It's 4 p.m. Sunday at the Capistrano Depot, and Irene and Borg Bernsen are moving mostly from the waist down. They're gracefully whirling their way through a leggy, rhythmic, seldom-seen dance called the Balboa that goes beautifully with traditional New Orleans jazz. And the Golden Eagle Jazz Band, perhaps four feet away from the Bernsens, is belting the sort of brassy, uninhibited music that goes beautifully with the Balboa.
The Bernsens have been sitting at their table, the one they've occupied on Sunday afternoons for nearly nine years, since about 12:30, staking out their territory, waiting for the band to show, making sure they have unobstructed access to the sights and sounds of their weekly ritual.
It's like that at the Capistrano Depot, once a sleepy stop for San Diego and Los Angeles-bound freight and passenger trains and now a weekend mecca for lovers of old buildings, old neighborhoods, old jazz and old friends.
"When we first came here we sort of sat in the corner," said Irene Bernsen, 73. "Then we retired, and now we feel like dancing."
"If you can sit still for this music, you're either sick or dead already," said Borg Bernsen, 71.
Since 1975, the depot has been less a train stop and more of a local restaurant and watering hole. The main red brick building with its belfry and arches, completed in 1894, served as the passenger station, and a nearby shed handled freight until the two were connected by an enclosed corridor 81 years later.
Today, Amtrak passenger trains stop several times each day, handling both commuter and excursion passenger traffic, but the main building is a restaurant, and the shed serves as a bar and lounge area.
Vintage freight cars, including a caboose, were bought by Pete Tyson, the depot's owner, attached to the structure and converted into dining areas and offices. A baggage-lounge car, built in 1927 and once part of the fabled Super Chief train that ran regularly between Los Angeles and Chicago, was also incorporated into the structure and offers patrons a view of the band through open windows in the car.
Lunch is served daily from 11:30 a.m. and dinner from 5 p.m., but, Tyson said, the depot is at its liveliest--and most crowded--on Sunday afternoons, when only appetizers and drinks are served.
The Golden Eagle Jazz Band, which has been playing at the depot on Sunday afternoons for nearly 10 years, is the focal point of the Sunday afternoon revelry. Despite a sign advertising Dixieland music, the band's leader, pianist Dick Shooshan, said the music is mostly traditional New Orleans jazz, a more varied and refined form of the genre.
It doesn't seem to matter to the crowd, made up of walk-in tourists from the mission around the corner, day-trippers up from San Diego or down from Los Angeles on the train, or regulars such as Nancy Hogan, 47, an interior decorator from Laguna Beach.
"There's a group of us who come down here and sit at the end of the bar every Sunday," she said. "It's like a ritual: Now we eat brunch, now we go to the depot."
The atmosphere can be infectious. With the walls painted with reproductions of '20s- and '30s-era ads, with the music holding true to the time ("We're going to do another tune out of 1923," Shooshan might announce). With real trains occasionally squealing past the platform outside, it isn't unusual to feel the wooden planks vibrate under your feet as dozens of feet tap and men impulsively grab women and spin them out onto the makeshift dance floor.
"It's a family kind of deal down here," Shooshan said.
"It's sort of a weekly social happening. There's no dance floor, but people dance anyway. There's an intimacy here that's hard to find at any other place."
THE CAPISTRANO DEPOT AT A GLANCE
Hours: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday, brunch 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Dinner 5-9 p.m. weekdays, 5-10 p.m. weekends. Lounge entertainment nightly.
Getting there: Located just around the corner from Mission San Juan Capistrano on Verdugo Street at the train tracks, just east of Los Rios Street. Exit San Diego Freeway at Ortega Highway, then west. Northbound and southbound Amtrak passenger trains stop at the depot several times daily and call at San Diego, Del Mar, Oceanside, San Clemente, Santa Ana, Anaheim, Fullerton and Los Angeles.
Parking: Free parking and some metered parking adjacent to depot.
Facilities: Full dining room, bar and lounge, meeting, banquet and party rooms and gift and toy shop. Amtrak tickets may be bought on the premises. Dinner entrees from $6.95 to $11.95.
History: Construction of red brick depot completed in 1894, converted to restaurant in 1975, with vintage railroad cars added to structure as meeting and dining areas. Old freight shed converted to saloon.
Most popular attraction: The Golden Eagle Jazz Band, which plays traditional New Orleans jazz Sunday afternoons in the lounge 3-7 p.m. No cover or minimum. Limited seating and small dancing area.
26701 Verdugo Street
San Juan Capistrano