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Neighborhood on the verge

Old Towne Orange is a 21st century place that resonates with 19th century spirit.

January 05, 2006|Roy Rivenburg | Times Staff Writer

IT'S like stepping into a giant attic. Wander through the cluttered shops of downtown Orange and you'll stumble across creaky suits of armor, Rosie the robot cookie jars, 1950s gasoline pumps, glow-in-the-dark Frankenstein dolls and other nostalgia.

But there's more to Old Towne Orange these days than antiques. In recent months, trendy restaurants and boutiques have moved into the neighborhood, jazzing up the area's nightlife and riling some locals who want to preserve the district's small-town atmosphere.

Yet even as downtown's bond to the past frays, the buildings retain a time-capsule-caliber aura. That's why the city is a popular backdrop for movies, showing up in such films as "First Daughter," "Big Momma's House" and "That Thing You Do."

Compared with Pasadena's Colorado Boulevard or Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade, the vibe is decidedly low-key. There are no multiplexes or chain stores to draw hordes of people to Old Towne Orange.

By day, antiques hunters meander the sparkly concrete sidewalks, especially on weekends (most of the shops shut down at dusk). But at night, the mood shifts. Under the soft glow of old-fashioned streetlamps, college students, families and couples cluster on restaurant patios or cuddle around the 1937 electric fountain. It's a 21st century place that hasn't forgotten its roots.

Carved out of a sprawling Mexican rancho in 1871, Orange began taking shape on a dusty parcel near a primitive horse racetrack.

A former Confederate submarine captain, William Glassell, laid out the fledgling hamlet's compact downtown. The most striking element in his blueprint was the central plaza. Anchored by a tiny park inside a traffic circle, it remains the community's signature landmark.

"As you approach the downtown along Chapman Avenue or Glassell Street, you don't see traffic lights," explains Phil Brigandi, the city's unofficial historian. "You see trees. It gives it a very different feel."

Sheep once slurped from the plaza fountain, and cars were allowed to travel clockwise and counterclockwise around the circular intersection, a practice that was outlawed in 1923.

Today, most of the slurping is done at Diedrich Coffee, located inside the former Orange Daily News building. The coffeehouse's spacious sidewalk patio is a popular hangout for watching the blur of cars and pedestrians navigating the Orange Circle.

And, yes, it's OK to call the park and surrounding plaza "the Circle." Although old-timers and purists despise the nickname -- so much that they once printed bumper stickers declaring, "It's the Plaza, not the Circle" -- the truth is that plenty of lifelong residents and merchants prefer "Circle," despite the fact that the park is actually an oval.

Branching off from the central plaza are four traffic spokes lined with shops, eateries -- and clues to the city's past.

Aaron Alduenda, who leads walking tours for the Orange Community Historical Society, advises visitors to aim their eyes upward: "That's where the history is." Otherwise, you won't notice the turn-of-the-century lion frieze above the vitamin store on North Glassell Street or the ghostly Bank of Italy wall sign on the north side of the Masonic Temple.

On the other hand, visitors who only stare up as they walk around will miss all the changes happening at ground level.

AFTER decades as a renowned antique hub, downtown Orange is undergoing a metamorphosis. Veteran antique merchants are slowly being supplanted by specialty stores, galleries, restaurants -- even a yoga studio. One of the newest arrivals is Frogs Breath, a gourmet wine and cheese shop named after a line from "The Nightmare Before Christmas." Inside, near displays of Spanish cheese and estate wines, sits an icy vat of liquid that instantly chills bottles of vino. Long-stemmed glasses sparkle on shelves and customers browse for cookies and chocolates.

Elsewhere downtown, the District Lounge, a refurbished tavern with red velvet wallpaper, live music and barbecue-tinged cuisine, has added a spark to Old Towne's nightlife, drawing throngs of students from neighboring Chapman University. Old movies play silently against one wall and an antique neon sign glimmers over the stage where bands perform.

In a room behind the bar, owner Mario Marovic stores liquor inside a massive vault from the building's early days as town post office.

Other new businesses include the Blue Frog bakery (no relation to the wine-and-cheese frog), a running-shoe store, a women's apparel shop, a kitchenware dealer and a retailer selling football-helmet snack bowls and flags.

Set to open soon: a bagel shop, several more restaurants and an espresso bar.

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