Route 66 in the News
Route 66 Landmark Changes Hands
RANCHO CUCAMONGA, Calif. - Things don't change much at the Magic Lamp Inn, a landmark Rancho Cucamonga steakhouse that's had only two owners in 57 years.
This week, though, a new operator is on board as owner and general manager Anthony Vernola retires.
"I've been here 37 years, going on 38 years," Vernola says. "It's kind of time to step away from the restaurant and do other things."
Uh-oh. So who's taking over the legacy restaurant on Route 66 with the Aladdin's lamp outside?
That would be Sartaj Singh, the same man who owns Antonino's, a well-regarded Italian restaurant a few blocks to the east, not to mention Aria in Upland and Haandi in Rancho Cucamonga.
His plans for the Magic Lamp?
"We'll leave it the way it is," Singh promises.
Whew. With that out of the way, let's relax, recap the restaurant's history and explain how this deal came about.
Founded in 1955 by John Clearman, the man behind Clearman's Galley and the North Woods Inn, the Magic Lamp was built in Old World style: stained glass, heavy wooden doors, red brick and Spanish tile. Clearman is said to have modeled it on a Steer 'N Stein in Pico Rivera that he owned.
The Rancho Cucamonga restaurant is vaguely Bavarian yet has an Arabian Nights name and a sign shaped like Aladdin's lamp, outlined in neon and with a natural gas flame at night. Inside, there's a fire pit that is converted into a fountain in warmer months -- sounds like magic to me -- and a specially made lamp-patterned carpet amid a setting with exposed wood everywhere.
Alfalfa farmer Pat Vernola bought the restaurant from Clearman's partners in 1975 as an investment, but his partner bailed and his operator walked away after three months. Vernola asked his farmhand son, Anthony, to salvage the investment.
The younger Vernola had no restaurant experience, but he learned on the job. And he made the place work, keeping it going through periods when red meat fell out of fashion.
"Some of the employees have been there 30 years," Singh says. "That says something about Anthony."
Singh has known Vernola 15 years, and he's casually offered to take the Magic Lamp off his hands, an appeal Vernola waved away until recently.
Vernola owns a lot of developable land, and with the housing market perking up, he was thinking he should concentrate on that. The restaurant isn't his main source of income but it takes most of his time.
Still, he'd always been hesitant about turning over the keys to someone else. "I've seen restaurants go into ruins. I've invested too much into this place to have that happen," he says.
Singh, however, is a local fixture. He took on two partners earlier this year, which has allowed him to expand by launching Aria in downtown Upland and by preparing to open a sports bar in the former Bobby Baja location a few steps from Antonino's. He's also taking over the former Harvard Square Cafe space in Claremont.
Busy guy -- one hopes not too busy.
"They've taken care of the properties. They're great guys," Vernola says.
And so, Singh is leasing the Magic Lamp, with an option to buy the property.
"They'll do good here. I know they will," Vernola says. "They're good business people and they know how to run a restaurant."
Singh says the Magic Lamp is well-managed, the menu works and the sprawling restaurant is spotless, so there's no reason to make dramatic changes. He does think he can get more banquet business.
The interior is so expansive, "I don't even know how many rooms they have," Singh jokes.
Singh officially took over the restaurant on Thursday.
"I guess we're all waiting to see what changes he makes," said Chuck Keagle, who owns the Sycamore Inn across the street, another Route 66 landmark.
Keagle said the Magic Lamp has retained its quality and that Vernola has been a friendly competitor, but he added that the restaurant has been static in recent years and expressed hope Singh can strike the right balance.
"Changes are good, as long as they're the right changes," Keagle said. "You don't want to change the concept, but you want to innovate within that concept."
The transition comes at a propitious time: Westways magazine gave Magic Lamp a rave review in its October issue, calling the restaurant "a bastion of upscale comfort food."
The iceberg lettuce wedge, shrimp cocktail, crab cake, prime rib with Yorkshire pudding and horseradish cream, and crab-stuffed shrimp are all singled out. For dessert, the magazine touts the cherries jubilee, "a retro dish flamed at the table, just like in 1955."
Wipe your mouth. You might be salivating.
"God bless those guys," Vernola says. "I've had more response from that article. People call and say, `We've passed by that place a thousand times and never went in. Can we make a reservation?"'
His response? "Sure you can!"
Now, though, somebody else is taking those calls.
"It's a landmark building," Singh says. "It's an honor to have the restaurant. It will be a challenge because Magic Lamp is already up high. I have to keep up the standard."
Better rub the lamp for luck.
~David Allen, DailyBulletin.com