The (longer) Sunday Drive: Clovis, Calif. — Gateway to the Sierras and Good Times

September 17, 2010
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When I was 16, I drove under the same sign on my way to Edison Lake to rendevous with other Boy Scouts hiking the John Muir Trail.

When I was 16, I drove under the same sign on my way to Edison Lake to rendevous with other Boy Scouts hiking the John Muir Trail. I call Clovis the town of good memories.

 As I’m writing this, I’m breaking every few minutes (seconds) to enjoy some delicious dried tart cherries from Simonian Farms in Fresno, a sliver of pistachio biscotti from Rosetti’s Biscotti House in Clovis, a handful of wrinkled milk chocolate raisins from the Sun-Maid Growers of California in Kingsburg while sipping a 2007 Estate Voignier from the Tivy Mountain Winery in Sanger – just some of the treasures I brought back with me from an overnighter this week to Clovis, Calif, which dubs itself, the “Gateway to the Sierras.”

Indeed, Clovis, a 250-mile, four-hour jaunt from La Verne, can be the jumping-off point to Yosemite, Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks, as well Shaver, Huntington and Edison Lakes, but if you never reach the foothills or Sierras and just remain on the Central Valley’s fertile valley floor, you’ll find ample riches to bring home from this gilded patchwork of agricultural towns.

Bordering Fresno, Clovis is just 23 square miles, but it is rich in history and downtown antique shops. After checking into the Fairfield Marriot (about $70 through Priceline), Colleen, Roger and I headed toward the hub of town at 5th and Clovis for some antiquing. We were only momentarily diverted by Rosetti’s Bakery and Biscotti House (25 Railroad Ave.) in Clovis where we picked up an assortment of the twice-baked hard cookies perfect for dunking in wine or coffee, including almond anise, hazelnut, lemon almond, pistachio cranberry and triple almond. You can nosh on your favorite Italian cookie outside the shop where there are quaint little tables in the garden area.

Just one of the many antique shops in Old Town Clovis.

Just one of the many antique shops in Old Town Clovis.

In town, parking was easy. I’m not sure exactly how many antiques stores there are in downtown Clovis, but I know Roger and I started rolling our eyes when Colleen entered the seventh shop. But we even had to admit we saw some pretty cool stuff. There were beer signs and sideboards, 20-foot Doric pillars from a Missouri mansion and a whimsical cookie jar I couldn’t take my eyes off. Colleen bought a copper serving tray and a hammered copper bucket, which would be the perfect vessel for a dried flower arrangement, or so we were told when the item was rung up at the register.

Needing refreshment, we simply walked across the street from Good Ol’ Days Antiques (460 Clovis Ave.) to the 500 Club (500 Clovis Ave), one stop signal away. It’s a friendly watering hole, made friendlier by the $1.50 pints on tap and half-off appetizers. The real hoot is in the back of the establishment in an adjoining room where patrons were playing Texas hold em and six-deck, no bust black jack.

If you’ve ever played Vegas-style black jack, you know that when you go over 21, you bust. For example, you hit on 12 and draw a face card for 22, and the dealer picks up your cards, scolding you with his eyes for going over the number. But in Clovis, even though your total exceeded 21, the dealer doesn’t pick up your cards until he finishes dealing to all players. If the player next to you holds on, let’s say, 19 and the dealer has 16, therefore needing to take a hit (per the rules) and draws a face card for total of 26, you and your 22 becomes a winning hand. Clovis is a great town, yes? However, the 500 Club only pays even odds for black jack, not 3-to-2, as in Vegas. Why people were playing black jack in the first place didn’t remain a mystery long. The game, which is banned elsewhere in the state outside of Indian casinos, had been grandfathered in at the club, which started in 1953. I just liked the idea of gambling for your supper and beer, where you can eat and drink for free if you’re lucky or pay double for it if the cards don’t go your way.

At the 500 Club, you can gamble for your drink and summer.

At the 500 Club, you can gamble for your drink and summer.

For dinner, we received several recommendations from the locals. We were told Luna had amazing eggplant parmigiana and Giovanni’s Caffe Italiano served the most amazing ravioli with pine nuts. But the real deal seems to be Trelio at 438 Clovis Ave. where Chef Michael Shackelford and his culinary team feature an exquisite menu sourced through local farmers, ranchers and purveyors. Entrees include saffron-infused vegetable risotto, pan roasted Atlantic salmon fillet, Trelio’s Santa Maria-style tri-tip and Bee Bob’s Orange Blossom honey-blood orange glazed pork chop. The sides appeared just as tempting: pine nut couscous, cucumber-fennel salad, lime-infused sweet potato puree, braised Thao Farm’s Swiss chard and haricot vert (green beans).

After making a quick run (40 miles from Clovis, up state route 168) to Shaver Lake, a manmade dam created more than 100 years earlier so that lumberjacks could float fir trees and sugar and ponderosa pine logs to a mill located next to the lake before they were sent dashing down a 40-mile long flume that ended in Clovis, we hustled back down the hill, the fresh mountain air still in our lungs, to find a restaurant before the sidewalks rolled up at 9 p.m. Peering into Trelio through its broad front glass window, we felt it looked a bit too formal for our purposes, so we settled on Luna.

Luna offers solid fare, but basically it’s a pizza joint. The bread and minestrone soup were excellent, but the eggplant was disappointing. The portions were ample, but I prefer my eggplant sliced thin, not like wedges of iceberg lettuce. We stored most of it in our hotel room’s refrigerator and found ourselves picking at it over lunch the next day.

After a dip in the Jacuzzi and some light reading, we called it a night, falling asleep to the steady hum of an air conditioner that manufactured more noise than reconditioned cool air.

Picnicking and trying to cast stones across the Kings River. Roger cleared the river easily, but the author fell short.

Picnicking and trying to cast stones across the Kings River. Roger cleared the river easily, but the author fell short.

Normally in the morning, I prefer skipping a hotel’s complimentary breakfast in favor of trying out the local greasy spoon to better catch the vibe and flavor of the town, but the hotel breakfast was easy, convenient and cheap. Mostly, you can read your USA Today in your pajamas while waiting sleepy-eyed for three minutes while the batter from your self-made waffle plumps up in the waffle-maker. The other bonus about complimentary breakfasts is that everyone in your party can roll into the dining room on his or her own sweet clock. I had read both the Fresno Bee and USA Today before I saw Coll or Roger.

The big downside of eating a free breakfast is indulging in things I normally wouldn’t touch, like microwavable Jimmy Dean breakfast sandwiches that the Fairfield featured. Every bite was scrumptious, satisfying and so loaded with salt I felt guilty the rest of the day.

After showering, tidying the room, stuffing our suitcases and checking out, we headed out on the Fresno County Fruit Trail (, where visitors can taste, tour and purchase produce from the many small farms, farm stores, wineries and other related agricultural offerings in the top stone fruit producing region of the nation. Fruit Trail members and sponsors include: Fresno County Office of Tourism, City of Clovis, City of Fowler, City of Fresno, City of Kingsburg, City of Orange Cove, City of Parlier, City of Reedley, City of Sanger, City of Selma, the UC Cooperative Extension – Fresno, and the UC Small Farm Center.

At Tivy Mountain Winery, you're greeted by more than just merry winemakers.

At Tivy Mountain Winery, you're greeted by more than just merry winemakers.

If you enjoy smelling the fruit and nuts more than eating them, make plans to return in the early spring (late February, early March) to follow the Fresno County Blossom Trail, where the orchards are full of fragrance and bursting with blossoms. In fact, Fresno County is home to more than 360 different crops. Just think, if you lived in the Central Valley, you could eat a different fruit or vegetable every day of the year. Then again, you could just go to Whole Foods.

One standout stop along the Fresno County Blossom Trail is Simonian Farms (2629 S. Clovis Ave, Fresno), which also drew President Bill Clinton to its orchards in 1995. A historical landmark since 1901, this third-generation family farm has the unique distinction of being one-of-a-kind in California, growing and direct marketing more than 120 varieties of fruits and vegetables. The farm also features a fine collection of antiques and memorabilia and a fun pumpkin patch in October.

With a trunk full of goodies, we connected to Trimmer Springs Road and drove to Pine Flat Dam for an impromptu picnic, snacking on milk chocolate apricots, pistachios, leftover eggplant parmigiana and the still fresh bread from Luna. It was a different kind of lunch, but watching the cobalt blue currents of the Kings River roll by under a warm sun, we didn’t much care what we ate or what leftovers the chipmunks took home.029

Heading out of the foothills down Piedras Road, we pulled into Tivy Mountain winery where vintner Greg Pease and his three Dalmatians greeted us at the end of a long driveway. He graciously poured us tastings of his favorite estate wines produced from his sustainable farming practices. We liked the first two he poured the most, the 2007 Voigneir ($20) and the Ranch Red ($10), simply because by the time we got to the fifth or sixth sampling, our mouths were numb with pleasure.

Finally down the hill, we drove into the Sun-Maid Raisins cooperative in Kingsburg (13525 Bethel Ave), a central valley town founded by Swedes in the 1800s. I didn’t quite know what to expect. It was a little disappointing. I thought I was about to embark on a great Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory raisin tour, but I only got as far as the gift shop, where, or course, you could buy Sun-Maid T-shirts and bonnets and boxes of oatmeal raisin cookie mix, but it was all a bit underwhelming. In town, the Swedish village of Kingsburg was a little cooler. Call it Solvang north, but these guys are Swedes. We stopped briefly at Diane’s Village Bakery Café, where I had a green salad with roasted chicken, toasted pecans, cranberries and goat cheese and Roger had a club sandwich. Both were delicious and priced right.

We were the last customers of the day, as the shop closed at 3 p.m. We gassed up and returned to state route 99 for the ride home, happy to have had a taste of the Central Valley in about 36 hours a time, amazed how easy it is to quickly transport yourself to another world, that is actually not that far away.

I’m definitely looking forward to a return trip. Now that I know the area a little better future stops will include:

The Biscotti House: I'll be back!

The Biscotti House: I'll be back!

The Victoria Rose Cottage (356 Pollasky Ave, 559-322-4832) for afternoon tea ($9 to $28 a person) where the waitresses serve scones and egg-salad sandwiches while dressed in Victorian-era garb. It also serves a wonderful Sunday brunch for just $18.

Baldasare Forestiere Gardens (5021 West Shaw Avenue, Fresno 559-271-0734), where Sicilian immigrant Baldasare Forestiere labored underground for more than 40 years, creating a still thriving catacomb of grottoes, gardens and fruit trees that serve an as an amazing oasis from Fresno’s torrid summer heat.

Grandmarie’s Chicken Pie Shop (861 East Olive Avenue, Fresno, 559-237-5042) in Fresno’s Tower District is a throwback midcentury diner where the stick-to-your-ribs-fare of eggs, links, patties, bacon and chicken pies still draws a line out the door.

Each central valley town also serves up plenty of local history and recreational opportunities, like fishing, mountain climbing and river-rafting. Clovis, where we stayed, is named after Clovis Cole, a prosperous wheat farmer who sold off some of his acreage to railroad speculators in the late 1800s. Normally, a person’s surname is used when naming a town, but it was thought the name Cole would confuse train engineers, who might mistake the train depot as a coal refueling station.  Hence, city fathers selected the name of Clovis.




One Response to “The (longer) Sunday Drive: Clovis, Calif. — Gateway to the Sierras and Good Times”

  1. My family (husband Ralph, sons Ralph, Jr….Brian…Alan, and I) lived in Clovis for approximately 11 years. Our son Alan was born in Fresno. Our sons formative years were spent in Clovis. We moved to Clovis from Pasadena, CA in 1975…we moved back to Pasadena in 1985. We credit the years spent in Clovis as one of the reasons our sons turned out to be the young adults we are very proud of today. We are fortunate to be able to say with regard to our sons…\No drugs, no gangs, and no pregnancies.\ What kept them out of trouble? Aside from the support our sons received at home, the school system was…and hopefully continues to be…one of the best we have ever been involved with. The school system took a \no nonsense\ approach in dealing with students who chose not to behave. There was no \next time.\ If a student misbehaved, off the student went to the principal’s office.

    Each time we visit Clovis, we take delight in remembering trips to Roeding Park, Clovis Lakes, Millerton Lake, and eating at Luna’s, having breakfast at Clovis Rodeo Cafe, enjoying hamburgers at Fosters (on Clovis Avenue). Our sons remember remember going to Takahashi Farms to buy fresh fruit, and selling Cokes (on behalf of the Clovis Boys League) during the Clovis Rodeo.

    We all are amazed at the growth that has taken place since we left in 1985, but when we visit, we are happy to see that Downtown Clovis still offers a trip down memory lane. We look forward to attending the Clovis Antique Fair every March and October. Sadly, our trip this coming October will be without my husband. He passed away last December. So this next trip will be a trip down memory lane of not only Clovis, but of my husband, too.

    I’ve forwarded your article to my sons. Thanks for the good thoughts and memories.

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