| THIS PHOTO SAYS IT ALL. PillartoPost.org’s award-winning
Cranky Diner columnist returns
only to discover things are a bit backward
in Solvang, CA. Read why.
GUEST BLOG / By Eric Peterson, legendary PillartoPost.org Cranky Diner columnist--Have you ever been to a town that makes you feel stupid just for being there? If so, you’re not alone. Solvang, a town in California’s Santa Ynez Valley, 35 miles north of Santa Barbara, just makes me feel that way.
The storefronts are a Disneyesque rendition of Danish architecture, a scam artist merging Baroque, Renaissance, and Rococo styles into what the city calls “Danish medieval style.” You know the drill: half-timbered buildings with simulated thatched roofs; brightly colored imitation brick and stone fronts with paned windows.
These phony facades are so frilly, kitschy, and corny that I find the town deeply depressing, like dining at a greasy spoon that makes Denny’s au current. It’s sleight of hand, filler, time wasted. Still, tourists arrive by the busload.
Glassy-eyed husbands shuffle like zombies a few steps behind their bossy wives, who’re on the lookout for Danish keyrings, souvenir charm spoons, and wooden shoes for the entire family, including the dog.
|MAYBE NEXT TIME. A Solvang survivor gave me this postcard of Solvang’s The Danish Inn. Great windmill but even the recent replacement “New Danish Inn” is gone with the wind so says Yelp.
Solvang’s shopping district has four windmills within four blocks. With its cheese shops, bakeries, and dearth of decent restaurants it’s little wonder so many tourists think they’re visiting Holland when they come to Solvang. That so many store owners wear traditional Danish costumes only adds to the confusion—in a police lineup most visitors couldn’t tell a Danish bodice from a Dutch apron, a pair of Danish clogs from a pair of Dutch klompen.
The one store I was delighted to find in Solvang is a hardware store. Suicide prevention types call Valley Hardware a civil liability. As too many tourist husbands enter wild-eyed searching to buy rope. I couldn’t argue. On a recent visit to the town, I lasted about two blocks before I became deranged enough to mull checking myself into the nearest California State Mental Hospital.
BLAME THE SATURDAY EVENING POST
Solvang was founded in 1911 when two Danish pastors and a college lecturer—all three of them Midwesterners—collaborated to find land in California for a Danish settlement. They put their stake in the ground in the heart of California’s Central Coast when they acquired 9,000 acres from the Rancho San Carlos de Jonata land grant, which surrounded Mission Santa Inés.
In the years following World War II, Solvang’s Danish Village motif gained traction. In 1947, a feature article in “The Saturday Evening Post” ballyhooed the town’s quaintness, and the horror show that is modern-day Solvang got its legs.
|WHAT A KICK. Loads of fun at Solvang’s recent Danish Days annual celebration is to perform lively dances from the Motherland. Especially popular among Solvang locals is the dance where you kick your partner in the butt.
THE VERY LEAST
How exciting does it get in Solvang?
--The Julefest holiday celebration runs from late November until early January.
--Danish Days in September.
--The Fourth of July Parade and Festival.
A highlight of Solvang’s Julefest Christmas celebration is St. Lucia Day, when a comely young blonde—think high school homecoming queen—dresses in a white gown, dons a crown of candles, and leads a candlelight procession into Solvang Park. Like the pole dancer, Saint Lucia is a flight of fancy. She enters the town square with all eyes on her, but no one will go home with her.
All this ho-hum manages to promote visitors year-round, and the dogs are eating the dog food so why change the menu. As a result, Solvang reports over one million visitors a year.
Another great shortcoming of Solvang is its restaurant scene. You may know that Copenhagen, Denmark, was home to Noma, a Michelin three-starred restaurant named by certain food critics the World’s Best Restaurant five times between 2010 and 2021. (I say was because the restaurant has since closed, its business model of having more employees than customers, and serving shrimp with live ants, chocolate-covered moss, and whole duck heads, among other delectables, to these precious few guests, was ultimately declared unsustainable by the owner.)
In Solvang, unlike Copenhagen, there are no temples of haute cuisine. Examples of this cheflessness are hot dogs on the menu at Paula’s Pancake House. Copenhagen Sausage Garden you can ditch the sausage and have an all-American burger with fries. On the menu of Fitzpatrick’s Tavern, an Irish pub, you’ll find a Philly cheesesteak sandwich and a Carolina pulled pork sandwich. Don’t blame the cooks.
There’s no economic rationale to concoct anything other than what the paying public desires, and Solvang’s visitors apparently desire great quantities of filling provincial fare: meat and fried potatoes; sugary cakes and pastries; low-density foods that are high in carbohydrates and fats and guaranteed to make your glucose level spike and add poundage to your waistline. It's no wonder most visitors leave Solvang exhibiting symptoms of gastritis, clutching their stomachs and groaning.
Most leave on charter tour buses.
Some leave in ambulances.
Others, like me leave their senses.
|SPEAKING OF PANCAKES. By reputation alone, I had to try Paula’s Pancake House along Mission Drive. After I gained a menu tip from an exiting diner, I ordered a burger with fries elsewhere. Speaks well for the pancakes, eh?
The best thing you can say about Solvang’s food scene is that it doesn’t have a Pea Soup Andersen’s. That’s a position of eminence reserved for Solvang’s sister city Buellton, four miles to the west, on Highway 101.
Pea Soup Andersen’s is a destination atrocity, in my book. The restaurant bills itself as a “favorite of salesmen, tourists and truck drivers for over eighty-nine years.”
For this discriminating clientele, Pea Soup Andersen’s offers a restaurant, a bakery, a gift shop, and a museum, all encased in a half-timbered building not unlike a Marie Callender’s, if a Marie Callender’s had a big, stupid windmill.
The bakery, Pea Soup Andersen’s website notes, “specializes in freshly baked pastries that will please your pallet.” Pallet is not palate. That should come as a comfort to all you truckers driving semi-trailer flatbeds loaded with pallets.
Pea Soup Andersen’s has a big menu—soups and salads, hot sandwiches, and a list of entrees that reads to me like a catalogue of horrors: pot roast of beef, pork loin under gravy, Danish meatloaf, chicken pot pie, chicken fried steak.
To most any food order you can add a bowl of pea soup, which comes out of the vat looking like mossy, greenish-yellow swamp water from a sci-fi flick. It apparently tastes better than it looks. The restaurant claims to serve more than two million bowls of this peat bog annually. I did the math. It comes out to two bowls for every visitor to Solvang—one bowl going in and one bowl coming out, surely.
We’ll pause here for a Rolaids stop. Don’t get me wrong. My grievance with Solvang—and the fatuity of Pea Soup Andersen’s—isn’t just superficial. I am a third-generation Californian, and I consider the state’s Central Coast sacrosanct. Rolling golden hills, stands of stately oaks, a rich history of settlement, conquest, and prosperity—this is Steinbeck Country, wine country, farm country, the land Wallace Stegner immortalized in his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Angle of Repose. I don’t particularly care if people want to dress in costumes, buy keychains, and slurp pea soup. But as a Californian, I stand firmly against opportunistic clods who perpetuate lame notions—like that it’s a good idea to take 9,000 acres in the heart of my state’s Central Coast and pretend it’s Denmark.
SOLVANG TRAVEL TIPS FROM THE CRANKY DINER
--Runaway. Imitate your best Monty Python exit. The chance of becoming a victim of either violent or property crime in Solvang is 1 in 74. Based on FBI crime data, Solvang is not one of the safest communities in America. Relative to California, Solvang has a crime rate that is higher than 29% of the state's cities and towns of all sizes.
--Leave town. Best thing to do in Solvang is limp back on state highway 246. Go West avoid ignore all lures and odors leading you to nearby Ostrichland USA.
--Tours. There’s a 25 minute wrong end of the horse ride on the Solvang trolley that includes a 15 minute stop to re-shoe the Belgian draft horse pulling the1900s Danish street car. --Tap water. Drinking water is checked daily by the State’s Water Division. There must be a reason for such regulatory regularity.
--Walking times. See more than enough of Solvang on an all day leisurely stroll (if you’re using a walker).
--Menu success. Best if you don’t speak English or have to wear double eye patches.
--Bucolic. Not a vegetable but more like something you just stepped in from Belgium.
NEW FROM ERIC PETERSON
|In this collection of seventeen personal essays, Eric Peterson reveals his own misgivings, grievances, and delights with the world around him.In this
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