Thursday, July 14, 2011
How to Date a Milkshake: The Orange Inn and Me
Back when the Pacific Coast Highway was a long narrow strand of paradise running between tawny yellow hills on one side and the sparkling ocean on the other, the only stops of any note between Long Beach and Dana Point were funky, weather-beaten "shacks" of all kinds: bars, liquor stores, fish joints, crab cookers, boat chandleries, dive shops, the world's first surf shop (Kanvas By Katin) and, best of all, Shake Shacks.
Shake Shacks were also part of an agricultural tradition that defined early California. The palm groves, the fruit orchards, the orange groves, all funneled their produce to the shack, which often was run by the family who owned or worked the fruited plain and hill behind it. You could count on them being there all over the state, on 99 running up the Central Valley, in the desert behind Palm Springs, even in Hollywood at the base of the canyons. The mystic vegetarian-yoga-Buddhist-etc religious fads that have come and gone in the Golden State were all served up with a sprout sandwich and a date milkshake.
On the way to and from Laguna Beach there used to be two, the Shake Shack on the bluff overlooking Scotsman's Cove, and the Orange Inn on the inland side a couple of miles north of it. So you stopped at one if you were going south and the other if you were going north. It was a perfect ecosystem.
We used to argue about which shack was better. A perfect exercise in teenage connoisseurship. As we got older, we tended to favor the view at the Shake Shack, but never doubted that the Orange Inn made the superior product, Southern California's most emblematic product, for me anyway: the date milkshake.
Then the cold-hearted thieves on the board of the Irvine Land Trust sued their own selves in order to break up all that open space and turn it into cookie-cutter developments. A chapter in criminal malfeasance, if nothing new. The thousands of homes added killed off most of the aquatic life and made water quality testing a part of every swimmer's routine. And traffic. The traffic became murderous, demanding more and more lanes and toll roads for the affluent and there you have it: our American Achilles Heel: we love to death what we love best.
The Irvine developers were determined to get rid of the Shake Shacks, of course. There was a battle. People rallied. They liked the idea of a little shack standing up to the big guys. They just didn't care to stop the original re-zoning of open space.
The Shake Shack on the ocean side of PCH was saved. The Orange Inn was forced to move, and found a home on PCH just south of Main Street in Laguna Beach. The orange groves and fruit orchards vanished, and houses took their place.
Private enterprise having done its worst, it was now time for government to step in. The Shake Shack sat on state land, donated by Irvine, like a dollar tip thrown on the table after a feast at a five-star restaurant. When Scotsman's Cove was turned into Crystal Cove State Park, the bureaucrats had their revenge on the owners of the Shake Shack. Their 50-year-old lease was put out to bid and Ruby Tuesday's took over the operations. You can imagine the depth of soul of the operation now, although they try to fake a date shake and a sprout sandwich -- the same way these places put doo-wop vinyl 45s on the wall and pictures of Elvis on the menu.
The Orange Inn, however, has hung in there, and not only has it survived, it is thriving. It's the most soulful place in Laguna Beach, which in the love-of-all-things-retro mood of the world, is keeping them in business. They serve home-made soups and turkey-avocado sprout sandwiches -- the surfer classic -- and a dozen other things, all terrific. The ambiance is sublime, the photos of old Laguna and the Original Orange Inn worth pondering.
Best of all, they make a date shake that is straight out of 1930. But it's not on the menu. You've got to ask for it. Although the proprietor, John, knows his clientele so well that when we walked in the door yesterday he took one look at our sunscreen-streaked faces and salty hair and said, "Date shakes? Four?"