Fifty Years of La Cave
in 1965, Tom and Jean Hill decided to dress to the nines and go out on the town. They were still newlyweds, looking for a place to celebrate their third anniversary, when the two stumbled upon a newish place called La Cave in a section of the nice life where Costa Mesa blends into Newport Beach. It was a great place for a young couple—not stuffy like the Arches, not informal like Mrs. Knott's Chicken Dinner Restaurant up Highway 39 in Buena Park. Just good, formal eating, with a surf-and-turf dinner that left the two stuffed as though they were teens at a drive-in.
Nearly 50 years later, there they were at La Cave on a recent weeknight, resting in the comfort of the recessed, dark-red leather booths, basking in the auburn candlelight that illuminated the low-ceilinged dining room. They were more mature now, a lifetime of children and careers behind them, enjoying the late summer of their lives—he dressed down in a Hawaiian shirt, she in a pink blouse, both in slacks. Tonight, Tom surprised Jean with a dinner similar to the surf-and-turf they had so long ago. Plated in front of them on the white-linen tablecloth was La Cave's juicy, dry-aged Angus steak alongside Australian lobster tail. Jean's plate featured one of the few additions to the menu since the 1960s: Alaskan halibut. Each plate was adorned with La Cave's signature twice-baked, cheese-stuffed potato, veggies and lusty garlic cheese bread. And to wash it down? A bottle of red vino.
The food, Jean says, is even better than she remembered.
"But at our age," Tom quips, "who can remember?"
Yet, somehow, plenty of people do, and they keep coming back for more. Even if you're not from Costa Mesa or Newport Beach, where worship of the restaurant is on the same level as what In-N-Out represents to Orange County, the lure of La Cave has proven irresistible over the course of five decades. From its strip mall location to the big, clunky, white sign on the corner of 17th Street and Irvine Avenue that screams mundane, the merits of the retro steak-and-seafood joint where John Wayne and Mamie Van Doren were once regulars are hardly conspicuous. But for the regulars such as the Hills, La Cave is a place of ritual. Finding a spot in an unglamorous parking lot shared by the restaurant, an abandoned Blockbuster storefront and 7-Eleven. Laughing at the inevitable look of bewilderment on the faces of newbies, who wonder how such a known, supposedly classy restaurant ended up at such a nondescript location, across the street from one of those gussied-up strip malls typical of coastal OC, two perpendicular rows anchored by a circular-shaped business. Trekking through La Cave's entrance, more Scorsese tracking-shot fantasy than Orange County reality: a bright, white corridor with canned lights that ushers you into a pint-sized elevator that descends to a basement.
There's no fanfare, barely any indication that entering the restaurant necessitates a trip down the lift. But the name, pronounced "la kah-ve," which means "the cellar" in French, implies it. The elevator delivers patrons to the bustling dining area, a small, dark room in which everything seems to be a hue of burgundy-brown illuminating old-school allure. To your immediate right is the chef, who stands in a brick cove preparing lobster, Alaskan king crab legs, shrimp, swordfish and all the tender, beefy cuts you'd expect at a high-end eatery. Your server greets you with a verbal rundown of the night's appetizers: garlic mushrooms, shrimp cocktail and bite-sized bits of filet mignon. The menu is a chilled case, presented by flashlight, with every cut of steak and seafood on ice to tempt your senses. The garlic and butter ooze from the grill, filling the room with hedonistic wafts. At the room-length bar, regulars chat with their favorite bartenders and enjoy heavy pours of 50-year-plus single-malt Scotch, gin gimlets and Manhattans up or on the rocks.
It's every cliché of lounge-lizard legend come to life—Don Draper, Swingers, the Rat Pack, a fabulous place for a three-martini business dinner. La Cave has heard it all. But this isn't a time capsule or even a time machine. There's a new generation of Orange County glamour mixing with the regulars, ensuring La Cave never passes into trendiness but remains a local treasure. These days, you're more likely to spy VIPs such as Hurley artist Jason Maloney, Dogtown and Z-Boys legend C.R. Stecyk and street artist Ron English dining together and doodling on napkins. Indie rockers and DJs alternate nights with crooners to offer one of the best restaurant music scenes in the region. College students out on a date, women and men looking to hang with friends, older couples sitting in the exact booth they occupied when they were the age of the whippersnappers across the room, scenesters—the tribes that love La Cave seem to grow every year, even as its aesthetic remains stubbornly, wonderfully the same.
Countywide, the restaurant has a love-it-or-hate-it rep. Look to any user-fueled review site—Yelp, Trip Advisor, Urban Spoon, etc.—and the opinions run from five-star raves (one user said she would succumb to the amorous atmosphere for any marriage proposal) to the one-star duds ("Don't show up expecting something other than run-of-the-mill mediocrity"). But La Cave and its regulars don't care. The restaurant celebrated its 50th anniversary in February, so it must be doing something right, right?
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William and Carol Boyer opened the doors of La Cave on Valentine's Day in 1962, the same year Johnny Carson took over The Tonight Show, Marilyn Monroe died and President John F. Kennedy declared that America would put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. Dr. No premiered in theaters; the Beatles released their first single, "Love Me Do," in the U.K.
The roots of La Cave started with yams and sugar beets. Carol's parents, Cecil and Gladys McVay, were rural Costa Mesa farmers looking to create a different sort of business opportunity for their grown children, Jim, Ida and Carol. The McVays, whose family name goes back at least 100 years in Costa Mesa, had leased hundreds of acres from the Irvine Co. They got out of the agriculture business, and in 1957, the family home was turned into the original location of another Costa Mesa institution, Hi-Time Wine Cellars.
A portion of the cellar below Hi-Time had been handed to Bill and Carol, who transformed it into an intimate restaurant that seated 40. In those days, fine dining was still at a premium in suburban Orange County—there was Newport Beach, sure, but those places catered to old money, not young suburbanites such as Jan Rovan, now a Costa Mesa Historical Society volunteer who ate at La Cave the night of her wedding in 1967.
"That was always a desirable place for anyone to go to dinner," Rovan says, recalling the A-line gown she wore, dressed to impress. She couldn't help but feel regal as the waiter presented the night's menu on wheels. "It was almost as though you were in one of the big cities, like a little hideaway under one of those tall New York buildings."
When Bill died in 1986, Carol went back to school to study restaurant management to take over the reins at La Cave. Nanette Sutherland, a longtime La Cave regular, bonded with Carol after both of their husbands passed. The widowers became best friends. "She was fabulous," Sutherland says.
Carol continued to run the restaurant the same way Bill did, Sutherland said, like a family. That familial attitude extended to the customers, including Sutherland, who was often included in employees' birthday celebrations.
"It was the one place I felt comfortable going to by myself after my husband passed away," she says. She likes the cozy atmosphere, which continues to bring her back week after week, even without her friend Carol at the helm. "For me, personally, it's the people," says Sutherland, who, now in her 80s, is still on a first-name basis with the entire staff at La Cave.
For others, it's more visceral. "It's the ambiance and the food," says Larry Edwards, a frequent customer for the past two decades. "We love it just the way it is." He takes over the big corner booth with his close-knit group of friends to celebrate most special occasions.
Mike Palitz, who had owned four boutique hotels in Newport Beach starting in the early 1980s, bought the restaurant from Carol at the end of 1999, dreaming of taking his hospitality background and moving into the restaurant business. He chose La Cave because it attracted the kind of folks he would want to hang out with.
"I found the Costa Mesa crowd is much more real, much more earthy, humble and more Americana [than that of Newport Beach]," Palitz says. "Going one city over, I found a place that resembles my way of thinking. They are very friendly, very unpretentious; they love a good steak and a good martini. They love to dance, and they love good jazz, and I guess that reflects better who I am."
Soon after retiring, Carol passed away in 2002. By then, La Cave was not only an institution, but also a survivor. The fine-dining, family-run experience that La Cave offered had largely disappeared from the Orange County landscape, replaced by national chains such as Ruth's Chris and Houston's, steakhouses that desperately tried to replicate the feel of La Cave-like treasures but at twice the price and twice the attitude—and caring only about customers by trying to get them in and out as fast as possible.
The new owner decided from the start to retain the restaurant's retro feel, but he wanted to figure out how to bridge the gap between the longtime regulars and the new twenty- and thirtysomethings who by then were learning to love the place their elders had frequented all those years. Play too much to young blood, and the regulars would leave, making La Cave a trend that would inevitably peter out. But dismiss the hipsters, and Palitz ran the risk of pinning a business model on clients who were getting up there in years.
"People like to come someplace that is not all blinged-out," Palitz says. To retain the interior authenticity, he rehired the company that sprayed the original pock-marked surface material that creates the cave-like feel of the walls to continue the façade through additional parts of the restaurant and out to the alley. The company also created the faux exterior of the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland.
"I love how quaint it is," says local promoter Ashley Eckenweiler, owner of the ACE Agency, which counts the OC Music Awards among its clients. She first visited La Cave with her grandfather, who would take the family to dine for special dinners. "It's got a really old-school feel to it. . . . I hope they never change the décor. Ever."
Nevertheless, change is inevitable, and it has slowly crept in—but never at the expense of La Cave's vibe. During the 1960s, women weren't employed as servers, only men. And customers were required to suit up in formalwear. "If you were not dressed appropriately, the maître d' sent you away," Palitz says. Valet parking was introduced, but the customers complained the first day, so the owner did away with the suits taking the keys. "That did not go over well," Palitz says with a humble laugh. "Our crowd like to park their own cars."
The biggest and most popular change, though, came soon after Palitz bought La Cave. He transformed the former Hi-Time Wine Cellar that is connected to the dining room into a lounge, incorporating live music to breathe new life into the place. Rock bands became part of the mix, notably James Iansiti's Owl TV, but Palitz really found his niche with jazz, and the main act became the Todd Oliver Quartet. "It was very New York, very hipster," he says. "The hipsters were just starting to come in."
Since then, acts ranging from local musicians the Ginger Baker Jr. Trio and Greg Topper to the Steelwells, Venus Infers and the Barstow Boyz have graced the stage. Even Gary Busey stopped in one night to belt out some Buddy Holly tunes and talk philosophy with the bartenders. The less-rowdy Justin Bieber popped in last year with Selena Gomez on his arm and joined singer/songwriter Ernie Halter on the mic; YouTube footage of the surprise visit quickly went viral.
The lounge's popularity grew, with rock bands, DJs and karaoke backed by a live band added to the mix for a weekly six nights of entertainment. Bartender David Scott started pouring drinks at La Cave in 1998, not long before the live music began. "I was taken aback," he says about his first glimpse at the décor. "I couldn't believe there were places such as this in Orange County. We've been around for 50 years, and we're still a popular secret. The steaks and seafood are absolutely delicious; the cocktails are done the right way. The entertainment is fresh, mostly local and a large variety. But it's mostly about the vibe. The feeling of coming down the elevator or walking down the stairs to enter La Cave—it's welcoming, it's authentic, and it's just cool."
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Scott began serving as La Cave's manager during the time when the nightlife following began to explode, when the restaurant became better known for its music scene than its food. Rock music was added on the last Saturday of the month and eventually every Tuesday, booked from 2002 to 2006 by Sean Sloan and Tim and Joe Schwab. The trio put the lounge on the hipster map, adding indie-rock cred to the mix thanks to popular nights called Swag Lamp and Revolver Project.
While the atmosphere was inviting, Sloan says, it was Palitz's and Scott's willingness to take chances on less-seasoned, local bands that appealed to him as a promoter. "La Cave was willing to give unknown—to them—promoters and bands a chance, provided you brought your own sound system, DJs, bands and did all the promotions," he says.
That sort of freedom gave way to some pretty memorable moments, Sloan recalls. The Bad Dudes and local band Mad Man Moon nearly turned La Cave into their own personal house party during their tenure, riling people into a frenzy as they climbed on tables to shake some legs. LA duo the Pity Party got down and dirty with vocalist Julie Edwards, who also plays drums and keys, belting out what Sloan calls "super, math-creep rock," flooring everyone. And the not-quite-German synth-pop duo the Gentlemen of Leisure—Costa Mesa locals Geoff Harrington and Curtis Mathewson's ridiculously androgynous take on the '80s—played a rare live show to a standing-room-only crowd. "That was the biggest-sounding, epic, arena-rock show stuffed into a tiny club," Sloan says.
Starting in August 2008, Ian Alexander (a.k.a. DJ Kedd Cook) and Brendan Thomas took over Wednesday nights. They booked international touring DJs such as Bag Raiders from Australia, Tiger and Woods from the U.K. and Italy, and Chicago's Lee Foss. "I traveled to New York two to three times per year from 2005 to 2009 and was always a fan of all the underground—literally underground—bars with a cool basement feel to them," Thomas says.
A regular during the Todd Oliver Quartet days, he jumped at the chance to take over the slot when the jazz kings ended their run. "I was given a four-week trial run," Thomas says, "and here we are four years later."
The karaoke night Cover Me Badd is returning this week. But despite the current reign of young blood at La Cave, it's still the old guard that remains the soul of the place, one that Palitz has never forsaken, much to the group's delight in an era in which the middle-aged and elderly keep finding the restaurants that appeal to them nearly gone. OC lounge legend Phil Shane is now one of La Cave's regular acts, performing the last Friday of each month. And on Monday nights, old and young alike slink into booths to hear David Kinwald's Frank Sinatra tribute.
Starting each show with "Fly Me to the Moon," the 70-ish UCLA theater-school and South Coast Repertory alum snaps his fingers to the beat. Crooning with a red rose in his lapel, Kinwald works the room backed only by red-velvet drapes and his VocoPro karaoke machine. Each table is full, and there is no discernible congruity. As with Sinatra, the restaurant appeals to the masses. One table is filled with white-haired lovers in an embrace, mouthing the words to the saloon song "One for My Baby (And One for the Road)." One table over is a bohemian-looking young twosome too caught up in each other to notice anyone else in the room as they whisper back and forth. A silver fox and his knockout daughter banter with Kinwald, adding to the mirth.
Kinwald breaks into songs such as "You Make Me Feel So Young" and "September of My Years" before ending with "New York, New York." With a smile and a wink, Kinwald closes out the show with a wry farewell: "Thanks for coming, baby."
The cavernous lounge is perfect for Kinwald's schtick. "It's romantic," he explains after the show. "It's the perfect kind of room for what I do."
Point proven. "I want him to sing to me every night," says Carol Theiss, a pretty fortysomething Aliso Viejo resident visiting La Cave for the first time. Sipping a glass of Syrah, she takes in the scene. "It's easy to forget where you are while you're here. It's like the restaurant is frozen in time."
This article appeared in print as "The Best Is Yet to Come: Five decades of La Cave, Costa Mesa's steakhouse shrine to young hipsters and elderly cool cats alike."
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