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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?