San Juan Capistrano

Before Disneyland, there was the mission

Photo by Keith MayBefore there was Disneyland, there was Mission San Juan Capistrano. Before there was Mickey Mouse, there were the swallows. Before there was a Junipero Serra, there were happy Indians.

Small, tucked away and sometimes forgotten, there is arguably no other city in Orange County that is as historically significant as San Juan Capistrano. It, its mission and its migratory residents have played a pivotal role in selling Southern California to the rest of the nation. Even today, with layers of cheesy shops hawking everything from religious statues to candy, wind chimes, wind chimes and more wind chimes, you still get a sense of that power. There is something about the place—the train that stops in town several times a day, the pace that seems to take its cue from the lazy clang of the mission bells—that transports you, like finding yourself encased in the amber of a Bing Crosby tune.

Which is why people still come to this place—always on March 19 (St. Joseph's Day), but throughout the rest of the year as well. There are the tangible reasons: wonderful places to eat and drink, great places to listen to great music, and lots of cheesy shops that sell wind chimes. But there's that something else, that something people have felt about this place for hundreds of years, that something the Indians felt and that something—to their dread—Father Serra felt also. It's there. And no matter how you feel about San Juan Capistrano, you can't deny its power. Or the absolutely ripping Bloody Marys at the Ramos House Café.


Swallow's Inn. Good drinks with good people who are prone to picking you up and swinging you around. In today's world, that's not a small thing. This is a hard-drinking place—the word grizzled comes to mind—that likes its country music. Local icon Chris Gaffney plays here. All that, and porno in the men's room. It's a good thing. 31786 Camino Capistrano, (949) 493-3188.


Dexter's. Order the soup. Maybe the chicken noodle. Maybe get a tuna sandwich on the side. But order the soup. Perhaps some nice conversation. How 'bout them Rams? But order the soup. Do whatever the hell you want. Just order the damn soup. 27134 Paseo Espada, (949) 488-8012.Ramos House Café. And then there is the toast. Raisin toast. With golden raisins popping forth from the bread that are as sweet as sugar. With butter flecked with the gold of honey and lemon zest. And lime zest, too. The toast is a revelation. You will not begrudge the restaurant the $9 it is going to charge you for scrambled eggs with roasted garlic, wild mushrooms and tomatoes, which arrives topped with nasturtiums and lying on a bed of something fried and crunchy. It is not too pungent but rather zesty enough to make a perfect foil for the sweet toast. You will be happy, amid the clang of an oncoming train and tolling of the mission bells and the soft wind chimes of the house itself, and the small brown bird on the patio whom you talk to as if you were in a children's story. 31752 Los Rios St., (949) 443-1342.Aldo's Sidewalk Caffe. The service is, shall we say, minimalist (you'll have to go back three times to ask for two separate items that they keep forgetting to bring you). And the ambiance is trés strip mall. But the paninis! Fresh, crusty tubular rolls hold slim piles of turkey and salami, tomatoes fresh and bursting with red, and cheese melted into the bread. There is no vulgar pile or pound of deli meat on the roll, but rather a European-sized one. The strawberry milkshake is not gloopy and thick but light and frothy. A cookie thing is shredded coconut dipped in chocolate, and the three times you asked for it are all worth it. Indeed, you would happily ask for it twice more, and you don't even have a sweet tooth! 31882 Del Obispo, (949) 443-0423.El Adobe de Capistrano. Having eaten so much delicious food already, you decide you are quite willing to forgo gastronomic delightitude for some historical ambiance. So you swing by el gigante El Adobe de Capistrano, the favorite Mexican eatery of el Presidente Richard Nixon. Except that when he told the media he liked to go there for Mexican food, it was in fact a restaurant serving American delectables. No matter! Owner Dick O'Neill—a lifelong OC Democrat—changed the menu just for the former commander in chief. Stop by the presidential booth and order the President's Choice (guacamole, chile relleno, chicken enchilada, beef taco, Spanish rice and refried beans). You'll be glad you did. 31891 Camino Capistrano, (949) 493-1163.


The Coach House. One of the premier concert venues in Southern California, the Coach House is a casual, intimate setting in which to enjoy world-famous artists from all musical genres. Such acts as B.B. King, Shawn Colvin, Wilco and Willie Nelson have played here, and Chris Isaak, Leon Russell and Cracker make regular appearances. At your table, you'll dine on American cuisine, choosing from an entrée, appetizer and dessert special offered each night. The regular menu features swordfish, New York steak and burgers. Their crispy mozzarella sticks, nachos or jalapeño poppers go great with a cold brew and good music. 33157 Camino Capistrano, (949) 496-8930.
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