Foothill Boulevard: The Allure of Southern California’s Stretch of Route 66
Updated: Nov 16, 2021
It’s not often that a road strikes me as something to write about, but then not every road is Foothill Boulevard. There’s something inherently unique and uniform about this street, so much so that—for me—it stands out as one of the most significant thoroughfares in Southern California.
You see, along Foothill, there is homogeny, and a sense of togetherness, that makes the road feel much more like a city (albeit an oddly shaped one) than most of the cities that it passes through.
Foothill Boulevard is a 60-mile road with its easterly point in San Bernadino and its western culmination in the north of Los Angeles.
It cuts through the Inland Empire cities of Rialto, Fontana, Rancho Cucamonga, Upland, Claremont and Pomona, continues its path across LA County into the likes of San Dimas, Azusa and Pasadena before its last stop in the LA suburb of Sylmar.
Foothill Blvd in Rialto from the 1950s. A public domain image
The most noteworthy fact about Foothill is that—for the most part—it makes up a good chunk of the historic Route 66—“The Mother Road”—that runs (well, ran) from Chicago, IL to Santa Monica, CA. Does that have a bearing on the establishments on this street and how they go about marketing themselves? You bet it does.
So what kind of sights can you find on Foothill? Well, as always, I should add a geographical disclaimer: what best represents Foothill Blvd is the strip that starts around La Verne to the West, and ends in Rancho Cucamonga in the East (just over a 15-mile stretch).
This particular region is a near-never-ending slew of restaurants, supermarkets, auto repair shops and H&R Blocks. Cities merge seamlessly into one another—you might not notice leaving one and entering the next if it wasn’t for all the street signs changing color.
Foothill is not glamorous by all means (well, the Claremont section is pretty fancy), but its realness is what helps make it so charming. Foothill is the working person’s street. The perfect destination for tackling an ever-growing to-do list. Waiting for a new car tire to be installed at one of the FIVE Pep Boys on this part of Foothill? Why, you’ll be able to get your taxes done, have a karate lesson and speak with your lawyer while you wait!
(FYI, that last paragraph was an attempt at painting a picture of the variety of businesses in the area, and not a wily way of commenting on the wait time at Pep Boys, which is actually pretty reasonable. Anyway.)
(That last paragraph makes it sound like Pep Boys’ legal team got in contact and instructed me to add that disclaimer. They did not. Or did they?)
Where Foothill does manage to insert a bit of—not quite glamour, but—stimulation, maybe, is in that space just above your forward-facing vision—the zone your eyes penetrate when you should be paying closer attention to the road. Here, one’s view is littered with all kinds of signage. And as businesses want to stand out amongst the sign noise, we’re treated to a sea of bright colors and unconventional fonts.
(Anyone who follows my Instagram page will know my new obsession with A Good Sign.)
At dusk, with the San Bernadino Mountains towering in the background, the flurry of neon signs on Foothill is really quite something; you can’t help but be mesmerized by the vibrant light display all around you.
Conversely, strip malls too rule this part of the world. The US has around 65,000 strip malls—I’d hazard a guess that half of them are on or around Foothill.
These (usually) single-story eyesores look like they were designed by the most boring architect ever. Yet, just like the US public loo fiasco, their design has practical value. Customers can usually drive right up to the door of any business located in a strip mall, alleviating Americans’ aversion to walking very far.
A handy visual from the Quora page, "Why is it called a 'strip' mall?" Hmm...
And they stand out even more here against the onslaught of colorful signage: driving past a drab, beige-grey exterior—that I assume all strip malls must legally be painted—feels similar to when you move your vision away from your phone in a dark room. A welcome lapse for your straining eyes.
While you’ll probably see a variety of household names occupying spaces Foothill’s strip malls, they really belong to the slightly eccentric independent businesses. Ones without a logo that offer both dry cleaning and boat insurance. Or lawyers' offices akin to one where you might find Saul Goodman or one of his associates.
The tailor for my wedding suit was very much a typical Foothill strip mall business owner. Based in a rundown-looking sand-colored building in Upland, Sal was a charismatic older Italian man who was utterly thrilled I had found him by googling “tailors near me” and somehow, for some reason, had two separate tailoring stores under two different pseudonyms.
So while strip malls may serve as a sensory break while travelling down Foothill Blvd, the majority of the businesses inside these washed out sandwiches still manage to fit in with the kitschy-cum-convenient quality of the road.
The blame for this overall in-your-face attitude that Foothill seems to possess lies solely with its honor of making up part of Route 66. Even the blandest of sounding businesses can spice up their marketing by including this historical highway in their company name…Route 66 Self-Storage, Route 66 Auto Repair Center, Route 66 Laptops, you get it.
Who knew a self-storage sign could look so cool. Stolen from my IG page
If the latter ever needs a jingle, I’d suggest one to the tune of the Nat King Cole song: get your laptop fixed, on Route 66. They can have that for free.
Of course, being America’s Main Street (as we’re reminded via a bridge display in Rancho Cucamonga), the Foothill Blvd section of Route 66 does include a lot of unique, fun and/or flavorful sights.
Route 66: America's Main Street
For some bona fide Route 66 history, look no further than the Sycamore Inn in Rancho Cucamonga (RC from now on). It’s the second oldest restaurant in California, dating back to 1848, and—despite it’s current status as a fancy steakhouse—it’s got a checkered and bloody past.
Other famous landmarks include Upland’s Madonna of the Trail—the western-most of 12 identical monuments dedicated to pioneer women—and the Atlantic Richfield Historical Gas Station in RC. The latter now operates as a museum.
Food-wise, just about anything and everything goes on Foothill. There are hundreds of independent restaurants offering every cuisine imaginable, although the big-name fast-food chains are still represented multiple times. California’s favorite chain, In-N-Out Burger, has positioned its locations such that you can always see the end of at least one of its drive thru lines.
A brief nod to the excellent vegan representation on this strip, in the form of: Spotless Burgers (Upland), with its ever-expanding fast-food selection; Mi Ranchito (Upland), that has an extensive plant-based menu; Ashirwad The Blessings (would you look at that, also Upland), a tasty vegetarian Indian restaurant; and Bright Star Vegan Thai (Rancho Cucamonga), a local staple that’s popular with meat eaters and vegans alike.
Foothill wouldn’t be Foothill without its generous smattering of dive bars, liquor stores and adult-themed establishments. Hi Brow in Pomona is a dive that’s perhaps a little too sketchy even for my liking, or there’s Mustang Sally’s in RC if you want to hang out with some bikers and lairy locals.
But my favorite Foothill dive is located just off the main road on the Upland/RC border. Deane’s Bar & Thrill (its name already elevating itself to the top spot) is a lively, shabby hang out where patrons have to rely on the verging-on-offensively-neon blue lights to get around the bar—which is complete with all your favorite dive bar characters, a pool table and a deafeningly loud jukebox.
Looking for some X-rated entertainment? The Upland section of Route 66 is again your place. Within half a mile of each other you can either take home some light viewing at Sensations Love Boutique, or experience a live, in-person show at Tropical Lei, a strip club that often amuses me with part-cringy-part-funny puns on its marquee (that I can see from the road, OK?). Sadly, the only one I can remember is when, during the lockdowns, it said, “Temporarily Clothed.” But I mean, that’s genius.
Taken from their NSFW IG page
Then there’s the themed restaurants, of which Foothill is home to many. Like the Magic Lamp, with its bizarre-yet-endearing mix of Spanish outer tiles, a Bavarian-influenced indoor theme and Aladin-themed name (and sign).
Or there’s Sushi Maru Seafood, a ship-shaped restaurant in Claremont that sadly now isn’t particularly ship-shape and seems permanently sunk.
Another infamous yet shut-down eatery sits just down the road in Pomona: a castle-shaped building that was last called Stein Haus, before closing its doors a few years back. It was featured on the show Bar Rescue and then shut up shop not long after. There’s a joke in there somewhere.
My final Foothill shout out goes to Claremont’s Supermarket Row: a Trader Joe’s, Sprouts and Stater Bros all in quick succession. What choice! I could go on about the subtle differences between these establishments for a while, but instead I’ll save it for another post (you lucky, lucky readers).
(Safe to say though, my heart belongs to Stater Bros.)
While living as close as I do to the Route 66 isn’t quite as exciting as it sounds, Foothill is as practical as it is peculiar. It’s kinda like Vegas, without the casinos, hotels, tourists and slightly less street drinking—replaced instead with car mechanics, gas stations and thrift stores.
Foothill is the beating heart of many of the towns it passes through, pumping of course in unison along its whole stretch. And despite the slew of traffic lights along the way that always seem to work against you, I’d take it over the nearby highways any day of the week.