It all started with a guys’ jazz ensemble and the need for space to play. It evolved into a famed restaurant with legions of loyal customers who came from all over Northern California to hear the music, catch the vibe and experience the food. It was cool. It was hip. It was the place to be and be seen.
Music buddies Marlo Kerner and Burt Towne needed a place to play, other than their living rooms, so they and their wives, Hazel and Florence, decided to buy a 106-year old two-story brick building in the heart of Woodbridge as their new music venue, with serious thoughts of opening a restaurant. Their five-person ensemble was known as the Sunday Evening Chamber Music Society featuring Marlo on piano, Burt on bass fiddle, Dr. Walt Reiss on trumpet, Dr. Ed Reagor on drums and Jack Frost on guitar.
The building was constructed in about 1865 by a Dr. Bentley. It is believed to be the oldest building in Woodbridge, or close to it. It had been used as a general store, saloon, pool hall, Wells Fargo stage stop, and tavern. There was a jail cell in the basement, probably where prisoners were kept while the stage made a rest stop for the evening. Sleeping quarters were upstairs. “In the old days, naturally, there were girls upstairs,” claims an article in the Sacramento Union newspaper. But that was then.
Despite the fact that no one had any experience running a restaurant, the Woodbridge Feed and Fuel Company was born. Converting the old building into a restaurant was a labor of love. The interior was created by Marlo, a professional interior designer. The décor included wine barrels, feed sacks, lug boxes and grape shipping crates. Guests sat in black “director chairs.” The ambience was intended to be informal and friendly. The huge bar was built, but the 150 year-old back bar, complete with beveled mirror, was trucked in from Boston. An old church pew, rescued from someone’s barn, provided seating for waiting patrons. Chicken wire separated diners from the waiting area. The tables were covered with handmade black oil tablecloths. The all-male wait staff wore old-time aprons, the same as warehousemen used to wear, according to Hazel Kerner, who was the restaurant’s hostess. Fresh flowers always adorned every table. There was a piano in the corner, next to the bar, where Marlo and the boys could play.
The restaurant opened for business Wednesday, Oct. 13, 1971 with seating for 79.
The “feed list” included filet of sole bonne femme for $4.75; veal Francaise for $4.95; chicken saute au sec for $4.25; roast prime rib that would set you back $5.75—an extra cut was $6.60; escallop of veal cordon bleu for $5.50; ragout of beef was $4.50; roast rack of pork loin for $4.50; choice New York steak for $6.95; scampi for $5.25; Jack’s special pepper steak for $5.50; and “what the help eats,” for $3.95. Desserts were all less than a buck.
The place was an immediate success, and they took no reservations. It was strictly first come, first served. Diners arriving after 5 p.m. on a weekend could easily expect a 90-minute wait to be seated. Often longer. The Kerners reminisce about how they used to serve up to 400 guests per night on the weekends. Customers would come from all over Northern California to experience the historical vibe of the building and taste the excellent dishes turned out by chefs Jack and Cynthia Morgan and Mick Marino. The kitchen didn’t close until “everyone was fed,” remembers Marlo.
The menu selection changed frequently, but prime rib was always a featured item. One of the regular patrons was known as “End Cut Rare” because he always came on Thursday nights and wanted a prime rib end cut, cooked rare. The chef ladled a little beet juice over it to make it look rare.
The bar was open until 2 a.m. Drinks were 75-cents and when management raised them to $1, one of the regulars protested, telling Marlo, “No one will ever pay a dollar for a drink!” The Kooyman brothers were regulars at the bar and they would use a matchstick guessing game to decide who picked up the drink tab, remembers Marlo. Dice were banned during dinner hours. The crowd was a friendly one, for the most part. However, one late evening when it was just the bar folks left, an argument erupted. One of the patrons thought he’d settle matters by heaving a cocktail glass at someone. He missed, hitting the beveled mirror behind the bar instead. It cracked and the historic original was replaced.
One evening during dinner a couple streakers ran naked through the front door and out the back, the Kerners remember. As they were running through, someone in the band said, “There goes Seabiscuit!” A while later, there sitting at the bar, fully clothed, were the two people who had run through the dining room wearing only a smile.
Another time a large group of patrons ordered lobster for dinner. But instead of wearing the traditional plastic bibs provided by the restaurant, they chose to wear "Texas Tee Shirts" — toilet seat covers they appropriated from the bathroom. “It was just a fun place,” Hazel remembers.
Hollywood comes to visit
The Feed & Fuel was not just a local favorite. It was also a top spot for Sacramento politicians and lobbyists, who would sit at the bar and conduct business. The Gallos and others from the budding wine industry were also regular patrons.
Movie stars and other Hollywood types would also drop in occasionally. One evening the place was packed, as usual, and someone pulled Hazel aside to ask if she knew who that was, sitting there waiting to be seated for dinner. Hazel didn’t recognize her at first. Turns out it was Jean Stapleton, star of the “All in the Family,” which was a the top-rated TV show at the time. Hazel said she would see what she could do to get her seated promptly. A few weeks later the Kerners received in the mail an autographed picture of the TV star, wearing the same dress as she wore to the restaurant that night. The Kerners still have the picture.
Actor Paul Newman also came to dinner a few times while making the movie “Cool Hand Luke,” which was being filmed in and around Lodi. The 1940s radio comedian Hal "Great Gildersleeve" Peary was also a dinner guest. He, too, sent an autographed picture to the restaurant after his visit. Another time a crew from Walt Disney Studios, who was working on a film in the area, arrived in a chartered bus. The Kerners remember pranksters from the restaurant let the air out of the bus tires, just for yucks. In spite of that, people from the movie industry “always gave us gifts,” recalls Hazel.
The same day a rave review written by columnist Tom Horton appeared in the Sacramento Union newspaper announcing the restaurant would be open for lunch on Sundays, the Kerners arrived at work to find a line of customers stretching a block long outside the place.
The restaurant’s overwhelming popularity made it obvious that they had outgrown their dining capacity. So they installed a railroad boxcar next door for additional seating. Openings were made through the 18-inch brick walls of the building, creating walkways into the railcars.
Much has changed in the nearly 50 years since the restaurant opened. The place has changed hands at least a couple of times since the Kerners sold it in the late ‘80s. Today it’s known as the Woodbridge Crossing, but much of the interior has remained the same since its debut in 1971. The Kerners, now in their 80s, are mostly retired, but both Burt and Flo Towne are deceased. Some of those who worked at the Feed & Fuel went on to be successful restaurateurs or business professionals. The Kerners still have many of the artifacts, such as signed photos of visiting celebrities, safely tucked away in a trunk for such occasions as when visitors drop by.
Restaurants come and go. Most are forgettable. But some are destined to leave a lasting legacy. The Feed & Fuel is one of those.
Steve is a former newspaper publisher and lifelong Lodian whose column appears most Tuesdays in the News-Sentinel. Write to Steve at aboutlodi@ gmail.com.