We could all use more space or a better view, but there's no way Mike Lefebvre, the Sultan of Shellac, would leave Orange to get it.
"Sure, we could move somewhere else maybe larger or better situated, but it'd be more expensive," Lefebvre, owner of Pepperland Records, says. "Besides, if you live in an apartment you can always move into a house—but if you're somewhere you find comfortable, why leave?"
And if the city of Orange, population approximately 140,000, is anything, it is comfortable. Mayor Mark Murphy, who was born and raised here, says that fewer people leave this city than any other in the county—inadvertently raising the question: If he's never left, how would he know?
"I don't know of any other city in Orange County where people still live after growing up there," Murphy says. He just knows. "Every day I see someone I went to grade school with. You have multiple generations of families living here, and I think that's a slice of hometown America that speaks greatly about this city." And it says Mayberry with minorities, a decent hospital and maybe pho instead of pork chops on Tuesdays.
Orange has the requisite big-city amenities like diverse non-chain restaurants, monstrous shopping centers, a university (Chapman) and college, medical centers, and a county jail. But it lacks the institutional bulk of a Santa Ana (faceless warren of ominous governmental buildings) or the wan soullessness of an Anaheim (gross capitulation to all things Disney).
Orange's soul still lives in its time-capsule-quality, mile-square downtown—Orange Circle, actually an oval. It's in the traffic roundabout with the working fountain, the historical homes and buildings (second-largest concentration in the state), and the nearly five dozen antique and specialty stores. They're here because Olde Town homeowners wanted it that way—and wielded considerable political clout to preserve the past. So while the railroad that made Orange an important agricultural and business center in the late 19th century runs through the center of town the way it did a hundred years ago, the current economic powerhouses—the hospitals, high-tech offices and retail giants—are on its periphery. The outer ring is a bustling commercial hub, but the core preserves an eerie charm.
It isn't all white faces and picket fences, though. Drive east to where Chapman rises into Orange Park Acres, and you'll see weed-infested, graffiti-marred neighborhoods peering uneasily from beneath the multimillion-dollar mansions on the dry hillsides above. Traffic can be horrible at all the usual times. There's crime, scandal, a wonderful train wreck of a school district, and all the backbiting, backroom politics and civic shenanigans that make any city fun for reporters and gadflies.
And then you take a stroll through the city's plaza, with its clock, its fir trees, its soda fountain at Watson's, its 100-year-old brick buildings, and you see a place that time hasn't forgotten, but has been kinder to. For just a moment, you're standing not in one of the most densely populated parts of this country—you're standing in the heart of Middle America. And, for the first time in a very long time, that notion doesn't scare the living piss out of you.
Photo by Jeanne Rice
Best Rods Circle City Hot Rods. We remember Sinner man Jimmy White when he was a Shifter. Those were the days. Today, White builds some of the sharpest, shiniest—and most finished—rods around. And customs! His cars look like they rolled straight out of an old Car Craft or Honk!, and, unlike so many new-old-school roadsters, they usually end up with gallons of shiny paint and acres of chrome. Also? Man makes his own exhaust pipes by hand. He's got some skill. 2199 N. Batavia St., Unit R, Orange, (714) 279-0400; www.circlecityhotrods.com.
Best Strip Mall Ever El Dorado Plaza. In one sleepy strip mall, you can get guns, rare coins, hairpieces, custom-made bras, reams of yarn, hearing aids and mobile homes. Strippers come here from Vegas to buy their bras, and—possibly catering to a whole 'nother predilection—there are two stores selling prosthetic limbs. Tustin Avenue, Orange, just north of the Garden Grove (22) Freeway.
Best Record Store Mr. C's Rare Records. This place has been here a generation, which, for everyone here, means the day the music died was Dec. 31, 1974. On the other hand, if you're looking for virtually anything pressed after World War II and before punk, they probably have it. Mitigating factor: they know what stuff is worth: $15 for Hank Thompson live at the Golden Nugget. It burns! 148 N. Glassell St., Orange, (714) 532-3835.
Best Winter Hike Harding Truck Trail. This trail ascends to the Main Divide in a drainage south of Maple Springs Road—but unlike the lower section of Maple Springs, this trail is not shaded by a canopy of trees, making it a better hike during cooler months. From the trailhead, the trail climbs steeply up switchbacks and ridgelines until, near the seven-mile mark, it descends for 800 yards. From a small saddle, it then continues to climb to the Main Divide. At close to 4,000 feet and with a northern aspect, this section of trail can be cold in winter. Often rain puddles freeze and winter storms bring a dusting of snow. Take gloves, a jacket and a hat. While crunching through ice or braving the biting wind, one can almost forget the frenetic pace of everyday life only a few miles below. From the Divide, return the way you came, continue on to the peaks, or, if you arranged a car shuttle, descend via Maple Springs Road (see above). For strong mountain bikers, descending Maple Springs and then returning provides a great out-and-back workout. Park at the Tucker Wildlife Sanctuary on Modjeska Canyon Road, two miles from the intersection with Santiago Canyon Road.
Photo by Tenaya Hills
Best New Bar The District Lounge, formerly Los Vacitos (the little glasses). The first large bar in downtown Orange that seems geared for a more youthful clientele, it's also the first to offer a full menu along with live entertainment most nights. You don't have to be happy about the disappearance of an original arm-benders' hangout, but you gotta love the Chapman U. hotties. 223 W. Chapman Ave., Orange, (714) 639-7777.
Best Vintage Clothing Flashbacks. Kinda like that store Cheap in San Pedro, which moved from Long Beach after it mysteriously caught fire. Great vintage, with steel-trap by-the-book prices taking into account exactly what eBay is doing right . . . now. Meaning they're lenient on stuff that's hard to move, like letterman jackets; high on loop-collar gab shirts, but so is everyone else. 463 N. Tustin Ave., Orange, (714) 771-4912.
Best Place to Pick Up Baseball Sluts The Doubletree Hotel in Orange. This hotel's greatest gift is to the men of Orange County: that life form known as the "baseball slut"—the gal who for reasons best known to herself and her attorney scouts hotel upon hotel seeking unsuspecting professional baseball players in town to play the Angels. The team only has—what?—nine guys on the bench and maybe another 10 who'll be up for some action off the field, so, gentlemen, this is where you come in. After a few drinks, they're trysexual—they'll try anything—and this means you. Your room is ready. 100 The City Dr., Orange, (714) 634-4500; www.doubletree.com.
Best Guitar Repair Soest Guitar Repair. Getting your guitar repaired in OC was once a perilous thing. Old-time repair guys deeply didn't get that a new generation of players approached music differently and needed instruments that could be pushed into "misbehave" mode. They also didn't get that some guitars were precious: because the repair guy could reach the controls easier that way, a 1960 Gibson 335 in for minor maintenance might return with the back sawn off, causing lamentation. Steve Soest changed all that when he started repairing guitars in his Orange garage 30 years ago. Guitars would leave his shop more bitchen than when they went in, and the guitarists often would as well. He helped revive the local surf music scene, playing with folks from Dick Dale to Agent Orange's Mike Palm; has hooked players up with bands, gear and gigs; is a regarded guitar historian; and has pulled off the trick of making OC musicians from four decades think he's cool. So cool you need an appointment to see him these days. Soest Guitar Repair, 760-D N. Main St., Orange, (714) 538-0272.
Best Hope for Tomorrow Recent news that the American Civil Liberties Union is opening offices in Orange County: an area with one of the highest concentrations of members in the southern half of the state, but one devoid until now of representation. These guys know defending civil liberties the way so many knuckleheads around here know breaking them. www.aclu-sc.org.
Best Cemetery View Holy Sepulchre Cemetery. One thing you gotta hand to the Catholic Diocese of Orange—they know where to bury their dead. The view from Holy Sepulchre Cemetery finds undeveloped hills, where storks wade amongst the marshes that shrink with every new grave. 7845 Santiago Canyon Rd., Orange, (714) 532-6551.
Best House(s) of Tomorrow Assorted little tracts of Joseph Eichler-designed homes in east Orange. In his hubris, Joseph Eichler is every inch American. He started building homes not because he'd studied up on it for years, but because he knew what he wanted, he knew he could do it best, and no one else was doing it. So here and in the Bay Area, he put up a few score post-and-beam modern homes with comfortable sprawling layouts pointed at secluded back yards—and central atriums that brought the outdoors in. www.eichlersocal.com.
Best Way to Start a Music Collection CD Warehouse. Which, as its name implies, has scads of the things just waiting for you; in this regard, it's like a slightly less sprawling Amoeba—meaning that, while you may turn up a New Pornographers CD, you're slightly less apt to score Neko Case's debut, The Virginian. But you might. Good prices too. 125 N. Tustin St., Ste. D, Orange, (714) 771-6646.
Best Boys' Night Out Hollingshead's Deli. This amazing slice of blue-collar Americana is an absolute must-eat and -drink. Make sure to gab with Kenny or his dad, the salty dog who moved here from Chicago 40 years ago and polices the 150 bottled beers and 15 constantly rotating tap beers. They're wise and sardonic and can bullshit with the best. The food is good, the company's great, and the beer selection is jaw dropping: every fine American microbrew and most of the greatest imports in bottle or on tap—from the Russian River Pliny the Elder to the Belgian Delirium Tremens, perhaps the world's best beer. It's enough to make you almost really love the Packers. 368 S. Main St., Orange, (714) 978-9467; www.hollingshead4beer.com.
Best Bookstore The Bookman. This 250,000-volume bookstore makes its monthly nut selling paperback mysteries and romances, but bibliophiles know the real reason it exists is so they can browse for hours amongst its rare, out-of-print, new and used tomes touching virtually every broad and esoteric subject man's brain has ever grappled with. 840 N. Tustin Ave., Orange, (800) 538-0166.
Best Salvage Tony's Architectural Salvage. You could find old hardware elsewhere in Old Towne, but at Tony's, it's all in one 18,000-square-foot place: 3,000 doors in stock, old glass, iron fences—who sells fences? Tony's—fireplace mantels, and more lighting fixtures than you could afford to spark up. 123 N. Olive St., Orange, (714) 538-1900; www.tonysarchitecturalsalvage.com.
Best School Board Member Petruccelli S. "Steve" Rocco, who ran a successful campaign last year without ever showing his face; who might have—might not have, turned out—been Andy Kaufman; whose 1992 autobiography, ROCCO: Behind the Orange Curtain—Secret Chronicles and Public Record Accounts of Corruption, Murder and Scandal of Corporate and Political California laid bare the Albertsons-Kodak Film cabal responsible for his 1980 conviction for shoplifting several rolls of film and a sausage from a Santa Ana supermarket. Also? The man has a thick collection of rare Beatles albums and early Johnny Cash vinyl.
Best Scooter Shop The Scooter Shop. Given that the Mod revival was—what?—'78 or so, the Mods are really, really old now. So are we. And so are Vespa P200s, which were the hot ride in high school. You can still get 'em here—newer and older ones—plus the occasional Allstate, VBB or maybe—maybe—a Super Sport, all gussied up. We remember when our friends had 'em in pieces in their moms' garages. 1043 W. Collins Ave., Orange, (714) 289-8394.
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