Friday, September 17, 2010

Walnut Grove Restaurant, San Juan Capistrano

In 1946, three Long Beach motorcycle cops and their wives opened the Walnut Grove Restaurant at 32065 State Highway 101 (now Camino Capistrano), in San Juan Capistrano. The owners were Fred L. and Lorraine Newhart, John A. and Lucille Janton, and Mr. & Mrs. H. A. Harvey. There was both a restaurant and a gas station, with the wives running the 18-seat diner and the men pumping gas. Later, it seems Newhart family became the sole owners.
.
Much as the padres had planned almost two centuries earlier, San Juan Capistrano served as a good stopping-off point on the trek between San Diego and Los Angeles. In an area with few restaurants, the Walnut Grove was soon a hit with truckers and other travelers.
.
The food was traditional American fare, including steaks, pot roast, turkey, fried chicken, and meatloaf. (Also note the abalone steaks advertised on their awning in the photo above.) They eventually operated their own bakery as well.
.
The place was busy -- especially in the summer -- and Hollywood stars were among their "regulars." The room in the back featuring slot machines probably didn't hurt their popularity either, but the police shut down the gambling in 1951.
.
Perhaps somewhat ironically, the restaurant was popular with law enforcement officers. It's also worth noting that the future Orange County Sheriff Brad Gates had his first job at the Walnut Grove, bussing tables.

By the mid-1950s, the place was popular enough that a second restaurant, called The Walnut Grove Coast Restaurant, was opened in Dana Point. (The pink, two-story building shown above.) It didn't last. But the original Capistrano restaurant thrived, even after moving, in 1960, to a larger location at 26871 Ortega Highway (shown below).

The place suffered a fire in 1979, (from which it bounced back), and the death of original owner, Fred Newhart, Jr., in 1994. By the 1990s, Ben and Sharon Newhart were operating the place.
.
Over the years, the Walnut Grove became less of a highway diner and more of a family restaurant. Their customers were now more often locals and regulars rather than truckers and travelers.
.
But many things also remained the same. As their website pointed out, "Some of their servers have been there since 1946. And, they can run circles around the young ones."
.
Unfortunately, declining business and "extraordinary time demands" forced the closure of the Walnut Grove in 2005.
.
Today, even the building is gone, soon to be replaced by something called the Plaza Banderas Hotel Project. This new development, which also takes in the footprints of the old Mission Inn Motel and an Arco Station, will include a 124-room hotel, a restaurant, and 6,509 feet of commercial space. Plans show Mission Spanish Colonial style buildings, designed to not clash with the Mission across the street.

15 comments:

EDGE4194 said...

Fascinating post! I'm curious what happened to the building in Dana Point.

doug macintosh said...

A huge mission period kiln feature was located under the Arco station on the west side of the restaurant. This area is highly sensitive for sub-surface cultural resources.
Hopefully an archaeological monitoring and a native monitor will be on site, if and when the Walnut Grove location and the Mission Inn Motel site are "redeveloped".
Wonderful write-up and great images Chris. Thank you.

Jerry said...

Shocked to discover that the restaurant had been torn-down, for the last 50 years I have been a regular stopping on my way between San Diego & Los Angeles to eat & enjoy the company of those who had worked there from the beginning, Louise was one waitress whom I remember very well and I would swear that I had been in the restaurant within the last 2 years.

Roger (Randy) Hile said...

What I wouldn't give for a great abolone steak, like those served at the Walnut Grove back in the day. I remember as a youngster my brother (Steve) and I shucking abolone meat with "Little-Lorain" from live abolone shells harvested the same day by a renowned local fisher-man and "ledgenary surfer"...Lorain Harrison Sr. Unless you have experienced a really good abolone steak like those served at the "Grove", you haven't had good shell-fish! The local lobster wasn't bad either!!

Alicia Newhart said...

The Walnut Grove in San Juan Capistrano was my Uncle Fred's and then eventually my Auntie Sharon and Uncle Ben's (Newhart) restaurant and I spent quite a bit of time there growing up. I remember the fire there like it was yesterday - Just being there and seeing the same faces frequent there year after year proves what a great restaurant it was! Even the waitress that worked there were there for years. Both of my cousins Michelle and Benny worked there as well. My Auntie Sharon would work at the bakery as well (Sherry's Bakery) and hands down, made THE BEST CHEESECAKE EVER!!! So great to see this part of my family and my childhood recognized. Ahhh nostalgia has set in!! Thanks for a great article!

P.S. Best grilled cheese, fries, and dill pickle on the side too!

Anonymous said...

Hi Chris,

Wonderful blog and enjoyed the photos and info on Dana Point.

I live in Victoria, BC and I worked in Sherry's Bakery for a short time in 1987. Is it still in business? Great people to work for and to work with. Never made it to the Walnut Grove but knew of it.

Thanks in advance,
Sharon

Tracy Higgins said...

Ben Newhart gave me a job as a bus boy after I graduated High School in 1981. I worked at the Walnut Grove for about 6 months, then Ben asked me if I wanted to work over at Sherri's Bakery in Dana Point for $2.00 more an hour. I took it, and although starting work at 4 AM was tough, I learned a valuable skill. I worked at Sherri's for I believe five years, and became a scratch Baker. Chuck Zimmer and Tim Horbol were the guys who trained me, and JoAnne Musenberg was our awesome Cake Decorator! Note: Benny also worked with us for a bit:) From Sherri's I became a Pastry Chef at The Dana Point Resort, then a Bakery Manager for Von's Pavillions in Mission Viejo. I then took a job at a Bakerery Brokerage Firm when I saw all the Baked Goods going to frozen. I am now the V.P. of Sales for a Food Brokerage Firm with offices in Yorba Linda CA, Northern CA where I live, and Arizona. I will never forget how Ben and Sharon gave the the opportunity to get in the Baking business, and although I sell all perishable foods to retailers now, my roots will always go back to Baking. Thanks Ben and Sharon, and I wish many blessings on the Newhart family! Tracy Higgins

Tracy Higgins said...

Ben Newhart gave me a job as a bus boy after I graduated High School in 1981. I worked at the Walnut Grove for about 6 months, then Ben asked me if I wanted to work over at Sherri's Bakery in Dana Point for $2.00 more an hour. I took it, and although starting work at 4 AM was tough, I learned a valuable skill. I worked at Sherri's for I believe five years, and became a scratch Baker. Chuck Zimmer and Tim Horbol were the guys who trained me, and JoAnne Musenberg was our awesome Cake Decorator! Note: Benny also worked with us for a bit:) From Sherri's I became a Pastry Chef at The Dana Point Resort, then a Bakery Manager for Von's Pavillions in Mission Viejo. I then took a job at a Bakerery Brokerage Firm when I saw all the Baked Goods going to frozen. I am now the V.P. of Sales for a Food Brokerage Firm with offices in Yorba Linda CA, Northern CA where I live, and Arizona. I will never forget how Ben and Sharon gave the the opportunity to get in the Baking business, and although I sell all perishable foods to retailers now, my roots will always go back to Baking. Thanks Ben and Sharon, and I wish many blessings on the Newhart family! Tracy Higgins

Sean said...

I remember the Walnut Grove restaurant in San Juan Capistrano Ca. I went there several times around 2000 to 2001 or so and enjoyed the menu items. Later I was surprised to see that it was gone,wish they would have kept it there.

Anonymous said...

I used to go there from 1963 to 1973. We moved to Missouri in 1973. I have an old menu from this restaurant because my Grandmother Fern Goodwin worked there for 29 years. I sure wish it was still there as I will be returning to California in a couple of weeks.



Judi said...

I would love to get the recipe for the Harvest Pie that was served at the Walnut Groove Restaurant. I've tried looking it up on the internet, but cannot find it. Does anyone in the family have it, and could you share it? Is there still a family bakery that exists that makes the wonderful desserts that were served at the Walnut Groove? If so, could you tell us where it is located. Thank you

Mark said...

I *loved* the WGR. For me, that *was* San Juan Capistrano since it was the only place my family and friends consistently visited on trips up I-5. Things were bad enough after SJC got modernized, lost its drive-in theater and residential chicken coups, but the destruction of virtually the entire block where WGR was, including the neighboring Mission Inn Motel and row of old trees along Ortega Highway, was the final blow that gutted the heart of SJC, in my view. That destruction was a sin that should never have happened. That new construction project has been nothing but a pile of dirt for several years, thanks to ongoing city disputes about what type of business should be allowed there. That modern eyesore is just as ugly as the multi-story buildings they've tried to build there, so I've lost hope of SJC ever regaining its old charm. Does anyone remember the old ink drawing tourist map "Roads to Adventure" that used to be on the wall for decades at one of the restaurant's booths? That restaurant was a time capsule!

Mark said...

P.S.--In my opinion, the most similar still-existing restaurant to WGR is Ozzie's Diner in Commerce. Some people will object and say it has no bakery, but it has been operating with few visual changes since 1957, it's right off I-5, not too many miles from Disneyland, it still has old trees and railroad tracks around it, it's visited by truckers, it has a very midcentury atmosphere (enhanced by the playing of oldies from that era), and some of the area around it (on Telegraph Rd.) is largely unchanged since that time. WGR had all those attributes. Does anybody remember the 2-3 house trailers there were parked at the back of the WGR lot circa 1971, off of Spring St.? That was typical of the rustic charm of that era: nobody cared if people lived right on the property! As for why WGR and the MIM went out of business, online reviews from customers indicate that whomever was the property manager was in those last days really cold-hearted, such as refusing to call an ambulance when a MIM guest broke their leg on the property. That must have been the same guy who came running up to my car the day I pulled into the WGR lot after the restaurant had been fenced off, ready for demolition, and rudely told me the restaurant was gone, and demanded to know why I was parking there. I suspect such rudeness is closer to the truth of why those places went out of business, rather than the official online story that they were too time-demanding.

Mark said...

P.P.S.--Another similar, still-existing family restaurant with a very nice midcentury feel is Jack's Whittier Restaurant, in Whittier. Coincidentally, both that restaurant and Ozzie's Diner have a large Ponytail Palm planted in front, which must have been a common landscaping plant in those days, akin to Bottlebrush Trees, neither of which you see much anymore. Also gone from SJC in the area of WGR is a gift shop across the highway from WGR, where in 1973 I bought a small potted cactus, and more recently the modern Chevron gas station on the same lot as that gift shop was removed, so that whole area is almost unrecognizable now. In 2009 I stopped by the WGR lot to talk to a vintage car caravan that had just pulled up to the edge of the lot after WGR had been torn down. They said the WGR had been one their stopping points for years, and now they could only stop at the edge of where it used to be. For a few years after WGR was torn down there was a parking lot off El Camino Real on the elevated bank over the WGR site where one could walk down to MIM, but eventually even that lot was torn out. WGR used to have carry long post cards with a tear-off end that was a business card with a photo of the restaurant, and I used to carry that business card in my wallet, even when WGR was in business in the '70s, just because I loved that place so much and it boosted my mood to see a photo of it. There also existed a souvenir T-shirt of the WGR: I bought one from eBay around 2003.

rddnyarch said...

Wow! Great article! It inspired me to make my own blog.
Office build out in new York