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Fifty Years of La Cave

Costa Mesa's steakhouse shrine to young hipsters and elderly cool cats alike knows the best is yet to come

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William and Carol Boyer opened the doors of La Cave on Valentine's Day in 1962, the same year Johnny Carson took over The Tonight Show, Marilyn Monroe died and President John F. Kennedy declared that America would put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. Dr. No premiered in theaters; the Beatles released their first single, "Love Me Do," in the U.K.

The roots of La Cave started with yams and sugar beets. Carol's parents, Cecil and Gladys McVay, were rural Costa Mesa farmers looking to create a different sort of business opportunity for their grown children, Jim, Ida and Carol. The McVays, whose family name goes back at least 100 years in Costa Mesa, had leased hundreds of acres from the Irvine Co. They got out of the agriculture business, and in 1957, the family home was turned into the original location of another Costa Mesa institution, Hi-Time Wine Cellars.

Lounge singer David Kinwald, ready to channel the Chairman of the Board
Star Foreman
Lounge singer David Kinwald, ready to channel the Chairman of the Board
Flash quiz: Are these La Cave regulars or Donnie Brasco fans?
Star Foreman
Flash quiz: Are these La Cave regulars or Donnie Brasco fans?

A portion of the cellar below Hi-Time had been handed to Bill and Carol, who transformed it into an intimate restaurant that seated 40. In those days, fine dining was still at a premium in suburban Orange County—there was Newport Beach, sure, but those places catered to old money, not young suburbanites such as Jan Rovan, now a Costa Mesa Historical Society volunteer who ate at La Cave the night of her wedding in 1967.

"That was always a desirable place for anyone to go to dinner," Rovan says, recalling the A-line gown she wore, dressed to impress. She couldn't help but feel regal as the waiter presented the night's menu on wheels. "It was almost as though you were in one of the big cities, like a little hideaway under one of those tall New York buildings."

When Bill died in 1986, Carol went back to school to study restaurant management to take over the reins at La Cave. Nanette Sutherland, a longtime La Cave regular, bonded with Carol after both of their husbands passed. The widowers became best friends. "She was fabulous," Sutherland says.

Carol continued to run the restaurant the same way Bill did, Sutherland said, like a family. That familial attitude extended to the customers, including Sutherland, who was often included in employees' birthday celebrations.

"It was the one place I felt comfortable going to by myself after my husband passed away," she says. She likes the cozy atmosphere, which continues to bring her back week after week, even without her friend Carol at the helm. "For me, personally, it's the people," says Sutherland, who, now in her 80s, is still on a first-name basis with the entire staff at La Cave.

For others, it's more visceral. "It's the ambiance and the food," says Larry Edwards, a frequent customer for the past two decades. "We love it just the way it is." He takes over the big corner booth with his close-knit group of friends to celebrate most special occasions.

Mike Palitz, who had owned four boutique hotels in Newport Beach starting in the early 1980s, bought the restaurant from Carol at the end of 1999, dreaming of taking his hospitality background and moving into the restaurant business. He chose La Cave because it attracted the kind of folks he would want to hang out with.

"I found the Costa Mesa crowd is much more real, much more earthy, humble and more Americana [than that of Newport Beach]," Palitz says. "Going one city over, I found a place that resembles my way of thinking. They are very friendly, very unpretentious; they love a good steak and a good martini. They love to dance, and they love good jazz, and I guess that reflects better who I am."

Soon after retiring, Carol passed away in 2002. By then, La Cave was not only an institution, but also a survivor. The fine-dining, family-run experience that La Cave offered had largely disappeared from the Orange County landscape, replaced by national chains such as Ruth's Chris and Houston's, steakhouses that desperately tried to replicate the feel of La Cave-like treasures but at twice the price and twice the attitude—and caring only about customers by trying to get them in and out as fast as possible.

The new owner decided from the start to retain the restaurant's retro feel, but he wanted to figure out how to bridge the gap between the longtime regulars and the new twenty- and thirtysomethings who by then were learning to love the place their elders had frequented all those years. Play too much to young blood, and the regulars would leave, making La Cave a trend that would inevitably peter out. But dismiss the hipsters, and Palitz ran the risk of pinning a business model on clients who were getting up there in years.

"People like to come someplace that is not all blinged-out," Palitz says. To retain the interior authenticity, he rehired the company that sprayed the original pock-marked surface material that creates the cave-like feel of the walls to continue the façade through additional parts of the restaurant and out to the alley. The company also created the faux exterior of the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland.

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7 comments
fitzamatic
fitzamatic

What ever happened to the Todd Oliver Quartet?

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nashville flower delivery

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.

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detroit flower shops

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.

Newportblue65
Newportblue65

It was good then and it's good now!!!!.......You should give it a try!.......By the way, John Wayne really did go there!......Rumor was .......he liked the steaks!.......

Dr. Dan
Dr. Dan

Great date place in the early and mid-60's. But, don't forget that life in OC existed further north--the old Oak Club at the Disneyland Hotel, Chez Cary in Orange along with Villa Fontana (with obligatory Nixon photo in the lobby). Not longer after came Lafayette in Garden Grove and the Jolly Knight to mention but a few other great places.

Manny Subia
Manny Subia

Love.....Love.......LOVE this place! Been visiting it for the past decade and never get bored. I was introduced to La Cave by one of my Co-Worker which also moonlights as a bartender there. I have yet to actually have the steak but my birthday is around the corner and I'm starting to get some good ideas lol ..........Keep up the phenomenal work La Cave,......Can't wait til my next visit

 
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