In Praise of Orange County’s Cherished Brunch Spots of Yesteryear

Photo by Bryan Sheehy

Orange County is awash with trendy new restaurants catering to the latest food crazes, and brunch is no exception. And while nobody can deny the delight of drinking hand-crafted, bacon-infused Bloody Marys in the company of bearded hipsters, we instead pay tribute to the county’s cherished collection of old-school breakfast institutions, those reliable purveyors of gut-busting, egg-centric platters of pure joy.

Photo by Bryan Sheehy. Design by Richie Beckman

No tribute to Orange County’s time-honored classics would be complete without a moment of silence for the Omelette Parlor. For nearly three decades until Vons forced the restaurant to close in 2010 (because Vons sucks and has no soul and hates all of us), the Omelette Parlor was the definition of the perfect SoCal greasy spoon. Helpfully located next door to the Chester Drawers dive bar, where you could drink a powerful Bloody Mary and play Moon Patrol on a sticky-knob arcade game, the Costa Mesa institution was reknowned for its perfectly fluffy egg concoctions with bizarre City Council-specific names that nobody who wasn’t a gadfly or local journalist in the 1980s would understand. And then there was the old-timey décor: walls decorated with blown-up black-and-white photographs of Costa Mesa during the 1920s, including the city’s original post office, fire station, etc. And, of course, there were those wagons hanging from the ceiling.

While there will never be another Omelette Parlor, there are still plenty of fantastic old-school brunch spots worth celebrating. Enjoy them while you still can! (Nick Schou)

Biscuits and gravy at Arthur’s Coffee Shop. Photo by Bryan Sheehy

ARTHUR’S COFFEE SHOP
When we asked Arthur’s Coffee Shop owner Brian Fast why people love breakfast, his answer was simple: “It’s quintessential comfort food—simultaneously ‘old school,’ fresh and current.” It’s one of the many reasons why his and his father Arthur Fast’s diner has become a local favorite to enjoy simple-yet-satisfying food. The first Arthur’s opened in 1967, when Arthur remodeled an Orange Julius in Downey. Today, the only restaurant still owned and operated by the family is in La Habra (off Harbor and La Habra boulevards), and the 34-year-old establishment makes much of what it sells in-house daily. This includes Arthur’s beloved biscuits and gravy—fluffy, buttery biscuits served with thick, black-pepper-spiced country gravy and your choice of applewood smoked bacon or sausage. Brian says his favorite plate changes often: “Last month, it was house-made corned beef hash; this month, it is huevos rancheros with spicy ranchero hot sauce.” Whatever you decide on, make sure you bring a standard-sized coffee mug in good condition from home—Monday through Friday, Arthur’s offers a free cup of coffee and all the refills you want. The catch? It keeps your mug. (Cynthia Rebolledo) 1281 E. La Habra Blvd., La Habra, (562) 691-7793; www.bestbreakfastoc.com.

Photo by Bryan Sheehy

POP’S CAFE
Even as high-end establishments provide endless mimosa specials and unconventional concoctions (Cereal bagels? Wild!), old-school restaurants such as Pop’s Cafe still reign supreme in our hearts. We’ve awarded this Santa Ana mainstay Best Diner in our annual Best Of issue numerous times despite Pop’s having probably changed its menu only a handful of occasions throughout its decades-long existence. While its offerings—French toast, waffles, omelets, pancakes—are classic breakfast staples you can find at any Denny’s or IHOP, neither of those places cooks with the right amount of balance or efficacy as Pop’s. The French toast is grilled or deep-fried to soft, crispy deliciousness, as is the bacon and sausages (including Polish). The country breakfast and steak and eggs provide hearty, heaping helpings of savory heaven, while the Golden Pancakes are true to their name, griddled to golden perfection. Hell, even the fresh fruit bowl yields maximum comfort-food enjoyment. There’s usually a long line waiting for a table during peak times—a sign that the no-frills, greasy-spoon candor at Pop’s appeals to locals and out-of-towners alike. Plus, who can resist a bright neon sign and funky, red, retro Coca-Cola décor? The only downside? Pop’s is only open until 1:30 p.m. on the weekends, so get your hungover butts out of bed and over here early. (Aimee Murillo) 112 E. Ninth St., Santa Ana, (714) 543-2772.

The Weasel at Chuck’s Coffee Shop. Photo by Bryan Sheehy

CHUCK’S COFFEE SHOP
It’s with a heavy heart we note that Chuck’s Coffee Shop’s owner passed away last year. Fortunately, his family and staff continue Chuck Tinkler’s legacy by serving loyal customers warm smiles, great conversations and hearty breakfast favorites. This includes the “locally world-famous” Weasel, a heaping concoction of scrambled eggs topped with house-made chili, cheese and onions. If you can, snag a counter seat for generous portions of its egg combos, buttermilk pancakes and 17 different omelets served with fresh salsa and potato discs (think Tulsa Rib Co.). Daily specials range from gigantic chorizo breakfast burritos to south-of-the-border bites (huevos rancheros and machaca). And now that the Belmont Plaza pool building is gone, the patio is great for dining al fresco with a view. Other than that, not much has changed at this beach-city diner since it opened in 1964, though newbies should note it only accepts cash and breakfast is served all day. (CR) 4120 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach, (562) 433-9317.

Eggs Benedict at Park Pantry. Photo by Bryan Sheehy

PARK PANTRY
Though there’s no shortage of trendy restaurants and high-end eateries in the area between downtown Long Beach and Belmont Shore, Park Pantry’s simple diner-style fare is something even one of SoCal’s most eclectic communities can always agree on. Especially for brunch. On any given weekend, this place is packed from the woven-backed chairs at the bar to the cushy burgundy booths to the outdoor patio facing Bixby Park—hence the name. Aside from having one of the best Denver omelets in town, this place is comfort food at its finest, with a hearty avocado bacon cheeseburger, a perfectly seasoned Pacific red snapper and more. It’s also home to one hell of a bakery; the vintage display case features an array of pastries you can’t find at your local Mimi’s, including a delicious pull-apart cinnamon bread with caramelized edges and a warm, soft center. Sold by the loaf, it’s good solo or used for French toast if it makes it home. However you slice it, there’s a reason this place hasn’t gone anywhere since 1956: Park Pantry never lets us down. (Nate Jackson) 2104 E. Broadway, Long Beach, (562) 434-0451.

Manly Meat and John Wayne’s Favorite at Mae’s Cafe. Photo by Bryan Sheehy

MAE’S CAFE
For years, the big lit-up sign has stretched high above the 22 freeway, with the phrase “We Never Close” attracting a diverse crowd to Garden Grove’s beloved greasy spoon. This 24-hour diner serves generous portions of home-style cooking, from sizzling-skillet steak dinners to fish and chips to patty melts. For breakfast, Mae’s Cafe serves a beastly Manly Meal: Your choice of New York or T-bone steak is served with three large eggs; hash browns or Lyonnaise potatoes (sliced pan-fried potatoes and thinly sliced onions sautéed in butter with parsley); and pancakes, a waffle or French toast. If this dish doesn’t defeat you, order a banana shake to wash it all down. Also check out the rotating daily specials; on Thursdays, the corned-beef reuben hits the spot, offered alongside French fries and either the soup of the day or a green salad. There’s something nostalgic and timeless about a no-frills spot where you can order everything from the menu all day—even at 3 a.m., when you can experience some great people watching. (CR) 9062 Trask Ave., Garden Grove, (714) 898-7044; www.maes-cafe.com.

California Omelet at Cappy’s Cafe. Photo by Richie Beckman

CAPPY’S CAFE
There has been a Cappy’s on the north side of West Coast Highway between Superior and Prospect avenues since 1957. The current owner took over in 2015, but he didn’t change the signature huge portions. A quartet of bicycle-riding patrons each ordered a breakfast entrée, and they all quickly learned they would either leave their table with a mound of uneaten food or have it sloshing in Styrofoam containers inside their backpacks during the long ride home. On subsequent trips, they ordered the 62nd Street Omelet: three eggs, spinach, onions, mushrooms, and feta and Swiss cheeses served with toast (sourdough, wheat, white, rye, raisin, English muffin or squaw), bagel, flour or corn tortillas, or biscuits and gravy, plus your choice of seasoned potatoes (chunky with onions), hash browns, home fries (deep-fried, then sprinkled with Parmesan cheese), refried beans, sliced tomatoes, cottage cheese or fresh fruit. The four sampled from that single order along with sides of bacon (four slices) and two pancakes sliced to create four pieces. Made with Cappy’s secret batter, each is the size of a hubcap. Great mimosas and stiff Bloodies from the full bar washed it all down. (Matt Coker) 5930 W. Coast Hwy., Newport Beach, (949) 646-4202; cappyscafe.com.

Crab hash with fried green tomato and bacon scramble at the Ramos House Café. Photo by Richie Beckman

THE RAMOS HOUSE CAFÉ
The Los Rios Historical District near the San Juan Capistrano train station is ideal for a celebratory brunch at the Ramos House Café. Go when the weather allows for a seat on the patio, which is built around a century-old mulberry tree. Chef/owner John Q. Humphreys—who also lives on site—opened the restaurant in 1994 after preserving as much of the nearly 200-year-old house as he could. His brunch rules are simple (select one small and one large plate) and strict ($35 per seat no matter how old you are—and no splits). If you aren’t famished, you may forego the small plate in favor of a mimosa. It’s a challenge to decide what to get, but we recommend anything with a southern flair. One sweet and one savory plate always works: pair apple-cinnamon beignets with anything that includes fried green tomatoes, such as the crab hash with fried green tomato and bacon scramble or the BLFGT on squaw with rocket and ranch (the FGT is, you guessed it, fried green tomato, this time stuffed with cheese). If mimosa isn’t your fav beverage, ask about the soju Bloody Mary with a Scotch quail egg, Ramos House Café claims it’s world-famous. (Lisa Black) 31752 Los Rios St., San Juan Capistrano, (949) 443-1342; www.ramoshouse.com.

Photo courtesy of the Park Bench Cafe

PARK BENCH CAFE
Since 1988, you’ve been able to nosh outdoors along the western edge of Huntington Beach’s Central Park until the dogs come home, which is fitting because proprietors Mike and Christie Bartusick not only encourage you to bring along your fleabag (on a leash), but they also offer a “Canine Cuisine” menu. Among its items are Peanut Butter Bone, Hound Dog Heaven (juicy ground beef) and Rover Easy (two scrambled eggs). The latter is what Xena the Warrior Princess devoured while the pair of humans who serve her every whim started by splitting a cinnamon roll. A large square wedge of dough is drenched in icing that is not white, as you find elsewhere, but pale brown to reflect the cinnamon mixed directly into it. One two-legger then moved on to the Farm Breakfast: crispy home fries under perfectly prepared bacon pieces, scrambled eggs, grilled onions, chopped mushrooms, and melted Cheddar and jack cheeses, then topped with fresh avocado slices and served alongside toast. The other non-canine at the table got the Park Benedict, which features a large buttermilk biscuit served open-faced and covered with bacon pieces, scrambled eggs, hollandaise sauce, avocado and a touch of Tabasco. Instead of toast, you get one side (two pancakes, home fries, fresh fruit, sliced tomatoes or cottage cheese). Portions were so generous that neither could be finished. Fortunately, brunch could be walked off in the surrounding large park that Xena led her minions around. (MC) 17732 Golden West St., Huntington Beach, (714) 842-0775; www.parkbenchcafe.com.

House-baked cinnamon rolls at Rose’s Sugar Shack Cafe. Photo by Bryan Sheehy

ROSE’S SUGAR SHACK CAFE
According to the San Clemente Journal, the restaurant was named the Sugar Shack by its previous owners, but Rose’s was tacked onto the front when the Evingham family took over in 1987. Since then, the Evinghams have made the El Camino Real shack their own. The menu spans everything from classic egg dishes to specialty omelets, such as the Zorba, which includes scrambled eggs with gyro meat, feta cheese, tomatoes, mushrooms, onions and bell peppers, plus hash browns and toast. And unlike most breakfast spots, the café offers tasty vegetarian options such as the Veggie Mixer (scrambled eggs with onions, tomatoes and spinach, topped with melted cheese and served with potatoes and toast) and the Fruitful Fergie (yogurt topped with granola and fresh fruit). Regulars flock to Rose Evingham’s house-baked cinnamon rolls, a gigantic gooey spiral that takes up the entire plate. Be warned: She makes 75 of these treats daily, and they usually sell out by 10 a.m., so get there early! (CR) 2319 S. El Camino Real, San Clemente, (949) 498-0684; www.sugarshackcafe.net.

Photo by Bryan Sheehy

HARBOR HOUSE CAFÉ
An eggshell cracks, and the entrails that spill onto the griddle sizzle and steam. Pancake batter is overpoured into generous, plate-sized dollops. Now flip. A young server dutifully returns to one of the several tables she’s been balancing nonstop since her shift began, refilling the same white mug of black coffee with a ritualistic regularity. The chill of the sea breeze wafts in every three minutes or so as the door of the old beach house-turned-diner opens and a new group of hungry bikers, boozers, surfers and families of four come in to add their name to the growing wait list. Now repeat. Open since 1939, Harbor House Café in Sunset Beach proudly boasts, “We never close.” And why would it? The kitschy relic of roadhouse dining has been steadily flipping tables and flapjacks for just this side of 80 years now. The wood-paneled walls are as crammed with vintage movie posters and headshots of old Hollywood starlets as the booths and tables are. An encyclopedic “kitchen sink”-style menu offers a little something for everyone at any time of day, but the food is always secondary in importance: Here, you fill up on friends, family and a side of nostalgia. (Taylor Hamby) 16341 Pacific Coast Hwy., Sunset Beach, (562) 592-5404; also at 34157 Pacific Coast Hwy., Dana Point, (949) 496-9270; www.harborhousecafe.com.

Bavarian cherry pancake and corned beef hash at Jägerhaus. Photo by Kimberley Rodriguez

JÄGERHAUS
Back when I was a cub reporter 20 years ago, I got to know Jägerhaus’ breakfast menu well because—for reasons that became obvious the first time I ate there—the Latino activist group Los Amigos of Orange County would meet there every Wednesday. I’d show up with a notebook and listen to residents complain about everything from police abuse to gangs and, well, more police abuse. For a traditional German restaurant, it was funny to note that all the cooks were Mexican. Apparently, Jägerhaus tried an authentic German chef, but customers complained, so they replaced him with a Mexican and never looked back. The menu (breakfast, lunch and dinner) is, of course, decidedly German, heavy on bratwurst and sauerkraut. The eggs are there, but almost as an afterthought, with all the options when it comes to pancakes: apple, potato, Austrian-style raisin, even a Stuttgarter peach and a Bavarian cherry. And if you do go in for an omelet but don’t want to miss the pancake action, you can always switch your side of home fries to a potato pancake. Guten appetit! (NS) 2525 E. Ball Rd., Anaheim, (714) 520-9500; www.jagerhaus.net.

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