Driving from San Francisco down to Sacramento, I was always transfixed by a set of groovy signs in Vacaville, California. The graphics were fabulous and the names were even more intriguing. Take a look:
image: hm david
What was the story behind these buildings? I knew I had to investigate.
It all started with a small roadside fruit stand in 1921 alongside what was then the Lincoln Highway. At the heart of this little cluster of buildings was The Nut Tree. Established in March of 1965, The Nut Tree was a little oasis located at the interchange of Interstate 80 and 505 . It’s convenient roadside location was a welcome rest stop for travelers making the drive between Sacramento and the San Francisco Bay Area. This was no typical roadside pitstop, however. Open from 6 a.m. to midnight and serving up “imaginative food in a contemporary setting for California’s highway travelers,” the Nut Tree was a destination!
The key here is the phase, “a contemporary setting”. They weren’t kidding.
The master mind behind the genius of the Nut Tree was Don Birrell. Don (as I like to call him) took over as graphic design director in 1953 and ushered in a new era of bright, beautiful California modernism. Colorful! Quirky! Stylish! The Nut Tree had it going on.
While The Nut Tree wanted to maintain a colorful elegance, it was a family friendly place. There was plenty for kiddos to do: they could watch a show at the puppet theater, hop on the little red train that circled the property, rock back and forth on giant hobby horses and gorge on homemade lollipops and honey-baked cookies shaped like bears, hot-air balloons or giraffes.
image: Cathy of California
These hand rolled candy sticks look so colorful and cool!
A trip to Denmark in 1957 gave Birrell the idea of designing the Nut Tree’s patio area to resemble the Tivoli Gardens with special lighting and kiosks. While The Nut tree featured a gift shop, a toy shop, an airport and a wee railroad (that gave rides from the toy shop to the airport, of course) the true star was the restaurant.
Tables were carefully set using stylish Dansk silverware, and the chic dish pattern he created was eventually featured in New York’s Museum of Modern Art. The very visual Birrell had the tables set with individual peppermills and menu items were often served on a leaf or decorated with an orchid blossom, all plated exactly as he designed it.
Don Birrell even brought Eames chairs to dining room —and eventually sold them in the Toy Shop (gift shop). For a time, The Nut Tree was the sole retailer on the West Coast for Eames furniture!
The official Nut Tree Restaurant was considered an early pioneer of California cuisine, with “exotic” fresh fruits and vegetables featured prominently in the recipes.
The place had really vibrant, colorful decor….take a look at these fantastic, embroidered wall hangings. The one on the left was by Charlotte Patera the one on the right by Jean Ray Laury.
Celebrities and locals alike mingled on the stylish grounds. The Nut Tree played host to celebrities and politicians such as Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Richard Nixon and even Queen Elizabeth II.
Alas, the Nut Tree closed its doors in 1996 due to financial problems and the dreaded family feud. The main buildings (including the Coffee Tree diner, which was across the street) were demolished. So sad! This story does have a happy ending, however. In 2009 The Nut Tree reopened! Attractions include the Nut Tree Railroad, Carousel, and other historical elements of the first Nut Tree, as well as firepits, signboards, and the ice cream pavilion. They’re even making the famous frosted honey cookies at the new Vintage Sweet Shop. And of course….the hobby horses are still rockin’ and rollin’. I think we’re going to have to pay them a visit!
Special thanks to my pal Tracy for turning me on to some great vintage Nut Tree photos and reminding me that I have been wanting to write about this!