It was the best of times at El Pescador.
You might walk through the door and hear the Andrews sisters singing "It's a Grand Old Flag" at the piano bar.
John Wayne used to come into the restaurant-bar with actor Ward Bond or director John Ford.
You could get one the world's great clam chowders made by the former personal chef of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, or a scrumptious abalone dinner for $5.95. The seafood was always fresh. And the fish stories were great too.
Actress June Allyson came in from time to time. So did craggy-faced actor Victor McLaglen. Movie stunt pilot Paul Mantz dropped by in the afternoons.
Tall, handsome Huntington Beach oilman Marcus McCallen was a regular, always chauffeured; he tipped everybody and was apt to slip Winnie the cocktail waitress $100. But then Winnie was special; she had been a trapeze artist.
Those were the days.
Former owner Keith Newman tells about the time that regular customer Mark Armistead, a buddy of Ford and Wayne, threw a check on the bar of the Costa Mesa restaurant and, with a gleam in his eye, asked Newman to cash it.
"Mark had invented the instant replay for TV and had a million-dollar check from NBC. He said, 'Keith, can you cash this for me?' I said, 'I'll have to go out back, Mark; I don't have that much cash out here.' "
Newman smiled as he recalled the old days, the best of times.
But El Pescador's great days are over . . . like the jokes, laughter, music, food and camaraderie, the golf tournaments, poker games, fishing trips and pictures on the walls to back up the fish stories.
The restaurant at 401 E. 17th St. that became an institution, a second home to many, will open its doors for the last time today. After the wake, the building will be razed for a shopping center.
The walls, cured by 36 years of cigarette smoke and merriment, will come down, as will the roof that sometimes leaks, the worn carpet and aging bathroom fixtures. The mounted fish, turtle shell, pictures, stuffed pheasant and cartoons will be gone. So will the "Finish Line" sign that stakes out one end of the bar for regulars and the rusty sign outside that says "Keith Newman's El Pescador." Documents, licenses and deeds will be filed, and only anecdotes and memories will linger.
"I just had dinner there about 5 nights ago," said Pilar Wayne, John Wayne's widow. "It was sensational; I was talking to the lady in there (about El Pescador's closing). It's sad. Duke and I had dinner there many times. It's kind of a neat place; you don't have to get all dressed up. I've been going there for 20 years; the food is great and it's nice, really casual."
Another El Pescador aficionado, Fred Corcoran of Costa Mesa, tells a story from the old days of a comical regular at the watering hole:
"He was a great guy, a big, tough Irishman who was very funny; he was a legend around there. One night he and three other guys who all had been drinking were out in a car and were stopped by the police; the cops asked each one how much he had been drinking. One guy said, 'I've only had two drinks; another guy said he had only had three drinks, and when the cop asked Tom: 'Tom, how much have you had to drink?' Tom said, 'Well, all the good numbers seem to have been taken.' So they took him to jail and told him he could make a phone call--and Tom called Chicken Delight."
Corcoran swears the story is true. And now it's legend.
El Pescador even had a mirror image, a sister restaurant-bar in Mexico. Newman said Armistead was so fond of the place, or at least so used to it, that he came in and measured everything and built a replica on a bay at San Quintin, Mexico, along with a hotel and RV park. "I went down there many times," Newman said. "The place was a duplicate."
Newman's name is an ever-recurring one when one stirs the mists of memory. As one old-timer put it: "Talk to Keith; he is the El Pescador."
The original restaurant on the site opened in 1954 and was named Kennedy's by its owner, Jack Kennedy. When Forrest Smith Jr. bought it, he changed the name to El Pescador, meaning The Fisherman. Newman, a Huntington Beach resident since 1938, went to work for Smith as manager of the restaurant in 1956.
"I managed it for Forrest, and he told me if I did a good job he would sell it to me in 4 years," Newman said. Smith was as good as his word; Newman was owner from 1960 until 1982 when he sold the restaurant to the present owners, Jim and Josie Graham.
It was Newman who instigated the golf tournaments and the fishing trips that gave El Pescador a sporting life and vigor that made it more than just a likable watering hole.
Newman had a 30-foot sport fisher, El Pescador Jr., in 1962-82 that was a source of entertainment and often provided the catch of the day. "I took out the regular customers, and we caught lots of fish for the restaurant," Newman said. "We caught albacore, yellowtail, sea bass, halibut. . . ."