The eras of success at Pine Valley House restaurant are linked with waves in the Mountain Empire economy that began in the 1920’s and ebb and flow along with San Diego’s history and tourism industry.
Current owner Nica Knite described the 2017 version of the restaurant as having a cesspool of hazardous waste under the restaurant that had decomposing rats atop a filthy carpet that completely obscured the antique floorboards.
“I told the real estate agent if I could spend a few hours inside, I’d get a sense of the space. Six hours later, I had an image in my mind and I was able to get a clear vision of what the building could be because of its history,” Knite said.
It turns out that the grimy floor she sat on during her solitary visit was solely being held up by a major beam added in the 1940’s, a fitting image for how history kept the place afloat. Knite’s eyes light up as she describes the original iteration of the restaurant, a 1923 “Gatsby-era beautiful little building with elegant clientele and regular fox hunts taking place in the nearby woods,” just off highway 80 before Interstate-8 was ever conceptualized.
“This is a time that we sort of think of as Teddy Roosevelt’s era. There’s lush fishing in the local Sweetwater River, extensive trails to enjoy, and here’s this beautiful little getaway where Ernest Borgnine supposedly brought his dates,” Knite said.
When the depression arrived in the 1930’s, the small mountain community that relied upon ranching and recreation for income was hit especially hard.
“When you look at how these microeconomies were affected, this was one of the most hard-hit areas. The good part was that this restaurant and the Pine Valley store survived,” Knite said.
The upstairs of the restaurant was transformed into a bordello, she said, with eight buildings worth of barracks outside used by railway crews and cowboys, a definite change in clientele from the dressy couples who had stopped through just a decade earlier.
“The pendulum swung so catastrophically,” Knite said, and by 1940 the restaurant was due for a major remodeling.
Following a 1942 remodel that introduced structural changes which likely saved the restaurant, the buildings held steady through two decades of tourism thanks to visitors coming off highway 80 but in 1967 the Federal and State governments effectively eliminated that cash flow in the name of progress.
The development of I-8 was “the nail in the coffin of the Mountain Empire economy,” Knite said, and as traffic shifted off highway 80, tourist dollars did as well. Although “the road trip craze of the 1970s” as Knite calls it sustained the restaurant as a destination steakhouse, the ‘80s brought another economic downturn with little tourism and few reasons for anyone to visit a small mountain town east of San Diego proper.
“There was a brief period in the 2000’s where kids were learning about protecting the environment and there was a multigenerational interest in preservation so some local tourism was happening but by the time the recession hit, 50% of Pine Valley was vacant and the restaurant just sat there,” Knite said.
A Mount Laguna resident and founder of non-profit Mount Laguna Community Gardens and Charities, Knite was lining up investors for a potential building purchase when a friend told her she needed to come see the Pine Valley House and cottages, which by then had been transformed into a sports bar and was sorely in need of restoration.
Looking beyond the dead rats and the dysfunctional toilets, she discovered the previous owners had rewired the entire facility for modern power use and that the air-conditioning system was completely modified and improved. Of the eight cottages on the property, two were up to code, two were uninhabited but not entirely unlivable with a little work. Four were completely uninhabitable.
She bought the property and although the COVID-19 pandemic delayed some of her plans, she is generally on track toward restoring the facilities as she initially envisioned… and, she’s dedicated to building up the community while doing so.
“A rising tide lifts all boats,” Knite said, and explained she began to hire locals to help renovate what is now the Silver Queen Saloon and Pine Valley House, then added the Pony Express Coffee Bar.
“We have the coffee bar so people can grab a fast muffin or cup of coffee but we don’t offer a full breakfast on weekdays because what would that do to Major’s Diner across the street? They’re an icon in the community. I also removed the pizza oven that was here because the shop across the street does pizzas. With a place of this magnitude, there’s a lot of things I can do without harming others in the community,” Knite said.
She describes how the former bordello space above the restaurant is being completely redesigned as Madame Nica’s Boarding House: studio spaces for single adult-entrepreneurs who “aren’t going to go renting a five bedroom house here” but want to live a rural lifestyle.
Eventually, she said, she wants to host art and music festivals that would benefit the entire Mountain Empire area. Concierge services are also on her list, with a curated list of offerings for guests staying at the cottages: guided walks on local trails, connections to local wineries and picnic baskets packed on site.
“Of the community, by the community and for the community is my motto for everything I do,” Knite said.
Pine Valley House, which Knite describes as the single non-government employer in the area, is located at 28841 Old Highway 80.