At 7 a.m. Thursday, there are still quite a few empty seats at the Country Diner in San Miguel, but the diner is full of conversation. Carl is talking about his wife seeking alternative medicine. John discusses horses with Carl. Millie is chatting with Cliff about life in general and how nice the new downtown sidewalks are.
Owner Linda Mora keeps the coffee cups full and knows the name of practically everyone who walks in the door to sit down at the blue, horseshoe-shaped counter.
Mora wears a blue apron and has a sharp wit, never failing to make a comment full of common sense. Her hair is carefully done, and no one knows quite how old she is, although they always ask, she said. As a mother of five, she has eyes in the back of her head and seems to know everything going on in the diner.
She has plenty of stories and is a keeper of many confidences. She said the restaurant is a second home to many people, and her customers are like family. They’ve attended her children’s weddings, and she’s watched other children grow up and bring their own families into the diner.
“I don’t feel like that much time has passed,” she said.
But it has. On Sunday, the Country Diner on Mission Street will celebrate 20 years of food, fun and friends with a late-afternoon party.
Mora’s love of food started when she was 5 after her Uncle Bud gave her a Betty Crocker cook set. The set was shrink-wrapped, full of red-and-white cake pans and looked lovely. There were baking and frosting mixes, Mora said.
She moved to San Miguel when her then-husband found a job at a ranch just outside of town.
There were a few young families in the area, Mora said, and the families started throwing parties. Over time, her parties became more well-known until the Christmas party had 100 guests, with hayrides, dinner and desserts.
“Kids kept coming, and the parties kept getting bigger,” she said.
Catering and opening a restaurant seemed like the next logical step. So Mora, who also owns Classic Catering, opened the Country Diner.
But this story is not about Mora, she said. This story is about the diner, the diner with the homey atmosphere.
Millie Hunt said she’s been coming to the restaurant almost every morning for 16 years. The diner is her second home, three blocks away from her first.
“All my friends and relatives my age are gone, and I feel like Linda and her little cafe are my family,” she said.
It’s not really about the food, which is very good, but it’s about the people, Hunt said.
“I come here just to get out of the house,” she added.
This is how Carl Linn feels, too. Even as his life gets busier, he finds time to come to the diner. His ranch is now home to Morningstar Ranch, the nonprofit organization that pairs at-risk youth with horses.
There is a sense of regularity to the diner — it’s never a restaurant, always a diner. The same wallpaper is on the walls. The small objects and cartoons on the wall were all brought in by customers over the years. They sit on shelves that were built as a birthday present from customers to Mora.
There’s also a twinge of the new. People come and go through town, making a stop at the diner on trips from the Bay Area to Los Angeles or vice versa. Not long ago, Mora painted the outside of the diner a Tuscan gold to make the place more noticeable.
But it’s the regulars who have their own special sandwiches. Harry Ovitt, the county supervisor who was once a lunch regular, for example, has his own version of a Dagwood sandwich: turkey, ham, swiss and cheddar cheeses, tomatoes and lettuce piled high.
Another special, the IWWHH, is crammed on the white board with everything else. The price: market price.
“I want what he’s having,” Mora said, describing the dish.
But it only counts if you actually have exactly what the other person is having. No changes can be made.
Linn said the atmosphere at the diner is created by the kindness Mora brings to her customers.
“She just makes you feel good when you walk in,” he said. “I come down here every morning and get recharged.”