We call it “The Bear.” Stop and let your imagination wander for a minute. No, it’s a restaurant. The Black Bear Diner. Twenty years ago, it was started in 1999 in Mt. Shasta by Bruce “Sugar Bear” Dean and Bob “Papa Bear” Manley. Now the list of Black Bear diners fills a whole page—64 locations in eight states. We could measure trips in Black Bears. Eleven bears from my house on the Oregon coast to Dad’s house in San Jose, California.
What do they serve? Nuts and berries? Well, that, too. I’d rather eat one of their giant bear claw pastries. They’re as big as a baseball mitt but a lot tastier. They have the usual diner food: omelets, biscuits and gravy, Black Bear Benedicts, Mama Bear and Papa Bear burgers, Bigfoot chicken fried steak, etc. The kids’ menu is for Cubs. Naturally. There are even bear footprints on the plates and pictures of bears on the coffee mugs.
The Black Bear diners play on the idea that bears are cute and cuddly while those of us who live in bear country know bears are enormous animals with extremely long claws that they’re not afraid to use. Their long fur is probably not nearly as soft or as clean as it looks from afar.
Giant wooden bears carved by chainsaw artist Ray Schultz greet customers at the door of the Black Bear restaurants. Mom, Dad, baby bear. Sometimes there’s one on all fours that children (and childish adults like me) can sit on.
Signs continue the bear theme: Caution: Mama bear on duty. Bear with us—Please wait to be seated. Welcome to Camp Grin and Bear It. The menus are printed inside old-fashioned newspaper pages with actual stories from a long-ago year—I got 1937 last week. You can keep the menus if you want.
Bears eat big. Even the so-called smaller orders are huge. My meat loaf at the original Black Bear diner in Mt. Shasta last week would have lasted me three days at home. And my Reuben sandwich down the road in Willows was so big I needed a couple of those bears to help me eat it. It’s all good. Not spectacular but dependable, down-home comfort food served by friendly people in Black Bear tee shirts and suspenders who might just call you Sweetie or Honey.
The Bear is always crowded. Expect to wait in line for the little bear’s room while singing along to oldies playing over the speakers. In Willows, I found myself belting out “Aquarius” with the Fifth Dimension, then looked around and realized all the others in line were too young to remember that song and were probably thinking I was a little crazy. Too bad. Mama Bear can sing whatever she wants.
Don’t forget to hit the gift shop for a bear mug, T-shirt, water bottle or even a wooden bear to keep you company until next time.
No, the Bears didn’t pay me to write this, but I couldn’t resist.