Mary Heebner
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"The Still-Life Cafe"
National Geographic Traveler

by © Mary Heebner
photos by © Macduff Everton

The sun went down behind foothills that rise like mounds of sifted cocoa. We were on our way to Bishop for a friend’s wedding among the aspens. Highway 395 skirts the old lake bed that lays like a sunken, soft pie along the Eastern side of the Sierras. We ride this desert line through the middle of nowhere in the company of semi trucks and radio evangelists.
Our friends at the wedding asked us if we stopped at the French restaurant at Olancha, just short of the turn off for Death Valley. We laughed, thinking that they were joking, but they said, “No, you really have to stop. It’s run by two French sisters and it’s out there in the desert, pure Baghdad Cafe — but the food is fabulous— look for the Still Life Cafe” It wasn’t hard to find. There was a gas station, several signs announcing “Really good fresh jerky”, and then a plain sign hanging above the yellow brick building, Breakfast Lunch Dinner: Still Life Cafe. If we had blinked, we would have missed it.

There was a “closed” sign in the window and the door was locked, but we could see people seated inside. A stunning woman with raven hair came to the door, weary hands wringing her apron, “We are closed, no more food!” she said. I wanted to weep. I stooped to begging... “Please? We’ve heard such wonderful things about this cafe.” She smiled, shrugged her shoulders and said, “OK, OK, come on in, we can make something for you.” Five men, speaking a throaty, Galouise-laced, working man’s French, elbowed a round table lit by the afternoon sun. A spent carafe of wine, the heel of a baguette, and some mineral water were all that remained from lunch after a long shift at the Crystal Geyser plant, a subsidiary of Perrier, just up the road. “We can make you some pasta with fresh tomatoes and basil, okay?,” she offered, opening a bottle of crisp Alsatian Pinot Gris. We learned that they were out of food because our friends from the wedding had brought their sybaritic, hefty appetites to their doorstep just hours before we arrived and cleaned them out of escargot de Bourgogne, chourcoute, ragout du lapin and profiterolles.

The two sisters, Malika and Delilah, coming from the dry Berber lands of Algeria, by way of Alsace, Paris and Los Angeles, created, together with Malika’s husband Michel Patron, their own version of an oasis — the bistro. Bistros sprang up in 17th century France -- an egalitarian place where people of all classes could meet, share simple good food and drink.
“We have locals, truckers passing through, movie people filming in the Alabama Hills at nearby Lone Pine, and those traveling to Bishop and Mammoth to hike and ski— a nice mix, just like any bistro should be,” explained Delilah, “ and people from Bishop to San Diego call for reservations.

In the corner a truck driver was sipping espresso. “Pretty small cups, but damn good coffee.” A young couple lingered over fries and a burger. Delilah brought the four of us plates of fresh olives, tomatoes with chevre, followed by a delicate pasta pomodoro.
In addition to the usual jazz posters, old photos and magnums of French wine, that embellish most bistros, there were rusted out buckets, old shoes, and other bone-dry desert debris, which took on a Picasso-like beauty reincarnated as decor on the clean white window sills. “When we opened, we couldn’t think of a name. We were going to call it the Baghdad Cafe, but that was too obvious. Then we thought of the Bad Dad Cafe, but that was too, well, provocative. Then one night I saw a TV program on Cezanne that showed his beautiful still life paintings. The desert is a place of beauty and stillness, yet, if you look closely, there is still life in it,” mused Delilah, delighted with her pun. “I love it here. And the name just clicked — the Still Life Cafe!”

STILL LIFE CAFE Highway 395 and State, Olancha, California 93549
(760) 764-2044