It’s not easy to describe the immense physical beauty that surrounds the Whoa Nellie Deli in California’s sweeping Owens Valley. Here, time is measured in sunlight and water. The massive, semi-arid grassland that rolls away from the Eastern Sierra foothills is largely dependent on annual turns of fortune from both, meted out in seasonal installments. Winter is a time of hopeful bounty, as locals eagerly check annual snowpack levels to get a sense of how much water there will be to go around for the valley’s many farms, ranches, and small rural communities come summertime. Snow also means winter tourism, a vital financial lifeline for year-round locals ready to steadily separate skiers and snowshoers from their money at destinations like Mammoth Mountain.
Spring brings sun, and a return to a different kind of tourism as Highway 395 fills instead with caravaning families and the usual slew of climbers, hikers, birders, fishermen, and car campers headed to Yosemite and the surrounding forests that carve north-south through the state. Everyone seems eager to hurry up and get somewhere else so they can relax, stopping only to refuel or pick up loaves of sheepherder bread from 98-year-old Erick Schat’s Bakery in Bishop. Around this time — usually mid-April or so — the spring sun shines again on Tioga Gas Mart as it emerges from its own winter shutdown, at the corner of the 395 and the 190, otherwise known as Tioga Road. The northern pass bisects Yosemite National Park from east to west but is snowed-in most winters; hence the hibernation of the market.
When open, the Tioga Gas Mart in Lee Vining seems, from a car window’s distance, to be little more than a place to pick up snacks, use the bathroom, or watch a watery hot dog spin on steel rollers under a steamy lid. But this little do-it-all gas station and takeaway market houses one of the most popular (and delicious) restaurants anywhere in the greater Owens Valley region: the country-rustic, Western-wear-loving Whoa Nellie Deli. This is a place for locals to chat with travelers, for overlanders to sip cheap wine next to families who helicoptered in for the weekend. The deli has become an intersection between the wild fringes of California life far from the big city and the new world of culinary excellence that travelers in California expect — even at a gas station in the middle of nowhere.
Every year since 1997, dozens of seasonal kitchen and service staff have returned in the spring for a kind of perpetual summer camp at Whoa Nellie Deli, complete with live music and the occasional singalong on the property. Many of the longtimers even live in on-site lodging, and the parking lot has on occasion served as a friendly and safe sleepaway option for overnighters in RVs. The place has its own pull, outside of the nearby park and ageless sights around Inyo County, at least for those who have come to know and love its specific charms.
Whoa Nellie Deli is more robust than it lets on from the outside, with cocktails and wines, and a large menu of staple entrees, each with its own diehard fans. There’s the perennial hit of the seasonal fish tacos, the simple burgers for those looking to fill up after a long hike, or the buffalo meatloaf that nods back to the roaming Western days. It’s also more fully formed than just some roadside gas station stop-off. The restaurant is a wood-wrapped, cabin-y creation with thick diner coffee mugs and deep burgundy booths just feet away from the motor oil aisle. Don’t expect haute fine dining: This is one part country cooking, one part ’90s luncheon, but still done with the usual eye toward filling you up and pushing you out into the starry night happy.
On any given night, the customer mix ranges from backpackers, through-hikers, and road-weary travelers, to wind-worn locals, park rangers, and those just in to see the northern Yosemite sights for the first time. They’re not a captive audience, per se, given the availability of food in Yosemite Valley and down in Mammoth, but they’ve all found themselves here at this blustery pit stop for one reason or another — and that alone matters.
“We might as well serve good food if we’re going to serve food,” says Denise Molnar, who helped to build the business with her father, Dennis Domaille, and the rest of her family 24 years ago. She has worked with local chef Matt Toomey for more than a decade to figure out a menu that fits for the season, the travelers, and the regulars.
Toomey now runs his own namesake restaurant down in Mammoth, but the Whoa Nellie Deli menu still bears many of his creations, including those fish tacos, usually served with a mango, plum, and pineapple salsa. Wraps are popular with the healthier crowds; pizza is a hit with the kids. For the sort of warm-you-up food necessary during the shoulder months before summer really begins, Toomey’s original jambalaya works, as does that wild buffalo meatloaf. After a certain (early) hour, though, the excitement comes not from the menu but from the full bar with its generous pours, perfect for pairing with lively covers from the house band. In those moments, drink in hand, taquitos at the ready, it’s hard to think of a better place to be for hundreds of miles in any direction. Just be sure to drink responsibly, given the distance between bar and bed.
But if you need to look anywhere, the viewpoint above the gas station is legendary. The property — known locally as the Mobil, or the Deli — sits on Vista Point Road, named for the small paved, looping trail that quickly curves up and away from the pumps to an overlook with broad views of Mono Lake below. The nearly million-year-old basin lake feels primordial from above, pocked with limestone towers known as tufa and ringed in flaky off-white mud and silt. The lake is saltier than the Pacific Ocean, and people who wade in can float, as if in the Dead Sea.
The setup is simple: just pop the hatch or pull out some folding chairs and watch the migratory birds that rely on the salty lakewater during their travels north and south. The Tioga Gas Mart also supplies picnic tables and a patch of grass slightly below the vista point; the views aren’t as sweeping, but neither is the wind. Road trippers heading north use the Whoa Nellie Deli as a lunch stop en route to all things Tahoe. Those heading south use the restaurant’s booths to lay out maps and plot their next adventure. They have their pick. Inyo County, just below the gas station with the Mono Lake views, is home to Mt. Whitney (the highest peak in the lower 48 states), Badwater Basin (the lowest point of land in North America), and Methuselah, a gnarled bristlecone pine tree that is literally the oldest living thing on Earth.
Much like Methuselah, the sort of enduring community found at Whoa Nellie took time to grow. Denise Molnar told Eater San Francisco that, by her estimation, the gas station “probably get(s) more questions than the visitor center” up the road. It’s a nexus for locals and travelers who return year after year for a dose of history and the kind of summer optimism that grows every time Molnar sticks the keys in the door to reopen for the season.
Ultimately, that’s both the beauty and legacy of the Tioga Gas Mart and Whoa Nellie Deli. On most nights, it’s the kind of place that feels both fleeting and eternal, a stop in the endless Yosemite darkness that will always be there, has always been there, just like the Methuselah tree or El Capitan. The Whoa Nellie Deli matches its surroundings in that way, wrapped in old wood and as stoic as the landscape. The place isn’t a pit stop; it’s a landmark, changing course only with the seasons as they float across the Owens Valley calendar. You can mark your own calendars by Whoa Nellie’s return, year after year, safe in the knowledge that it’s not going anywhere, at least not for a while. Time moves too slowly, too predictably, for that here. Writers on the internet may try to capture a place like Whoa Nellie Deli in words, but its stillness is best enjoyed in person. Trust me, I’ve been there.
Shelby Holte is a photographer based in the Easter Sierras who values all things adventure, love, and wild.