Pea Soup Andersen’s has wooed the road-weary for decades

Anyone who’s done the interminable drive on Interstate 5 between San Francisco and Los Angeles will tell you: It is deeply boring. It is flat and beige, with its most notable sensory experience coming through the nose, thanks to Harris Feeding Company near Coalinga (sample Google review: “smells like my bathroom after i have some spicy del taco food”). 

But there is another memorable encounter near the West Side Freeway. It is thick and bright green, encased in kitsch and nostalgia dating back to the 1920s. It appears alongside humble saltines and packets of Melba toast. It is the split pea soup from Pea Soup Andersen’s.

The legend began in 1924, when a Danish immigrant named Anton Andersen and his wife Juliette bought a plot of land in Buellton, California, and decided to open a restaurant. At first, it was named Andersen’s Electric Cafe, “so-called because it cooked with a new-fangled electric stove,” the Santa Ynez Valley News quipped in an article in May 1970.

Andersen's Restaurant in Santa Nella, CA. 

Andersen’s Restaurant in Santa Nella, CA. 


Image via Yelp

Andersen's Restaurant in Santa Nella, CA. 

Andersen’s Restaurant in Santa Nella, CA. 


Image via Yelp

Gift shop interior view at Pea Soup Andersen's, a classic restaurant and truck stop along the Interstate 5 freeway in Santa Nella, CA. 

Gift shop interior view at Pea Soup Andersen’s, a classic restaurant and truck stop along the Interstate 5 freeway in Santa Nella, CA. 


Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

Andersen's Restaurant in Santa Nella, CA. 

Andersen’s Restaurant in Santa Nella, CA. 


Image via Yelp


Views of Pea Soup Andersen’s in Santa Nella, Calif. (Images via Getty & Yelp)

The fare was catered to travelers making their way along the newly rerouted U.S. 101 and mostly involved simple pleasures like coffee and pancakes, per the restaurant’s written history. But eventually, Juliette’s pea soup, made from a recipe that she’d brought with her from her homeland of France, won customers’ hearts — and inspired a name change.

Thus, in 1947, Pea Soup Andersen’s was officially born. A pair of cartoon cooks named Hap-pea and Pea-Wee, two differently sized sauciers brought to life by a former Disney illustrator, completed the new branding, which holds to this day.



There are actually two locations of Pea Soup Andersen’s: the original in Buellton, about 40 miles northwest of Santa Barbara, and the other off I-5 in Santa Nella, just north of state Route 152. When I was a kid growing up in LA, my parents used to take my brother and me to the Buellton location to warm our bones after camping trips near Lopez Lake. On drives to visit my aunt and uncle in Palo Alto, the working windmill outside the Santa Nella branch beckoned us. I have fuzzy but fond memories of seeing the dissonantly Danish decor as our car exited the California freeway and of my dad’s abiding love of split pea soup.

But although the restaurant made a deep imprint on my brain, I hadn’t visited a Pea Soup Andersen’s in about two decades — until the Saturday after Thanksgiving, when adult me was taking yet another road trip between LA and the Bay Area and felt the familiar pull of pea soup. I steered the car off I-5 at Exit 407 and left my fiance and dog to fend for themselves while I headed into the restaurant.

A sign welcomes visitors to the Pea Soup Andersen's restaurant in Santa Nella, Calif.

A sign welcomes visitors to the Pea Soup Andersen’s restaurant in Santa Nella, Calif.

Kimberly Alters/SFGATE

Immediately, I was reminded of how much of an institution Pea Soup Andersen’s really is in California. The large double doors and cottagecore vibe out front gave way to a series of merchandise stands to my right and a deep, dimly lit dining room to my left. At just after 2 p.m. on a holiday Saturday, nearly every table was taken — and nearly every patron had some form of soup order in front of them. Everyone, clearly, knows why they’re here.

Because of that, it’s somewhat surprising how big the Pea Soup Andersen’s menu is. At the Santa Nella location, at least, it’s a diner-large menu with three pages of options, including a variety of ways to add soup to your order. There’s the Traveler’s Special, which offers hungry folks all-you-can-eat pea soup with a side of bread and a drink. There are a la carte side orders of pea soup on offer — cup or bowl, it’s your choice. There’s the Hap-pea’s Add-On Special, which lets you tack on a bowl of soup and a drink to an order of any other menu item. There’s the classic soup and salad combo and the equally classic soup and half-sandwich combo, which is what I opted for.

It took barely two minutes for my food to come after I ordered it. I was surprised at first, given it had taken a bit of waiting to be seated and for my server to appear to take my order. But then I realized that those things are up to chance — how busy the dining room is, how many other customers are seated in the server’s section — while the delivery of my food is absolutely not because everyone is ordering the soup. 

The place setting at the Pea Soup Andersen's restaurant in Santa Nella, Calif.

The place setting at the Pea Soup Andersen’s restaurant in Santa Nella, Calif.

Kimberly Alters/SFGATE

The product itself did not disappoint. I added only a dash of black pepper, like I used to do when I was a kid, before diving in. It was satisfyingly hot but not scalding, which is what you want when you’re sitting in the Central Valley in the afternoon. It was thick enough to coat the back of my spoon, with the weirdly satisfying grittiness that shows it’s been freshly prepared. I chose the chicken salad sandwich for my combination option, and its crisp vegetables and chilled filling offset the warm indulgence of the soup perfectly, as did the pickle spear the plate was served with.

I took care to savor the flavors, dipping pieces of Melba toast into my bowl just long enough so they’d soften but still retain a light crunch. I could’ve eaten the whole thing in two minutes, but I deliberately chose not to. 

Memory is a funny thing. The reality is that the last time I’d been to a Pea Soup Andersen’s, I was probably 8 or 9 years old at the most. When I set out to write this story, I had been certain the Santa Nella restaurant had been the mainstay of my childhood, but when I texted my now-divorced parents to confirm, they each independently said Buellton had been the primary stop, thanks to those aforementioned camping trips. We had visited Santa Nella a couple of times, but we’d been to Buellton more, my dad said. In all, he estimated, we’d probably been to the Buellton location four times and the Santa Nella location only twice.

The iconic windmill is visible at night at Pea Soup Andersen's in Santa Nella, Calif. 

The iconic windmill is visible at night at Pea Soup Andersen’s in Santa Nella, Calif. 

Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

And yet, 20-plus years later, I still felt so attached to Pea Soup Andersen’s that I’d looked forward to revisiting it all week. I spent four long, boring hours driving up I-5 raking through all the pieces of old memories I had of the place. Usually, when I pull off the freeway on these road trips, it’s out of necessity: refilling the gas tank; emptying the bladder; choosing the most palatable chips at the mini-mart, which I’ll eat with one hand while steadying the wheel with the other in an attempt to stave off my hunger until I reach my real destination.

This time was different. This off-the-freeway stop was my real destination. Sitting down in a kitschy dining room to eat pea soup is just about the complete opposite of shoving fistfuls of Chex Mix into your mouth while keeping an eye on Google Maps. It’s special and memorable, something you only do because you really want to. 

As I was waiting in line to pay my check, a server approached a nearby table and asked the customers, who appeared to be a father and his two teen-ish kids, if they wanted more soup. They had been taking advantage of the all-you-can-eat special. While his kids demurred, the dad let off a bit of a sheepish grin. 

“Yeah,” he said. “I think I do.”

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