In Kern County, as around the world, we count the consequences of COVID-19 in terms of lives lost, lives saved and testing kits back-ordered.
But another metric matters, too: Institutions closed.
Most California businesses have temporarily shuttered, as they should, despite all the theories about government oppression your uncle might be regurgitating onto Facebook. Most businesses, we hope, will return when this is over, but some may not. Restaurants will be especially vulnerable because restaurants are especially vulnerable anyway.
But now it’s getting personal. An establishment that helped define this community has succumbed to the coronavirus — or rather to the likely hardship that waiting for the virus to dissipate will create.
The Noriega Hotel, whose modest consistency and honesty acquired fame endured across parts of three centuries, has closed.
“This (pandemic) was the killshot,” said Mike Ladd, whose wife, Rochelle, had been running the place with her sister Linda Elizalde McCoy since 1987. Their grandparents, Juan and Gracianna Elizalde, purchased the restaurant in 1931.
“The location, east Bakersfield, was tough,” Ladd said. “Then this hit. We were losing money. No income.”
Add age and health issues and it’s clear why the owners have chosen to use the word “permanently.”
If they are certain about that, though, we have a tragedy on several levels.
The first tragedy is the loss of that garlic fried chicken. The second is the lost opportunity to share platters with complete strangers who, well before the vanilla ice cream arrives, would be strangers no more. The boardinghouse-style seating arrangements forced diners to acknowledge their shared humanity in the same way they shared pinto beans and pickled tongue.
The third is the blow to Old Town Kern’s glacial but undeniable momentum. The Baker Street area is Bakersfield’s great, underappreciated attraction, a quirky surprise for visiting foodies who enjoy mild adventure with their supper and dislike even the faintest whiff of pretension. Pyrenees Cafe, Wool Growers, Luigi’s, Arizona Cafe, Los Reyes — they’re all still there, or at least we hope they will be — but the granddaddy is the Noriega Hotel, 525 Sumner St.
The area's oldest Basque restaurant — and, so it is said, the world's last surviving establishment of its kind — was founded in 1893 by Faustino Noriega, a Basque immigrant who beat the railroad here by six years. The hotel, which Noriega ran with partner Fernando Etcheverry, catered to young Basque men engaged in what was then a common vocation for imported workers from the Pyrenees mountain range of northern Spain and southwestern France: sheepherding.
“Its history sounds like a rogue chapter from a John Steinbeck novel,” Jeff Gordinier wrote for The New York Times on the occasion of Noriega’s black-tie acceptance of a James Beard Foundation Award for American cuisine in 2011.
The market for sheepherders eventually faded, but interest in the Noriega Hotel did not.
By 1938, according to The Californian, it was the “pivotal center of the Basque population in Kern County and its social nucleus ... a gravitational point for the Basques when they enter the city.”
In 1948, John Kovacevich and two friends, Dominic Corsaro and M.R. "Babe" Lazane, all rejected for membership at the Stockdale Country Club, convened a meeting of interested parties at the Noriega — about 75 men, some perhaps also rejected by Bakersfield's one and only private golf club. They started their own club: the Bakersfield Country Club, on the cool, green hills east of the city, and their founding document still occupies a place of honor on a dining-hall wall at the Noriega.
No doubt a thousand other deals were struck there on Sumner Street as well, many in the presence of Noriega and Etcheverry but many more in close proximity to the Elizaldes, who ran the operation until their granddaughters declared it was time to stop.
That day was coming anyway, but the COVID-19 outbreak gave them the last little shove.
But if Noriega's closes, really closes, Bakersfield and the world will be deprived of a working-class charm, and an entertainment niche, that the upscale chains along westernmost Stockdale Highway can’t match and would never attempt to duplicate anyway. Even some of the successful ones will seem dated in a few years; they must reinvent or die.
Contrast that to the Noriega, whose spartan, frozen-in-time, wood-paneled bar, built around 1940, still qualified as the new addition. The menu was set, dictated by the day of the week: Thursdays were garlic fried chicken and spare ribs, Saturdays oxtail stew and more fried chicken. Many patrons arrived early, well before seating time, to enjoy a Picon punch (but not more than two, as the late TV travel-show host Huell Howser once advised viewers).
And now, unceremoniously and matter-of-factly, it is over.
“The Noriega Hotel will not re-open after the COVID-19 closure,” the restaurant’s Facebook page said Friday. “We appreciate all the people that have dined with us for the last 89 years.”
Those words would have broken the heart of Jonathan Gold, the late Los Angeles-based, Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic, whose odes of appreciation about the Noriega have been reprinted here too many times already. Suffice to say, he enjoyed it.
We, then, are the ones left to mourn — if not for the loss of a specific restaurant experience, then for the realization that something old, grand and unique to this city has been lost.