Paradise Getaway Artist

Butte County is Why Restaurants Matter

Restau­rants become homes in the wake of the Camp Fire tragedy

Writ­ing about restau­rants was the last thing I want­ed to do with my career. I used to poke fun at peo­ple who did — them and their poet­ry about micro­greens. I thought food writ­ing was a frilly, elit­ist exer­cise, what peo­ple in ascots talked about at their Aspen time­shares. I was forced by 2008’s ter­ri­ble econ­o­my into this line of work (I need­ed a job and this was the one avail­able). And I saw pret­ty imme­di­ate­ly how wrong I was. Most things in life can be explained by look­ing at the way Amer­i­ca eats, drinks, and com­munes in pub­lic spaces: cul­ture, reli­gion, econ­o­my, ecol­o­gy, pol­i­tics, ethics, val­ues, all of it.

Over the last decade, I’ve tried so many ways to explain exact­ly why restau­rants are so essen­tial. That old shar­ing of bread. A place where strangers become friends, friends become clos­er friends, part­ners, lovers. Most recent­ly — with the rise of automa­tion and kiosks and apps that deliv­er the food to your door — I’ve wor­ried we might be sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly dis­man­tling what’s sacred about this space. 

But no words can express it like hav­ing a Cuban sand­wich and a glass of wine at Nic’s did. 

Butte County is Why Restaurants Matter

A thin, ele­gant­ly dressed woman at Nic’s pours us a glass and shares one of her sto­ries. Her fam­i­ly mem­ber was stuck in traf­fic try­ing to get out that day. Pan­ic hadn’t ful­ly man­i­fest­ed. Run­ning was an option, not yet the only one. The one road out, High­way 191, had clogged to a stop. The fam­i­ly mem­ber caught a glimpse of the fire in his rearview mir­ror and what­ev­er he saw — how­ev­er big, how­ev­er fast, how­ev­er unfath­omably preda­to­r­i­al — made him open his door and run. He ran four­teen miles down­hill on boots and adren­a­line until he found shel­ter. The engine was still idling when the fire took the truck, like it took every­thing else.

There are 15 locals who work at Nic’s deli and wine bar. All of them lost their homes in the Camp Fire. Every per­son is a lost home. And still, this bright, clean box in the hills — with the light­ly dressed lob­ster roll, the deli­cious Cuban with pulled pork and Dijon, the beer, the wine, and the warm chat­ter — is a riot of hope. 

Restau­rants all over Butte Coun­ty became the places for 25,000 peo­ple with­out a place. Danielle Ius, own­er of Chico’s break­fast restau­rant, Sin of Cortez, explained that for the first few months cus­tomers said they just need­ed to sit in a famil­iar room. Feed each oth­er, like they would at home. Chit-chat, as they had at their own din­ing tables. Restau­rants served as a warm, well-lit shel­ter, a town hall with French toast, an ad hoc news­room, a spot of prayer and group ther­a­py, a bar to show wounds and close them. For the first five months after the fires, Ius wore water­proof mas­cara to work. 

When Camp Fire raged, friends sent me pho­tos of the skies I used to live under, now sick with smoke. It was the worst fire in California’s record­ed his­to­ry. You can intel­lec­tu­al­ize that fact. News sto­ries and online videos can make us pause, gasp, pray. But they don’t bruise your blood like walk­ing through it does. Up here in Par­adise it is gut­ted earth, a crazy dele­tion. Peo­ple have always lived here for the hill qui­et, but there’s a scar on the silence now.

The num­bers seem too big to be true. Near­ly nine­teen thou­sand struc­tures burned; 11,500 homes. Five thou­sand peo­ple helped clear the rub­ble, haul­ing 3.6 mil­lion tons of con­crete, steel, ash, con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed soil and debris — twice the amount removed from 911. Trucks heaped with wreck­age slowed traf­fic for months, trav­el­ing 28.2 mil­lion miles to recy­cling facil­i­ties and land­fills, the equiv­a­lent of 59 trips to the moon.

Then the most crush­ing num­bers: eighty-five peo­ple died. Twen­ty-sev­en thou­sand peo­ple lived here, and, overnight, there were 2,000 left. A year lat­er, it’s bare­ly 4,000. Eighty-five per­cent of Par­adise has yet to return.

Restau­rants are as vital as organs, espe­cial­ly now.

If you’re look­ing for hope in the wake of tragedy, fol­low the food.”

Nic­ki Jones was among the first to come back. Jones is one of those peo­ple who appears to have respect­ful­ly declined the nat­ur­al aging process. She does 74 like most of us do 44. Her hair is white as brochure teeth, each strand falling like an ele­gant, cur­sive J” above her prim brow. Her blue eyes are ful­ly plugged in, crisp with humor and wit. 

Jones and her hus­band moved to Par­adise decades ago. They’d looked all over the Bay Area for a home, and imme­di­ate­ly felt that bur­row­ing instinct here. She lost him years back. Then Camp Fire took their house and her busi­ness, a cloth­ing bou­tique. Two months lat­er, she returned. So many ques­tions to answer after a tragedy, but Where is home?” wasn’t one of hers. She bought a lit­tle cor­ner spot on the main road and named it Nic’s — the first new restau­rant to open in Par­adise after the fires. 

Butte County is Why Restaurants Matter

My wife Claire and I col­lect our­selves before walk­ing in. We know locals have seen their share of vis­i­tor tears by now. We can’t keep drag­ging them back to that day. At some point, that can’t remain the point. So we try to open our eyes to Nic’s sto­ry with­out let­ting it break us. It is so, so hard. The first time you see what hap­pened here, to these peo­ple, the grief gets inside you. 

Jones diverts any and all praise to April Kel­ly, a Par­adise native and expe­ri­enced restau­ra­teur who runs the deli. Kel­ly has 14 fam­i­ly mem­bers in the area, and her home was the only one left. What strikes me most is how quick and free she is with a laugh. There had to be a stretch of time, months maybe, when laugh­ter wasn’t appro­pri­ate here. If that’s true, it’s ceased being so. Laughter’s back. 

They’ve annexed the spot next door to reopen Jones’ cloth­ing bou­tique. I buy a truck­er hat. They added a din­ing room that can be cor­doned off for meet­ings. Hun­dreds, if not thou­sands, of meet­ings will be held here as the future of Par­adise is rewrit­ten. Live bands play on week­ends. Locals dance.

Claire and I need to talk about it, but don’t want to make them talk about it. It’s pret­ty obvi­ous they know. They see it in us, prob­a­bly see it in every new arrival. And so they patient­ly walk us through the tragedy, the updates, the process. They’re the vic­tims and yet they become our con­sol­ers. The age-old joke about bar­tenders also being ther­a­pists has nev­er rung more true. Before we walk out the door, they segue into the sto­ries of hope, the new­found strength of com­mu­ni­ty, that sharp wis­dom of what’s real­ly, tru­ly impor­tant in life that peo­ple can only get through loss. 

I attend­ed Chico State from 1991 to 1997. I was brought back to help shine some light on these restau­rants, the cooks and own­ers and dish­wash­ers work­ing their butts off in a tough indus­try to make some­thing mem­o­rable for their com­mu­ni­ty. I agreed to write a sto­ry for Explore Butte Coun­ty about my expe­ri­ence, and this is that. The hole in Butte became my sto­ry, as I think it would for any­one return­ing at this point in time. To write any­thing else would be super­fi­cial, dis­hon­est. But in the epi­cen­ter of that hole I saw the restau­rants, fill­ing that hole. 

Restau­rants are as vital as organs, espe­cial­ly now. If you’re look­ing for hope in the wake of tragedy, fol­low the food.