The Buffalo Inn sits along historic Route 66, that magnificent stretch of road now known as Foothill Boulevard, just beyond the eastern border of L.A. County. Located in the ever-so-scenic town of Upland, it’s actually as close to the 5Cs miles-wise as the Claremont Village. Yet there’s just nothing sexy about walking or driving along Foothill past Claremont Boulevard into a sea of muffler shops, Walmarts, and liquor marts, and, of course, Tropical Lei. It probably never occurs to most 5C students, or Claremont townies for that matter, to cross the Upland border for some food or drinks, except maybe to go to the closest In-N-Out in Upland.
This is too bad, because what is perhaps the most atmospheric restaurant and bar in the Claremont area happens to be in Upland–just across from Hubcap Annie’s!—at the Buffalo Inn. The buffalo burgers share the stage with an impressive domestic beer list, a wonderful outdoor patio, a cozy wood cabin interior, and of course, live honky-tonk and country music to get your inner cowboy on. It’s quite a transporting experience to leave the bro-dom of CMC and the labs of Mudd and arrive in a John Ford-type Western within a three-minute drive, though John Wayne and Ricky Nelson weren’t there when I visited.
The Buffalo Inn experience starts with the dirt parking lot, a perfect introduction to the evening ahead. Pulling off the side of Route 66 with a cloud of dust enveloping the car, aspiring diners soon realize that they’re not in Claremont anymore. The Inn has two seating areas, and given our year-round summer weather, almost everyone sits on the patio, tan bark at feet and stray cats prowling around. For the record, the cats do not like the potato chips, but they do enjoy pieces of bread. The inside is a cozy, two-tier wooden domain, exuding the type of warmth that galvanizes cowboys to enjoy an extra shot or two of Jack.
Drinking is probably the main reason the Buffalo Inn is a destination for the Inland Empire’s cowboys, since most bottles are served in 22-ounce sizes for the usual price of a cheap pint. These aren’t bottles of Pabst Blue Ribbon or Schlitz either. The choices include Fat Tire Ale, Sierra Nevada, Stone’s outstanding Self Righteous Ale, and many more craft brews. These are often available on draught, though at press time the bar was remodeling its keg system. Though there is no student discount night like at many village bars, this should be one of the major stops for 5C students to enjoy a quality beer at a very reasonable price with a fascinating atmosphere.
The Buffalo Inn also serves food to complement its drink menu, and some of the selecctions are somewhat noteworthy. The Inn’s cuisine is more of the chuckwagon, western-diner variety, holding down hunger until the cavalry arrives in the next town. The wholesome food and setting sent me back to the days when my family would have chuckwagon Hoedown barbeques at our ranch in the Colorado Rockies. This being the Buffalo Inn, it’s no surprise that the signature dish is the buffalo burger, served on a toasted sourdough bun and topped with American cheese, too few grilled onions, and too much mayonnaise, which dominates the meat flavor. The bison patty itself, which comes from the McCoy Ranch in Wyoming, has the terrific gamey taste unique to buffalo meat, but it’s pounded too thin, spreading the juice to the outside and leaving the interior of the patty too dry.
Most burgers and sandwiches come with what is the highlight of a Buffalo Inn meal: homemade potato chips that make Lay’s seem like child’s play. You can ask for the chips to come topped with cheddar cheese in a riff on nachos, though our version came with so little melted cheese that the dish almost seemed slightly healthy. Chicken tenders are fine, as far as chicken tenders go—not dry, and with a pleasant breaded crust. The “Damn Good” chili is not quite damn good, but it is indeed delicious. It’s thick with beans and shredded beef, not spicy in the least, but with a good rustic taste to it, enhanced by what tasted like a pinch of cumin along with peppers and onions. Chili rarely knocks you out of your saddle, but Wyatt Earp would approve of this rendition. Sadly, the regular burger didn’t seem too different from a McDonald’s quarter pounder, which simply won’t cut it with the Back Abbey in the nearby Village and In-N-Out a block away. The barbeque beef sandwich was completely dominated by a nondescript sweet barbeque sauce. Vegetarians are out of luck outside of a plain dinner salad or veggie burger. For the meat eaters, though, the sandwich list is rather deep and displays some creativity in dishes like the spicy Cajun Chicken Sandwich.
The service could use some tweaking, as we had to walk inside and fetch a waitress to bring menus (which, with descriptions like “Sorry, Charlie—your time has come!” for the tuna melt or “It’s not easy being cheesy!” for the cheesy chips, were quite entertaining). Food and drinks came out in a timely manner, but then the waitress bizarrely brought the check just as we were beginning to eat dinner. It’s not like there was an hour-long waitlist of customers at the door or the restaurant was about to close. What if we wanted to listen to more of the concert? I didn’t make a fuss that my party was charged 50 cents more than was supposed to be added if you request chili as a side dish in place of the chips.
I should have made a fuss, though, that the men’s restroom had no soap as if it was still in the pioneer days. Perhaps we had to wait until the next toiletry wagons rolled into town from Durango at the end of the week. There is certainly a roughing-it edge at the Buffalo Inn when it comes to service and amenities. It wouldn’t hurt for the Inn to become a little more civilized in this department, for those of us who aren’t too keen on pretending we’re camping in Upland.
Chuckwagon cuisine is not a gastronomic experience, but since 1929, pioneers, cowboys, and Route 66 journeymen have been patronizing the Buffalo Inn. It’s only a mile away from the 5Cs, but a world and a century away from our bubble. Sometimes it’s fun to pretend to be Gary Cooper sitting under the endless star-filled desert sky, listening to country tunes with Gene Autry and diving into a buffalo burger next to Buffalo Bill.