Thursday, July 3, 2008

Diner reviews: The Shade Tree

Glenwood, Washington is a small town of about 500 people, located near Mt. Adams, about a 20 minute drive off of the not very beaten path of Highway 141. A reference point most Northwesterners would know of would be Hood River, Oregon, about and hour South. Glenwood's two claims to fame are the Conboy Wildlife Refuge and it's yearly Father's Day weekend rodeo (which is pretty small on the rodeo circuit when compared to towns like Goldendale or Ellensburg). Glenwood was first settled in the mid-to-late 1800s by homesteaders that came West in search for free land to build a home and life on. My wife's family homesteaded the area in droves in the late 1800s, along with a few other large families. Today the area is mostly farms and ranches, all with a striking view of Mt. Adams.

These days Glenwood feels like a dying town. The one bar closed a few years ago... the only place in town locals can go out for a drink is at the beer garden at the rodeo when a big event is happening. A few of the farms have switched over to organic farming during the past decade, which has proven to be successful not only in Glenwood, but in a lot of the neighboring towns as well. But the logging industry has slowed down and machines have taken over many of the jobs men once did. And while people still run small ranches and farms, it's an ever-increasingly risky business that isn't always profitable, especially in today's era of mega-farms. Amway and other large corporations have bought out local farms and ranches, but at least they keep locals on to help run them.

The Shade Tree Restaurant and Inn is about it for Glenwood's retail corridor, all the other businesses are boarded up. And when I say all, I mean about 3 or 4 other buildings, this was never a hoppin' town. The Shade Tree includes a gas station, video rental store, six room inn, restaurant and convenience store. It's the only hub for community gathering besides the church, highschool and rodeo grounds. I go to Glenwood a couple times a year to visit family, inevitably I end up eating the the diner a couple times each trip. It's the only option in town for eating out beyond the occasional Cowboy Breakfast fundraiser at the highschool or hot dog stand during the rodeo weekend.

If you've been to any of the country-flavored restaurants in Seattle like King's Hardware, Smith or Linda's, you will notice very few similarities between them and the Shady Tree, pictured above. While they all may have dear heads, at the Tree, it's not mounted on the wall above the bar, but rather on a weird tree stump sculpture in the middle of the place that includes a bunch of fake plants, plastic flowers and brightly painted birdhouses... complete with fake birds and nests. Country kitsch, used to brighten up old broke down buildings, tends to be the decorating trend in the real small town bars and restaurants of Washington. A far cry from the piney, Twin Peaks, log-cabin feel the country-in-the-city establishments tend to favor.

What seemed like a good idea at the time, to use old tractor seats as the stools at the Shade Tree's counter, turned out to be about the most uncomfortable seating option, at least according to the locals. But then again, the locals seem to like to complain. While the atmosphere at the diner seems relaxed, when you walk in the door, whether you are a local or not, expect every person in the place to stop and stare at you. And if you spend enough time here, you realize the locals pretty much talk shit about everyone they don't recognize, as well as locals they have some gossip on. As is often the case in small towns, everyone knows everyone's business. And they sure seem to like to talk about it.

Stained foam tiled ceilings, cheap wood paneling, and badly painted nature scenes dominate the landscape here, although there is a rusty old tool mounted here and there (the father-in-law is fairly annoyed about the painted saw blade above the kitchen... "It ruins it's value!"). The bathroom looks like that of the worst dive in the city. It's tiny, smells like ass, often has shit on the seat, has had a broken fan that sounds like a misfiring motorcycle engine for years, and the soap dispenser is in pieces. It's saving grace is an old photograph of a cowboy taking a bath in a cattle water tub above the pisser. This is a small town diner, it's old, stinky, broke down, low-fi, beat up, and rough around the edges. It's well-worn feeling is part of the appeal, it somehow makes it feel cozy.

The meals at the Shade Tree are nothing to write home about. The German Sausage as a breakfast side looks suspiciously like the lunch hot dog, only cut in half and fried. And the hamburgers you can tell come from pre-formed frozen patties, a pet peeve of mine. But the hashbrowns, fries, fried chicken, biscuits and gravy, eggs, and chicken fried steak all are great, they definitely know how to fry stuff here. And the service is quick and friendly and the prices are totally reasonable. I'd have to wager, even if the Shade Tree weren't the only meal in town, I'd still be inclined to stop here for a bite to eat when traveling through. Only, no one really travels through Glenwood, save for a few bikers out for a roadtrip around the loop at the end of the small highway. Want to visit? The details are sparse, small town Washington hasn't exactly hopped on the Internet bandwagon, but a few can be found here:

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