Even a fountain soda is a draw in the middle of the desert.
The Los Angeles to Las Vegas drive can be a lonely endeavor for those shuttling from one city to the other, especially during paradoxically heavy traffic days that seem out of place in a pretty desolate stretch of the Mojave Desert. Enter Baker, California, one of the few notable stopovers on the California side of the trip, home to yes, the “World’s Largest Thermometer” and maybe more importantly the blue & white explosion that is The Mad Greek.
No Los Angeles to Las Vegas road trip is truly complete without a stop in Baker to take in the 134-foot tall thermometer (134 feet tall to commemorate the hottest local temperature recorded, 134 degrees) and an accompanying lamb & beef gyro at The Mad Greek. Opened in 1974 and once part of an Inland Empire string of restaurants, The Mad Greek in Baker is one of two outposts of the chain remaining with a sister location in Primm, Nevada. Opened by Michael Dabour, The Mad Greek remains family-owned, now under the leadership of Larry Dabour, son to Michael.
Those worried about missing The Mad Greek need not fear as billboards for the Baker location start popping up about 100 miles from the restaurant’s front door. Blue and white are uncommon colors in the Mojave Desert palette, letting the marketing pop. But the structure itself trumps any level of marketing thanks to its statue-laden, two-story, billboard-topped blue & white hub of a location along the only main road through Baker. It is cliché to name a business operating in the Mojave Desert as an oasis, but it’s difficult to escape that description given the serene colors of The Mad Greek’s building.
A massive blue sign sits just next to The Mad Greek’s structure, just above a roof covered in faux-Greek statues. Just off the parking lot, a small sign points in the directions of common Las Vegas to Los Angeles drive destinations such as Death Valley, the Greek Islands and Athens, Greece (10,215 kilometers away). Inside, it shouldn’t be surprising to find a modern, order-at-the-counter operation but this is the desert and miles of barren horizon lines have a way conditioning someone for a more rustic experience. Instead, digital kiosks support the staff manning registers along The Mad Greek’s front line just ahead of an open kitchen.
Video boards above the registers and attached to each self-serve kiosk run down a fairly traditional Greek menu full of old favorites like gyros as well as a few Mad Greek specialties. Most popular of course is any variation on the gyro, either in a pita or as a platter, served with traditional Greek sides like hummus (or better yet, spicy hummus). But there are surprise here too, like the Onassis Burger, a cheeseburger topped with pastrami and a signature sauce. Signage proclaims the Strawberry Shake as world famous, which is no doubt the case, but it is hard to avoid the lure of the pastry cabinet next to the main ordering counter that houses row after row of baklava.
There are of course paintings and sculptures to be found inside The Mad Greek, though some simplification has taken place over the years resulting in a pretty clean atmosphere. Blue padded booths are distributed across a number of different dining area, the space large enough to handle crowds that can swell to up to 2,000 customers daily clocking in at over $4 million in revenue per year. Those are big numbers relative to The Mad Greek’s surroundings, the population of Baker, California, stably hovering around 600 residents.
Maybe most importantly, while The Mad Greek is often cited as a classic Los Angeles to Las Vegas road trip stopover, the prices aren’t exorbitant and the vibe is not really that touristy at all. The community drawn to this gyro oasis is a diverse one, the dining room filled equally with hungover Vegas escapees, long-haul truckers and families out for an extended drive.