Henri dreams of chaps and fringes as he gallops into CJ’s Last Chance Diner
CJ’s Last Chance Diner4365 Ocean Dr.
Chico, CA 95973
Confession: Though Henri spent countless childhood hours watching old romantic comedies on late-night television, he also secretly loved Saturday-afternoon westerns. Ah, the cowboy chanteurs, astride their magnificent beasts, like Roy Rogers’ noble Trigger (previously Maid Marion’s horse in The Adventures of Robin Hood). In fact, Henri always thought he’d look rather stunning, galloping across the dusty plain, chaps flapping against heaving flanks, jacket fringes trailing in the wind. I even used to fantasize that mon père traded in his Citroen station wagon for a big pick-up truck Americain and that I showed up at school driving it, Whitey MacGregor begging me a ride—little Henri, of course, laughing in vainglorious delight at the churlish philistine.
Which all came back to me last week while lunching at CJ’s Last Chance Diner, a little cowboy eatery just north of town for which we had seen a commercial during the local news: At CJ’s, the man said, “we know your name.”
Well, they didn’t, it turned out, but we were greeted warmly, handed menus and told to order at the counter. Colette scanned hers briefly before deciding on the grilled-chicken salad. For Henri, the decision was easy: the Cowboy Up Burger. We also ordered a side of fries to share, and soft drinks—dispensed on a counter at the back wall. We filled our cups, sat down and took in the scenery.
CJ’s dining room is cozy and casual, with eight small antique oak tables—each with a pile of napkins on top, held in place with a horseshoe—and four high stools at a short counter, from which you can almost reach across the kitchen and flip your burger yourself.
The walls are decorated in a western motif—wrought-iron weather vanes, hat racks and branding irons, many of which are for sale. There’s also a mural of a horse poking his head through the open-top half of a barn door. The horse, of course, is not the famous Mr. Ed, but Henri kept thinking he heard a snorty “Willllburrrr” as we waited for our lunch.
CJ’s offers several different burgers, with bacon, chilies, or mushrooms ($3.49-$6), as well as a range of deli and grilled sandwiches ($3.99-$6.50). Breakfast items ($3.99-$5.75) include the classic bacon-and-eggs, but also biscuits and gravy, apple-baked French toast, chicken-fried steak and breakfast burritos.
Colette’s salad ($6.50) came with Romaine lettuce, red cabbage, garbanzo beans, bacon, tomatoes, olives, Parmesan cheese, shredded pepperoncinis and plenty of good, grilled chicken. We were both surprised to see such a tasty, healthful salad at the little cowboy diner. My burger ($3.99) came plain but perfectly cooked, and I dressed it with fresh lettuce and tomatoes at the condiment bar. The fries ($1.25) were crispy and good.
We returned several days later to sample more of the menu. This time Colette ordered the bacon-and-blue-cheese burger, and I had a turkey sandwich on a sourdough roll—both very good. I went back the next morning and had a breakfast burrito—also good, and huge—stuffed with eggs, potatoes, bacon and a spicy salsa.
Complaint: A place that calls itself a diner should do a better job with the coffee. Not only are the cups of paper-thin Styrofoam, but you must serve yourself—from dispensers on a counter on the far side of the dining room—and then get your own half-and-half from a carton in the refrigerator where the drinks to go are displayed. CJ’s would be much—and inexpensively—improved with the addition of some good heavy diner-type mugs, filled for customers at the counter or their tables by the waitresses, and cream in creamers within easy reach.
But Henri will definitely be back, and in fact he’s thinking about buying a truck, a cute little Puegeot—I’ve seen them delivering squawking chickens to markets in Marrakech. It would go perfectly with my new Bruno Magli loafers and a pair of Wranglers.