Twice a month, legendary bartender/chef/restaurant insider Dave Mau pops by to chime in about a random OC food or drink musing of his choice. Enjoy!
Almost exactly seven years ago, when our then-Fearless Leader here at this infernal rag asked me to come on board as the Weekly’s restaurant insider, I was both flattered and nervous. Flattered at the compliment and nervous at the prospects of never working in this town again. So far, that hasn’t happened, despite my best efforts here at the Weekly, but every day is filled with the promise of torpedoing oneself in a number of different ways.
So here we go.
My very first story for the Weekly was on the changes to the Orange plaza, and now seems a good time to come full circle—pun intended. Recent rumblings via some friends in the vintage-clothing biz caught my ear regarding one of the last antique malls on the Plaza. In their front window was the menacing and tell-all “Application for On Premises Liquor Sales,” courtesy of the great state of California and its prime minion, the Alcohol Beverage Control department (ABC). This is generally a harbinger for change and, oftentimes, not in the right direction. Said antique mall, though not my favorite, is still quaint in that Midwest mom kind of way and what it might lack in slick product/presentation is made up for in heartfelt, provincial old-timey-ness. It’s great if you like pastel geese and faux finishes. But do we need another place that serves booze right across from the epically seedy Paul’s Bar? From the appearance of the petition opposing the idea on the counter and the number of signatures on it, there seems to be a healthy debate whether that is a good idea.
There are a couple of factors at work here that lie outside the normal realm of food writing—whatever the heck that is, anyway. But the civic machinations of the restaurant industry are worth noting in situations such as this, and although commonplace standards of practice, they oftentimes fall beyond earshot of the dining public. So, if you want to see the less-than-attractive parts of the foodie equation, here are a few prime examples.
The first is this: The city—and by that, I mean any city—generates infinitely more tax and permitting revenue off even the smallest restaurant than it does off a mom-and-pop antique/retail shop of the same size. In this case, blaming the Powers That Be for chasing this magic number is akin to blaming a compass for pointing north. It just is what it is. There are lots of cushy salaries to cover, and city employees are generally well taken care of, which comes with a hefty price tag. As services and staff grow, so do the tax burdens of the entity involved, and since property-tax revenue still hasn’t bounced back after the Great Recession, the shortfall needs to be made up somewhere. If you’re the city of Orange, with a really quaint retail area that could be developed into something more lucrative, why wouldn’t you?
The second is the simple fact that if you have a restaurant, you’re not making any money selling food. Period. Although I don’t know what its profits and losses look like, I’m sure the venerated Omega Burger makes way more money selling soft drinks than it does burgers and fries. And the reason the revamped Watson’s put in a giant bar wasn’t because the new owners felt it would add to the experience (okay, maybe a bit); it was because it was like installing an ATM in the dining room. If you own a restaurant and plan on paying your bills, selling alcohol, even beer and wine, is the only real way to make money. Just ask A La Minute, which recently shuttered. My instincts tell me ice creamery couldn’t afford its new lease and got bought out. But I could be wrong. Of course, serving alcohol has its pitfalls—increased liability, both financially and legally—but the benefits outweigh the risks if you plan on staying open. And that’s the goal, right?
The last factor is local real-estate agents. There are what I call “The Big Three” in Orange, and as in any other city on the planet, let’s just say, well . . . their allegiances run deep. The magic is they don’t have to sell a property to make money. They do quite well just negotiating leases and being paid as an intermediary between potential restaurant owners and the city/county. They have a vested interest in making money off the deal, even if it doesn’t involve an actual sale. Again, it’s just what they do. I have benefited well from having a solid person representing me in the real-estate realm and the compensation is usually worth it.
Although Orange has the foresight to not allow “chains” to come into the Plaza, that is a loose term at best. Places such as Urth Cafe, Blaze and Pizza Press are growing mini-chains that look pretty goddamn attractive to the investment groups that infuse these up-and-coming franchises with operating capital, thus edging out the mom-and-pop places that might be launching their first or possibly second shop. All of this is a long-winded way of saying both the Powers That Be and money generally drive the narrative. I’m okay with that. It’s just a question of when is enough, well, enough?
Certainly, Fullerton found that out over recent years, with its downtown turning into a post-apocalyptic Caligula zone that clearly was spinning out of control and into a nightmare of the first order. I remember when the current Hero’s went in and was along for the ride as Sean Francis and Carlo Teranova slowly renovated the Continental Room—an epic build, by the way. But it clearly became apparent to F-town’s halls of power that the model was not sustainable, and I’m sure every cop was in agreement. What was once a sleepy downtown got as shady as the old Mikki’s bar, and if you remember getting offered a baggie of blow or heroin there alongside your Jack Daniels 25 years ago, you’re on my good side. In recent months, Fullerton has started leaning on the local bar owners, limiting hours and, most remarkably, charging a tax on cover charges that turns 15 bucks into $25. That’s a great way to make bar owners think twice about packing their place with wasted troublemakers who end up spilling out into the streets at 2 a.m. after they’ve been relieved of their sensibilities and cashola.
Where does the rubber hit the road on this one? Clearly there is a drive on the Plaza to continue this growth from many quarters, though from others not so much. If the City Council blue-hairs could see how things have changed since I helped open a shop there almost 17 years ago, I’m sure they’d pop a vein. The tone of my conversations with the staid bastions of the city at the time was akin to Darth Vader trying to convince Ewoks he didn’t want to blast and stomp them to death with Imperial walkers. The Orange establishment was having none of it back then. But today is a different story, with slammed parking (despite the new, albeit distant, kind-of-free structure) and semi-bustling nightlife that is trending toward a not-very-Mayberry vibe. There are a lot of pissed-off locals, and—let’s just call it what it is—those few merchants left are fighting for business as the traffic situation becomes less than optimal. I’m not sure if tearing down the Orange Fire Department and part of the Civic Center for more parking is the best idea, but there is a bit of scuttlebutt.
Everyone wants the Plaza to be vital and growing. But “vital” in the commercial sense means balanced, and that has been many a growing downtown’s biggest downfall. This happened to DTSA, with not much ancillary and viable retail to support the demographics Santa Ana was looking to draw. Despite the resurgence of the East Side, I’m not sure what the long-term prospects of the area are. That doesn’t even factor in the locals chasing off customers/investors like New York cutting off its Amazon nose to spite its face. There’s a reason the Plaza has historically fared so well. The well-heeled denizens of Villa Park and Cowan Heights grab their wallets and drive down Chapman Avenue to spend their not-so-hard-earned dough. DTSA? Well, not so much. And if the Plaza gets out of hand, Old Town Tustin is going to start looking more and more appealing for those members of the general public who want to stay out of the fray. Mark my words—and I’m rapidly getting there myself, despite my deep love for Orange.
Where does the weight on the fulcrum of development rest here? Both sides have a stake in the way it rolls out, and although I appreciate a bawdy tavern as much as the next guy, I also like peace and quiet. Seems most others fall somewhere in the middle as well, and in this case, the forces of the community are going to have to tilt at the windmill of profit like Don Quixote.
The Plaza is like Disneyland in a lot of ways—and not just in appearance. It’s an imaginary American dream that may or may not have ever existed, and whether anyone likes it or not, that new Pixar co-branded attraction is going in. The question is what things will look like when the luster wears off like fading paint on the old Orange Camera sign above 131 N. Glassell St. Also up for grabs is what that journey will entail and if the chambers of power will have the foresight to keep this beast in check before it bucks everyone off. But, most certainly, any clear-headed Orange resident doesn’t want to see what happened to Fullerton become the fate of our fair city, no matter what the fiscal rewards are. Orange has a depth of character to it that defies the common logic and certainly deserves much, much better. And don’t even get me started on the new “brewpub” opening next to Citrus City Grille.
But at least there’s just one Starbucks now.