Politics aside, Richard M. Nixon was known as one of the most fastidious presidents to hold the office, developing a notoriety for wearing a necktie at all times, even during walks on the beach below his San Clemente retreat.
But even a dress code that hidebound couldn't stand up to the house rule at the Trabuco Oaks Steak House. In 1978, under the eyes of the Secret Service, the steakhouse's founder and original owner, Eleanor Sherod, attacked Nixon's tie with a pair of scissors, snipping it neatly in two. She then did the same for Nixon's friend Bebe Rebozo, who had accompanied the former President to dinner.
The remains of the two ties repose today in a display case near the front door of the restaurant, a warning to those who think they can get a seat with a cravat of any kind around their necks.
Hundreds have tried and failed, and what is left of their ties hangs from the rafters of the place in mute witness to the restaurant's relentless informality. Besides, if you're going to tuck into a juicy, 32-ounce steak, you might not want some $40 designer creation of muted paisley silk dangling into the A-1 Sauce.
That 2-pound Cowboy Steak is the star of the menu at the Trabuco Oaks Steak House. The restaurant's current owner, Steve Nordeck, said 20 to 25 of them a week get slapped on the grill at $29.95 a throw.
"And about half of the people who order them eat them by themselves," he said. "The other half share them."
Large appetites have been coming to the remote restaurant for more than 20 years. In 1967, Sherod and her husband took over a small snack stand just off Live Oak Canyon Road in Trabuco Canyon and began to add onto it while selling takeout burgers. By 1975, it had grown to resemble a large garden shack, and the beef was being sold by cut, rather than strictly by grind.
Two years ago, Nordeck and his wife, Dori, bought the place from Sherod and resolved not to tamper with success.
Nordeck, a developer who was raised in Manhattan Beach and was that city's mayor before he retired from politics in the early 1980s, said he "used to come out to Coto de Caza in the early '70s, and my favorite place to eat always was the Trabuco Oaks Steak House. It was rural and different, and it always had excellent food."
He became friends with Sherod over the years, so when Sherod decided to retire, she agreed to sell the business to Nordeck, who now lives in Coto de Caza.
Besides the Cowboy Steak, the new regime sells more modest cuts, starting with the Little Wrangler, at 8 ounces. Side dishes continue to be simple: potatoes, salad, garlic bread and barbecued beans. Such dishes as mesquite-grilled halibut and deep-fried chicken are on the menu for people daunted by the size of the steaks.
"We get Far Eastern business people who come in here and look at the Cowboy Steak and think they've gone to heaven," Nordeck said. "Home in Japan, they tell us that they can't get something like that for three times the price."
Nordeck still wields the scissors, although he said he'll be willing to give anyone a break who shows up with a full Windsor at his throat.
"We'll always tell people the policy of the house if they show up wearing a tie that they don't want to donate to us," he said.
"We'll give them a chance to take it off. They all take it with good humor."
THE TRABUCO OAKS STEAK HOUSE AT A GLANCE
Where: 20782 Trabuco Oaks Drive, Trabuco Canyon.
Hours: Dinner only. Open from 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, from 4 p.m. weekends. Closed Monday.
Reservations: Required. May be made 30 days in advance. One week advance notice recommended for weekends.
Information: (714) 586-0722.