By OC Weekly Staff
By Edwin Goei
By Edwin Goei
By Edwin Goei
By Edwin Goei
By Edwin Goei
By Kiera Wright-Ruiz
By Cleo Tobbi
in 1965, Tom and Jean Hill decided to dress to the nines and go out on the town. They were still newlyweds, looking for a place to celebrate their third anniversary, when the two stumbled upon a newish place called La Cave in a section of the nice life where Costa Mesa blends into Newport Beach. It was a great place for a young couple—not stuffy like the Arches, not informal like Mrs. Knott's Chicken Dinner Restaurant up Highway 39 in Buena Park. Just good, formal eating, with a surf-and-turf dinner that left the two stuffed as though they were teens at a drive-in.
Nearly 50 years later, there they were at La Cave on a recent weeknight, resting in the comfort of the recessed, dark-red leather booths, basking in the auburn candlelight that illuminated the low-ceilinged dining room. They were more mature now, a lifetime of children and careers behind them, enjoying the late summer of their lives—he dressed down in a Hawaiian shirt, she in a pink blouse, both in slacks. Tonight, Tom surprised Jean with a dinner similar to the surf-and-turf they had so long ago. Plated in front of them on the white-linen tablecloth was La Cave's juicy, dry-aged Angus steak alongside Australian lobster tail. Jean's plate featured one of the few additions to the menu since the 1960s: Alaskan halibut. Each plate was adorned with La Cave's signature twice-baked, cheese-stuffed potato, veggies and lusty garlic cheese bread. And to wash it down? A bottle of red vino.
The food, Jean says, is even better than she remembered.
"But at our age," Tom quips, "who can remember?"
Yet, somehow, plenty of people do, and they keep coming back for more. Even if you're not from Costa Mesa or Newport Beach, where worship of the restaurant is on the same level as what In-N-Out represents to Orange County, the lure of La Cave has proven irresistible over the course of five decades. From its strip mall location to the big, clunky, white sign on the corner of 17th Street and Irvine Avenue that screams mundane, the merits of the retro steak-and-seafood joint where John Wayne and Mamie Van Doren were once regulars are hardly conspicuous. But for the regulars such as the Hills, La Cave is a place of ritual. Finding a spot in an unglamorous parking lot shared by the restaurant, an abandoned Blockbuster storefront and 7-Eleven. Laughing at the inevitable look of bewilderment on the faces of newbies, who wonder how such a known, supposedly classy restaurant ended up at such a nondescript location, across the street from one of those gussied-up strip malls typical of coastal OC, two perpendicular rows anchored by a circular-shaped business. Trekking through La Cave's entrance, more Scorsese tracking-shot fantasy than Orange County reality: a bright, white corridor with canned lights that ushers you into a pint-sized elevator that descends to a basement.
There's no fanfare, barely any indication that entering the restaurant necessitates a trip down the lift. But the name, pronounced "la kah-ve," which means "the cellar" in French, implies it. The elevator delivers patrons to the bustling dining area, a small, dark room in which everything seems to be a hue of burgundy-brown illuminating old-school allure. To your immediate right is the chef, who stands in a brick cove preparing lobster, Alaskan king crab legs, shrimp, swordfish and all the tender, beefy cuts you'd expect at a high-end eatery. Your server greets you with a verbal rundown of the night's appetizers: garlic mushrooms, shrimp cocktail and bite-sized bits of filet mignon. The menu is a chilled case, presented by flashlight, with every cut of steak and seafood on ice to tempt your senses. The garlic and butter ooze from the grill, filling the room with hedonistic wafts. At the room-length bar, regulars chat with their favorite bartenders and enjoy heavy pours of 50-year-plus single-malt Scotch, gin gimlets and Manhattans up or on the rocks.
It's every cliché of lounge-lizard legend come to life—Don Draper, Swingers, the Rat Pack, a fabulous place for a three-martini business dinner. La Cave has heard it all. But this isn't a time capsule or even a time machine. There's a new generation of Orange County glamour mixing with the regulars, ensuring La Cave never passes into trendiness but remains a local treasure. These days, you're more likely to spy VIPs such as Hurley artist Jason Maloney, Dogtown and Z-Boys legend C.R. Stecyk and street artist Ron English dining together and doodling on napkins. Indie rockers and DJs alternate nights with crooners to offer one of the best restaurant music scenes in the region. College students out on a date, women and men looking to hang with friends, older couples sitting in the exact booth they occupied when they were the age of the whippersnappers across the room, scenesters—the tribes that love La Cave seem to grow every year, even as its aesthetic remains stubbornly, wonderfully the same.
Countywide, the restaurant has a love-it-or-hate-it rep. Look to any user-fueled review site—Yelp, Trip Advisor, Urban Spoon, etc.—and the opinions run from five-star raves (one user said she would succumb to the amorous atmosphere for any marriage proposal) to the one-star duds ("Don't show up expecting something other than run-of-the-mill mediocrity"). But La Cave and its regulars don't care. The restaurant celebrated its 50th anniversary in February, so it must be doing something right, right?