PRIEST GRADE — A century and a half ago, travelers could find food and rest atop this steep and winding route in Tuolumne County.
Priest Hotel thrived into the 1920s, expanding to 22 buildings and serving people headed for Yosemite National Park on what would become Highway 120.
A 1926 brush fire wiped it all out, and the second-generation owners rebuilt just a small store and service station. A third generation added a motel that stayed in the family until 1969.
In 2007, the Ankers — the fourth and fifth generation — bought the property. Last month, they realized a dream, opening the Priest Station Café & Store on the site of the old hotel.
"I always wanted to acquire this since the day it was sold," said Wally Anker, 81, who grew up on the property, left for a career in international banking and retired to the nearby family ranch in the 1980s.
He started the business with his wife, Helga, and four children. Daughter Denise Anker and son Steven Anker live on the ranch. Daughter Kim Paddon lives in Los Angeles, son Conrad Anker in Bozeman, Mont.
The restaurant specializes in burgers but has several other items, including bratwurst and other German dishes in honor of Helga Anker's heritage.
The old hotel was known for the creamed codfish it served on Fridays, according to a 1975 account by local historian Jean McClish. The new place serves a wild Alaskan salmon burger.
The store mainly sells books on the outdoors, including one that Conrad Anker, a renowned mountaineer, co-wrote about his ascent of Mount Everest.
Guests need only step to the edge of the cafe's deck to see another mountain spectacle — chaparral-covered slopes dropping nearly 2,000 feet to Don Pedro Reservoir.
"It's an amazing view," said Eleanor Watson of Scotland, who lunched there Thursday on her way back from Yosemite with Thorsten Forster, from the same country.
"We've seen great sights," Forster said, "and we're just trying to see as many as we can before we leave."
That international clientele is not surprising for a restaurant on a major route to the park.
"In one day, we can have Hindus and Muslims and locals — a lot of locals," Steven Anker said. "People from around the world can eat together."
They also can see photographs on the walls of previous owners of the site, including Wally Anker's parents, Joe and Margaret Anker, and his grandparents, Dan and Jessie Corcoran.
The latter woman was a niece by marriage of William Priest, an early owner who gave the hotel and the hamlet of Priest Station their names.
The site originally was a wagon and stagecoach stop built in 1849 to serve gold miners. They got there on a rugged wagon road that predated Highway 120.
The highway used to follow today's Old Priest Grade Road, about a mile of steep switchbacks. Now the highway goes up New Priest Grade, which is about five miles longer but easier on brakes and radiators.
Other reminders of the past greet visitors to Priest Station. An outdoor barbecue was crafted by stonemasons who had just finished the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite Valley in the 1920s. A slate-lined well that once served the property might be refurbished. A few rundown guest cabins are being fixed up for future use.
The Ankers buy beef for the restaurant from the Gardella ranch near Chinese Camp, but they hope to someday use their own cattle next to Priest Station, just as their ancestors did.
Wally Anker has been involved in historical preservation and environmental causes in Tuolumne County. During his banking career, he lived in places such as Tokyo, London, New York City and San Francisco.
This ex-banker believes that a new restaurant back at his boyhood home is a sound investment.
"I think a place by the side of the road will continue to thrive here," Anker said. "The view is superb."
Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2385.