Buellton Streetcar Diner – A bit of Central California history along Highway 101

A group of people standing behind a counter.

Buellton Streetcar Diner

For nearly seventy years, the Buellton Streetcar Diner stood along Highway 101 providing travelers a glimpse into the past. Mullen’s Dining Cars was never a thriving business as it was severely impacted by the realignment of the highway. We have done a bit of detective work and have tracked down where bits of this iconic diner can now be seen.

circa 1950 photo of Mullens Dining Cars north of Buellton

Nostalgia for remnants of ages past is an interesting thing. We look at these leftovers from another era and reminisce about our youth or wonder how it was to live in those bygone days.

Either way, when these icons of an earlier time are taken away, we feel it rather personally as a loss.

So it is with the Buellton Streetcar Diner which sat along Highway 101 for almost 70 years. Originally known as “Mullen’s Dining Cars”, this roadside diner was established not long after World War 2 by Edward Mullen.

He purchased two old streetcars which were in service in southern California on Henry Huntington’s Los Angeles Railway (Thanks to Scott Pitzer for the clarification). These cars were built in the early 20th Century in Saint Louis.

Menu from Buellton Dining Cars

Interestingly enough, by the late 1940’s, streetcars were disappearing from the landscape of southern California succumbing to the rapid increase in the use of personal autos.

Mullen’s restaurant lasted only three years, mainly due to the realignment of Highway 101. The road didn’t move very far, but just enough to make stopping at the diner somewhat inconvenient.

The diner changed hands several times, gas pumps were installed, but to no avail.

I can remember passing by here and noticing the diner probably sometime in the 1960’s. It had closed for good by 1958 so I never saw it when it was actually open.

Buellton Streetcar Diner showing gas pumps

Buellton Streetcar Diner 1970's view from the front

Dining Cars Cafe, c. 1970’s (?)

Fast-forwarding to 2012, the building and cars had decayed with the passage of time. The property was no longer zoned for commercial use and was being sold for development. The owners were attempting to sell the dining cars, but time was running out.

Then, one time that year when I passed by, the cars were gone. Sad, I thought, and never expected to see them again.

Then in January of 2013 I was driving through Morro Bay and lo and behold! there they were. The cars were waiting in dignified shabbiness for the next thing. A link here to a story about that time.

One of the Buellton dining cars in Morro Bay One of the Buellton dining cars in Morro Bay basking in the last of the sunshine

It seemed for a while that the “next thing” was becoming the heart of a new diner in Morro Bay somewhere. But unfortunately the Buellton Streetcar Diner wasn’t to be the Morro Bay Streetcar Diner.

And then they were gone again.

Further tracking (every pun intended) found them at the Bitter Creek Western Railroad, a private 7.5 inch gauge railroad owned by Karl Hovanitz. A page on their site shows the cars arriving and finding what will hopefully be their home for a while.

2012 photo of the Buellton dining cars in their original home

The story doesn’t end here, however. The sign in front of the diner found a new home as well. It reads “Chicken Dinners Breakfast” and stood there for many years.

It now resides above the Roadside Cafe (how appropriate!) in Orange, California. You can see it here on their gallery page.

So this bit of California history is preserved, at least a while longer and can be visited allowing us to feel wistful for now.


An early photo of the interior of the dining cars with the staff

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