Photo by Keith MayBefore there was Disneyland, there was Mission San Juan Capistrano. Before there was Mickey Mouse, there were the swallows. Before there was a Junipero Serra, there were happy Indians.
Small, tucked away and sometimes forgotten, there is arguably no other city in Orange County that is as historically significant as San Juan Capistrano. It, its mission and its migratory residents have played a pivotal role in selling Southern California to the rest of the nation. Even today, with layers of cheesy shops hawking everything from religious statues to candy, wind chimes, wind chimes and more wind chimes, you still get a sense of that power. There is something about the place—the train that stops in town several times a day, the pace that seems to take its cue from the lazy clang of the mission bells—that transports you, like finding yourself encased in the amber of a Bing Crosby tune.
Which is why people still come to this place—always on March 19 (St. Joseph's Day), but throughout the rest of the year as well. There are the tangible reasons: wonderful places to eat and drink, great places to listen to great music, and lots of cheesy shops that sell wind chimes. But there's that something else, that something people have felt about this place for hundreds of years, that something the Indians felt and that something—to their dread—Father Serra felt also. It's there. And no matter how you feel about San Juan Capistrano, you can't deny its power. Or the absolutely ripping Bloody Marys at the Ramos House Caf.
Swallow's Inn. Good drinks with good people who are prone to picking you up and swinging you around. In today's world, that's not a small thing. This is a hard-drinking place—the word grizzled comes to mind—that likes its country music. Local icon Chris Gaffney plays here. All that, and porno in the men's room. It's a good thing. 31786 Camino Capistrano, (949) 493-3188.
Dexter's. Order the soup. Maybe the chicken noodle. Maybe get a tuna sandwich on the side. But order the soup. Perhaps some nice conversation. How 'bout them Rams? But order the soup. Do whatever the hell you want. Just order the damn soup. 27134 Paseo Espada, (949) 488-8012.Ramos House Caf. And then there is the toast. Raisin toast. With golden raisins popping forth from the bread that are as sweet as sugar. With butter flecked with the gold of honey and lemon zest. And lime zest, too. The toast is a revelation. You will not begrudge the restaurant the $9 it is going to charge you for scrambled eggs with roasted garlic, wild mushrooms and tomatoes, which arrives topped with nasturtiums and lying on a bed of something fried and crunchy. It is not too pungent but rather zesty enough to make a perfect foil for the sweet toast. You will be happy, amid the clang of an oncoming train and tolling of the mission bells and the soft wind chimes of the house itself, and the small brown bird on the patio whom you talk to as if you were in a children's story. 31752 Los Rios St., (949) 443-1342.Aldo's Sidewalk Caffe. The service is, shall we say, minimalist (you'll have to go back three times to ask for two separate items that they keep forgetting to bring you). And the ambiance is trs strip mall. But the paninis! Fresh, crusty tubular rolls hold slim piles of turkey and salami, tomatoes fresh and bursting with red, and cheese melted into the bread. There is no vulgar pile or pound of deli meat on the roll, but rather a European-sized one. The strawberry milkshake is not gloopy and thick but light and frothy. A cookie thing is shredded coconut dipped in chocolate, and the three times you asked for it are all worth it. Indeed, you would happily ask for it twice more, and you don't even have a sweet tooth! 31882 Del Obispo, (949) 443-0423.El Adobe de Capistrano. Having eaten so much delicious food already, you decide you are quite willing to forgo gastronomic delightitude for some historical ambiance. So you swing by el gigante El Adobe de Capistrano, the favorite Mexican eatery of el Presidente Richard Nixon. Except that when he told the media he liked to go there for Mexican food, it was in fact a restaurant serving American delectables. No matter! Owner Dick O'Neill—a lifelong OC Democrat—changed the menu just for the former commander in chief. Stop by the presidential booth and order the President's Choice (guacamole, chile relleno, chicken enchilada, beef taco, Spanish rice and refried beans). You'll be glad you did. 31891 Camino Capistrano, (949) 493-1163.
The Coach House. One of the premier concert venues in Southern California, the Coach House is a casual, intimate setting in which to enjoy world-famous artists from all musical genres. Such acts as B.B. King, Shawn Colvin, Wilco and Willie Nelson have played here, and Chris Isaak, Leon Russell and Cracker make regular appearances. At your table, you'll dine on American cuisine, choosing from an entre, appetizer and dessert special offered each night. The regular menu features swordfish, New York steak and burgers. Their crispy mozzarella sticks, nachos or jalapeo poppers go great with a cold brew and good music. 33157 Camino Capistrano, (949) 496-8930.
Tree of Life Nursery. Eight miles inland along Ortega Highway, Mike Evans holds to a simple botanical belief: "California should look like California." For 16 years, Evans and his staff at Tree of Life have grown and sold only California-native plants, in the process becoming the largest such nursery in the state. But the roadside plantation is more than a business. With its hay-bale and adobe Round House, its flights of art and its indigenous ambiance, Tree of Life is simultaneously a California getaway and a homecoming. 33201 Ortega Hwy., (949) 728-0685.South Coast Farms. You usually catch a whiff of South Coast Farms before you see it. That's understandable: Orange County's biggest example of community-supported organic agriculture isn't much to see. It's squeezed onto 28 acres, surrounded by a trailer park, a sports complex and housing tracts. But its fragrance of ripe vegetables, pungent herbs, sweet fruit and clean, sun-warmed dirt is intoxicating. It makes you hungry. It makes you want to be healthy. Fortunately, everything growing in the fields is for sale at the roadside stand. Stop in and sample its five different varieties of tomatoes. Even better, South Coast Farms sells prepaid subscriptions for three months' worth of its naturally grown fruits and vegetables. For prices ranging from $140 to $351 (depending on the size and frequency of the orders), South Coast Farms will prepare and deliver personalized baskets of produce—and even flowers—every week or every other week for three months. It's a healthy alternative to spending the summer at the burger stand. It's a happy place to visit, too. 32701 Alipaz St., (949) 661-9381; www.southcoastfarms.com.The Plant Depot. This is the best nursery that isn't Roger's Gardens, which has the obligatory koi pond and the largest selection of lavenders we've ever seen. 33413 San Juan Creek Rd., (949) 240-2107.
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San Juan Capistrano Regional Library. Designed by award-winning architect Michael Graves—the guy who creates alarm clocks for Target—the library is nationally recognized for its postmodern style. With a community room, exhibit area, central courtyard and outdoor reading areas, the library is a perfect spot to spend the afternoon. There are also a host of activities—lectures, exhibits (including a wonderful multicultural art series), and musical programs hosted by a variety of local organizations. 31495 El Camino Real, (949) 493-1752.
Mission San Juan Capistrano. Founded in 1776, the Mission is just about the oldest building in California and remains one of Orange County's most popular tourist destinations. And contrary to what you might think, the Mission is a lot more than an old building with a creepy statue of Father Serra fondling a Native American minor. With 10 acres of lush gardens and pools—lined by beautiful adobe walls—it isn't just a museum; it's a great place to relax or simply wander around. There's music on most summer weekend nights, but things get even more interesting in the autumn. On Oct. 27, for example, there's a Pirate Festival on the Mission grounds, which is a re-enactment of the daring raid on the Mission in 1818 by those pesky buccaneers—a day of fun for the whole family that even includes a costume contest. Speaking of costumes: on the second Saturday of each month, there's Living History Day, which features authentic demonstrations and costumes from California's glorious era of Spanish-Indian "cooperation." 31522 Camino Capistrano, (949) 234-1300; www.missionsjc.com.