My Kind of Town, Costa Mesa

Mid-century modern. Photo courtesy Orange County Archives

A couple of Saturdays ago, a friend was walking his dog and had to call me: “Dana’s having a yard sale!”

His neighbor, our former congressman Dana Rohrabacher, was even selling his surfboard, he said. This was mid-afternoon, and by the time I drove by, there was nothing left but a heap of detritus pushed to one side of the yard; Dana was in a red MAGA hat chatting with a neighbor on the lawn.

I’d already driven the main drags that morning looking for yard sales, but I had seen no signs for his; maybe he used all his poster board on the thousands of campaign signs left littering our town after the election. It’s a shame I wasn’t at the sale in time; I would love to have bagged the Surfin’ Statesman’s board. I don’t surf, but I thought it might inspire me to, since Dana on the board, surfers have told me, hadn’t set too high of a standard to live up to.

Maybe with his move to Maine, Dana will become the king surf rat of Chowdertown. It is an odd thing, this guy who was so deeply committed to his district during the election, yet, as soon as he lost, announced he was moving as far away as one can in the contiguous United States.

Newport Boulevard then . . . Photo courtesy Orange County Archives

Those of us whom he’s leaving behind will have to console ourselves with the sunshine, grunion runs and such scant pleasures as can be eked from our local communities.

I’ve lived in Costa Mesa for nearly all of my adult life. I spent my high school and truncated college years in Newport Beach, where it was pretty much a given you’d migrate to the cheaper rents and livelier life of Costa Mesa.

When I lived in Newport, you had to head to Costa Mesa for anything fun, be it hippie record stores, pawnshops with cheap guitars, or just to get a damn bear claw or fast-food burger.

Costa Mesa was decades away from claiming its “City of the Arts” title, but it had its own drive-in theater and South Coast Repertory was doing Kurt Vonnegut plays out of a storefront on a run-down strip of Newport Boulevard. There was a topless bar on 17th Street, while Zuver’s gym displayed a collection of giant-sized telephones, dumbbells and such on a residential street.

Later in the ’70s, the city made a drive to get more normal. On Superior, there was Ali the Arc Welder, who made huge metal sculptures, some of them displayed in midair, hanging on a wire from a crane. He said it was art; the city said it was a dangerous eyesore. A long court battle’s conclusion spurred Ali to buy a motor home and quit Costa Mesa, he said, to go look for America.

. . . And now. Photo by Jim Washburn

Then we had the Cuckoo’s Nest on Placentia. When the fare there shifted from KMET-style rock to punk, and patrons began warring with folks from the adjacent cowboy bar, the city shut it down, too.

Then came the vanilla years, of indistinguishable strip malls, chain restaurants, condos and attempts to “reinvent” the town as something utterly lacking in invention.

When did things start to change for the better? I’d say it was when Taco Mesa opened in 1991, turning a shuttered Taco Bell into an oasis of Mexican food that was authentic and creative and flat-out better than most sit-down establishments. Around the same time, Diedrich Coffee on 17th was sneaking in bands such as Bazooka for shows.

The hipsterization of Costa Mesa began in earnest when the Lab anti-mall and Memphis Cafe opened on Bristol in the mid-’90s. Up to that point in our history, things for the most part were just what they were. Memphis opened in the husk of the old King’s Inn bar, and if that older incarnation resembled a dank box held together with nicotine tar where you’d have a sticky teriyaki burger with your Schlitz, it’s because God had made it that way.

The vibe replacing that, which has spread block by block throughout the town, is a decidedly self-conscious one, with entrepreneurs creating not so much a place as a statement. If there’s a prevailing theme, it’s mid-century modern, a great look because it hearkens to a relative high point in our past and because, back when the look was born, it was “futuristic,” suggesting not only that humanity had a future (not an assumed thing back in those days of nuclear stand-offs), but also that it would be playfully stylish. Depending upon the mood of your clientele, the look could be either seen as evocative or ironic. You can’t go wrong!

Though the retro-future is getting a little threadbare these days, the hipsterization of Costa Mesa has worked pretty well for me. Within easy walking distance, we have a wealth of eating experiences to choose from, and I’m okay with everything being artisanal and drizzled with fairy dust if it expands the choices for an organic, lactose-belligerent, gluten-eschewing consumer like me.

One near-total makeover is the Country Club, built on the bones of Pierce St. Annex, a longtime Costa Mesa dive. If you had a friend who was thinking of leaving his/her spouse, you could have him/her meet you at Pierce St. Annex and say, “Okay, here’s the pickings; choose your next husband/wife.” It has terrified more than a few people into giving their marriage another chance.

While under construction, the Country Club was touted as being a classy vision of an old-school country club, and we naturally assumed we’d be stopped at the door. Instead, it’s an inviting, comfy place. We like to go on Tuesdays, when they have jazz bands starting at 7, and the happy hour goes until 6:30 with blackened-swordfish sandwiches, hanger steak tacos, crispy Brussels sprouts and the like. It’s an ideal time for older folks like us, leaving the later hours to those with some expectation of getting laid that night.

Some other places we like to haunt: Olea, with its log ceiling; Oak & Coal yakitori grill; Cava; Super Pollo; Basil Mediterranean Grill; Ma Dee Thai; Eat Chow; and a boodle of others.

When not chewing, I like going to Factory Records. I don’t buy much there—not with thousands of albums at home I haven’t listened to yet—but I love having the county’s best record shop so handy. We get our cars fixed at A&G Motors on Newport and see movies at the budget Starlight Cinema in the Triangle, formerly Triangle Square, formerly some neat little shops before the city got some grand ideas about redevelopment.

Our city government recently took a turn for the better, with districting creating a City Council that looks a little more like the city’s citizens and with some of the ideologues recently booted from the dais. Under their long tenure, development ran crazy, including approving hundreds of condo units on West 17th Street that have all the architectural charm of a stack of cargo containers. And their traffic feeds right into what was already a logjam. Now enough of that traffic spills into the residential streets that we can hardly get out of our cul-de-sac some days.

It doesn’t help at all that the same civic leaders cynically used state funds—intended to make streets schoolkids traveled safer—to build “traffic calming” medians on some streets, making them more difficult to drive and decidedly less safe for kids on bikes, since every 30 years cars have to swerve into the bike lane to keep from hitting a median.

Hell, maybe Dana has the right idea. They don’t do this stuff in Maine.

How are things looking in your town?

33 Replies to “My Kind of Town, Costa Mesa”

  1. Dana Rohrabacher only left because the Left rigged the election results. Most of Orange County would have stayed Red if it weren’t for the B.S. voting scam that threw away mail-in ballots and counted illegal aliens’ as legit. Get your facts straight.

  2. Hey, great article. Thanks! “if that older incarnation resembled a dank box held together with nicotine tar where you’d have a sticky teriyaki burger with your Schlitz, it’s because God had made it that way.” Ha! Amazing. Good writing.

  3. Dana Rohrabacher only left because the Left rigged the election results. Most of Orange County would have stayed Red if it weren’t for the B.S. voting scam that threw away mail-in ballots and counted illegal aliens’ as legit. Get your facts straight.

    1. Katrina, please don’t take this the wrong way, but you are a lie-mongering idiot. Where on earth are you getting your “facts” from?

    2. Right on Katrina Small! Last thing I want to read is political favoritism here. Unlike Jim Wasburn I was born & raised in OC & to know that idiots like him are happy that Dana is leaving OC, Dana who cares more about the safety of LAW-ABIDING citizens, makes me cringe.

    3. Awww poor conservative snowflake. Dana runs to Maine with his tail between his legs because the people of his district DON’T WANT HIM ANYMORE.

      It’s called the Blue Wave, Katrina, not election rigging. That is something that only loser republicans do since they can’t win elections on their own. LOL

      To loser Dana: BYE FELICIA!

    4. Haha illegal aliens can’t vote for one and you are sorely mistaken about voter fraud. What “facts” are you touting for your claims?

    5. “rigged the election”, Katrina Small? You are not really that “Clueless in OC” – are you? Please “get your facts straight”, Ms. “Small”; ignore those men behind the curtain (i.e. Hannity, Carlson, Limbaugh), cast aside “alternative facts”. Open your mind & take time to read the truth about the mid-term elections; about the tens of thousands of women who, after the election of Donald Trump, got energized, organized, and got engaged; helping to identify forward-thinking candidates to replace Rohrabacher (+ Waters & others) who were failing at representing the concerns of they and their families.. They held meet and greets and hosted town halls so their communities could get to know these intelligent candidates with diverse but successful careers outside of politics, then recruited their friends, neighbors and co-workers to knock on doors and make phone calls at record levels to educate their communities about Harley and each amazing candidate. Through these efforts, they drove record turnouts of cirizens in Orange County and others to reject the ineffective incumbents and elect fresh leaders who refused Corporate PAC money, committed to holding regular town halls and listen to all their constituents, and approach legislation with 21st century thinking and common-sense.

      After the election results were finalized, dozens op-eds were written by current and former GOP leaders, documenting outright admissions that they lost because the party had failed to adapt and change with the times and the population – NOT because of some cocka-mamey stories of “mail-in ballots thrown away” or “illegal aliens voting” . YOU SHOULD GOOGLE “WHY THE GOP LOST OC / MIDTERMS, & READ THEM; here’s a link to one to get you started, to help you begin to open your eyes to the real world around you: https://www.apnews.com/e11342c7cb04477ea584013ad80f8cd4

  4. Sadly Costa Mesa has jumped on the “super high density residential” fad that is changing the face of the O.C. from a great place to live into one giant parking lot.

  5. As a Costa Mesa local for 40 years I am always drawn to the black and white of Newport Blvd and the like. As I am not very politically drawn l do love my city and the nostalgia that can surround if you know of what you speak, you hit it on the head my friend, thanks for the warm fuzzies

  6. Several paragraphs are missing from the bottom of this. Here they are:
    One near-total makeover is the Country Club, built on the bones of Pierce St. Annex, a longtime CM dive. If you had a friend who was thinking of leaving his/her spouse, you could have him/her meet you at Pierce St., and say, “OK, here’s the pickings; choose your next husband/wife.” It has terrified more than a few people into giving their marriage another chance.
    While under construction, the Country Club was touted as being a classy vision of an old school country club, and we naturally assumed we’d be stopped at the door. Instead, it’s an inviting, comfy place. We like to go on Tuesdays, when they have jazz bands starting at 7, and the happy hour goes to 6:30 with blackened swordfish sandwiches, hanger steak tacos, crispy Brussels sprouts and the like. It’s an ideal time for older folks like us, leaving the later hours to those with some expectation of getting laid that night.
    Some other places we like to haunt: Olea with its log ceiling; Oak & Coal yakitori grill, Cava, Super Pollo, Basil Mediterranean Grill, Ma Dee Thai, Eat Chow and a boodle of others.
    When not chewing, I like going to Factory Records. I don’t buy much there—not with thousands of albums at home I haven’t listened to yet—but I love having the county’s best record shop so handy. We get our cars fixed at A&G Motors on Newport, see movies at the budget Starlight Theaters in The Triangle, formerly Triangle Square, formerly some neat little shops before the city got some grand ideas about redevelopment.
    Our city government recently took a turn for the better, with districting creating a city council the looks a little more like the city’s citizens, and with some of the ideologues recently booted from the dais. Under their long tenure, development ran crazy, including approving hundreds of condo units on W. 17th St. that have all the architectural charm of a stack of cargo containers. And their traffic feeds right into what was already a logjam. Now enough of that traffic spills into the residential streets that we can hardly get out of our cul de sac some days.
    It doesn’t help at all that the same civic leaders cynically used state funds—intended to make streets school kids traveled safer—to build “traffic calming” medians on some streets, making them more difficult to drive and decidedly less safe for kids on bikes, since every 30 years cars have to swerve into the bike lane to keep from hitting a median.
    Hell, maybe Dana has the right idea. They don’t do this stuff in Maine.
    How are things looking in your town?

  7. Wow. Voting scam. Sad Katrina. I and thousands of others canvassed for Dana’s opponent and people were EAGER to replace him – Dems sure but every NPP I met too and lots of GOP voters even — they were tired of his shenanigans. If DR thought he’d been scammed, he would stay to fight on.

  8. Dana R lost because he and his fellow OC Republican representatives were more interested in following the MAGA president than listening to the concerns of their constituents. There was no proven election fraud.

  9. Hey knew Ali the arc welder! Do you remember the Halloween he painted his house purple, and had hacked up pumpkins in his front yard? He actually was a really fun guy…I actually was in his shop and welded something with him. He was the only person I could find to fix a pin hole leak in my ’72 karman Ghia convertible. I always had fun with the wild guy…he was wild, but was very nice, and I always had a good time around him. He had the extended jag, a formula 1 car ( the city actually closed, iforget which road to let him race it)…my favorite thing in his shop was the submarine. Good memories!!! Thanks!!! Cheri Fether Leclerc😁

  10. I agree! Costa Mesa is officially over populated with an increase of crowded condos, homeless on drugs and traffic jams.

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