In a county that has one of the busiest airports in the world, one of the wealthiest yacht basins, two of the most famous amusement parks and a fair number of the trendiest restaurants, the roadhouse in the boondocks could be as anachronistic as the 25-cent burger.
But Orange County has its share of inviting boondocks where, deep in the outback without a McDonald's for miles, can be found several aging but healthy examples of the institution known to many as simply the Joint by the Side of the Road.
Perhaps the prime example of the form is Cook's Corner, at the junction of El Toro Road and Live Oak Canyon Road. It looks like nothing fancier than a barracks--because that is what it once was. In 1946, Jack Cook, a local entrepreneur, bought the barracks from what is now the Marine Air Corps Station in nearby El Toro and had it moved, in two pieces, to its present spot, said Jack Fuller, a 45-year resident of neighboring Trabuco Canyon.
"This place has been here when this road was pert near a wagon trail," said Fuller. "And it's hardly been dusted off since then. That's no joke."
As a roadhouse, Cook's Corner looks the part. It is a low and long shoebox of a building, with neon beer signs in the window. A large sign on the roof advertises Excelsior dairy products and includes an addendum that says children are welcome--a rattling contrast to the warning posted on the door: "No firearms allowed."
The structure is surrounded by tall trees, and there are wooden picnic tables outside.
Inside, the place is basic but not unadorned. Behind the ancient wooden bar are fading snapshots, posted scraps of dime store wisdom, a vast array of snacks, a collection of gimcracks and a stern and complete list of IDs--such as school identification, draft cards and birth certificates--that will not be honored.
There are two small pool tables in one end of the room and banquettes on one wall. The jukebox runs heavily to country music and the kitchen, said Lois Keener, one of the bartenders, runs heavily to chili ($1.10 for a small bowl, $1.50 for a large, and the popular chili size is $3.20).
A sign at the kitchen window announces the philosophy of the cooks: "This is not Burger King. You don't get your way. You take it my way or you don't get the son of a bitch."
The clientele during the week, said Cheryl Bonner, another bartender, is made up of nearby residents and people who work in the area.
"On Sunday, though, we get an awful lot of bikers through here," said Bonner. "One of their clubs will be out together on a ride, and this'll be one of their stops."
The Cook family still owns the land, said Bonner, although the business has "gone through a bunch of lessees." And, she added, it continues to be a landmark for travelers in the Orange County outback.
"A lot of people know where it is," she said. "But we still get people who walk in and say, 'Hey, where's Cook's Corner?' "
A few miles north of Cook's Corner is the Pali Cafe, in Silverado Canyon. A small, bright, cottage-like building on the south side of Silverado Canyon Road in the canyon's tiny business district, the cafe's original owner was a Hawaiian man who decided to give it a Hawaiian name, said Froda Brotemarkle, the current owner.
'Here for About 40 Years'
"Everybody who's owned it since has just decided to keep the name," she said. "It's been here for about 40 years, and with all the flooding and what not, it's held up pretty well."
The dining area is divided into two sections, one containing a pool table and banquettes, the other a small counter and pink, square-topped stools. Beer is served, but breakfast is the big meal, said Brotemarkle.
"It's just go, go, go for breakfast," she said. "People come from all over. We have one man who comes in every week from Santa Ana with his dog. We get worried if we don't see him."
The atmosphere is casual, and customers often entertain themselves, said Brotemarkle.
"People bring in board games sometimes and sit here for hours playing," she said. "No one pushes them out. It's relaxed. And some of the customers will serve their own coffee before the waitress gets here in the morning. One even wrote his own bill. It's a real help-yourself place."
Specialties: chili with cheese and onions ($2.35), homemade pies ($1.10 a slice), and "thick shakes and malts like you get in New York" ($1.50).
Esquire Rating Two similar roadside stands share a nearly untouched stretch of Pacific Coast Highway, above Crystal Cove in Laguna Beach. One of them is the Orange Inn, which Esquire magazine once rated one of the 10 best roadside stands in the country, said John Bodrero, the current owner.
The inn, painted an unmistakable bright green and orange, has served up fresh hand-squeezed orange juice and date shakes since 1931 to travelers, surfers, beachgoers, locals and celebrities.