While not technically in the San Fernando Valley, Santa Clarita’s Saugus Cafe has a deep connection to the place as a former rail stop connecting San Francisco and Los Angeles via Newhall Pass. Today, Eater takes a look at the oldest standing restaurant anywhere in Los Angeles County.
It takes time to understand Saugus Cafe, the roadside diner stop that serves as Los Angeles County’s oldest restaurant. It takes time for most people just to get there, nestled away in Newhall, just below Santa Clarita — and it takes time to learn to enjoy the simple pleasures of the place. Thankfully, time is one thing Saugus Cafe has plenty of.
Saugus Cafe actually began life as the even more aptly-named Saugus Eating House, and was attached to a bustling train depot as part of the greater Southern Pacific rail network. The restaurant debuted in 1886 as part of a flurry of new growth for the greater valley, spurred on by the opening of the San Fernando train tunnel nearby. The Southern Pacific rail line connection between San Francisco and Los Angeles meant necessary stops at places like Newhall, giving diners a chance to jump off for a bite at the cafe.
President Benjamin Harrison is said to have eaten there while campaigning in 1890, and in 1903 then-president Theodore Roosevelt dined on a New York steak inside.
The name Saugus Cafe carries its own backstory as well. Henry Newhall, a major businessman and developer for northern Los Angeles County in the 1800s (and the namesake behind the Santa Clarita neighborhood where the restaurant resides) was born in Saugus, Massachusetts in 1825. He carried the name with him throughout his adventures, and was given the opportunity to offer naming rights to much of the property he received in a nearly 46,500-acre land grant known then as Rancho San Francisco. Thus the town of Newhall’s first rail stop was named Saugus, and the cafe was born.
Ultimately the diner moved to the other side of the railroad, near where it presently stands. The place kept a decidedly lower profile after that, until the rise of Western films brought actors and crews to the greater Santa Clarita Valley. Already an institution at least in name and years of operation, Saugus Cafe became a new kind of hub for the entertainment industry. Clark Gable and John Wayne and Marlene Dietrich all spent hours there while away from set, though the long-persistent rumor that James Dean ate his final meal at Saugus Cafe before his car accident is false.
Today’s Saugus Cafe is a far cry from the historical heights the restaurant has traditionally known. It’s a sleepier affair, except on weekends when breakfast and brunch crowds descend for inexpensive egg plates and a mean chicken fried steak. The place is long and low, wider than a rail car but with the same sort of visual appeal. There are old artifacts, newspaper clippings, and stock movie shots dotting the walls, and ruffled curtains hanging down into the deep green booths.
The restaurant has also seen countless owners, design iterations, and slight name changes since those early years. Today it’s technically known as The Original Saugus Cafe, with its wood floors and handwritten specials board. There’s an attached bar at the far end with more dining room to boot, and a little corner glass case with some merchandise for sale. A small sign out front notes that the place is open 24 hours (at least on weekends), but otherwise it’s much the same as ever, really, and most folks who step through would hardly guess the 130-year history of the place, let alone the notion that presidents and movie stars have dined inside over the decades. That’s okay, they’ve got plenty of time to learn.
The Original Saugus Cafe
25861 Railroad Ave.
Santa Clarita, CA