My aunts started coming to Orange County in the '20s to swim cozy Balboa Harbor with their water wings. In the beginning, they stayed at a white clapboard hotel called the Viking, which I sure haven't seen in a while, and eventually they made a practice of renting summer homes in Laguna. By the time I started spending my summers with them, they had rather settled opinions on everything in Orange County.
Not that there was much to argue about in the restaurant department. As far as I could tell, the only restaurants in Laguna were the Jolly Roger, Diz's As Is and the Victor Hugo, which has since closed. In any case, my aunts insisted that the only good restaurants were in Newport Beach. My pheasant-and-champagne aunt liked the Arches, and my beefsteak-and-bourbon aunt preferred the Bell, which is the Five Crowns today.
It was all pretty academic to me. They weren't about to take a teen-age lout to a restaurant he couldn't possibly appreciate. As a result, I've always had a vague feeling these two places somehow wouldn't let me in. My aunts must have told on me.
It wasn't until last week that I went to the Five Crowns for the first time. It was a sentimental journey, although I know it's not really the same place, because the Lawry's corporation bought it about 20 years back (hence the new name and the sign out front reading Est. 1965). But have a little respect for a guy's sentiment.
Everybody must know the building is a 1920 replica of an ancient English tavern called the Old Bell in Hurley, making it one of the oldest theme restaurants in California. The theme has been downplayed a little in recent years, I gather--the menu no longer uses a lot of cutesy fake Old English, and ferns hang, '70s style, in at least one of the rooms--but the place is still pleasantly cluttered with antique knickknacks and festooned with ivy.
In any case, this is a restaurant that's grown into its theme. There is no awkwardness about it; it's as smooth as a river pebble by now. And of course, by California standards, it is an ancient restaurant.
I don't quite know what I expected to be served. Certainly there are one or two indisputably English dishes on the menu, the first one you see being leek and chicken soup (the Scottish name cockaleekie may have disappeared with the antique typefaces). This is chicken broth with some white meat and a few strips of leek in the bottom of the cup, and one prune. It's not a dish anybody gets excited about. The world is divided into those who think it's a pleasant prune-flavored consomme and those who think it's hospital food.
The rest of the menu is hearty, meaty food in the Lawry's tradition, and nobody does this steak and prime rib stuff better. This is only loosely identified with Old England, and there are a couple of barefaced foreign dishes scattered on the menu as well, like fresh pastas that tend to be full of Parmesan and garlic.
The prime reason to come is the roasted beef ribs. At a lot of restaurants, prime rib is about the blandest way to eat beef, but the Lawry's people know some diabolical secret for getting a lot of flavor in prime rib. These are thick slabs of meat with streaming rivulets of blood and shameless gobbets of melting fat. They come with an eggy Yorkshire pudding and a fairly mild horseradish cream sauce (you can ask for meaner horseradish if you want).
I happen to think the best thing on the menu after the ribs, which are the most expensive item, is the cheapest, the roast duckling. It has excellent crisp skin and comes with an arresting sweet-and-sour sauce, related to the bed of apples and prunes the duck rests on. (Yes, prunes again.)
For the rest, there are a couple of steaks. One serves two people, one is topped with crab meat and asparagus and comes with bearnaise sauce (is this beef Oscar?), and a third is a trio of filets in the same sauce. There is also excellent rack of lamb in simple meat juices and a grilled veal chop that comes with garlicky fettuccine. This is all pretty classily done, most entrees coming on a plate with a unique array of vegetables. None of your authentic English practice of serving the same two vegetables with everything.
If you really do want something English, for dessert there's trifle, a nursery treat splurging on cake, whipped cream and strawberries. There also are a number of good tarts, notably a caramel walnut tart that's like a wedge-shaped brownie.
Well, there it is. If you've eaten at the Five Crowns in recent years, I'm not telling you anything you don't know, because this is a very stable menu and on evidence an extraordinarily consistent restaurant. I'm just glad they let me in.
Prices are simply explained. Dinners are $13.95 to $19.95. Sunday brunch is $6.95 to $12.95.
FIVE CROWNS 3801 E. Coast Highway, Corona del Mar (714) 760-0331 Open for dinner daily; Sunday brunch. American Express, MasterCard and Visa accepted