The Corner’s Edge

Jesse Nickles | Staff Photographer

Jesse Nickles | Staff Photographer

Beyond the shopping centers and anonymous business parks, there is an Orange County that claims to have withstood the area’s chained charm, formalities and societal pressures. Beyond the staleness of Irvine and the gated communities of Newport Beach, there is a place where its regulars say everyone is family. Beyond modern Orange County is Cook’s Corner, an 82-year-old hangout whose reputation is about to be tested.
Before it became a bar, the modest structure of Cook’s Corner served as a mess hall at the Santa Ana Air Force Base during World War II. After the war ended, the base closed and Earl Jack Cook transported the mess hall to its present location in Trabuco Canyon. On the bar’s flat, brown slat roof is a poorly-lit faded sign, which boasts of cold beer, good food, dancing and a color TV. To get to the front door, you must walk across a now-stable footbridge past the small plaques honoring Cook’s Corner regulars who have died: people like Purple Bike Wayne (April 2004) and Mad Hatter George Broughton (August 2005). Past the big, silver ATM machine on the left and the patio area that’s always occupied as long as there is daylight or a working heat lamp, is Cook’s Corner’s front door.
Sawdust is scattered across the black floor inside, and above a small stage is a panoramic painting that shows an old Western town surrounding a saloon. The painting was made by a man the regulars call “Cliffie.” Once a part of the structure’s outer wall, the huge painting is now chipping and fading. The ceiling is covered with visitors’ comments about life, religion and midgets. Most of the scribblings read as though they were written moments before the author took a last swig and passed out. There are so many aphorisms and incomprehensible phrases on the ceiling that people began to write on the upper edges of the walls, including space near the condiments and silverware. When the comments are signed, the signatures are often from people with names like Bear, Road-Dog and Grumpy.
On busier nights, first-time visitors to Cook’s Corner might pick up the scent of beer, while their ears are overtaken by the clashing sounds of rock or country music from the jukebox (or live music on certain days of the week), loud conversations at the bar and the echo of the TVs scattered throughout the bar. Most of the time, a Cook’s Corner crowd will include Ray French (called “Ramoncito” by cooks Fernando and Ivan), the old, wrinkled half-Apache regular who is as much of a legend as the bar itself.
Ray, now 79, comes to Cook’s Corner multiple times a week with his dog, a mutt named Girl. Some say Ray has been coming to the bar for more than 20 years. Pat, a bartender of 11 years, says Ray has been a regular for just five years and that “people eat his shit up.” Regardless of the truth behind Ray, the man (who only dances with young women) is part of the mystique that people expect from the bar.
Cook’s Corner has attracted Orange County locals for decades, but its clientele has changed considerably over the years. Visitors more interested in the reputation they will gain when patronizing the bar than actually finding the bar entertaining, now join the core group of motorcycle-riding mountain residents. Cook’s Corner is considerably less family-friendly during Monday Night Football or Wednesday Bike Nights. As a place for people supposedly from all backgrounds, Cook’s Corner is at the fork in the road between actual and desired reality.
In the drive to Cook’s Corner – described by regulars as “Cheers on Harleys” – you’ll pass the Irvine Spectrum. Getting closer to Cook’s Corner, new or recently refurbished shopping centers are on each side of the road, with plenty of parking in large, Escalade-ready spaces. All the storefronts look the same and most of the businesses are franchises.
After a little while, the atmosphere grows more humble, as apartment complexes line the road on one side and tall Eucalyptus trees on the other. The road continues uphill, approaching the small hillside community of Trabuco Canyon and a Roman Catholic boarding school for boys, which sits on land bought from Cook’s Corner decades ago. In its current location since 1946, the bar is located at the split between Santiago Road and Live Oak Canyon Road.
The Orange County of expansive streets and cookie-cutter shopping centers is in the rearview mirror. Cook’s Corner provides a rest stop for weary travelers, eager hikers, enthused locals and some regulars who, between credit-card swipes at Macy’s, think of Cook’s Corner as evidence that they are still capable of escaping from the confines of Orange County.
The weekends at Cook’s Corner are dedicated to family time. The Saturday and Sunday brunch mood reflects the unconditional friendliness that regulars repeatedly assure me has come to stay at Cook’s Corner. This is not a meal that will intrigue diners with selective taste buds. The weekend brunch is usually mentioned when regulars are asked why they keep returning to Cook’s Corner. The food merely provides sustenance, while Cook’s Corner patrons regale their friends (or me, an inquiring journalist) with tales of the bar’s boundary-stretching nature. Outside, you can enjoy Wi-Fi connection or practice your horseshoe-throwing skills. Children walk around the same benches with their parents that on Monday will be occupied by guys arguing the merits of legalizing marijuana (while smoking it).
There’s a bike rack for cyclists coming in from the many nearby trails that doubles as a place to tie up horses. Judging the approximate income of the “average” Cook’s Corner regular by the cars parked out front is an exercise in futility: domestic pickups and Toyotas share space with luxury SUVs and minivans. This is how most Cook’s Corner regulars imagine the general makeup of the clientele to be, too.
***
Char and Jim Trotter use Cook’s Corner as a foil for their life in a gated community. They tell me that it is a place where you must shed all pretenses to fit in, and as Jim explains, “Some people just can’t handle that.” Jim, who grew up in Santa Ana, came to Cook’s Corner as a kid with his dad. He says he prefers it to Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse and Houston’s Restaurant. Cook’s Corner is where Char (born and raised in Anaheim) went in high school to “be naughty.” “This place used to smell like crap,” Jim says as he uses his hands to describe the crap. The couple, married for 16 years, is not sure what makes the food so good. Still, Char notes that there is more to its charm than burnt biscuits and cheap spaghetti.
“There’s no boundaries, there’s no barriers, no nothing. You know what it is? You have to be real, a real person at this type of place. There’s no fake, and if you show up fake, you’re going to feel very uncomfortable. You have to be yourself and confident in yourself.” Jim interjects.
“You can’t be pretentious.”
The couple asks where I’m from—I was born and raised in Southern California. “But where is that accent from? Really? Well, where are your parents from? So, where are you getting that accent from? You’ve definitely got a serious accent going, like you were not from the area at all.”
Before leaving, Jim repeats his joy that Cook’s Corner is the place for “the doctor and the bricklayer” to meet together, as Char simultaneously assures me there are plenty of good people to talk to but warns me to be careful. Jim and Char take care to mention that they live in Canyon Crest Estates, an upscale community in Mission Viejo. Most of their neighbors would never come to Cook’s Corner. Char smiles and waves goodbye from the passenger seat of their $50,000 Lakeshore Slate-colored Infiniti SUV.
***
The story of this bar and restaurant starts in 1884, when Andrew Jackson Cook received 190 acres of Aliso Canyon in a land trade. His son, Earl Jack Cook, adapted a cabin into a restaurant for local ranchers and miners in 1926. Five years later, Cook opened a hamburger stand by the side of the road. When Prohibition was repealed in 1933, Cook got a license to serve alcohol, and Cook’s Corner became a roadside tavern. In 1946, he bought an old mess hall from the Santa Ana Army Air Base, which closed four years after it had been activated. Replacing the hamburger stand, the mess hall is the humble Cook’s Corner structure that stands today.
The “biker bar” label could not aptly be applied until 1970, when a Santa Ana-based motorcycle accessories owner purchased the property. It began to attract Harley-Davidson riders from across burgeoning Orange County. The Mongols, a motorcycle gang that rode Harleys, frequented the bar, as did their rivals, the Hell’s Angels. In the picnic area is a multi-stubbed sign pointing the direction and distance to a number of different cities that host annual biker rallies. It’s said that Sturgis, S.D., is 1,385 miles away; Laconia, N.H., 3,134 miles away and Laughlin, Nev. – the site of a 2002 Mongol-Hell’s Angels riot that left three dead – just a 282-mile ride.
Until midway through the 1980s, patrons who dared to leave a Japanese sport bike out in front with the Harleys (which always got the best spots) would later find their bike in a nearby creek. On Wednesday Bike Nights, separation at Cook’s Corner is now between cars and motorcycles. Patrons can often be seen walking through the rows of bikes, admiring the customized details on the Harleys, Indians, BMWs, Hondas, choppers, baggers and any other bike that revs its engine as it pulls into the dirt lot. When motorcycle gangs and filthy bathrooms were the norm at Cook’s Corner in the ’70s an ’80s, the bar had a reputation of being rough and rowdy, and its patrons inspired more than a few noise complaints from neighboring residents.
Frank de Luna bought the bar in 1988 for $1.3 million. The bar’s state of disrepair until 2004 was perhaps reflected in Luna’s interest in the property, which he had wanted to sell for years. After Pete Katelaris and Costas Papacharalambous took ownership of the bar and the surrounding 12 acres of land in September of that year for $2.6 million, they sought to maintain the Cook’s Corner experience, but by Papacharalambous’ estimation, just make it “better.” Whether Cook’s Corner regulars were looking for improvements is unclear, but they certainly were not wanted from someone like Katelaris, a man who owns a chain of sit-down/fast-food restaurants called Cowboy Burgers & BBQ, or from Papacharalambous, then a 52-year-old Greek immigrant and Mission Viejo resident.
Cook’s Corner’s bathrooms are now usually clean, revamped with new countertops, motion-detecting sinks and mirrors that look like custom chromed motorcycle wheels. The black-on-brown menu may be falling apart, but it displays old favorites like burgers and buffalo wings near new choices like gyros and baklava. Food comes on dishes, which are placed on plastic black trays with metal or plastic silverware. Rotting picnic tables are gone and over $1,000 were reportedly spent on exterminators. As a result of, or independent of these changes, Cook’s Corner’s edge has dulled. In place of the “you-might-exit-the-bar-through-that-window atmosphere,” regulars have developed defensive reflexes. Descriptions of Cook’s Corner’s tolerance for those who lack visual toughness are always followed by references to the bar’s rough past.
Cook’s Corner burritos – made with your choice of chicken or beef, along with rice, black beans, salsa and lettuce – are barely held together by 14-inch flour tortillas. Mike has been coming to Cook’s Corner for more than 10 years and knows to get his burrito double-wrapped, which opens the possibility of eating it without a fork and knife. He brings the burrito outside on a white, oval-shaped sturdy paper plate with a brown tray. Before the tray hits the table, the burrito becomes the topic of conversation. One regular says the $6 log of food is the “size of a small child,” while another offers: “You’d get a ticket if you don’t put a seatbelt on it.” Hearty laughs follow, but are partially drowned out by the rush of passing cars and trucks downshifting just beyond the white fences and empty creek bed.
***
The conversation meanders between the best Mexican food in Orange County – “I’ll tell you where the best Mexican food is after 2 a.m.—Del Taco!” – and why marijuana should be legalized. At the head of the discussion is 22-year-old Stephen, wearing a green-and-black flannel and smoking a joint. Someone points at him and says he should be thanking his lucky stars that California has a centrist governor, but by the time the group of guys begin discussing the benefits and legality of growing medicinal marijuana, another double-wrapped burrito like Mike’s is brought out. “You guys,” someone says, “those things are going to flip the table.”
Squinty, red-eyed Stephen is getting nervous at the sight of me and my notepad filled with what appear to be hieroglyphics. As Stephen and his older Cook’s Corner buddies continue talking, I pretend to finish the remains of my massive chicken burrito so I have a visible excuse for staying outside. Still anxious, Stephen grabs the pad of paper, but in his elevated state cannot read the writing, which he thinks might be that of a cop. He jokes nervously about making sure I’m not an undercover officer and pats me down thoroughly for a gun or maybe hidden wires. Like the Trotters, Stephen simply won’t believe I’m from California, calling me a “fucking trip.” Now enjoying his time with his trippy new friend, his dad interrupts him, telling him it is time to go. The others begin to go back inside Cook’s Corner, which closes only when its patrons decide to leave.
***
Between 5:55 and 6:15 p.m. on Sunday, Oct 21, a suspected arsonist set fire to Santiago Canyon. By the next evening, changing wind conditions brought the blaze to within 0.7 miles of Cook’s Corner. Oct. 22 was the one-day mark of the Santiago Canyon Fire, but October 22 was also a Monday, which means Cook’s Corner was hosting Monday Night Football. Although Monday doesn’t attract as many people as a Wednesday or Friday, when live musicians play, a very consistent Cook’s Corner crowd comes on that first weeknight to watch football on the many television screens visible from anywhere near the bar.
Aside from one ceiling-mounted television displaying a Spanish-language station, the television sets all show the Indianapolis Colts battling the Jacksonville Jaguars. The mood was the same as it was every Monday. While Pat the bartender joked with Mike inside, a few people gathered around another Cook’s Corner regular who sat in the dark on a picnic table with his feet on the bench. The normally boisterous middle-aged man spoke quietly to those around him.
As flames closed in on the property of a female friend, one of her horses refused to get inside the trailer. With the fire rapidly approaching, she had to leave the horse in an open field and hope for the best. While people outside continued to talk in the ash-filled air, one truck after another towing horse trailers pulled to the stop sign at Live Oak Canyon Road and continued downhill, away from the fire that threatened the homes and lives of many Orange County residents. A few days later, only drivers who can prove they are Trabuco Canyon residents can enter Live Oak Canyon Road beyond Cook’s Corner.
During the week, one bartender described the mood at the bar as “a little excited.” On Friday, Oct. 26, Cook’s Corner announced it was offering a $10,000 reward for information that would lead to the arrest and conviction of those who started the Santiago Canyon Fire. “We want to catch the animal or animals that did this,” Papacharalambous said. The $10,000 reward is in addition to the $70,000 reward offered by the Orange County Fire Authority on Wednesday, upped to $150,000 on Thursday and increased to $250,000 the same morning as Papacharalambous’ announcement.
Weeks after the fire began, it burned 28,400 acres, caused 16 injuries and cost an estimated $21,000,000. Before it was under control, Cook’s Corner closed to the public, becoming a headquarters for firefighters on breaks and for community donations like water, food and, in the case of the wife of Cook’s Corner regular and Irvine-resident Grumpy, eight pounds of macaroni and cheese.
One month later, most of the community thank-you notes have been removed and the atmosphere that continues to attract so many repeat visitors has returned. I talk to Grumpy, who says that he and his biker friends always seem to end up at Cook’s Corner. Like almost everyone else, he asks me where I’m from and doesn’t believe me when I say Southern California. He claims he has never met anyone at the bar he didn’t like and affirms the widely-held belief that the bar is more “user-friendly” now than before. Grumpy explains that at Cook’s Corner everyone is family.
Still, the discomfort between us as we talk reminds me of a conversation I had weeks earlier at the bar. A middle-aged female patron was sure I was from Belgium and awkwardly asked what things are like in my country.
“Guys like you,” Grumpy says, referring to what, specifically, I’m not sure, “would be scared to walk in here 15 years ago.”