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Goodbye Diner, Side Order of Home

Orange County

Landmarks: Along Interstate 5 in South County, Buffy's has defined 'regulars.'

June 11, 2001|TINA BORGATTA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nestled along Interstate 5, near the spot where Laguna Niguel, San Juan Capistrano and Mission Viejo meet, is a little greasy spoon filled with the smell of bacon and fried eggs and the chatter of truckers, locals and early-morning regulars.

At Buffy's, real buttermilk pancakes and country-fried steaks still reign. But the grill at this '60s-style diner and beloved landmark is about to go cold.

In a few months, Buffy's will be torn down to make room for a Carl's Jr. The bar stools and homemade berry pies will be replaced by a drive-through window and assembly-line burgers.

"You're not going to find another place like this one," says Robert Grzegorczyk, 53, who's been a Buffy's regular for almost a quarter century--even after he moved to Lake Elsinore a few years ago.

After nearly four decades, Buffy's--named after the original owner's wife--is showing its age. The building is old. It needs new paint, new air-conditioning, new appliances, new plumbing. Owner Doug Siewert, the restaurant's fourth proprietor, says a make-over would simply be too costly.

And, thanks to the energy crisis, the restaurant's electricity bill has doubled, making it even tougher to keep money in the till, Siewert says.

The demise of Buffy's will mean the end of an era for the regulars who have made breakfast at the diner a weekly, or daily, ritual--customers such as Jim Rogers of Mission Viejo.

Rogers, 68, has plunked himself down at the same booth every morning at 7 on the dot for the past 28 years. Now he's going to have to find a new place to "hold office."

That booth is where he meets with his painters to talk over the day's jobs. Char Sprinkling, the waitress who calls everyone "Doll," keeps his coffee cup full.

"Now what am I going to do?" Rogers says. "I guess I'll have to go to Carrow's. It won't be like this, though."

Rogers took a liking to the restaurant after moving to San Clemente from Boston in 1973. Back then, Buffy's had a Western theme and the owner used to show cowboy movies.

Buffy's has a country-kitchen motif today, and fresh apple and berry pies fill a bakery case near the door. Soup is made from scratch. Garage sale notices and business cards are pinned on a board near the cash register.

A suggestion box waits next to the till. Mostly, the customers use it to praise their favorite waitresses. But every once in a while, a regular will slip in a joke or friendly jab. "I don't like the color of your table cloths. Just kidding!" one wrote.

In its heyday, Buffy's was a popular truck stop. Morning, noon and night, truckers hauling anything from lumber to vegetables between San Diego and Los Angeles would pull off the freeway for a hot meal and a good cup of java.

"Truckers were the mainstay here for many years," Siewert says.

So many truckers came in that the cooks created the Truckers Special: a double order of bacon or sausage, three eggs, hash browns, toast and jelly, and a glass of juice.

Buffy's still draws big rigs, but not as many as it used to.

The trucker clientele began to dwindle in 1997, when heavy rains from El Nino wiped out a portion of Camino Capistrano, the frontage road the restaurant calls home. That now makes it harder for the trucks to get back on the freeway.

These days, Buffy's is more popular among families and church groups.

The Rev. Dave Hicks and several members of his congregation from Crown Valley Church in Laguna Niguel are there every Tuesday at 6:15 a.m. They say it's the kind of old-fashioned mom-and-pop joint you might see in a Norman Rockwell painting. And they are sad to see it go.

"Just because something is older and been around awhile doesn't mean it's not worth keeping," Hicks says. "I can guarantee you, we won't be coming here when it's a Carl's Jr."

It's also sad for Siewert, 34. He's worked at the restaurant since he was 12, first washing dishes, then waiting tables, then cooking. His father bought the restaurant in 1979, and he took over ownership in 1998.

He'll never forget "Railroad Rhonda," the homeless woman who, some 20 years ago, hung around the tracks across the street. Siewert and some Buffy's regulars would bring her food. But they lost track of her after she was injured by a car while crossing Camino Capistrano. Her health declined and she was placed in a care home.

There was the time a water pipe burst in the middle of the Sunday morning rush.

"Me and the cook went up to the attic," Siewert recalls, "and he slipped in the water, and his foot came through the ceiling right into the dining room."

"The cost to run the restaurant has made it tough," Siewert says. "We're paying more and using less energy. And since the road's been closed these past few years, we're just not doing the kind of business we used to."

So when Gary Wiles of Wiles Restaurant, Laguna Niguel, offered six months ago to buy him out, Siewert considered it.

"In the past 10, 15 years, we've had lots of chains contact us, but nothing's ever come of it until now," Siewert says. "And for the right price, everything's for sale."

Wiles' application to build a Carl's Jr. was approved by the Laguna Niguel Planning Commission in April without a hitch.

Siewert is not ruling out opening another Buffy's somewhere nearby. His family once owned two others, in San Clemente and Carlsbad. Both were sold and renamed years ago.

"I know 80% of the people who walk through that door," Siewert says. "Buffy's has been part of my life since I was very young. It's all I've ever known."

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