Revelers no longer have to wait for Halloween Haunt to have a frightfully good time in Buena Park. The Cauldron, a new witch-themed bar, is a charming experience. Two large, wooden doors transport all who enter into the realm of a 17th-century tavern. Transforming the nondescript longtime location of Crystal Factory Italian Galleria across the street from Knott’s Berry Farm into the Cauldron is a feat of magic belonging to owner Lara Hanneman.
“It’s an extension of my home, really,” she says, taking a break from the kitchen. “It has nothing to do with the normal bar scene.”
As if to prove her point, Hanneman walks over to a large bookcase near the bar and reaches for a secret button. Suddenly, a hidden door creaks open to reveal a dining room with Gothic arched windows, behind which is a wallpaper of foggy woods, a more appropriate view than the twisting steel of Knott’s rollercoasters beyond it.
“Scene design has always been my first love,” Hanneman says. “After being here over 23 years, I wanted someplace to go to that I can enjoy.” She’s referring to her former life at Knott’s Berry Farm, where she became director of entertainment production, designing the aesthetics for everything from Camp Snoopy to the Haunt’s many macabre mazes.
Hanneman spent a year rummaging through swap meets and thrift stores for antiques and eclectic furniture. Her own “Women in Literature” portraits adorn the walls, odes to Lady Macbeth, Cleopatra and Kate in The Taming of the Shrew. But the eatery’s centerpiece, of course, is the cauldron that hangs from a brick fireplace. “I have to have a cauldron somewhere,” she says, laughing. “It’s romantic. It’s also dark and moody.” Above it, a mirror summons a ghostly witch and a watchful green eye, the latter of which puts a new spin on giving someone the eye at the bar.
The special effects are the handiwork of Sinister Pointe’s Jeff Schiefelbein. “I didn’t want it to be overwhelming or intrusive to conversations,” Hanneman says of the subtle haunting vibes. “It’s not going to scare the drink out of your hand!”
Speaking of drinks, the Cauldron serves classic cocktails, beer and wine. But first on its drink menu are the specialty potions. The Grey Witch is a French 75 cocktail made with Nolet’s gin and a hint of crème de violette; champagne gives the drink its spritz and is good enough to leave you feeling a little hexed. The Knotty Kid, a nod to Knott’s, is a display of alcoholic alchemy: A fluff of boysenberry cotton candy comes in a cocktail glass, and when the Smirnoff vodka is poured in, it melts like The Wizard of Oz’s Wicked Witch of the West. And, of course, there are drink specials starting at the midnight “witching hour.”
“I always wanted a bar, but this is a restaurant as well,” Hanneman adds. She’s always had a love for French cuisine. The kitchen serves up inspired plates of hearty beef bourguignon and croque monsieur sliders in sizes perfect for sharing. The soup du jour comes in a mini-cauldron. There’s also a rotating menu of specials such as delectable chicken cordon bleu sliders. “It’s more comfort food, which fits with the tavern or ‘a witch in the woods’ feeling,” she says. “I always tell people if their children don’t behave, they’ll be in the special tomorrow—just like Hansel and Gretel.”
When Hanneman opened the Cauldron in late January, she thought it would predictably attract Goth kids from the Haunt. But taking in all the “witch kitsch” are also Wiccans who frequent local boutique shops and Harry Potter cosplayers. “It’s also parents and a lot of families visiting,” she says. Sitting at the edge of Buena Park’s revamped entertainment corridor on Beach Boulevard, it attracts an eclectic clientele of thankful locals and tourists. And it’s all without a heavy promotional blitz.
Though just a few months into its existence, Hannamen holds a vision for the future of her tavern, including more art on the walls and new special effects. She hopes to acquire the building’s basement and create a taps system, maybe even open different theme bars. But for now, she’s pleased to have created a place she’s always dreamed of.
“Being Wiccan, I’ve always had a soft spot for witches whether they’re cute, ugly, short, fat or whatever,” Hanneman says with a laugh. She points toward Knott’s. “I scared you over there, but I don’t want to do that over here!”
The Cauldron Spirits & Brews, 8028 Beach Blvd., Buena Park, (714) 484-2733; www.thecauldronbar.com. Open Wed.-Sun., 2 p.m.-2 a.m.
Gabriel San Roman is from Anacrime. He’s a journalist, subversive historian and tallest Mexican in OC.