman Ranch meats.

            “What’s important is to feed our friends well, have them leave happy, and get them to come back,” says Goyak. “We’ve done that for nearly 70 years, and I want to see that tradition go on and on.” 

* Editor’s note — The current chef, since 2002, is Kenneth Jensen