Fate of the Vintage Mullen’s Dining Cars – Buellton, California

Those of you who’ve traveled Highway 101 along the northern Santa Barbara coast perhaps may recognize these photographs of two vintage streetcars, formerly attached to the old abandoned Mullen’s Dining Car Cafe in Buellton, California. For many years this historic roadside dining car complex (the cars were attached to the original cafe/diner) sat for sale while being slated for demolition. The new property owners tried everything to sell these vintage dining cars, but to no avail. All seemed lost. But first, a bit of history.

Abandoned Mullen's Dining Car #1 in Morro Bay, CA, Parking Lot

Rest Stop

Originally opened as Mullen’s Dining Car Cafe in 1946, this novelty restaurant operated during the heyday of American roadside services. The owner, Ed Mullen, had been a veteran steward on real rail dining cars and had managed to transport extra Los Angeles Railway Standard cars from the L.A. Electric Railway Co. to the rural Central California coastal town of Buellton, still famous for Andersen’s Pea Soup restaurant. The rail cars, which were built in 1911, were operated by the Los Angeles Electric Railway Company until 1944. Located strategically on busy Highway 101, Mullen’s Cafe drew many patrons that were traveling the coast between San Francisco and Los Angeles. The owner later added gas service pumps to draw in more visitors.

Abandoned Mullen's Dining Car #2 in Morro Bay, CA, Parking Lot

Closed for Lunch

These twin railway streetcars once lined the sides of this abandoned roadside diner. However, in 1955, the California State Highways Department realigned and expanded Highway 101 to serve the increasing traffic. The cafe, which stood on the original highway, became severely impacted when 101 was moved. Since 1958 the site remained abandoned and dilapidated, bearing battle scars of time, after being in business for only 12 years. For decades this classic cafe sat decaying as the forces of nature took over, still a site of interest for lovers of vintage streetcars and retro American diners.

Front View of Abandoned Mullen's Dining Car #2 in Morro Bay, CA, Parking Lot

Lady in Waiting

In 2012, a retired contractor from Cayucos, California, Tom Pierze, purchased the dining cars and had them transported up the coast to Morro Bay at great cost. For a time they sat in silence, awaiting restoration in a weed-covered, abandoned parking lot next to a gas station. Word had it that the new owner wrangled with the city of Morro Bay to obtain the necessary permits to restore them to their former all-American glory and open a new diner. Unfortunately, permit and financial issues resulted in these vintage beauties being removed from their resting place at the intersection of Highways 1 and 41 in Morro Bay. I am still attempting to investigate their ultimate fate (see update below).

The three photographs above are HDR (high dynamic range ) images comprised of bracketed RAW shots processed in Photomatix Pro, Lightroom, Photoshop, and with onOne Software’s Perfect Photo Suite. They were taken with a Nikon D800 at the intersection of Highways 41 and 1 in Morro Bay while the dining cars awaited a new life. Due to the fact that the interiors of the dining cars had already been significantly gutted – containing mostly construction materials – I did not take any interior shots. In addition, the cars were tightly locked and secured.

September 2013 Update – Mystery Location Revealed: A huge thanks to Joe Myers, who informed me that these classic dining cars have been bought by and moved to the Bitter Creek Western Railroad near Arroyo Grande, California. Joe was kind enough to leave a couple comments on this post, and provided this vital information. Click here to read the story of how the cars came to rest at the Bitter Creek Western Railroad.

Historic Photo of Mullen's Original Dining Car Cafe, Buellton, California

Mullen’s Original Dining Car Cafe

For more historic details, please visit the following websites: 

No desire? Streetcars move to Morro Bay

Still No Service at this Diner published by The Santa Ynez Valley Journal 

Curt Cragg’s The History Highway, Dining Cars Cafe piece on the Old Gas Station Collectibles Forum

Mullen’s Dining Cars – Undiscovered Buellton by Zippy the Pinhead Locations on Waymarking 

Old Abandoned Dining Cars Cafe on Tricia’s Things

15 comments


  • Michelle Smith

    It is amazing that they saved the old Dining cars. First off I want to say thank you. I noticed in the articles there is no mention of the people who lived there before Mr. & Mrs. Frank Haas bought the property. My brother and myself spent a lot of time in there due to the fact my fathers mother lived there and so did my father. I just thought that people used to live in there after it was a diner and before Mr. & Mrs. Frank Haas bought the property. Just wanted to let people know. Thank you again for saving them a piece of my heart will always be with them.

    December 01, 2013
    • Michelle, thanks so much for stopping by and reading my post on these wonderful dining cars. I really appreciate the additional information you provided. And you are correct, in reading many articles on the web, there is little information available on the history before the Haas family purchased the property. Thanks for filling in some of the blanks. I have fond memories of driving through Buellton and stopping to admire the shuttered restaurant. Only wish I had been able to gain access to photograph the interiors before they were gutted. Thanks again.

      December 02, 2013
      • Michelle Smith

        Renee~ I will try to get you some
        Pictures if I can find you some. I think we
        Have one of a waitress who worked there
        That shows the inside when it was open :-)

        December 02, 2013
    • Thanks again Michelle. That would be great if you had any images I could add to my post. When I have time I will update and expand the history. I also plan on visiting the Bitter Creek Western Railroad where the dining cars now rest. Really appreciate your interest and assistance.

      December 02, 2013
      • Michelle Smith

        Renee,
        I will talk to my mom to where she put
        The picture, since she is decorating
        For Christmas. We were also giving a
        Needle point from a gentleman of the
        Dining cars and the gas pumps. I would
        Love to meet you there once I have
        All the pictures. Like I said there is a lot of
        History with them. :-)

        December 02, 2013
  • Joe Myers

    So this got me to ask a friend of mine who is Very into train stuff – and I found them…

    http://bcwrr.org/stories-trolleys.html

    There were moved to a private site just outside of Arroyo Grande.

    September 13, 2013
    • A huge thank you, Joe, for finally solving the great mystery on the ultimate fate of these vintage dining cars. I so deeply appreciate this information and the link to the Bitter Creek Western Railroad. Will have to make a trip down there and visit. Much gratitude! :–))

      September 13, 2013
  • Joe Myers

    I love your images of the old rail cars. I too have wondered where they have gone since they left the corner in Morro Bay

    I snapped some pics not too long before they left Buellton, and a couple in Morro but they were just snapshots.

    Did you ever find out more info as to what happened to them?

    September 12, 2013
    • Joe, thanks for stopping by and leaving your kind comments. I am happy you enjoyed my images of the dining cars. You are fortunate to have taken some photos both in Buellton and Morro Bay. After the dining cars got transported to Morro Bay, the classic vintage interiors were gutted, sadly. That is why I did not attempt to photograph the interiors, as there was nothing there but construction materials and tools.

      I have been trying to find out what happened to the dining cars but have no information yet. If I do, I will update my post and leave a new comment here. All I know is that the City of Morro Bay made things very difficult for the new owner in terms of permits, and that local restaurants did not want another competitor. A real pity.

      September 12, 2013
  • Hi Rene’e, I just wanted to pass on to you one of the original neon signs are in operation at the Road Side Cafe, Orange, CA Roadsidecafeorange.com. Thanks

    August 22, 2013
    • Hello Glenn: Thanks so much for stopping by and reading my post. I am so happy to hear that you rescued one of the original neon signs from Mullen’s Dining Car Café. I lived in Orange County for many years and miss the fact that there are so few diners like yours in the San Luis Obispo area. Wish I knew what became of the dining cars; the City of Morro Bay did not want them at the intersection of Highways 1 & 41, and would not grant a permit to the new owner who wanted to refurbish them and build a diner. What a shame. Thanks again! If I get back to the OC I will definitely stop by your place.

      August 23, 2013
  • [...] Fate of the Vintage Mullen’s Dining Cars – Buellton, California – the romance of history on rails comes to life in this trio of shots captured and posted here by Renée M. Besta.  What once formed a part of an iconic diner, these old train cars now sit awaiting their fate, covered in textures and weathering from years of neglect.  This is a terrific story, even though the outcome is still yet unwritten. [...]

    May 24, 2013
    • Thanks so much for hopping by and reading my post, Toad. And for including me in your wonderful Light Stalking article. You provide a very valuable service to photographers by collating and publishing interesting posts all over the web.

      Much appreciated. Thanks again. You rock!

      May 25, 2013
  • Great article Renée, once set in place these two rail cars quickly became an icon of Morro Bay. Continuing their history as part of Morro Bay would have been a great addition, it’s unfortante short sight is stronger than foresight.

    May 23, 2013
    • Thanks for stopping by and leaving comments, Kevin. Perhaps as a local resident, you have an answer as to why the owner moved these vintage dining cars and where they went. Did he sell them? Were they hauled off and trashed? Hopefully not. All I know is that the powers-that-be made it very difficult to obtain the necessary permits to restore them and open a restaurant in that location, which would have been wonderful for tourism in Morro Bay.

      May 23, 2013

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