02 June 2011

Destinations - Bakersfield holiday at the Padre Hotel

You're thinking that this is going to a mean-spirited jab at a city that in the words of Rodney Dangerfield, "don't get no respect", but you would be wrong.

A couple of months ago one of my clients asked me to book him a night at the the Padre Hotel in Bakersfield.  Since I'd never heard of the Padre Hotel, I asked him for details.  My clients can be a great source of information about hotels I might never hear of or get to see.  He told me that it was an old hotel, totally renovated, with a modern vibe and a fine selection of ways to eat and drink.  Intrigued, I did further research on the hotel's website and decided I wanted to see for myself.

A long-planned early May trip to Fresno to visit friends lent itself well for an extension, so it was, "Bakersfield, here we come!".

First the nickel history of the hotel.

Opened in 1928 as the grand hotel and tallest building in downtown Bakersfield, the Padre changed hands in 1954 and was acquired by Milton "Spartacus" Miller.  Quite the colorful character, Miller became embroiled in a fight with the city over fire safety, and placed a phony missle on the hotel's roof allegedly aimed at city hall.  After 1966, the city mandated that rooms from the third floor and above could not be sold to guests though the bar remained open.  From reading snippets of history to write this post, the Padre Hotel bar was the center of alt-Bakersfield.

Miller died in 1999, but not before a deathbed marriage that led to the hotel's ownership being tied up in litigation until 2001.  A failed attempt to condo-ize the Padre led to its being acquired in 2008 by Eat.Drink.Sleep of San Diego.  Eat.Drink.Sleep poured money and effort into reviving the Padre to what it is now.

The hotel plays on - but does not mock -Bakersfield's reputation and reality of being kind of a Texas oilfield and cotton town dropped into California.  Room types range from the 40 Winks basic room, to the Maverick, all the way up to the Oil Baron Suite.  We were fortunate to get a Corner Pocket room on the top floor.  These are large rooms at the corners, with double windows that let in lots of light.  The bathroom was huge, and well-appointed with a rainwater shower and nice fixtures.

In addition to the rooms themselves, the hotel has five different ways you can leave money behind

Belvedere is the tony dinner restaurant.
Farmacy is a simple restaurant with made-to-order breakfasts and premade sandwiches.
Brimstone is a big ground floor bar + restaurant
Prospect is a swanky nightclub with drinks and appetizers
Prairie Fire is a second floor, rooftop bar that serves food from the same menu as Brimstone.

On Sunday evening we took advantage of a beautiful evening to enjoy a terrific blues/R&B band at Prairie Fire.  With a fine burger and a couple of Newcastles to wash it down, there was nothing not to enjoy.  And every table was taken when we left.  How many were locals and how many were hotel guests we didn't know, but it was a popular place.

The following morning we took our breakfast at Farmacy.  I think the Farmacy name is a pun on B'field's ag side, but they do push pain-killers in the form of spiked coffee so maybe that's it.  Whatever the point of the name, my breakfast was outstanding and the staff was really personable.  It's the simple format of order at the counter and your meals comes to you.

One thing was clear.  Farmacy is aimed not just at hotel guests but also locals who work in downtown because the prices were regular prices, not hotel prices.  And for a darn good meal.

This is a fine hotel that compares favorably with the Citizen Hotel in Sacramento, though in a city where you wouldn't expect to find it.

Am I suggesting that you make a special trip to Bakersfield to experience it?  Not really, unless you live in close proximity such as Fresno.  (If you travel on business to Bakersfield you definitely need to skip your loyalty program chain and experience the Padre.)

What I am suggesting however is making it a stopover on the way to or from somewhere else.

Many people make long drives between areas or cities such as the Bay Area, Sacramento, and elsewhere in northern California to southern California, Las Vegas, Arizona, and so on.  Bakersfield is a good place to break a long trip.  Even if you're taking I-5, it's only a short detour east from I-5 to Bakersfield.  And if you're on 99 the Padre Hotel is less than 2 miles from the freeway.

Oh, sure, you could stay at a forgettable chain hotel but you'd really be missing out on a chance to stay at a historic hotel restored to its former glory but with a modern pulse.  And then you'd be able to surprise your friends with the story of your own Bakersfield holiday.

Downtown Bakersfield

I can't fib and tell you that downtown Bakersfield is a dynamic hub.  Like so many American cities, it has a hollowed-out downtown from where most commerce fled long ago to the suburbs of Anywhere USA.

But it's not awful, and it didn't appear dangerous.  And where else could you find a former Woolworth's that retained the lunch counter as a restaurant while the rest of it - the basement, too - is an antique store.  (At first we thought we'd discovered the last operating Woolworth's, since from the outside it looks like nothing had changed.)
Keith with the luncheonette behind
Is it 2011 or 1961?

Westchester - neighborhood beautiful

More surprising than the former Woolworth's is a lovely neighborhood known as Westchester only a few short blocks west of the downtown.  When I write "lovely" I don't mean it in a condescending way as in "lovely for Bakersfield", but rather in the same way I would consider well-to-do cities such as Atherton, Piedmont, or the "Fabulous Forties" area of Sacramento.

Yes, it's surprising that it is in Bakersfield, but it would be surprising to find in any American city of this size a pretty area like Westchester so close to a less-than-vibrant downtown.  In most other cities, a neighborhood like this would long ago have been blighted.

Density by design

I love multi-unit structures of the first half of the twentieth century where it seemed as much effort went into designing buildings occupied by ordinary people as into those of the wealthy.

In the couple of blocks between downtown Bakersfield and the Westchester neighborhood are two outstanding and meticulously maintained examples.

One is a take on the New England cottage style and the other on Santa Barbara mission style.  Both are designed around a central courtyard feature.


  1. Now I know what I missed in February! Nice point about the architectural care that once went into multi-unit dwellings for mere mortals.Westchester will be a good side trip sometime soon. Thanks, Greg. -pb

  2. I work @ the front desk of the Padre Hotel and really enjoyed this post. Thanks for visiting!