Vintage Road Trip :: Going Nuts Over The Nut Tree

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!

image: siwojima

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 Jean Ray Laury the one on the right by Charlotte Patera.

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!

 photo Nut_Tree_9b.png
Special thanks to AlamedaInfo for the beautiful collection of photos.

35 thoughts on “Vintage Road Trip :: Going Nuts Over The Nut Tree

  1. I never experienced The Nut Tree in its midcentury heyday, but I have very distinct memories of it from my childhood in the late ’80s/early ’90s, especially the dining room, the trains, and the animal play structure-thingy! I’m so glad that I had the chance to visit the original Nut Tree, and it’s fantastic that there is a bit of a revival going on. Thanks so much for this spectacular post 🙂

  2. I loved going to the Nut Tree as a kid! I couldn’t tell you anything else about the town of Vacaville, except that they eventually had outlets too. My mom would let me get a lollipop from the candy shoppe – but never the giant one that I truly wanted!

  3. wow. i had no idea that is what the nut tree used to be like!
    i’ve stopped at that exit for so many summer trips just for fentons (YUM) and to get on our way. next time i’m investigating to see what remains of it’s better days!!!

  4. Awesome, thanks for the post!

    I haven’t seen the new Nut Tree. The last time I was there was before the 1996 closing. I feel bad that a lot of the vintage is gone, but I also think the new Nut Tree is definitely great, and in ways an improvement. I will miss the old Nut Tree, but I think the new Nut Tree definitely has its benefits over the old, and looks very attractive. I’m eager to see it in person.

    Just a question though, do you know if the sign in the image (“Nut_Tree_1.jpg”) is the actual sign that was once by the side of the road and it’s been restored? Or is it a replica? I’m hoping it is the original. I’m sure you know what I mean, but in case you don’t, this is what I’m referring to:

    Thanks again for the post. 🙂

  5. Thanks for the post, it brought back so many fabulous memories for me. As a child in the late sixties through the mid eighties, our family frequently stopped there to and from road trips. I always got a large personalized gingerbread cookie with icing and chocolates wrapped as ladybugs with paper legs. Sigh. I miss those days 🙂

  6. I love this post. I was searching for images of the restaurant and found it. I have so many great memories of this place. Sad that its gone.

  7. I just uncovered a picture of myself and my sisters rocking on the horses at the Nut Tree in 1968 – wow – so glad for this site that confirmed my amazing memories as a seven year old. It was real!!!

  8. I loved visiting the Nut Tree. Our family would drive up to Oregon every Summer to visit the grandparents, and it was always our breakfast stop. So many memories: A vast gift shop you had to walk through to get to the dining room held enormous tables piled neatly with candy, dried fruits, savories, artworks, macrame items, and loads of airplane-related merchandise. You got to walk past the cookie bakery window which, I recall, was surrounded by brightly frosted cookies about as big as your six year old head in all kinds of shapes. (Biting into one was a sensory experience that was unparalleled–the frosting would crunch lightly, then the slightly moist honey/gingerbread cookie would take over, and you were done for.)

    Mounted on one wall of the Dining Room was a very large shadow-boxlike castle populated by those weird 1970s troll dolls. I was fascinated with that castle and would study it intently each year while eating my scrambled eggs: how did the trolls get up there? Why would an adult build something that neat, and then put it so high up on a wall where they couldn’t play with it??

    I always mused quickly, however, because after eating, my brother and I were allowed to go outside, play around the Face Place, pose with the oscillating mirror, and (best of all) go across the way to the toy store!

    When you walked up, the electric doors would woosh open, and you’d get this incredibly strong (nearly tactile) intoxicating smell of new-toy plastic! We’d wander around too in awe to actually focus on much–our eyes glazed over at expensive (to us) marbles, records, games, books, and incredible awesomeness. Usually we’d find something to keep us busy in the car for much of the rest of the day.

    Fun, fun times. Thanks for sparking the memories. Now I’m wondering more about that Troll Castle. Maybe the family disagreement was about who got ownership of such a great piece of decor. 😀

  9. Moved from Queens to The Bronx, to LA to Vacaville, which blew my mind at the time (’90), and I hope the history of this place remains available.

  10. I LOVE, love, love your article. It’s the best one I’ve seen on the Nut Tree yet…and I HAVE been looking:). The Nut Tree was a significant part of my childhood in the late 70’s and early 80’s. When we went to visit my Grandma just outside Chico during the summertime, we would make countless trips to the Nut Tree. I remember every little detail like the tapestries and artwork on the walls of the restaurant,(your collection of postcards/photos really brought me back in time, I almost started crying.) Now as a 38 year old adult, I have developed a hobby of purchasing vintage Nut Tree collectibles from ebay, (such as dinner plates, old menus…I even just recently found a vintage Nut Tree cookie cutter shaped like a train! )These objects somehow bring me comfort knowing it’s the closest I will ever get to revisiting such a magical place. Your article brings comfort too …Thank you !

  11. My first job after a stint in the Army was as a beer bartender in the Beer Bar. Rose through the ranks to be come its manager and the kiosk manager…later an asst mgr at the Coffee Tree and finally the manager of the Coffee Tree in 1972. My wife Myrla and I were married there at the old White House in 1971. Was back once in the 90’s, but not since. Still using the recipes developed by Danny Gomes, Nut Tree’s exceptional food and beverage director.

  12. This was my family. My great-grandparents started the fruit stand in 1921, that turned into the Nut Tree. The name the Nut Tree because of a young ancestor who was coming over to Vacaville via covered wagons to meet her family the Allison’s. Their wagons were attacked by Native Indians and while she recovering in Vacaville she planted/buried a little walnut doll that her mother had made for her back home. That nut grew into a tree and that tree was the shade for the original fruit stand. And our family still has tables made from that family walnut tree. 🙂 Just thought I’d share. Finding this tonight was so sweet and filled with so many good memories. My cousins and I spent so much time here growing up. And our parents grew up and lived on the property most of their lives. It was family fighting that brought this wonderful place to a close, and sadly, the part of our family who was doing the fighting was not even working at, living at, or running the Nut Tree at all. Very sad for all of us who loved it so so very much.

    1. Thanks Helen for this wonderful history! What a story! The Nut Tree was a truly special place in the middle of what felt like nowhere. It just goes to show you how creative ideas can really take off, beginning with burying the doll and later with a trip to Denmark. I loved the colors and the distinct smell of the place. It might have had a woody aroma-hard to remember. The aviary with the birds near the restaurant grabbed my attention as a youngster. I always thought it was pretty cool to get the fruit plate with sherbet since usually as a kid you had to finish your meal before you had desert. It’s a shame to hear how it all came to a close. It brought so many children and adults happiness during tiresome road trips. One time, when I was a teenager, my dad flew the family up and landed at the Nut Tree Airport from Newport Beach just to go to the Nut Tree for the day! So,for our family, it transcended road side attraction to wonderful destination spot!

  13. LOVED this magical place…Gone with the wind…like my beloved Santa’s Village (Scott’s Valley, CA) and Frontier Village (SJ)..We would stop to & from Tahoe…Always looked forward to running from the awful heat into cool A/C paradise! Couldn’t wait to order my fave fruit plate with the little orchid! I cried when they tore it down…Cherished memories forever! XO

  14. Wonderful NT article! I truly miss The Nut Tree…For years, my family would stop to & from Tahoe to have the yummy lunches! My fave was the tropical fruit plate and of course the beautiful orchid on top of the fruit! We’d all tear into the main building to get out of the horrible heat! lol.. I also loved to pick out a treat at the cute toy shop! The trolls and Steiff animals…Sad they had to get rid of this magical place…as well as my beloved Santa’s Village in Scott’s Valley and Frontier Village…Gone with the wind! Thanks again! XO Julie

Leave a Reply