Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Arches

Wood panel from The Arches, carved by "C. Abel," and found in Costa Mesa.
Recently, I visited Normandy's New York Hardware Co. in Costa Mesa. It's a delightful place full of both modern hardware (doorknobs, hinges, etc.) and antique mall brick-a-brack. And what did I find there, but a number of old signs and decorative panels from one of Orange County's most historic restaurants: The Arches!

It began as a service station, built in 1925 on Pacific Coast Highway, at the intersection of Newport Blvd. in Newport Beach. This was the same year the highway opened between Huntington Beach and Newport.

Historian Phil Brigandi writes, "John Vilelle (1897-1981) built The Arches. Originally he had a partner named James Sturgeon, but he didn’t stay around long. Vilelle & Sturgeon ran the gas station, and their wives, Fern Vilelle and Anna Sturgeon [later] ran the restaurant."
One of several wood panels from The Arches seen at Normandy's.
Ten-year-old Victor Chatten named the place in a 1926 newspaper contest and won five dollars. Clearly, it was named for the Mediterranean arches on the front of the building. Later, a diner and and market were added. The diner would evolve and improve over the years.

"Not long after prohibition ended in 1933, Johnny Vilelle got a liquor license, and started serving cocktails." says Brigandi. He sites as 1941 ad bragging of "unexcelled Steak Dinners and Good Coffee. Cocktail Bar in connection" and a 1949 ad for "Steak, Chicken, Lobster in Season, Cocktails.”

In 1936,  a large bridge was built nearby, taking Newport Blvd. over the highway at what was then one of the most dangerous intersections in Orange County. Soon, the bridge was unofficially dubbed "Arches,"  and the name stuck. Soon, not just the business, but also the bridge and the surrounding area was known as The Arches. It was a landmark, and remains so today.
An early image of The Arches service station (left) and market/cafe (right)
The business went through multiple sets of hands, but the name was always retained. The import of Arches as a place on the map was at least as significant as The Arches as a specific business.

Eventually the service station disappeared. And what started as a diner eventually completed its transition into a high-end restaurant and watering hole for the well-heeled.  John Wayne, Shirley Temple, and other famous folk were regulars.

"By the early 1970s," Brigandi writes, "The Arches was being touted for its French food, and – if the old Orange County Illustrated magazine is to be believed – the bar had a reputation as a place for 'swingers.'"
A view of The Arches from across the highway, circa 1955.
Dan Marcheano bought the restaurant in 1982. He moved out in 2007 and new owners (Los Arcos Newport LLC) moved in, fully prepared to continue the tradition of The Arches.

But Marcheano took the name with him. After a certain amount of unpleasantness between the old and new owners, Marcheano opened a new "The Arches" in Cannery Village -- and then, when that didn't work -- to a location on Westcliff Dr. This forced the owners of the old location to come up with a new name. Keeping a big curlicued "A" on the beginning of their roadside sign maintained a familiar look, so the place became "A Restaurant."
The Arches shortly before its renovation into A Restaurant, 2008.
 The new owners also found that certain infrastructure issues probably hadn't been dealt with in many decades. The entire restaurant was jacked up into the air and new foundations and plumbing were installed.

Meanwhile, the new The Arches on Westcliff struggled and finally closed at the end of 2010.
Revisiting the old Latin maxim, "De gustibus non est disputandum."
A Restaurant seems to be flourishing. I hope this original location eventually reclaims the moniker that everyone still calls it anyway: The Arches. Regardless, the owners of A Restaurant might want to get their butts over to Normandy's New York Hardware and reappropriate some historic signage.
More relics of The Arches at Normandy's New York Hardware.

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