Watson’s Cafe in Old Towne Orange Reopens: A Review!

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!!

It’s no secret I have a special affinity for the Orange Circle (or the Plaza, depending on your vernacular). I’ll make a detour just to drive though on a sunny afternoon, and it’s where wifey and I get some quality time over Cafe Lucca coffee in the a.m. with the pooch. In fact, my first article for this infernal rag was a reflection on the deep affection and respect I have for it and the changes that were going on nearly four years ago. 

My latest swing in the Plaza pendulum is the relaunch of Watson’s, the former greasy spoon/trashy soda fountain and “drug store” in name only for many years now, by the folks from Rockwell’s in Villa Park. I have hung out at Watson’s in the various permutations of its identity for a stretch, from the first time many, many years ago when it was still a working pharmacy and through its gradual transformation into a mainly fallback plan for breakfast in recent times. It’s always been consistently mediocre at best, but, well, at least you knew what you were getting yourself into.

The redo is pretty nice. I love the new signage out front, and the room feels pretty friendly and will get more so with time (and wear). The inside is a little TGIFridays-adjacent — kind of like a Farrell’s meets a gastro pub. That’s perfectly fine; it’s just not my jam. The tin ceiling, however, is epic, and the level of detail is notable, with shelves of rescued medicine bottles found in the basement during the remodel. The flat screens are tasteful, if a few too many. You’ll probably catch me there this fall watching some college football and tossing back some coldies, but for now, the sets are screening mostly I Love Lucy and The Andy Griffith Show in rotation.

The new menu is an absolute behemoth. It looks like a lot to manage for the back of the house, but if they can pull it off, more power to them. I do like the dinner-all-day thing and the breakfast-any-time factor. There are a slew of corny-named sandwiches and other plates, but the quality is fine, and everything I’ve seen come out of the kitchen looked good—even during the always-painful opening week. I’ve heard a fair bit about some hits and misses here and there on the quality of the food and service, but back off, peeps: they just opened up.

Our first experience was dinner. Wifey had the stroganoff (almost worthy of the long-lost Sid’s) and I slammed back a burger. Said burger was somewhere between Ruby’s Streamliner down the street and a hipster/urban version, swimming in cheese and grilled onions. We posted up at the “soda fountain,” which seemed to be not-so-secret code for the bar—hello, revenue center! In fact, the actual soda fountain seems to disappointingly occupy only a couple of seats in what used to be the travel agency room next door, where there is also a swanky new bakery and candy counter.
We came back a week later for breakfast. I enjoyed a pretty tasty chicken-fried steak with homemade hashbrowns that were a nice touch. There was enough sausage in the gravy to choke a mule, but it was tasty and hearty. Wifey’s “skillet” scramble was a little bit of a letdown, flavor-wise (fairly bland), but overall, it was a pretty damn good breakfast, and the coffee was better for sure.

I’ll miss the previous incarnation with all its trashy Happy Days-esque glory. I’ll long for the open kitchen with piles of crappy Sysco hashbrowns on the griddle, the marginal sandwiches and lackluster service. But I won’t miss them in a good way—the food was garbage. The fare at Omega Burger was better. I’ll miss the old Watson’s like you miss a mangy but loyal dog or that beater car you had as a kid that smelled like weed and wetsuits but always got you to Baja and back.

Could the revamp have been executed better? That’s a maybe. Could it also have been worse? Hell yes! I’m not sure how I feel about every decision the Rockwell’s peeps made, but at least they committed balls-deep. There are no half measures here. What’s my verdict? It’s a nice-enough room that feels folksy, will appeal to a lot of locals, and possibly put one or two other restaurants on the Plaza out of business. I personally think they are maxed out on the Circle considering the logistics of the area anyway (I’m advising every one of my fellow cohorts in the biz to open shop in Old Town Tustin). It’s also a telling sign of exactly how much has changed on the Plaza in the past decade. Locals are bemoaning the loss of the last few independent antique shops there, and hopefully . . . hopefully . . . it doesn’t turn into Downtown Fullerton. In any case, the beast has most assuredly gotten away from the Orange bluehairs when it come to the direction the Plaza is moving.

Now if I could just find parking anywhere there on a Saturday afternoon. . . . 

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