Costa Mesa translates into "coastal tableland" in some undetermined language, but it is believed what the Chinamen meant by that is that the town hovers over Newport Bay. Funny story about that: years and years and years ago—after the Chinamen had been run out and Master Whitey ran things—no one wanted to live in what would become Newport Beach (cold, sand got in your sandwiches, smelled of dead fish). This led to an unfriendly rivalry that had Costa Mesa referring to the lowlands as "Mackerel Flats," while the backward types that hugged the coast called the higher ground "Goat Hill." That's because goats used to graze on the Costa Mesa grasslands until they were all rounded up, turned into frat boys and corralled at Henry 'N Harry's Goat Hill Tavern (141 beer tap handles! Darts!).
After the Spanish illegally seized Orange County land from native inhabitants, Santiago Del Santa Ana gave the Costa Mesa chunk (and more) to Jose Antonio Yorba, who sold off pieces to settlers who in the 1880s established the town of Fairview. Nearby was another little town named Harper after a rancher. In 1920, it all came together as Costa Mesa. The Santa Ana Army Air Base, America's largest basic training center for World War II aviators and flight crews, later became the Orange County Fairgrounds, Orange Coast College, Costa Mesa High School and the present site of the Civic Center.
Swedish dairyman C.J. Segerstrom and penniless Japanese immigrant Roy Sakioka acquired plots of land in Costa Mesa and adjacent towns and planted beans and celery, respectively, then showed the discipline to hold on to their properties until they reached their maximum values for the inevitable freeways, shopping centers and office towers that popped up. The Segerstrom and Sakioka families now appear on the annual Forbes list of wealthiest Americans. The immigrant success stories intertwined in the city's history are obviously lost on the City Council members and gadflies bent on driving Latino immigrants out of town.
Despite such interference, Costa Mesa is still the birthplace of many firsts. Orange County's first four-year college, Southern California Bible College (now Vanguard University) moved to Costa Mesa from Pasadena in 1950. The county's most successful shopping mall, the Segerstroms' South Coast Plaza, opened in 1967 (ironically, the same year as the Irvine Co.'s Fashion Island in Newport Beach), and the first Nordstrom outside the Pacific Northwest opened at the plaza in 1978.
Other Costa Mesa firsts include the county's tallest building, the 21-story Center Tower Building, opened in 1985 (a crown that will eventually be given up to Mike Harrah in Santa Ana). That same year, the county's first carpool lane opened on the Costa Mesa (55) Freeway. And South Coast Repertory is the first and only county theater production company to win a Tony Award, in 1988 for Distinguished Achievement by a Regional Theater.
The city has used its fame from SCR, the 3,000-seat Orange County Performing Arts Center and various other pockets of creativity (including the light-industrial 17th Street area where many action-sportswear manufacturers started/still operate) to market itself as "The City of the Arts."
But silly City Hall, when the arts community approached the council in the early 1990s about continuing city support of the worldwide anti-AIDS program "A Day Without Art," then-Mayor Sandra Genis refused, claiming that a city had no business expending funds (in this case, the cost of a paper proclamation) for a national observance. Genis was accused of insensitivity and homophobia, claims that gained more validity when she issued a city proclamation for the Boy Scouts of America.
Photo by Heather X
Best Recycling As we understand it, the Lab Anti-Mall began as a canning factory for Costa Mesa's manifold lima bean fields, then as a manufacturer of night-vision goggles for Cold Warriors and, more recently, as the vision-in-concrete of former surfwear mogul Shaheen Sadeghi. We feel kind of stupid pointing this out—even the Japanese know the Lab—but we will anyhow: the Lab is to architecture what recycling is to aluminum cans or, better, what found objects are to the art world: It's a brilliant little piece of commercial art and history, a public space that can practically fit in your pocket, an inspiration. And if you want to see what Sadeghi can do with bare earth, walk across Bristol to The Camp. The Lab, 2930 Bristol St., Costa Mesa.
Best Sacred Indian Site Now Serving as a Buffer Between a Town's Most- and Least-Affluent Residents Fairview Park. Besides offering stunning views of the Pacific Ocean, open land to fly kites and the perfect place to release captured rodents, Fairview Park is where the Fairview Indian Site is located. Two different Indian cultures, the earliest dating back to 1500 B.C., thrived here, according to the National Register of Historic Places. Kept so natural that few Costa Mesans have ever set foot there, Fairview Park serves mostly as a demilitarized zone separating wealthy Mesa Verde residents in the north from mostly poor Latinos on the city's west side. Placentia Avenue, south of Adams Avenue, north of Estancia High School.
Best Historic Adobe Near a Gay Cruising Spot Diego Seplveda Adobe. Some historians call this the Seplveda Adobe; others refer to it as Estancia Adobe. And the dates it was built vary from circa 1820 to 1868. But all agree the California State Historical Landmark was erected as a station for Indian cattle herders for the Mission San Juan Capistrano and that it eventually fell into the hands of land baron Don Diego Seplveda and then the Segerstroms, who in 1963 donated the adobe and five acres of property surrounding it to the city as a memorial to early settlers. There's also no denying that the nearby Estancia Park men's restroom has become a hookup spot for gay men—and undercover cops trying to catch them going all George Michael. Estancia Park, 1900 Adams Ave., Costa Mesa.
Best Youth Recreational Facility the City Put Off for Years Volcom Skate Park, now hugely successful, despite the city still being a prick. Build it, and they will come. The city was told this for years. Instead, under directions from parks commissioners with their own inherent conflicts of interest, the city kept pouring time, money and attention into crappy neighborhood parks that attracted bums, tweakers and day laborers. Kids: zippo! You see, Costa Mesa is in the heart of boardsports country, and young'uns—when they aren't being forced into organized sports by their caffeine-addicted parents—have no interest in playing baseball, basketball or soccer. They were born to skate, something the city of Costa Mesa was told over and over and over until—with the success of skate parks everywhere else in the free and not-so-free world—the city finally relented and opened this place. It's been such a massive success that parks commissioners are now saying, "Gee, maybe we should open some more." You think, Herr Douchebag? Meanwhile, go to the city's official site for their shiny new skate park—www.ci.costa-mesa.ca.us/recreation/skatepark.htm—and you won't see photos or words of praise. You'll see a list of rules that wouldn't be this long if it were a nuclear power plant. Holy fuck! 900 Arlington, Costa Mesa, (714) 754-5326.
Best Street Crawl 17th Street. If Costa Mesa is Paris—and why not?—then 17th Street is its Left Bank, if the Left Bank were filled with really drunk and obtuse skater boys and grown-up frats, and since I've never been to Paris, I really can't say yea or nay. On one lovely avenue, you have the clogged artery that is the Little Knight, with perhaps the latest last call in the county; Pierce Street Annex, where a girl just getting over heartbreak can affix to her button fly one of those flashing lights the beer girls hand out and then thunk her badonkadonk with Miss Missy Elliott while the men lurk by the walls; the Harp Inn, a soothing place where you can chat with friends on the patio and actually hold intelligent conversations with the regulars; and La Cave, with its overpriced la carte hunks of bloody goodness, its bitchen underground absinthe ambiance, its regular Revolver night with spooky DJs and art installations, and the best Halloween costume contests in the county, though the Sexy Nurse always seems to win. Little Knight, 436 E. 17th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 646-6650; Pierce Street Annex, 330 E. 17th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 646-8500; Harp Inn, 130 E. 17th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 646-8855; La Cave, 1695 Irvine Ave. (at 17th St.), Costa Mesa, (949) 646-7944.
Best $60 Whiskey Chat Noir. Rich people love Chat Noir. They love its red-and-blackness, they love its $9 side of French fries (seriously!), they love its bad jazz, they love that one booth that sits up on its own dais, so that, like Yertle the Turtle, you're king of all you survey. And, hell yeah, they love that $60 glass of Johnny Walker Blue. Mmmm. Two, please. 655 Anton Blvd., Costa Mesa, (714) 557-6647.
Best Vinyl Record Store Noise, Noise, Noise. If other shops stock musical meat and potatoes, this wonderfully weathered shop has the haggis and blowfish. It's charming to find a store where you can tell they really don't give a fuck if every customer leaves satisfied. I mean, they're polite enough in directing the lumpen masses to stores that stock the lumpenware they desire, but they probably don't miss them when they go. Those not driven out by the industrial electronica often on the turntable (they also go through phases of playing soulful Brit folkies Pentangle) will find an incredibly diverse range of music on hand, from the Minutemen to Motrhead to the Meters to the Jazz Messengers. 1505 Mesa Verde Dr. E., Ste. A, Costa Mesa, (714) 556-1507.
Best Place to Score a Keg, Nab a Bottle of Wine, Acquire a Great Cigar and Get the Best Customer Service Doing All That Hi-Time Wine Cellars. When we die, the inside of Hi-Time is what we hope heaven looks like. Sure, you could point to other places around the county that specialize exclusively in beer or wine or liquor or cigars and the various accessories that go with the consumption of each legal vice, but Hi-Time has an impressive collection of all of 'em under one roof. This is especially convenient for those times you need beer, wine, tobacco and a bottle of courage. And coffee. And a corkscrew. And munchies. What do they call those times again? Oh yeah: WEEKENDS! The selection of beer, wine and spirits is so extensive that connoisseurs the world over know Hi-Time. Now, you can wander the aisles, throwing stuff into your cart—and then putting most of it back when you see how much everything costs. A better strategy is grabbing a friendly, attentive floor person, telling him/her what you're looking for and how much you have to spend, and allowing them to put their expertise to practice, which they'll do by coming up with products that are perfect for your palate and wallet. When it comes to their fine wines from California, France and the world over, you can even taste before you buy at regularly scheduled wine tastings. And good people own the business and work there, which is nice. 250 Ogle St., Costa Mesa, (949) 650-8463 or (800) 331-3005; www.hitimewine.net.
Best Used CD Store Second Spin. Without little independent shops, this nation would be culturally adrift on a sea of cheese, but there's also something to be said for the huge ocean liners plying the musical seas. Costa Mesa's Second Spin isn't only part of a five-store chain, but also is hard-wired to the Internet giant secondspin.com. There's not much personality to the place (though the counter monkeys at least get to play their pick of music), but, jeez, is there a huge selection of CDs to choose from. There's a lot of dreck, but in the sheer volume of it you'll also find that bitchen Pharaoh Sanders or Ernest Ranglin CD, reasonably priced. Head straight for the New Arrivals section, and wade. 1781 Newport Blvd., Costa Mesa, (949) 650-8870.
Photo by John Gilhooley
Best Rockabilly Salon Salon Lucy. Remember Jake's Barber Shop? Teri Lucero's Salon Lucy is like that for girls—all '50s redux, with shapely stylists in full makeup and cute print smocks or dresses; they'll cut your hair if they're not leaning on a '51 Ford Vicky or something. Definitely the place to get your hair swept up in a pompadour—where you keep your razor blades—or else in that curlicue thing they do with the pigtails. Nice. 750 1/2 St. Clair, Costa Mesa, (714) 540-5829.
Best VIP Room Avalon Bar. Remember when VIP actually meant what it stood for—that you were a Veddy Important Person? That your mere presence in a room warranted attention, respect and sky-high mountains of blow? Yeah, well, good luck finding that in this town, buddy. These days, the P in VIP stands more for Population—as in the hundreds of pseudo-high rollers who regularly shell out upwards of $300 for a bottle of vodka they could find just as easily for 46 bucks (plus tax) at Hi-Time, not to mention hang out in sprawling VIP rooms that could, in any other setting, be separate nightclubs altogether. Where's the love? The privacy? The, uh, importance? Turns out Avalon Bar owner Mike Conley knows exactly where—his back office. A few months ago, Conley gutted what had once been a quaint office and transformed it into an elevator-sized VIP room. Seriously. It's maybe eight feet by eight feet, with just enough room to fit three or four people comfortably on a small couch that faces the world's tiniest flat-screen TV. In a word: fabulous. Complaints? Here's one: the door to the VIP room is, like, a foot wide. And you know what that means: no fatties, no matter how damn important you are. 820 W. 19th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 515-4650. Those interested in reserving the VIP room are encouraged to call ahead and make a reservation. The weeknight rate is $150, which includes bottle service for up to six people.
Best Glory Holes Orange Coast College. Where the men's restrooms continue to be notorious dens of anonymous fellatio years after the school newspaper published an expos on the problem complete with a picture of said hole with mysterious stains dotting its perimeter. Not even the introduction of metal walls has discouraged horny men from punching out holes with baseball bats. Ew . . .
Best Tacos Taqueria El Granjenal. Named after a Michoacn rancho that has sent thousands of its residents to Orange County, the colorful outdoor-seating, street-corner restaurant makes the best tacos in the county. They deviate from taco protocol by using full-sized corn tortillas and piling on chunks of your choice of grilled meat. The salsa is extraordinary, a dark-red lava extract—since many customers are genuine Mexicans, you don't have to ask for the real stuff. 899 W. 19th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 645-4964.?
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Best Salvadoran Food Pupuseria San Sivar. The hole-in-the-strip-mall takes special care with its pupusas, which have a crispy yet malleable crust encasing thick, sticky cheese. Meanwhile, an oily, impossibly sugary plantain lying alongside refried beans is like a battle between the lush tropics and the Spartan plains of El Salvador on the tongue; a side of sweet sour cream negotiates a tasteful truce. 1940 Harbor Blvd., Costa Mesa, (949) 650-2952.
Photo by Jack Gould
Best Place to Ditch a Boy Sutra Lounge. Or so says our ad rep Jen Besheer. Would she really ditch a boy? That's so uncool. I was a boy once. This is the place to do it, though: a large and winding restaurant with a low-lit split-level and outdoor area that makes—apparently—holding on to your date very difficult. Also: great food. 1870 Harbor Blvd., Costa Mesa, (949) 722-7103.
Best Preowned Fashions Twice the Style. There's this stuff called fashion, and some women like it. Those who do tend to really like this consignment fashion shop, which gets a surprising selection of new or scarcely owned dresses, shoes, coats, sweaters, handbags and such, usually while they're still on the racks at the upscale boutiques. The folks there are nice. The selection changes almost daily. The deals are the kind that people like to brag about getting. And on the last weekend of the month, many of the items are marked down even more. 369 E. 17th St., #1, Costa Mesa, (949) 642-1844.