Roy's Cafe: the rise, fall, and resurgence of a CA 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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
But the future now looks bright
In 2008, Okura was able to reopen the cafe (although it just sells pre-packaged items like candy, sodas, gifts, etc.)
Today, the famed sign has finally been restored and re-lit and the plans continue for the full restoration of the property and its adorable little bungalow motel suites.
We'll also say... we've been to countless Route 66 gift shops, Roy's may have the most well-crafted brand-specific gifts we've seen. Their mugs, magnets, shirts, etc. are just spot-on.
If you're traveling through the mighty Mojave, don't skip the little oasis of Amboy and Roy's.
(Cover photo via Allen McDonald)