The OC Food Scene, 20 Years Ago

That was then...
That was then...
Courtesy of Memphis Cafe

Twice a month, legendary bartender/chef/restaurant insider Dave Mau pops by Stick A Fork In It to chime in about a random OC food or drink musing of his choice. Enjoy!!

"Time just gets away from us" -Charles Portis, True Grit

The OC food scene 20 years ago was a much different creature. It was both stuffy and trashy at the same time, which seems impossible, but it was. That was when it was still okay to eat at Black Angus and if you were feeling like stepping it up a bit from there it was time for Hoff's Hut. Birraporreti's at South Coast was all the rage along with HB's epic Mazzotti's which, at the time, was THE spot to score some blow and a random bathroom/alley/backseat hookup. What is now considered the old-guard shops were more like the sort-of-old-guard and what would have been considered the old guard then are mostly the long gone now.

Sid's on Old Newport was charging headlong into its golden age, soon to implode. The former Cuckoo's Nest, now Zubie's Gilded Cage, was readying to shutter and the overall tone here in the OC food-wise was fairly bland, surely stagnant, and it didn't seem like there was much coming down the pike to change any of that. However, there were three events that occurred almost simultaneously 20 years ago that symbolize the cultural mindset that would influence the scene for the next two decades.


The first was the launch of this infernal rag (yes, I was there at the launch party at Linda's Doll Hut) and its musings on the OC food world. The food writing was a serendipitous byproduct of the usual content for a mag like ours, with a divergence from the usual editorial content. Unlike other publications here in the OC, we haven't pulled our punches and that independent mindset has, in my opinion, made us the premier source for info on the local food scene-and I don't say that lightly. Gustavo, Goei, Lieberman, Shuji, Anne Marie, LP, Charles, Kristine and (yes) even myself strive to give the straight dirt.

The next change is more symbolic but equally telling: the closure of Garden Grove's legendary Belisles. I only went once but it changed the way I thought about food completely. I had an epic breakfast, a giant cast iron skillet brimming with hash browns, bacon, eggs, biscuits and gravy. Enough food, in fact, for 6 people instead of just myself and two of my equally big-eating friends. A buddy of mine, Kieran Scott, describes it best:

"I recall a pot roast platter there that had enough gravy to fill a small aquarium, and the vegetables were stacked Giza-like in steaming pyramids. I don't recall what the dessert was that day because - even though I was a big boy - I never finished my plate, so a three layer chocolate cake was out of the question. Said slices were notoriously obscene - easily a foot high and capable of chocking the tires on our '68 Dodge Dart. Belisle's remains in my memory as a place where food wanted to die and be served. It was big, brazen, and bodacious in its pink-painted, high-signed way. It felt like a carnival in there - the owner used goofy ploys to draw diners and I suppose that irked the more staid businesses in the area who could not compete with the joint's vibe. Hiring midgets and school kids to dress as chefs and stand on the corner waving at traffic puts today's sign spinners into historical context."

The closing of Belisles was a bloodbath worthy of Custer's Last Stand, with the Garden Grove Redevelopment Agency bulldozing the old dame to build a hotel that never came to fruition. And now there is a fucking Joe's Crab Shack there.

The third occurrence was the launch, on a shoestring budget, of Memphis Cafe in Costa Mesa at the former Kings Inn (which was a cold beer, teriyaki/burger joint where you may or may not get whacked across the head with a pool cue on a random weekday afternoon). Full disclosure: it's no secret that I have been part of the Memphis Mafia from the beginning, either as an employee or guest, and I've racked up more time on both sides of that bar than at any other joint. There is, however a reason we got the nod as the most important restaurant in the last 20 years: The newly constructed The Lab and the gritty old Costa Mesa neighborhood that sprawled to the west. Memphis was also at a cultural crossroads, spanning the gap between the old-guard punk rock Linda's Doll Hut/Club Mesa crowd and the up-and-coming kids that would soon build their own art, music and food scenes. Paul Frank, countless DJs and too many creative types to name came up out of there and it was the first restaurant created for peeps in The Biz by peeps in The Biz.

Believe me, when the Costa Mesa 500 was in full effect it was a sight to behold and I can't remember a more vibrant time in the central OC. But Memphis symbolized something much more:it redefined what the new model would be. Young Chefs and entrepreneurs taking over old shops and making them their own. Other trailblazers, like Wahoo's, Habana and The Gypsy Den were along for the ride and made their mark as well. Indeed, next Sunday and Monday of Labor Day weekend, Memphis and Habana are celebrating (respectively) 20 years in business.

There were other players in this two-decade long transformation. Foodie-ism, as annoying as it can be at times, created an environment and demand that pushed the envelope. The Great Recession had a twofold effect. With more restaurants/bars closing due to economic conditions, a slew of vacant properties (and their associated liquor licenses) became available and a landlord reaching out to an up-and-coming Chef to help pay the rent was better than sitting on an empty property. In addition, when municipalities figured out they could make up their declining tax revenue by letting restaurants open instead of retail, well, let's say the bluehairs I had to fight with to open my first joint in Orange suddenly came to their senses. With the popularity of TV food reality shows and the rise of celebrity Chefs, there was a whole new generation of cadets pouring out of the culinary school machine looking to make their mark.

Put all of this together in the OC cultural cauldron and you have what is now the new normal. It's introduced a fair bit of pretense and douchebaggery too, but that comes with the territory. But, all in all, the scene here is light years from where it was, and it's been infectious. 20 years seems like mere months at times, yet at others, it seems like centuries. Two decades of political, social and economic change in the OC has influenced the food scene here and your humble staff at the Weekly have done their best to be your beasts of burden guiding you through this journey. It has been quite a trip indeed.


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