Monday, November 09, 2009

Cook's Corner

Cook's Corner in 2007. (Author's photo)
Located amid the sycamores and oaks at the crossroads of El Toro Road, Santiago Canyon Road, and Live Oak Canyon Road, Cook’s Corner is a key landmark and an institution. Historian and longtime Holy Jim Canyon resident Jim Sleeper called it Orange County's “last roadhouse,” “last rebel outpost,” and "the last place you can get a cold beer until you reach Trabuco Oaks, and that's easily four miles."

Missouri native Andrew Jackson “A. J.” Cook (1846-1905) and his wife Mary came to this spot in 1884, having traded property on Palomar Mountain for 190 acres of Aliso Canyon. A. J. started a ranch here, raising hogs, sheep and cattle and giving his name to this crossroads: Cook’s Corner.

In 1931, A. J.’s son, Earl J. "Jack" Cook, carved out a corner of the family ranch to open a burger joint in what had formerly been a beekeeper’s cabin. It was located across the street from the current tavern. When Prohibition ended in 1933, they began serving beer. The rustic tone of Cook's Corner was set. 
Andrew & Mary Cook were married in Downey in 1871.
In 1946, Jack bought a surplus mess hall building from the Santa Ana Army Air Base and moved it to Cook’s Corner in three sections, giving birth to the version of the tavern we know today. The place was popular with cowboys, ranchers, miners, Marines and others traveling through the canyons.

Sleeper wrote, “Distinguished equally for its excellent cuisine and quaint décor, this roadside rest stands as the gate house to the Santa Ana Mountains. For nearly 30 years the author has found Cook’s Corner a wellspring of inspiration for distilling the truth about these mountains.”

Jack Cook died in 1960 and his widow, Irene, began leasing the place out for others to operate. In 1976 Volker Stricek and Victor Villa leased and began to operate Cooks Corner. Stricek already owned motorcycle accessory business Cheat'ah Engineering in Santa Ana and soon Cook's Corner became a gathering place for bikers.
Earl & Irene Cook (Courtesy Faye Pugh/Ancestry)
Sleeper said the locals didn’t have too much trouble with "these colorful gentlemen of the road with their gaily tattooed girlfriends. They pretty much took care of the trouble among their own, but I think that's when the 'No Firearms' sign went up."

Indeed, Cook’s Corner can be a little raucous, with live rock banks on the patio and parking lot full of noisy motorcycles. Nor is Cook’s a stranger to fistfights and defenestrations. But even in the days when biker gangs like the Mongols frequented the place, it was a relatively safe place for locals. 

Cook’s scariest moment wasn’t even recognized until after the fact. It came out during the trial of infamous rapist/murderer Henry Ford McCracken that he’d stopped at Cook’s around midnight for a cold beer immediately after burying 12-year-old Patty Hull’s body nearby. 
Cook's Corner in the flood of 1969 (Courtesy Orange County Archives)
But any business that survives as long as Cook’s is bound to eventually see every form of good and bad pass through its doors. During the all-too-frequent fires that occur in the Santa Ana Mountains, Cook’s is a popular dining spot for the exhausted and heroic firefighters. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger even stopped in on his motorcycle during a fundraiser for a veterans’ group. And as Sleeper once pointed out, more Orange County luminaries have been to Cook’s that will ever admit it.

Novella Morales of Anaheim bought Cook’s Corner in 1979 with the intent of developing it. In 1988, Frank DeLuna bought it from Morales, along with the 12 acres hillside behind it, with similar ideas, but the expected redevelopment never came to pass. However, suburbia creeps closer and closer. What once seemed a remote and rustic location has gradually become less so. Still, it’s not uncommon to see someone riding a horse through the dining patio.

In 2004, Cook’s Corner was purchased by Pete Katelaris and Costas Papacharalambous who modernized and upgraded a little without changing the rustic vibe too much. They served food on real (not paper) plates, put heat lamps on the patio, and started using an electronic cash register for the first time. Efforts were made to improve the food and fix up the bathrooms. Katelaris, a Greek immigrant, already owned an Inland Empire chain called Cowboy Burgers & BBQ.
Cook's Corner in 1970. (Courtesy Orange County Archives)
UPDATE, 8/24/2023: On the night of Aug 23, 2023, a man identified as a retired Ventura Police sergeant shot and killed three people and injured six others at Cook's Corner. Among the injured survivors was the shooter's estranged wife.) It was a normal/busy "Spaghetti Night" Wednesday at Cook's. There were two birthday parties underway and a band playing. Orange County Sheriff's deputies responded quickly and shot the killer dead when he confronted them in the parking lot.

It feels like our crazy modern world has, at least momentarily, brutally invaded the peaceful, trapped-in-time tranquility of Orange County’s canyon country. This tragedy would be shocking anywhere, but somehow in this setting it's even more jarring.


Anonymous said...

Oh - I really want to go there - the menu looks great and I love that it is out away from everything. Can someone make a run out there to take photo's and overnight me a hot pastrami?

ItsNotAPlace said...

Very timely! The cycling group I ride with on weekends is planing to ride up the Aliso Creek bike trail to Cooks Corner for Sunday Bunch this coming weekend!

Link to our ride calendar for the ride to Cooks Corner

Anonymous, you asked for photos of how it looks today...

(photos from a recent ride to cooks)

Doug said...

As a youth, my dad would often take my to our families ranch in Live Oak Canyon, to help clear brush & cut firewood. The ranch seamed like such a long ways from our home in Garden Grove. I always knew we were close to the ranch, when we past Cook's Corner and started up the grade. I remember only a couple of times my dad & I went into the establishment. Once I order, when I was about 7, I ordered buttermilk (yuck) and chips.
My dad had told me that historically someone in our family had married a Cook. Since or family was firmly against the sale and consumption of alcohol, this did not go over too well. He referred to the Cooks as our shirttail relatives.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the photo's DregerClock.

Julie Hibbard said...

I learned to shoot pool at Cook's Corner when I was about 10. My grandmother and her boyfriend would take me and my sisters there for lunch. It was SOOOO far away from our home at El Toro and Muirlands!! :)

Melbourne Hotels said...

Such a historical place to reminisce. Thanks for the photos.

Lee Fredrickson said...

My dad and I used to go camping and fishing up in O'Neill Park in the mid 60's while he was a Marine at MCAS-El Toro. My Dad would always stop at Cook's Corner for a couple of cold ones to wet his whistle before continuing up the road to the park. I would get treated to a couple of Cokes, and play the old pinball machines that were inside. One game I remember was a bowling game - there were one sided wooden pins hanging from the top of the game, and the player slid a weighted metal disk towards the pins. The disk would hit sensors embedded into the wooden "lane" of the game and the corresponding pins above would fold back and the player would score. It's difficult to describe, but I sure loved that game, and only saw it at Cook's Corner.

Steve S. said...

Lee Fredrickson,

I remember the pin-ball game that you speak of. I loved playing that game! That's if it was ever free to play.

My Dad would stop at Cook's Corner to get himself a beer or two, and my brother, sister and me would all order strawberry soda's. I don't know where they bought these strawberry soda's from, but we loved them. This was back in the mid-sixties.

And yes, like others had commented, it did seem like a really long drive to Cook's since we lived in Laguna.

It makes me happy to see that Cook's is still there!

Anonymous said...

Cook was a private in the CSA. His daughter married a corporal's son from the USA. Both had served in Missouri during the war, and are both buried in Southern California. The war like many thinks drove people west through the rugged mountains and deserts to California.

Vickie Armstrong Rice said...

I see my great great grandparents, Mary Ann Barker & Andrew Jackson Cook.

Unknown said...

It's not way out from everything.

Anonymous said...

Not anymore

Bruce50 said...

My mom use to work there when I was 14 she was the cook and barmaid. this was around 72 & 73.We lived in the canyon then too..I went to trabuco canyon school there and was the only 7th grader then..I also raced motocross at escape county I think Loydd Mccoy was the bar manager then too. he gave me my first beer. There were alot of bikers goin in and out . I had alot of fun there til me moved back to Tustin. My moms name was doris and I am Bruce Priddy

Unknown said...

I have often had lunch there. Love the place. Our motorhome group stopped there for lunch too. Spaghetti and Taco days are the best. Can hardly wait to go there again. Have been out the canyon many times, and turned there to go further in to the Steak House. First went to that when it was just a Hamburger stand, before they built the restaurant around the tree!