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Old Place Has a History of Making People Feel at Home : Agoura: Restaurant run by husband-and-wife team offers barbecued steaks, chili and steamed clams in a down-to-earth setting.

March 06, 1992|KATE POSS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Poss is an Agoura Hills writer.

Linda Ronstadt complained that the chili was too spicy. Peter Yarrow brought Bob Dylan, who played the piano while Dolly Parton sang one night at the Old Place, a simple Agoura restaurant that doesn't even have a printed menu.

Usually, the lesser-known Steve Poisner rides his mountain bike from his home nearby to play jazz and ragtime for free on the turn-of-the-century upright piano at the restaurant on Mulholland Highway, nestled between the Santa Monica Mountains and million-dollar ranches.

The Old Place feels pretty old, like it's 100 instead of only 22. Its food is something California cowboys might have cooked up for an evening meal: big steaks barbecued over an oak fire, roasted potatoes and steamed clams.

It's not necessarily the food that attracts the regulars, though. Diners say it's owners Tom and Barbara Runyon, and the Old Place itself that draw them back.

Longtime Malibu residents, the Runyons in the '60s knew locals in nearby Malibu Lake and Seminole Springs Mobilehome Park who wanted another restaurant in the area. At the time there was Art Whizin's hamburger place in Agoura--now long gone--and a couple of places in Malibu, about a 20-minute drive away.

"The building goes back to the early 1900s, maybe 1914," said Tom Runyon, 71. It was the Cornell post office before Cornell became part of Agoura in the 1960s. The post office also was a general store.

The Runyons bought the unoccupied building in 1969 and decided to make the facade reflect the Old West and to serve simple food that was easy to cook. Tom--with a little help--nailed old planks to the front of the building and built a Western-style porch, complete with rusted trellises, old wagon wheels and a plank bench.

He installed a 30-foot antique saloon bar that seats about 10 and takes up half the dining space. On the other side are five high-backed dark wood booths. The inside walls are lined with dark wood and old, unlighted kerosene lanterns. The place is smoky and dimly lighted inside, filled with the smell of steaks cooking over an open fire.

"Our friends told us we would never make any money on the place," Tom said, "but we've done OK. We weren't able to send the kids to college or anything like that. This place has seen good times and slow times, but we survived." (The Runyons have two grown children, a son and a daughter.)

Tom has had other sources of income that have kept him going over the years. He was a pilot in World War II, and in the '50s and '60s he wrote fiction for a magazine called Argosy and acted in small film roles.

The Runyons are the owners and sole employees. On a typical night, Barbara serves as bartender, waitress and table clearer. Sometimes the customers clear the table if she's too busy. She never stops working, and she doesn't waste time on small talk with the customers either. On a good night, the restaurant serves 50 to 75 people.

The service is simple. She says wine is served, and the beer is "whatever's in the refrigerator."

"This place is great and Barbara is a classic," said Richard Jaakola, a longtime customer from Thousand Oaks.

Patty Elliott, who lives a few minutes' walk from the Old Place, recalled Barbara's response to a couple one night.

"The fellow asked Barbara whether the clams had any sand on them. Barbara said, 'Sometimes they do and sometimes they don't. If you're worried about sand, don't order the clams. Order steak instead.' "

Tom mans the kitchen and washes the dishes. He cooks the steaks and clams for each order. Rare steaks are thick slices of top sirloin and well-done steaks are thin. Each steak order nets about a pound of beef. Clams or steak are $14.

Celebrity guests over the years have included Steve McQueen and Ali McGraw, Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro, Sean Penn, Peter Strauss, Sissy Spacek, Twiggy, Robert Blake, Goldie Hawn, Jack Lemmon, Larry Hagman and Jackson Browne, who pulled a seat up to the old upright piano with its silent key and pedal that sticks, Tom said.

"We can't forget Ronnie and Miss Nancy--they used to live across the street," said Tom of the former President and his wife, who until the early 1970s owned a ranch in the area that has since become Malibu Creek State Park.

"Nothing ever changes. We come for the down-to-earth atmosphere," said Linda Jaakola, a Thousand Oaks resident who has been a regular for the past few years.

"There's something alive about this place, it reminds me of Marin County," said Leah Gautereaux, also of Thousand Oaks and a regular Old Place customer.

Bill Banks of Hollywood drives for an hour nearly every weekend to eat at the Old Place. He's been a regular for more than five years.

"Even if you don't eat meat, you'll learn to like it the way Tom cooks it," Banks said. "I feel like I belong when I'm at the Old Place. Tom and Barb really make you feel at home here. It's a wonderful place to kick back and feel good."

The Old Place is at 29983 Mulholland Highway and is open evenings 6:45 to 10 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. On Sundays from 3:30 until 7:30 or 8 p.m., Tom makes chili and clam stew, which is $3.50 a bowl. Reservations suggested to obtain a booth. Call (818) 706-9001.

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