Photo by Matt Otto "I'm here all the time. My picture's even on the wall," Irene says, but then she looks away for a split second, unsure whether that's something a pretty, young twentysomething should brag about. But her smile comes right back, and what's it say? "It's great to be a regular."
Irene can tell me which nights not to go to the bar: Mondays and Wednesdays, when "the older crowd"—the same older crowd whose pictures far outnumber hers on the wall—comes in. But does she know anything about Cliff, the namesake behind Cliff's Hideaway, the official—we checked!—Only Bar in La Palma, the tiny Luxembourg of Orange County? At this point, I don't even bother to ask.
A few days earlier, I'd been tackling pints of Hefeweizen and chatting with Sheila, a 20-year-veteran barmistress and one of Cliff's most beloved faces, when she passed a tattered photocopy across the bar. It was a snapshot of Cliff's in its early days, when it was more a service station than a stripped-down sports bar. In the photo, a few people—presumably regulars—lingered in the doorway, smiling for the camera. Above them, in the corner of the picture, someone had decided to tally their bar tab.
It's all neon on the wood-paneled walls of Cliff's now, which currently shelters two electronic dart machines, a pool table and a juke with the finest in '70s cock rock. But the bar didn't always look this way. There used to be palm-tree-shaped cocktail tables and lacquered blowfish hanging from the ceiling, from when Cliff's was a tiki bar. "And that was back when you could still smoke in bars," Sheila remembered. "They were hanging there for years, absorbing all that smoke."
Still, when the bar changed ownership—over a decade ago, from what I could gather—the regulars didn't want to let the blowfish go. "Some people paid 50 bucks each for those things," she cringed, half-laughing, half-sighing. More sighing than laughing.
"You'd be amazed by the crowd in here on Fridays and Saturdays," Irene says. "It's very young. Lots of kids from Cypress College and Cerritos [College]." I'm skeptical—tonight's mean age is probably 41—but minutes later, I decide to believe her. A Fullerton baseball fanatic—they're No. 1, you know—sitting a few stools down starts to complain to no one in particular: "I walked in here last night [Saturday] and walked right out. I didn't recognize anyone."
Turning to the woman to my left, I decide to give it one more try.
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"Cliff?" she responds, staring blankly. I wait, staring back.
"Sure you don't mean Tony, honey? He's been the owner since I've been coming here. What's this for? A school project?"
No, just . . . curious, I guess. Dive bars like to be forgotten—it's what keeps the lights low, the floors sticky and the divey-ness alive—but there's a moment when forgetfulness turns into a quiet fade-out. As happens to only the most forgotten-about dive bars, Cliff's will be invaded: in a few months, no doubt, Irene will be dropping by on Mondays and Wednesdays as well; Sheila will be doling out the whiskey-and-Cokes by the gallon; and newcomers will pause by the framed pictures of regulars long-forgotten—who knows where they'll have moved?—and pay their respects with a point-and-laugh. Maybe every once in a while, someone will pause, put down their glass, throw an elbow into the person next to them, and wonder who Cliff was. It is, after all, the only bar in town, and no one remembers the guy who put his name on it. They probably forgot as soon as someone tallied their bar tab.
Tackle the mystery of Cliff's Hideaway, 5442 Orangethorpe Ave., La Palma, (714) 521-7883. Open daily, 10 a.m.-1:45 a.m. 21+.