Preserving forgotten times
The Sycamore Inn brings memories of a vintage wine industry back to life.
by Samantha Sincock
photography by Michael D. Martinez
An old Inn sits distinguished under the moonlight beside historic Route 66. Sycamore trees sway in the front. A vintage neon sign that beckons one back in time glows with the words: “The Sycamore Inn, famous hospitality since 1848.” Inside, the bar and dining rooms bustle with the Friday night crowd. Servers glide between tables with finesse to the sounds of wine glasses toasting to celebration. To its customers, the Sycamore Inn is more than a restaurant; it serves as one of the last treasures of Southern California’s wine country.
Such was the setting for romance 46 years ago when a couple first entered the lavish dining room. “My husband and I came here on our very first date in 1964. I can remember sitting at the little table for two next to the kitchen, a place they put the customers of lesser importance, I thought at the time,” remembers co-owner Linda Keagle.
It was not until she and husband Chuck, a 1957 La Verne Bonita High School graduate, came to own the restaurant in early 2001 that they discovered Marilyn Monroe sat at that very spot to dine and hide away from the crowds. Marilyn would still recognize the spot. The lavish dining room has not dramatically changed from the days when glamorous movie stars visited the upscale getaway. In fact, the Inn has fed many well-known faces in the entertainment world throughout the years. Kevin Costner held a banquet at the restaurant at the beginning of this year and famous racers from the local speedway frequent the niche throughout the season. “I find that famous people enjoy their anonymity, and we respect their privacy,” says Linda.
While the hospitable restaurant attracts those who live in the spotlight, the Inn holds an important place in the hearts of those who are natives. Customers come to enjoy the rich atmosphere comprised of cherry wood paneling and warm, yellow walls, which glow under the glass chandeliers and mosaic lamps. “One of the things we always hear from our customers is that they love stepping back in time when they are here,” says Linda. “Chuck and I personally picked the yellow walls to give a regal feel to the place, to take you into a dining room resembling one from an expensive hotel.”
The Inn gets a face-lift
But the Inn was not always a diamond in the rough. Before the Keagles’ care, it had lost much of the fervor that made it a sought after treasure just a few decades prior. The Hinrichsen family members, who became the Inn’s keepers in 1939, held the building in high regard during their 50 years of care, acquiring an esteemed reputation in the premiere restaurant business. Sadly, after the family retired in the late 1980s, the Inn fell into disrepair for about a decade under new ownership. Returning a couple decades later to find their once prized restaurant uncared for, the Hindrichsens decided to reclaim the Sycamore in hopes of undoing the neglect. “The family came to Chuck and me and asked us if we had any hope in repairing it to the grandeur that it once held under Vern Hindrichsen,” says Linda. “We quickly accepted the offer, and, although it has been a long journey, we have loved every bit of it.”
The Inn still holds many of the same features it acquired in 1921 when local citrus rancher John Klusman tore down the original building and built the Sycamore Hotel, which is the current establishment. When one heaves open the engraved wooden door, her eyes first fall on cherry red booths encompassing a turn of the century cobblestone fireplace. The mantelpiece is adorned with mismatched wine bottles, collected over many years of celebration toasting. A worn wooden bar, a favorite to locals, emits the feel of casual saloon meets fine dining. Throughout the main dining room are framed black and white pictures of customers and employees the Inn has hosted through the years, allowing guests to see the history of the once storied wine producing area.
The Sycamore’s customers have grown to adore the Inn’s features. “If we ever took out the red chairs in the dining room, people would revolt; they love to sink back in them,” chuckles Linda. Every inch of detailed wallpaper and the many assorted nick-knacks makes the Inn a special place. “I absolutely love the old trinkets and décor throughout that building, I feel like I am visiting a place right out of one of those old black and white movies,” remarks guest Jewel Higgins of Alta Loma. When bringing life back to the Inn, the Keagles decided to add little touches of yesteryear to really take people on a trip down memory lane. “I found a suitcase filled with many items from the 1960s. I decided to clean a few hats I found and then hung them on the bear statue in the front,” says Linda.
Many of the employees joke that because of the history and age of the Inn, the old building is haunted, each room having a ghost that suits the themed enclosure. “The Venetian room has a ghost; he must be Italian because you can smell cigar smoke in the room at random,” says executive chef and managing partner Louis Alvarez. With the long history of the Inn, many of the rooms come with their own tale of those who once walked the long hallways. “The Viking room used to be where men in the 1940s came to play cards, drink moonshine and partake in nefarious activities,” relates Linda.
Although the Sycamore is notable for its history and enriching décor, the real prize is hidden within the vast wine collection. Linda and Chuck have continued the collection Vern Hindrichsen began and are passionate in upholding the expensive and well known wines the Inn features. The basement holds four wine cellars, all cared for with pride by Chuck. One of the cellars holds the University of La Verne’s vintage collection and is available for alumni and current students to enjoy. But do not be fooled, for the collection holds some of the most expensive wines in the restaurant and is “kept under the table” and not disclosed when it comes to customers purchasing high-priced aged spirits. A man by the name of L. Well Averbach donated the high priced collection to the University. President Steve Morgan first placed the valuable collection under the Hindrichsen family’s care. The Keagles continue to protect the rare wines. “We’ve got Morgan’s secret stash right down there,” grins Chuck Keagle, pointing to the basement. “It is a truly amazing collection, and we guard it with our life.” The wine is liquid art. Individual bottle value is appraised from the hundreds to the multi-thousands of dollars.
While the University’s president enjoys the Inn, so do many others who feel it serves as a highlight for the city itself. Rancho Cucamonga has a great respect for its agricultural history and reflects this with the decoration of grape vines and the restoration of historical wineries. “The Inn used to be a place for ranchers and wine makers, for the important families of the time to hang out and enjoy simple pleasures, and I think the city of Rancho Cucamonga wishes to honor that,” says Linda. “The local chamber [and City Council] will have events here from time to time; they love coming to a place where they can really reconnect with the past.”
Although praised for its vast variety of wine, the Sycamore also offers a menu that will blow the taste buds off any food critic and is offered at a price even a college student can afford. Just walk into the bar on a weekend night for happy hour and enjoy a $16 filet mignon. Or, if one is in the mood for something a bit sweeter, dive into the delectable sycamore soufflé served with whipped cream and sprinkled with powdered sugar that will melt right in one’s mouth. The dining room entrées do, however, come at a higher price. Pan-seared herb roasted chicken comes to a total of $20, and an Australian lobster tail dinner can cost $48. Fine dining comes with a price, but the atmosphere and memories make it all worthwhile. If you are in the mood for an elegant feast or just want to simply indulge in an delightful dessert and wine, the soft jazz, harmonized with the murmurs of conversation, will make for a way to wind down after a hard day.
The Keagles frequently sit at the bar and enjoy a meal with their customers. Linda chats casually with the staff and gives a warm smile and nod to entering guests. Chuck can be seen conversing with regulars or just talking with those who are new, welcoming them into the warm ambiance. “The people who work here, my husband and I, we consider it a treasure that has been entrusted to us,” explains Linda. “It’s our turn to keep for it.”
Also see the companion story, “From vineyards to villages.”