San Juan Capistrano

Best Belgian Restaurant L'Hirondelle. This is a San Juan Capistrano landmark, offered as proof by residents that their city offers more than Father Serra this and swallows that (although the restaurant's name is French for "the swallow"—guess one can't, er, fly too far from the nest). The lapin à la liégeoise (rabbit) is perfect, tasting like a duskier, moister turkey, with a plum-wine sauce—juicy plum skins mixed in, lending a bittersweet taste. 31631 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, (949) 661-0425.



Photo by Tenaya Hills

Best Wine Bar Tannins Restaurant and Wine Bar. Next door to a car wash, this place is two attractions in one. The restaurant features a nice blend of Italian food and a takeout pizza delivery service. But the chic wine bar, based on a cellar of more than 700 wines, is the main attraction. It's the town's premier pickup spot—so hep, in fact, that Tannins plans to open a nightclub soon. 27211 Ortega Hwy., Unit C, San Juan Capistrano, (949) 218-3560.

Best Cowboy Environmentalist Tom Rogers. He's a Republican, a former Orange County GOP activist, and a cowboy who wears a bolo tie. And he's living proof that not all Republicans are evil. Rogers helped author 1988's ill-fated slow-growth initiative Measure A, which went down in flames after developers outspent proponents by a 50-to-1 margin. More recently, Rogers teamed up with such liberal environmental groups as the Sierra Club to fight valiantly if unsuccessfully against the Rancho Mission Viejo project. If there were more folks like Rogers in South OC, the place might not be turning into a sea of salmon-colored, stucco-splattered gated communities.

Best Crazy Starter Run San Juan Trail 50K, Winter Trail Running Series. For the endorphin-addicted, there are the ultra distance runs—races covering 30 to 100 miles or more, over steep, demanding terrain. The San Juan Trail 50K is one of the best, navigating many rugged—and beautiful—Santa Ana Mountain trails. After covering its 30 miles, you'll know what it feels like to have your legs battered by sledgehammers. It's fun, though, in a perverse way. And if you enjoy it, you can always run all the other races in the Winter Trail Series. Winter Trail Running Series, Blue Jay Campground, Long Canyon Road & Ortega Highway, 21 miles east of 5 freeway at San Juan Capistrano, Cleveland National Forest, (949) 857-1055; www.rndrunning.com. January-March. Fees vary by race.

Best Loud Place The Coach House. Okay, so this place bills itself as one of the county's premier music halls. Let's just say that it's the best place to see artists you would have paid $70 to see at the Galaxy in Santa Ana three years ago. It may not draw the big acts of yesteryear, but you can still catch folks like Lee Rocker, the Fenians and—straight outta Newport Beach!—the English Beat. It also has a restaurant and bar. 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, (949) 496-8930.

Best Stuff to Haul Back to Curio Cabinets in Boise Camino Capistrano. The O.C. Social Distortion. Newport Coast. RVCA. Shaheen Sadeghi. OC Weekly. Lost. UC Irvine. Kobe Bryant. No Doubt. Fender guitars. The Lab Anti-Mall. Arrested Development. Donald Bren. Villa Nova. Julianne Argyros. Fashion Island. The Quiet Woman. St. John. Jim Washburn. Coffeehouses. We could go on about what makes OC remarkable. But serving as America's style laboratory comes at a high price: we've driven kitsch to the brink of extinction. Harassed by book learning, nudity, travel and wealth, bad taste is running out of habitat. There's my parents' place, of course, a shag-carpeted, wrought-iron shrine to the 1970s, but my friends often mistake that for wink-wink, nudge-nudge interior design; I call it "wrought-irony." And there's the antique alley around the Orange Circle, but these shoppes are absolutely surrounded by good taste, reducing real crap to little islands; its future in Orange is bleak. Only on Camino Capistrano—San Juan's downtown—can you still find the kind of crap your cousins will want to buy for their mother (your aunt) back in Boise. Ceramic angels; porcelain figurines of children herding sheep that look so cute you'll be thinking of mint jelly, mashed potatoes and a really sharp knife; wall art with crafty little sayings ("Hands Off the Cook's Buns!"); frameable posters of every lapdog imaginable, including some so ugly we figure they must have been Photoshopped (if the chin dog really exists, I'm joining an evangelical church and opposing all human efforts to crack the genetic code or cure cancer). Best bet: "Free Swallow's Story," a little pamphlet available directly across from the Old Mission.

Best Quiet Place San Juan Capistrano Regional Library. Designed by award-winning architect Michael Graves—the guy who creates alarm clocks for Target—the library is nationally recognized for its postmodern style and those blue plastic handles on all the doors. No, not really the blue plastic. With a community room, exhibit area, central courtyard and outdoor reading areas, the library is a perfect spot to spend the afternoon, but it also has the requisite activities: lectures, exhibits (including a wonderful multicultural art series) and musical programs hosted by a variety of local organizations. 31495 El Camino Real, San Juan Capistrano, (949) 493-1752.

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