Roy’s Cafe: the rise, fall, and resurgence of a Route 66 icon

    The little Route 66 town of Amboy, California and its legendary Roy’s Cafe and Motel have seen it all over the past century, and somehow, the almost-abandoned town still keeps hanging in there…

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    I was driving west on Route 66 back in August of 2014 with the windows down and radio up, just as anyone should as they cross the desert on the Mother Road, when I started to notice myself getting thirsty. Hell, pretty soon I was downright parched, and the view out the windshield didn’t help much… Desert as far as I could see. I was daydreaming about the America song, “Horse with No Name” when I almost drove right past a place I’d been looking forward to visiting for the past hundred miles: Roy’s Cafe.




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    You may recognize it from the numerous movies, commercials, and photo shoots that have featured the Route 66 landmark. Why its so often photographed isn’t hard to figure out… All that blue sky and desert with a giant vintage neon sign plopped down in the middle of it all. Just stopping at Roy’s makes you feel like you’re at a movie shoot.

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    While the motel is still in a state of renovation, the little “cafe” and gas station was open for me to run in and buy every water I could get my hands on. Once inside, you can sit at the old cafe counter and browse through binders and binders of news clippings, photo shoots, and other keepsakes featuring the storied cafe.

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    And just what is the story of Amboy, CA and Roy’s Cafe? So glad you asked…

    Way back in 1938 a man named Roy Crowl opened the appropriately named “Roy’s” gas and service station along the newly realigned Route 66 through the little town of Amboy. As travelers steadily kept the gas station busy, Crowl decided to team up with his son-in-law, Buster Burris, to take the gas station and expand it to also feature a cafe and motel. While expanding Roy’s, Burris was also developing much of what we call the town of Amboy today. (Unfortunately, the fact one man jerry-rigged an entire town’s infrastructure has made it very difficult for current restoration attempts.)

    When WWII ended, road tripping boomed as did Roy and Buster’s Amboy empire. Roy’s was now so busy the cafe and garage were kept open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The whole joint employed 10% of the entire town’s population. (70 people)

    Roy’s also established itself as a landmark during this time when they installed the now-world-famous neon sign and built the Mid-Century Modern inclined roof motel office.




    Then it all fell apart.

    I-40 proved to be the kiss of death for Amboy, and by the 1990s only Roy’s, a post office, a small airfield, and a chloride operation remained open. People had simply stopped coming through town.

    In 1995 a NY photographer named Timothy White leased the town from Burris and put his buddy, Walt Wilson, in charge of running the cafe. White eventually bought the property outright for $710,000 from Burris just months before his death.

    White knew the property had potential as a filming location, so he kept the place in a state of intentional dilapidation to make it most appealing for directors. Meanwhile, they developed quite the bad reputation for price gouging what few travelers did pass through. When it was all said and done, White defaulted on the property in 2005 and it, once again, reverted to the Burris family.

    The family struggled to find a buyer for the almost-ghost town of Amboy, but then a white knight emerged. Albert Okura, owner of the Juan Pollo restaurant chain, stepped in and purchased the town for $425,000 and promised to bring Roy’s back to its former glory. Okura’s word carried a lot of weight for historic preservation folks, since he’d already bought the original McDonald’s in San Bernardino and turned it into a museum.

    In 2008, Okura was able to reopen the cafe (although it just sells pre-packaged items like candy, sodas, gifts, etc.) Okura and other supporters hope to eventually reopen the motel and make the cafe full-service once again. It’s been a long journey, but Roy’s is on track to be a jewel in the desert once again.IMG_5416

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    • Show Comments (5)

    • Neissa

      another great story! Love living vicariously through you and the Roadtripper’s

    • Route66guide.com

      Awesome pictures of an awesome place!!

    • Grant Burris

      Hi, I’m Grant Burris. My son, Jason, and I had the privilege of sitting there in the cafe with Buster Burris several years ago as we all tried to piece together our heritage in an attempt to see if we were related to Buster’s strain of Burris’s. It was a wonderful couple of hours the three of us spent together. I wish it could have been a couple of days. The significance of the moment was not lost on me but the time spent means even more to me now. During our conversation regarding our heritage, Buster kept referring to a giant ancestral diagram that his mother had drawn based on her research over the years. Buster said it was large and beautiful and indicated it was about 3 ft. by 4 ft. and in color. He was certain that if he had access to that drawing he could determine how closely my strain of Burris was related to his. We were both excited by the possibility. Unfortunately, Buster said he had loaned the one original copy of the diagram to a traveler, “a man from Newport Beach” who promised to return it after he had copied it. Buster said the man had left a business card so that he and Buster could remain in contact. Well, the continued contact never materialized. And, the drawing was never returned to Buster. Years passed before my arrival. During our conversation, Buster was adamant that he was going to find that missing business card and allow me to look up the gentleman in Newport Beach who borrowed the drawing. I live in Costa Mesa, CA, an adjacent city to Newport Beach. Buster dug through his collection of business card that he had accumulated over the years and what a collection it was. Enormous to say the least. They were all stored in multiple shoe boxes packed to the brim by Buster. I noticed at least 6, maybe 8 shoe boxes filled to the breaking point. There could have been more but these were the ones he saw fit to have us search. The cards represented all the people who had met Buster as they traveled along Route 66. Buster knew what the front of the card looked like but not the name that was on it. The three of us searched through all those cards and many of them brought back memories to Buster and he would pause momentarily then elaborate briefly on the person as he remembered their meeting. However, the card of the man from Newport Beach was not be found that day. At the end of our visit we shook hands and said our good byes. We were to never meet again but I never forgot Buster and the enormous chunk of history he carried with him.
      If the person who borrowed the ancestral chart from Buster reads this, please contact me so that I can make a copy of the chart. I will do the leg work necessary and pay all expenses. You are welcome to keep the original. The chart is too valuable to be left folded in a drawer somewhere. Allow me to make a copy. A Google search of my name in Costa Mesa will locate me easily.

    • Jon Arnold

      I enjoyed reading about Roy’s Cafe. Back in the early 1980’s some friends and I rode enduro dirt motorcycles on a several day trip through the area on dirt trails. We stopped the second night at Roy’s for gas. We arrived at about 4:00 PM and the grill had already been turned off for the day. We enjoyed some sandwiches in the Cafe and stayed the night using 4 of the old cabins. Early the next morning we ate a nice breakfast of freshly laid eggs and bacon with coffee. We needed it as we’d be eating on the trail until we arrived at Baker. Buster was still the owner and visited with us briefly over breakfast. We still drive by it on our way to Las Vegas using the back way from Orange County to avoid the I-15 freeway.

      • Austin Coop

        Great to hear some cool stories from others who have stopped by Roy’s! We haven’t been back in a couple years, but I’m hoping that’ll change this summer. Keep taking the back roads!

    Comments are closed.

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