To a post-World War II road tripper driving along Route 66, Albuquerque, New Mexico, would have appeared like a neon mirage rising up in the desert. After traveling 300 miles since the last major town of Amarillo, Texas, tired travelers seeking a warm meal and a clean room for the night would have found respite in Albuquerque’s siren song of almost 100 motels—from the Piñon Lodge to Rodeo Court to El Rey—huddled along Route 66 as it snaked through town (where it is called Central Avenue).
Route 66 unfolds for 18 miles through the Duke City, making it the longest urban stretch through one city of the entire route. The advent of the automobile and the opening of Route 66 in 1926 had transformed Albuquerque from a sleepy railroad and agricultural town into a destination welcoming auto-driving wayfarers from far-flung places.
Within three decades, though, the opening of Interstate 40 in the late 1950s rerouted through traffic one mile north of Route 66, and most of those beloved lodgings and cafes, such as the once-glamorous Western Skies Motel (where JFK stayed on December 7, 1962), were lost to the ravages of time.
Over the years, many former Route 66 landmarks in Albuquerque have been replaced by strip malls, newer motels or fast-food franchises. Yet avid “mid-century archaeologists” can still unearth enough vestiges of the Mother Road’s heyday to warrant a 21st-century cruise down Albuquerque’s Central Avenue. Some mainstays are stalwart businesses that never left, while others are classic structures repurposed to cater to modern-day travelers.
The Dog House courtesy of marblestreetstudio.com
ENDURING FLAVORS, NEW TASTES
Before bedding down for the night after a lengthy journey, a weary traveler would have wanted to fill their belly.
They could have enjoyed the trademark red or green chile served at the counter at the Duran Central Pharmacy, which opened in 1942. The pharmacy’s food became so popular that the owners converted part of the store into a diner in the 1960s. Today, it continues to serve such New Mexico classics as Duran’s Frito Pie and Stuffed Sopaipillas, which you can enjoy while waiting for your prescription to be filled.
Nearby, the neon dachshund atop the Dog House has been wagging its tail to visitors for 70 years. You can’t go wrong with the foot-long chili dog that’s covered with cheese and delivered to your vehicle by a carhop.
Moving forward from traditional American hot dogs, the University of New Mexico’s main campus anchors a section of Route 66 in the city that has witnessed an ever-changing array of eateries. One of the oldest is Frontier Restaurant, a Western-themed diner that’s been feeding hungry students and travelers since 1971. Its tortillas, green chile stew and sweet rolls are perennial Best of Albuquerque winners. Western movie lovers will enjoy the collection of John Wayne-themed art lining the restaurant walls.
Just down the street, a blend of past and present is evident at Sushibucks, a Japanese eatery housed in a building that was constructed as Charley’s Pig Stand in 1935. The original tiles proclaiming “Pig & Calf” are still visible above the door. The remainder of this block has become a haven of more contemporary rib-sticking Asian fare, with O Ramen and Curry House, Naruto Ramen, and the Iron Café offering authentic Lanzhou hand-pulled noodles.
The Range Café occupies the former Carothers & Mauldin 1930s-era service station, serving up diner food and New Mexican classics with a contemporary twist. Full-service gas stations have gone the way of the Edsel, yet their signature architecture along Route 66 provides a new definition for “fill ‘er up!” Try the Blue Corn Enchiladas, and go for a slice of chocolate coconut cream pie.
In 1987, the gleaming white walls and Streamline Moderne curves of the bygone Sam’s service station, circa 1946, were repurposed into the 1950s-themed 66 Diner; the mechanic’s bay was even transformed into a dining room. The signature Pile Up menu offering is a heap of pan-fried potatoes, chopped bacon, chopped green chiles, two eggs any style, cheddar cheese, and red
or green chile sauce on top.
KiMo Theatre. Photo courtesy of marblestreetstudio.com
BACK TO THE FUTURE: RETRO RENOVATIONS
Albuquerque has taken an active role in the preservation of historic buildings along the popular corridor, starting with the circa-1927 KiMo Theatre. Built in the Pueblo Deco style—a dazzling blend of Native American and Art Deco design—it incorporates indigenous motifs such as Navajo rugs, wrought-iron birds and rain clouds both inside and out. Years before she rose to prominence as Ethel Mertz on the I Love Lucy TV show, a young Vivian Vance first heard the roar of the crowd while performing vaudeville on the KiMo’s stage. After a fire and years of disuse, the city of Albuquerque purchased the theater in 1977, reopening it after renovations in 1982. It now hosts film festivals, touring musical acts and theater productions.
The Italianate-style Hotel Parq Central is a renovation with an unusual origin story. When it opened in 1926, the structure was a hospital for employees of the nearby Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway Company. It was eventually abandoned, but the tumbledown building was bought by Santa Fe developers who renovated and reopened it in 2010 as a 74-room luxury hotel. The indoor/outdoor rooftop Apothecary Lounge serves small plates and seasonal cocktails on a terrace overlooking Route 66.
Visitors seeking a classic mid-century lodging experience will find it at the Spanish Pueblo Revival-style El Vado Motel, which opened in 1937. Having avoided a proposed visit with the wrecking ball, it sat vacant for more than a decade before being renovated by a public–private partnership and reopened in 2018. One of the most historically intact motels along Route 66 in New Mexico, it’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Guest rooms with names such as DeSoto, Packard and Hudson hearken back to the automotive heritage of the hotel’s location.
The front portion of the El Vado was creatively converted into an alfresco international food court. Diners can munch on Costa Rican specialties from Buen Provencho, pulled pork Korean tacos from Street Food Sensations or an Arigato Roll from Ikigai Sushi, any of which can be followed up with a banana pudding cake jar from A Heavenly Taste Cakery.
El Vado Motel. Photo courtesy by Larissa Milne
GHOSTS OF ROAD TRIPS PAST
Unfortunately, many of the other sights in Albuquerque that originally attracted motorists on Route 66, like the Zia Motor Lodge and the 21 Motel, have not endured into the 21st century. Yet their weatherworn neon signs remain, presiding over vacant lots or, in the case of the former Caravan Nightclub, a new city library. The vintage signs stand in sharp relief against the turquoise sky of mile-high Albuquerque, like eternally proud totems of a lost civilization and reminders of a time when a journey to the American Southwest was as exotic as a trip to the moon.
Michael Milne is the author of the Roadster Guide to America’s Classic Car Museums & Attractions.