Restroom photo gallery surprises guests at Fremont Diner
By DIANNE REBER HART / Sonoma Valley Correspondent
You never know who you’re going to see in the unisex restroom at the Fremont Diner.
Friends, acquaintances and strangers alike greet those entering the otherwise standard john.
Privacy? Forget it.
There are hundreds of faces peering out from the walls, courtesy of the old-time photo booth inside the popular eatery south of Sonoma.
When diner owner Chad Harris installed a themed photo booth to replicate a vintage chicken coop, he hoped to bring in a little cash and add some additional old-fashioned appeal to his hip restaurant.
“I wanted something that would be fun, something this place is built upon,” Harris said. “And I figured that was a good way to make some money.”
What he didn’t figure was that his lone restroom would evolve into a funky photo gallery.
The first few photos came innocently enough.
When occasional malfunctions in the photo booth caused strips of pictures to jam, Harris and his staff refunded their customers. Once the momentary problem was resolved – typically by replacing ink or photo paper – the backed-up snapshots would emerge in perfect condition.
“Instead of throwing them all away, we glued them to the wall,” Harris said.
“Now it’s like a thing – people take photos just to post them in the restroom.”
He estimates there are between 300 and 400 strips of photos set against the aqua-colored walls of the restroom, located just off the patio where wooden picnic tables are painted the same cheery color.
Customers pay $5 for two identical sets of four photos. Most ham it up for the camera, taking one strip home as a souvenir, leaving the other behind as a lasting memento of their visit.
There are numerous couples kissing, from pecks on the cheek to locked lips, and plenty of goofball poses.
When nature calls, it’s like a hidden-word puzzle inside the restroom. Find the three cool guys with the sunglasses; the blonde with dramatically puckered lips; the guy in the “Relief Pitcher” t-shirt making funny faces; the many people sneaking two-fingered bunny ears behind their partner’s head.
Look, too, for the woman with the finger in her nose or the trio using some of the available props: phony mustache, broad lips and silly eyeglasses.
Beyond the photo booth portraits, there’s additional character within the one-seat restroom.
A framed painting of a chestnut horse hangs above the toilet; a longhorn cattle skull hangs above the painting. It’s presumably fake but possibly not, yet another curiosity for unsuspecting guests.
Several newspaper and magazine articles applauding the diner are framed and hanging on the walls, reading material at the ready.
A page from a vintage cookbook shows a line drawing of three robust pigs eating from a trough and a farmer in coveralls with a corncob pipe. The text offers directions for preparing aged ham that is “rich and flavorful and deserves careful treatment.”
A retro-looking advertisement for an old letterpress print shop in Nashville features a polar bear in an icy scene and reads, “Cooler than the Coolest Spot in Town.”
Many would argue that the Fremont Diner is the coolest spot in Sonoma Valley. Located on Highway 121, on a stretch named Fremont Drive, the diner has become a busy roadside attraction reminiscent of an era long gone.
Harris took over the simple, flat-roofed building in 2009. He spruced up the former longtime home of Babe’s Burgers and Franks into an eatery filled with weathered antiques, vintage collectibles and old-time advertising signs.
Depending on who is dining, it’s located either in Schellville near the Mulas Dairy (as old-timers would say) or in the Carneros appellation district surrounded by vineyards (as tourists and wine connoisseurs know it.)
There’s agreement, though, that both the gourmet comfort food and the restroom are worth the wait on busy days.
Ironically, Harris says he rarely hears anything positive about his restroom.
“That’s the biggest complaint, that we only have one,” he said. “There’s a line to get out there.”
The wait just may have something to do with all the sights inside that aqua-colored john-turned-gallery.
The Fremont Diner, 2698 Fremont Drive, is open 8 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday to Wednesday, 8 a.m.-9 p.m. Thursday to Sunday. Call 938-7370 or visit thefremontdiner.com.