Photo by James BunoanBack in the days when there were faraway places, the Date Shake Shack was one of them.
"Driving here from Anaheim, it used to be a long trip," observes Juan Escalante. "It used to be like a journey, from the big city to the wide-open countryside."
It used to be you traveled south out of Corona del Mar, along a deserted stretch of Coast Highway, with the twinkling blue of Crystal Cove on one side and the panoramic rise and roll of thickly whiskered hills on the other, to a smidgen of land that hovered on a bluff in the middle of a curve.
No matter how many times you made the trip, the Date Shake Shack could sneak up on you. No matter how often it did, you couldn't miss it—a little wooden kitchen painted bright yellow with white trim, painted very thickly for protection from the hard sun and the wet, salty wind. The place looked even brighter next to its roadside sign, which was inevitably scuffed and faded. Swooping off Coast Highway into the small parking lot was never an easy maneuver. Getting out of the car and smelling the food and drink mixed with the scents of coastal sage and ocean salt never left a doubt that the journey was worth it.
"You felt different when you got here, different from when you left home," Escalante says. "You changed with the scenery, I think. You felt far away."
Escalante is only 30 years old. He has only been making that drive—so as to make his living making smoothies and sandwiches at the Date Shake Shack—for nine years. See, the days when there were faraway places are not that long ago. But there is no doubt those days are gone.
Nowhere is far away anymore. Mission San Juan Capistrano may as well be a Pottery Barn. The Marine Base at El Toro is a Cal State Fullerton campus. The Fluor Corporation headquarters, which once emerged in the midst of native grassland like some futuristic version of Sleeping Beauty's Castle, has been so smothered by parasitic sprawl that it's about as imposing as a swamp cooler.
The Date Shake Shack hasn't budged since it was built in 1943—or changed much, either. You still order sandwiches and smoothies through a small window by making X's in boxes on a preprinted checklist. You can still take a few steps to the unshaded wooden deck and have a picnic on the railing that overlooks the water, squinting against the glare, clutching your napkins against the breeze, resisting the temptation to feed the squirrels, releasing your tense schedule—and stomach—for a few moments.
And you can still say this is still the countryside, too. But only on one side.
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"Looking out to the sea, the view is the same as it has been—maybe, almost, forever," says Escalante, stepping out the side door of the small, crowded kitchen and surveying the shattered-glass reflection of the sun off the water, the white sand that ribbons along the shore and the dense brush that covers Crystal Cove State Park like a bad beard. "But looking the other way . . . well . . . you see . . ."
Escalante has turned around and is looking inland, across Coast Highway. He cringes involuntarily at the startling sight of the once-pristine hills—now mutilated by roads; tied up with fences, irrigation pipes and anti-erosion netting; defiled by the vines of creeping non-native plants; gagging on a vast splatter of gaudy homes that pay multimillion-dollar tribute to bad taste. It's the massive Newport Coast development, soon to be complete with high-end shopping center.
"Once, I saw a deer over there," Escalante recalls. He used to look over there all day as he took orders for smoothies and sandwiches through the little window of the Date Shake Shack. But developers moved the land around, creating a huge, sheer, landscaped hillside at the edge of the highway, and that's about all Escalante can see through his little window now. "The view was amazing. You could see way back into the canyons, so far away. Now it looks a lot like everywhere else. It's too bad."
Escalante gazes up at the furthermost hillsides, where earthmovers have denuded another swath of land, preparing it for still more expensive homes. "And it's gonna get worse, I think," he says. After a moment, he sighs and shrugs—in the manner people in Orange County have been resigning themselves to such disasters for a half-century.