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COVER STORY

An Inland Oasis

The Mission Inn has drawn the rich and famous. But Riverside (yes, Riverside) invites the curious to explore not only this landmark but also the city's antiques stores, cafes and museums.

May 27, 1999|ANNE BEATTS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

While you're blowing off the dust, you might recall that, back in Dust Bowl days, Riverside symbolized the pastures of plenty where you could reach right up and pick oranges off trees. At Farthings, 3635 Main St., you can reach right up and pick citrus-themed merchandise off the shelves: orange-shaped candles, $9; lemon salt and pepper shakers, $9.95; a miniature-lemon-rimmed picture frame, $23; reproduction citrus labels framed in copper, $13 to $18; and the cutest teeny little ceramic oranges and lemons in a little metal tub, $12.

However, it is possible to shop in Riverside without traveling back in time. Paige's Place, 3563 Main St., carries a range of boldly contemporary housewares, candles, and toiletries. The work of L.A. artist Anita Rosenberg is well-represented. I especially like her large hand-painted wooden serving tray, featuring--what else?--lemons, $150, with matching jug, $116.

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If seeing all these lemons makes you pucker up with thirst, relief is only a few doors away at Simple Simon's simple cafe, which, of course, serves lemonade. Try to snag one of the outdoor tables to enjoy the truly delicious salads, soups and sandwiches made from scratch on the premises.

Alas, the aptly named "Exquisite Cakes," dressed up with fresh flowers to look more like spring bonnets than cakes, must be ordered two days in advance. Instead, you might take home one of Simon's artisan breads, $1 for the plain focaccia or $4.50 for the intriguing-sounding fig and ginger.

On Sundays, Simple Simon's is closed. So you just might have to fall back on Sunday brunch at the Mission Inn, $23.50 per person including champagne or mimosas, served from 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Reservations are recommended, since the hotel adds additional tables in the restaurant lobby to accommodate the overflow crowd that comes from miles around to sample a staggering array of food, prepared under the supervision of executive chef Gary Palm, who trained with Roger Verge.

Supposedly Dick Nixon proposed to Pat in the restaurant's Spanish Patio, and it is truly one of the most romantic spots in the world--or perhaps the most romantic spot of the other world, one closer to Disneyland. In the enclosed flower-bedecked courtyard, amid the soft plashing of fountains and the chiming of bells, surrounded by the inn's Mad-Ludwig-of-Bavaria-Goes-to-Mexico varying styles of architecture, you could be anywhere, and nowhere.

The Mission Inn was the Bellagio of its day. Like William Randolph Hearst in his time, and Steve Wynn in ours, the original innkeeper, Frank Miller, swept up the art treasures of the world and brought them back for the enjoyment of--and sometimes purchase by--his guests.

The inn's St. Francis of Assisi Chapel, for instance, scene of Bette Davis' second wedding, combines wood paneling and carvings from a Belgian convent, a huge gilded 18th century altar screen from Guanajuato, Mexico, and Louis Comfort Tiffany mosaics from a church in New York--plus a menorah for good measure. On a grandly ecumenical note, the statue in the fountain outside is of Bacchus.

But short of getting married in the nondenominational, nonconsecrated chapel yourself, the only way to view these historic artifacts today is by booking a tour with the nonprofit Mission Inn Foundation ([909] 788-9556). Tours cost $8 and are supposed to last 75 minutes. However, most tours have a way of running longer, so eager are the well-informed volunteer docents to unlock the mysteries of their beloved hotel, from locating Amelia Earhart's wing insignia, signed simply "A.E.," on the "Flyers' Wall" outside the chapel, to pointing out the room Paul Newman slept in--actually the bridal suite. As veteran docent Gail Nelson says, "In Riverside, the Mission Inn is our living room."

Tours begin and end in the Mission Inn Museum, 3696 Main St., well worth a visit on its own, at $2 for adults. Just to give you an idea of Frank Miller's passion for collecting--in 1915 this guy actually carted back from the San Francisco Exhibition 13 life-size wax figures of Pope Pius X and his court to display in the inn's Cloister Walk. Sadly, the full effect must be left to the imagination, since only the pope remains on view today in the museum. Trust me--pay the $2.

If your appetite for museums isn't sated, you might want to stroll over to UC Riverside's California Museum of Photography, 3824 Main St., for a complete change of pace: modern minimalism in a three-story, high-tech space. There's a nice selection of photo books and cards on sale in the tiny gift shop.

Normally the museum closes at 5 p.m. weekends, but this Saturday you're in luck because two new shows, featuring the work of Robin Rosenweig and Arnie Zane, are opening. Receptions for both will be held from 6 to 9 p.m. (Contact [909] 787-4787 for more information.) Admission is free through Aug 8.

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