I was driving south on a California road trip last month, and had just gotten back onto Highway 101 near Pismo Beach when I spotted a sign, not very different from this 1930s original, telling me that I was 42 miles away from split pea soup.
Since split pea soup is an all-time personal favorite, especially the rich thick Dutch kind, I knew what my next stop was. I put the banana and pretzels I was about to snack on back in the box and saved the space for soup.
Sadly, it was not to be. Pea Soup Andersen, a tradition that has survived since 1924 at its original location, turned out to be riding out the pandemic on a three-day-a-week schedule, and my day was not one of them. I'll have to go back, someday!
I also knew I'd need to know more of the backstory: the size of the place was clearly out of scale for tiny Buellton (population 5,000) even if it were drawing business from its Danish-themed neighbor Solvang (which has nearly a thousand more people than Buellton).
Clearly the sign I had seen was evidence that this was an Institution, a Legend of California, and all my conversations since with Californian friends have confirmed that. Travel Rob says that when he was young he remembers "you could drive across the state, always seeing the signs: 200 miles from...etc."
The restaurant at Buellton is large, and it comes equipped with a motel next door, as well as numerous iterations of Pea Soup's comic logo and slogan. The two chefs, by the way, are Hap-pea and Pea-wee, and the sign just above allows you to not only see them, but be them.
The motel has its own long history, too, but let's start earlier, in 1924, when Anton Andersen, a Danish immigrant who had worked in restaurants in Europe and New York opened a cafe in Buellton with his French-born wife Juliette. They called it 'Andersen's Electrical Cafe' because of a pioneer electric stove, and served breakfast and sandwiches.
Three months in, they added the soup to the menu, and it became their biggest hit and a cornerstone of the business; when their son Robert joined them in the business in the 1930s, he made it the name. Irony Warning: Despite all the Danish hoopla around the restaurant and food, the recipe was Juliette's!
The hotel next door took its name when Robert Andersen decided that his parent's pun didn't work well; Anton had been a chef at the Hotel Biltmore, and named his place 'Hotel Buelltmore' after the town. The fanciful light below is in the parking lot between the hotel and the restaurant.
It was also Robert who bought the cartoon rights and plastered the state with the signs, turning the business into as much a roadside attraction as a restaurant; they helped it become a popular stop for travelers between Los Angeles and the Bay Area.
In the 1960s, Robert Andersen retired and sold the business to Vince Evans, who expanded the complex further, and expanded the company to four restaurants. Only one of the branches survives, on I-5 near Merced. The current owner, by the way, is advertising the Buellton Pea Soup Andersen's for sale...if you've got $4.7 million on hand, you can get a lot of pea soup.
Did I say a lot of pea soup? A 2012 article pointed out that the restaurant, which offers an all-you-can-eat deal on pea soup, sells 500 to 600 gallons a day. One day, one of them will be mine...