HIGH DESERT EATS: The Bagdad Café doesn’t look like much. It’s a shacky, rundown place on Old Route 66, in the dusty high desert about 20 miles east of Barstow.
The tumble-down motel next door is boarded up and for sale. The shell of an Airstream trailer slumps down out back. The Bagdad Café may not sound like any place you’d drive through the desert to reach for an $8.95 buffalo burger and beer. But thousands of people make a pilgrimage there every year.
“We had 13 tour buses here one day last week and five buses yesterday,” owner Andree (She’s also called Andrea) Pruett told me when my wife Sue and I stopped in. “All French. But I can’t feed but one bus a day.”
In fact, she estimates that 95 percent of those who arrive at the gravelly parking lot, despite the chill winds of winter and 100-plus summer heat, are foreigners. And about 75 percent are French. Lots of Germans find their way there, too. “We’re in all the European guide books,” Andree said.
The attraction? An offbeat 1988 cult movie called Bagdad Café. “The French come because it won the César Award in France in 1989,” she said. In fact, it’s picked up more European film awards than most movies could win at the Oscars, Andree said. The quirky flick stars Euro-famous German actress Marianne Sägebrecht, a woman of, shall we say, great Wagnerian opera girth. “It’s very popular in Germany,” said young tourist Axel Mayer, there with pal Ralph Hoessel.
In his movie guide, Leonard Maltin generously calls Bagdad Café a “nearly plotless charmer.” Plotless, I agree. Charmer? I leave it to you. In it, feisty Sägebrecht finds herself stranded in the desert, seeking refuge with the kooky folks at the café, including Jack Palance, who lives in the Airstream. It was in somewhat better condition when the movie was made.
One of the characters is the owner, played by CCH Pounder, who’s always raging about something, trying to keep the place running. (She appeared in a recent episode of the Botswana-based series The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.)
Sue (who has a yen for offbeat movies that few in the U.S. seem to know about and fewer have ever seen or ever will) loves the film. For years she’s campaigned for us to search the desert for its namesake eatery. We never found it, and I felt no compelling need to. The movie’s charm was lost on me, and now that I’ve seen the café, I doubt that Julia Child would have found delight sitting down to a meal there.
But there we were, driving back from the Grand Canyon. I was fumbling with our GPS, searching for Barstow’s Bob’s Big Boy, where I had left my cherished Santa Barbara Zoo condor hat a week earlier, and voilà! Through the wonders of road technology, up came the Bagdad Café.
Great, but then we had to find it, winding through the maze of endless desert back roads in the spread-out community of Newberry Springs. From I-15 without a GPS, forget it. Most buses apparently come via Highway 40, which is much closer. The old Route 66 is now called National Old Trails Highway, and the café is at 46548.
You might imagine that the café is run by some toothless, gnarled old desert rat with a tangled beard and shockingly wrinkled face, wearing a battered straw hat. Actually, Andree is a sprightly blonde with a big smile and couldn’t be prouder of the Bagdad Café if it resembled the Four Seasons Biltmore.
She and her late husband, Harold, arrived here from Los Angeles in 1995 to raise ostriches. That didn’t work out, but Andree spotted a funky 1940s-era café that had changed hands often and closed now and then. It was called the Sidewinder when the movie was made. In the early 1990s one owner, aware of the film’s growing cult status, renamed it the Bagdad Café. After Andree bought it in 1995, she noticed French tourists looking in the window but too afraid to come in. “So I went outside and brought them in. Now they flock here.”
The place is stuffed with Highway 66 memorabilia and posters along with Bagdad Café caps and T-shirts for sale. It boasts a working juke box that plays the movie’s haunting theme, “Calling You,” an Oscar-nominated song written by Bob Telson and later popularized by Celine Dion. The film spawned a 1990 U.S. series starring Whoopi Goldberg, but that flopped after one season. Barbra Streisand was offered the role but turned it down.
When I visited Andree, she said she was writing a screenplay called The Real Bagdad Café. It’s finished now, and she recently emailed me a copy. She sells copies for $35 on her Web site, bagdadcafethereal.com, and intends to use the proceeds to finance the movie, saying, “I had it printed in five languages, English, French, German, Japanese, and Spanish.”