The sky was so brown and the air so thick that we wanted to leave Gold Hill and to get as far away from the California fires as possible. Highway 50 is seven miles down canyon, and if we were to drive east from there for about another 400 miles or we’d be in Baker, on the Utah line. We started packing.
By the time we reached Eureka for the night, the sky was blue overhead, muzzy at the horizon. When we reached Baker the next afternoon there was still smoke, but much diminished, just background noise for the eyes.
Five years ago Jake Cerese and Kate Cleeys were taking a sabbatical tour of national parks out west after five months in Antarctica when they came to Baker to see Great Basin National Park. They spent two days exploring the Park and the little (pop. 68) town at the foot of the Snake Mountains. Jake and Kate continued on their way, but found themselves still thinking about Baker as they went.
“We kept thinking about how beautiful the Park was, and how ordinary the food was. We knew we had the vision and the experience to provide better, and could elevate the experience of visitors to the park. We thought it was a big opportunity.”
So they bought it, and quickly discovered it was also a big challenge, one big part of which was getting the ingredients needed to make the restaurant what they wanted it to be. They’ve addressed it by establishing an herb garden outside the kitchen door, by contributing to a community garden where they and neighbors grow vegetables, and by locating nearby farms, mostly in Utah, for organic produce, especially cucumbers and tomatoes.
They also rely on the two wholesale food distributors who deliver to eastern Nevada from Salt Lake City. They spend hours on the phone each week, with them and with other suppliers around the country and the world. The artichoke hearts they grill come from Puglia in Italy and their trout is delivered from Idaho overnight via FedEx.
When they opened the restaurant they served breakfast, lunch and dinner but it has since become purely a dinner house, serving tapas — small plates, ala carte.
Jake spent ten years in the wine business. He admits that their wine list is “a little over the top”, sourced from vineyards farmed sustainably without pesticides, and that most customers aren’t familiar with many of them. But he says the wines are part of the guest experience they want to provide. “It goes deeper than customer service,” he says. “And it includes more than knowhow and the best and freshest ingredients, it also includes kindness and respect.
“We want to be a destination on the Great American Road Trip,” he says, hinting at the motive for the name they gave the restaurant. “We want this to be one big dinner party.”
Kerouac’s closes for winter, operating this year from May 21 to October 17, Wednesday through Sunday, 4:00 – 8:30 pm (closed every Monday & Tuesday).
The Stargazer Inn is open all year, as is the micro-mini-store. Other overnight accommodations are available at the Whispering Elms Motel, the End of the Trail…er (Baker’s original bed-and-fix-your-own-breakfast) and the Border Inn (see below)
Jake and Kate’s decision to invest in Baker was the first in a series of changes that have made the little town a foodie paradise and an attraction in its own right, National Park or no. Indeed, right across the street is another culinary supernova, Sugar Salt & Malt.
Tabitha and Cheri Phillips are twins who grew up cooking in nearby EskDale Utah. As teenagers they worked in the community kitchen, and in the camp kitchens feeding 400 kids 3 meals a day during the summer, and discovering the passion that led them to San Francisco and the California Culinary Academy.
They graduated in 2004 and embarked on careers that took them to some of the country’s highest end resorts and restaurants, from Vail and Beaver Creek in Colorado to the Florida Keys and Las Vegas. They have worked with chefs revered within the industry — Gavin Kaysen and John Besh, Kamel Guechida and Wolfgang Puck among them.
Five years ago they decided to come home — their mother still teaches in the uniquely hybrid Utah-Nevada school district after thirty years. They established a catering business which they christened Salt & Sucre. Then they took over a Coffee Cart on Main Street, a 12′ by 8′ sweatbox called the Baker’s Bean, and went to work selling high end lattes, pastries and sandwiches; before long they added a panini press. Their customers ate on picnic tables outside.
The sisters have recently acquired the long-established T&D’s restaurant and bar. They have extensively remodeled and improved the building (originally built in the 1920s as an automotive repair garage), and much of the modernizing has been done by locals. They have blended the Baker’s Bean and the catering business into it and are now serving three meals a day. “It’s really nice to have a place where people can sit down out of the sun,” Cheri says.
“While we’re building our business we’re also building our community. For us it’s a priority to be a part of our community,” says Tabitha. “Our maintenance and repair man is a talented 16-year-old working his first paid job. We have another teenager working in the kitchen, learning skills that can lead to a good job for college.”
They also have plans to repurpose a building nearby to use for community classes in everything from woodworking to making cheese.
Sugar Salt & Malt is open 7:30 am-3:00 pm and 4:30 pm-8:30 pm Friday-Tuesday PST
But wait, there’s more.
The Great Basin Cafe at the Park headquarters five miles up the mountain from Baker is a cheerful place that shares space with a small gift shop/bookstore. Add the brisk and helpful staff, and the modestly adventurous breakfast and lunch menus and you have an enjoyable meal with a great view (once the smoke has blown away).
Great Basin Cafe is open daily from 8 am to 4 pm.
Baker is a close-knit community, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic. “We’re a small, isolated little town,” one resident told me.”When we talk politics it’s about local stuff, the School Board or White Pine County, but not national politics. We need each other too much for that.” There is some grumbling about transplants from California, but there’s a community garden and a community email so people going shopping in Ely can pick things up for their neighbors who can’t.
And that’s not all!
Out on the Highway at the Utah line is the Border Inn with a gas station, motel and cafe serving highway travelers, Park visitors and locals alike from an All-American menu. The Border Inn is tried and true: food’s good and the service is great.
And that’s still not the whole story!
Most days you’ll find the Grill 487 on Main Street (#120 to be exact); Baker’s food truck (food trailer to be exact) serving a menu of unexpected variety. That is, you’ll find it there when it’s not in Ely or elsewhere serving at events.
Open Monday through Friday, 11 am – 3 pm, 4 pm – 8 pm; Saturday and Sunday, 10 am – 2 pm, 4 pm – 8 pm
How did Baker get so lucky?