Silver Lake, Oregon - Fly-in Dining
When was the last time you dined in a remote location where reservations were required and only two entrées were on the menu? No, we’re not talking about camping; we’re talking four walls and a roof, with wood floors that creak beneath your feet. It’s the Cowboy Dinner Tree Restaurant, surrounded by sagebrush and sparse pine trees on the remote desert plains of central Oregon.
Cowboy Dinner Tree Restaurant
By Linda Rowe Fore. Photos by George A. Kounis
The décor of this humble ranch house is early rustic cowboy, complete with horse blankets that serve as window treatments. You dine at tables made from huge logs, set with tableware that’s an assortment of plastic and tin. A generator powers the lights, and propane fires the grills.
Since the 1800s, this location under a towering tree has been a destination for hungry travelers. While the chuck wagon and cowboys have long been replaced, you’ll still find busy cooks tending smoking grills and serving up heaps of food. In December 2007, after nine years of working here, Connie Ramage, along with her husband Don, purchased the restaurant. Working alongside family members and hard-working locals, they strive to create a memorable evening. So why journey to such a place? Because you will experience unforgettable food at unbelievable prices in a unique setting. It will be an evening you won’t soon forget.
The Cowboy Dinner Tree Restaurant is four miles south of the small town of Silver Lake. The most convenient place to land is a privately owned airstrip called Mahogany Mountain, 62 nautical miles northeast of Klamath Falls Airport and 62 nm south of Bend Municipal Airport. The owners, Mark and Elaine Hammond, allow suitable aircraft to land on their strip, as long as you contact them ahead of time for permission, 541/815-3636.
The surface is gravel with small clumps of grass, so airplanes with very small tires may have difficulty, but the majority of general aviation airplanes can handle it if they are powerful enough for the combination of high altitude (4,620 feet msl) and short length. The 2,640-foot Runway 16 has a slight 1-percent uphill slope to the south, so it is preferred for landing when winds are favorable. If you land on Runway 34, make sure to keep your airspeed under control, since you will overfly a few trees on short final and then touch down on a short, downhill-sloping runway. Fortunately, the go-around path is clear of obstacles to the north. Mark recently seeded a 1,400-by-150-foot crosswind Runway 10/28; ask when you call if it is available. It slopes uphill to the west. There is a windsock at the intersection of the taxiway leading to his hangar. Parking is about halfway down the west side of the strip. There are no lights and no winter maintenance.
When approaching from the west, be cautious of high terrain and several wilderness areas including Crater Lake National Park, 42 nm west. In these protected areas, it’s requested that you maintain 2,000-foot terrain clearance. There are also significant mountains in the vicinity of Silver Lake, including 7,393-foot Bald Mountain, 15 nm northwest, and 8,196-foot Yamsay Mountain, 16 nm southwest. The closest fuel is at Sun River, 52 nm north, Klamath Falls, 62 nm southwest, or Lakeview Airport, 62 nm southeast.
Getting to the restaurant from the runway is a dusty one-third-mile walk. Head to the south end of the airstrip, and turn right on the dirt road. After it crosses a paved road, it turns into the driveway for the restaurant.
If runway conditions at Mahogany Mountain or accommodations availability are a factor, there are two alternatives. The longest in the area is the 5,200-by-60-foot paved runway at Christmas Valley, 23 nm northeast. The Silver Lake Forest Service Airport, 2 nm southwest of the town of Silver Lake, has a 3,000-by-55-foot gravel runway that is graded only periodically, so weeds may be a factor (no winter maintenance). Be careful not to confuse this strip with the private Red & White Flying Service Airport (01OR) directly south of town. Contact the USDA Forest Service office in Silver Lake for the latest runway information; bring your own tiedowns, 541/576-7520. Public transportation is not available, so arrange with the restaurant for pickup from either airport when you make dinner reservations.
Cowboy Dinner Tree
Local lore holds that the Cowboy Dinner Tree Restaurant’s name dates back to the cattle drives of the 1870s, when cowboys moved cattle from the Silver Lake lakebed along the Sycan Trail to the rich grazing lands of the Sycan Marsh to the south. About halfway along the trail, in the shade of the same tree that stands today, they would find a chuck wagon serving up beans and biscuits. The cowboys called this “The Dinner Tree,” and the name stuck. Eventually, the chuck wagon was replaced with a shack, and the shack evolved into today’s restaurant. A few things haven’t changed since the early days. “No credit cards–No electricity–No kidding,” is a phrase that has become a cute motto, but also serves as a warning: Bring cash.
Reservations are mandatory and must be made at least a week in advance. During the busy summer months, call at least two weeks in advance as they are nearly always filled to capacity (maximum of 50). Be prepared to place meal orders for each member of your party when you call. This isn’t as complicated as it sounds, as there are only two choices: chicken or beef. For vegetarians, soup is available for half the price. The restaurant cooks only enough to match existing reservations, so this is not a place you can drop in at the last minute. The rest of the menu is predetermined and includes salad, soup, rolls, potato, dessert, and a limited selection of nonalcoholic beverages.
Plan to arrive early and immerse yourself into life as it was a century ago. Stroll the grounds, check out a teepee, or practice your calf-roping skills on a sawhorse cow, or better yet, on your dinner partner. Out back, you will find the cook shack, where you can see enormous steaks on the grill and request to peek at the chickens that spend more than five hours slow-roasting in the special oven. You can also browse local artisans’ crafts that fill the gift shop and gallery.
When they ring the dinner bell, enter the enclosed porch through the antler-handled screen door. Oversized picnic tables fill this space and are popular with larger groups. The main restaurant contains two areas with uneven floors and walls adorned with antiques and Western memorabilia. The atmosphere is lively, with lots of conversations and toe-tapping country music radio in the background. There are live performances some nights, too.
The air is filled with the scent of freshly baked bread, and as you settle in, you’ll be asked what you prefer to drink. Your choices are coffee, water, pink lemonade, or iced tea, all served in quart-sized mason jars. It won’t be long until a large salad bowl filled with crisp greens arrives with jars of their special ranch and honey-mustard dressings. As you near the bottom of your salad bowl, a steaming crock of hearty soup is served. The chef determines the soup of the day, but it is usually something with beef or chicken. We enjoyed a delicious vegetable beef barley soup that came with a full pan of sweet dinner rolls. (Insider’s tip: If you love fresh bread, request an additional pan of rolls when you make your reservation.)
Exercise portion control during the first two courses, as the entrée is next, and it’s a doozey. If you ordered the chicken, you will be surprised to find an entire chicken before you. After slow roasting for hours, this succulent bird is so tender that it literally falls apart with your fork. But it’s the steak most people come for—a true “cowboy cut.” It’s an enormous 26- to 30-ounce top sirloin that looks more like an entire roast! Each hand-cut selection is well seasoned and carefully grilled, so it arrives tender and juicy.
You’ll be offered two choices of horseradish to go with your steak. The traditional creamy or a version of real horseradish that was described by one brave aviatrix as “the hottest, nostril-flaring, brings-tears-to-your eyes horseradish” she’d ever eaten! Both entrées come with an oversized baked potato with butter and sour cream.
But you’re not done yet. Dessert follows, usually featuring something in decadent chocolate or local fruits or berries. We enjoyed a Marionberry shortcake made with Oregon’s famous blackberries served warm over sweet shortcake and drizzled with farm-fresh cream. We washed these down with freshly brewed, cowboy coffee served from a traditional, firepit-ready coffeepot, complete with the grounds on the bottom.
We’d barely eaten one-fourth of our steaks. The leftovers were packed in “togo” containers along with the soup and rolls, so we had dinner for the next few days. The biggest surprise came last—the bill. At only $24 per adult, it’s hard to imagine how they can stay in business, but they do, and you’ll love it. Splitting dinner is not allowed, children 7 to 13 $10.25, and children 6 and under free. Children’s prices do not include meat; adults can share with children, 20-percent gratuity added to groups of 15 or more. Open Fri. and Sat. 4 to 8:30 p.m. (Nov. through May), Thu. through Sat. (June through Oct.), early opening every Sunday 2:30 to 8:30 p.m., 50836 E. Bay Rd., 541/576-2426.
Where to stay
If you book early, you can stay in one of the two cozy Cowboy Dinner Tree Cabins. Continuing the Western theme, these basic accommodations have wood plank floors and interesting details like character logs that serve as loft supports and coat racks. One even uses a curtain to serve as the bathroom wall.
The single-story unit sleeps two in a full-sized bed. The other cabin contains a low-ceilinged loft accessible from a very small spiral staircase, which may be a challenge for baggage and some individuals. The loft contains a full- and a single-size bed, while downstairs there’s another full-size bed. Both units have a bathroom, shower, and kitchenette where you can refrigerate leftovers and make morning coffee, $120 per night for two people (includes dinner), $38.50 per extra person (also includes dinner). They are pet friendly and have a lenient cancellation policy for pilots. Please call no later than 9 a.m. on the day of arrival if you have to cancel.
For those who don’t mind roughing it, the Hammonds have seeded the tie-down area at their airport across the street, so you can pitch a tent under the wing of your airplane. Whether you stay in the cabins or camp on the airstrip, bring a flashlight to the restaurant, as the prairie gets mighty dark once the sun goes down.
For those who land at Christmas Valley, there are two hotels within walking distance of the airport. The Lakeside Terrace Motel offers 10 cozy rooms overlooking the lake and has an on-site restaurant. With advance notice, the staff can provide transportation for the three-quarter-mile drive from the airport; the motel is also pet friendly, rooms $40 to $50, 87275 Spruce Ln., 541/576-2309. Another option is the Christmas Valley Desert Inn Motel, a basic roadside motel with double and queen-sized beds in the rooms, $38 to 48 per night, 87217 Christmas Valley Hwy, 541/576-2262. Additional information on the Christmas Valley area is available from the Chamber of Commerce, Thu. through Sat. 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., 87531-B Christmas Valley Hwy, 541/576-3838.
In the town of Silver Lake, about 2.5 miles north of the restaurant, you can stay at the Silver Lake Motel, $32 per night, 541/576-2131. There is also a cabin in town that sleeps five, $70 to $85 per night; contact the restaurant for details. Coordinate transportation to and from these locations with the restaurant and motel.
The Cowboy Dinner Tree Restaurant is one of those rare destinations that make us truly thankful to have an airplane. Getting there is only half the adventure. With friendly service and quality food, you can have a unique dining experience while supporting the hard-working individuals who keep this historic operation alive. Come for the food, and discover a little-known part of the Wild West that’s still alive and kickin’ on the high plains of Oregon.
From the archives of Pilot Getaways magazine. Details such as frequencies and prices have been recently updated to reflect current information.