Your Mission: Visit San Juan Capistrano as a Grown-Up

If you grew up in Orange County, your opinion of San Juan Capistrano was most likely formed at age 10. There are exceptions to this of course – San Juan Capistrano is home to some 34,000 residents. For the rest of us, Capo’s construct primarily stems from that right of OC elementary school passage known as the 4th grade Mission San Juan Capistrano field trip. It’s a cool trip, one I unfortunately missed out on as a Los Angeles resident (my elementary school’s 4th grade jam was Olvera Street). It’s an important trip, but it tends to cause our grown-up minds to put Capo in a vacuum festooned with crumbling walls and dim chapel lights, one that our 10-year-old eyes saw as neat but not historically freaking cool. This threatens to foster a “been there, done that” mentality with both the Mission and Capo as we go about making sense of adulthood.

This is an egregious era. San Juan Capistrano demands your attention when you’re old enough to appreciate mind-bending historic data. Its slice of modern-day Orange County was rocking and rolling when the American Revolution was going down on the East Coast. It’s a place that still gives a genuine slice of OC’s ranchero history and an active glimpse into California living in the 1870s. It’s where Richard Nixon changed a restaurant’s culinary concept while he was creating national policies. This is information you can hear as a 10-year-old, but you can’t appreciate its gravitas at that age, especially if you just set foot in the Mission back in the day.

The Tour of the Town

El Adobe de Capistrano

The Mission, of course, is the most recognizable piece of history San Juan Capistrano has to offer. It’s appropriate to start any tour of downtown Capo here, but my back is turned toward the entrance. I’ll visit it eventually, but for now, it’s acting as a launch spot for a stroll down the city’s main drag, Camino Capistrano. My muse is CJ, a kindly old Mission docent whose sweet disposition informs that she’s dealt with a few 4th grade field trips in her lifetime. The Mission hardly comes up in our discussion as we walk – there’s too much other information for CJ to share. Several buildings flanking the thoroughfare go back centuries. The people associated with the structures carry nicknames inferring tall tales and legends, like Madame Modjeska and The King of Capistrano. She points out privately-owned 19th century barns and the spot where the stagecoach once stopped. There’s also an unexpected dash of bawdiness in the middle of the walk – I wasn’t expecting to see bras nailed into a ceiling, but I didn’t know we’d be popping into Swallows Inn, the city’s infamous dive bar. 

You won’t find suspended undergarments in the Los Rios Neighborhood, where our walking tour wraps. It sits on the opposite side of the Capistrano railroad station, and the tracks act as a buffer zone protecting a strip of road containing bucolic Western buildings and rustic homes. It’s officially the oldest standing neighborhood in all of California, and it’s like a ghost town where tomorrow’s spirits refused to die. The street’s oldest property is also its most visible; a humble white home built in 1871 and owned by the same family from day one. Indeed, Los Rios is still a residential neighborhood interspersed with boutique shops and restaurants like the legendary brunch joint Ramos House Cafe. There’s a bustling energy on the street when I visit, despite it being the afternoon on a school day. At the same time, it’s peaceful and serene, save for the blast of The White Album coming from Ramos House as we saunter by its front door. Frankly, it’s a bit of a miracle that Los Rios District exists. After all, Southern California’s a land with a propensity to tear things down the moment a place begins to creak a bit. Perhaps that’s why the quiet charm of the neighborhood resonates so much: It creates a lovely sense of time and place. It just so happens that such time and place lands in the middle of Ulysses S. Grant’s presidential term.

Stretching the Dining Spectrum

Ramos House Cafe

Ramos House Cafe may be in the Los Rios District, but it’s not necessarily the most historic restaurant in the city. That would be El Adobe de Capistrano, the Mexican steakhouse that this day doubles as the southern terminus of our walking tour. Part of its history is structural in nature – the old town jail makes up one of the dining rooms, and the walls surrounding the cocktail bar belonged to the home of Jose Antonio Yorba, the ranchero whose family was the first to settle what’s now modern day OC. As CJ shares this info with me, I can’t help but interrupt.

“This was Nixon’s favorite place to eat, right?” I ask.

“Oh, yes,” she replies, smiling.

President Nixon indeed loved the place locals call El Adobe. So much so, he single-handedly turned them into a Mexican restaurant. The venue served continental cuisine back in the day, but Nixon got word the chef cooked mean red enchiladas. Whenever he’d stop by during his stays at his “Western White House” home in San Clemente, he developed the habit of ordering the then-off-the-menu item. Word got out over time, and a culinary paradigm shift ensued. It’s an anecdote that tends to fade into OC obscurity the further you get from Capistrano, but it also highlights why you shouldn’t stick to your pre-teen perception of the city – chances are this story didn’t come up on your field trip. (For the record, I’ve had Nixon’s beloved enchiladas before on a previous trip; in this case, deliciousness has no political affiliation). 

With that being said, there’s much more to Capo’s food scene than historic significance. I learn this when CJ drops me off for a lunchtime date at Trevor’s at the Tracks. As the name implies, the restaurant is adjacent to San Juan Capistrano’s train station, and it’s housed in what used to be the city’s train depot way back when. The Trevor in the venue’s moniker is Trevor Baird, a OC hospitality vet striving to connect past and present. The venue’s dramatic brick archways and low-key minimalist decor makes linking the past easy, as does a city mandate that limits most of downtown Capo to four building styles. Yet it’s Baird’s commitment to infusing modernity into near-sacrosanct tradition that gives the place an extra shine. A massive rectangular bar anchors the space’s breezy outdoor patio, where local beers flow with the synchronicity of Amtraks. There’s even a special beer and wine served here that’s especially made for the restaurant. The libations go rather nicely with a New American menu built on a foundation of locally-sourced ingredients. It’s the kind of spot that was uncommon in Capo when Trevor’s opened two years ago, especially in this part of town. In a way, that’s a rather important reason why Trevor’s exists. “When I was growing up, it was mostly chains around here,” Baird states. “If you wanted something a little different, you had to go outside of the city. I wanted to change that – I wanted to make something unique for the locals.” 

San Juan Capistrano
Trevor’s at the Tracks

Baird’s desire to create something singular in the city is working quite well. The atmosphere is lively yet relaxing, the drinks are delightful, and the food is approachable and terrific – the thick, indulgent Cubano I have during our lunch meeting has no chance. It’s a rather ideal spot for those looking to catch a nice drink and a satisfying meal before hopping on the train. It’s also a place that successfully ensures oft-bandied about terms like “farm-to-table” aren’t reduced to a cliche. “We’re as much of an all-scratch kitchen as we can be,” Baird says. “We also use local ingredients as much as possible. We don’t do these things because we’re trying to be trendy. We do them because we feel they’re the right thing to do.”

Mission Accomplished

Allow me to sound momentarily cliched: If you haven’t seen Mission San Juan Capistrano as an adult, you haven’t seen the Mission.

Why, you ask? Simple. It’s impossible to fully appreciate the magnitude of what exists in the middle of South Orange County as a fourth-grader. There’s a crushing amount to ponder here even as an adult. Pick a reason why this is the case: when it was built;  who’s buried here; the tragic backstory behind part of its ruins; the sense of sanctuary found in its still-active church. Hell, feel free to dwell on the act of the swallows coming back. (Even better, come down to the mission to join in the celebration of the swallows’ return on March 19). Ultimately, it’s a place where, even if you have the slightest interest in the past, you’ll have plentiful reasons to nerd out.

Mission San Juan Capistrano

My tour guide is the Mission’s Executive Director Mechelle Lawrence-Adams, who quickly picks up on my love of history and exploits it to glorious effect. We spend the next hour digging deep into the minutiae of the Mission, into things that your 4th-grade teacher wouldn’t have shared with you no matter how cool you remember them being. We pass by Jose Antonio Yorba’s gravesite, which is tucked away off of a side path. Lawrence-Adams points out a bell made in the 18th century by the same firm that forged the Liberty Bell. We check out a door frame covered in carved declarations of love from guests that visited the grounds nearly a century ago. We walk into the middle of the chapel and approach a painting of the crucifiction, whose muted hues suggest age and intrigue. “This painting goes back to the early 1800s,” she says. “However, it was covered up by a more modern painting in 1973, and it remained hidden for decades, until we were doing a renovation and noticed there was something off about how the new painting was framed. When we uncovered it in 2013, we were elated with what we found.” It may be the coolest secret the Mission’s ever kept. 

These are the nuggets you don’t appreciate when you’re 10 or 11. At that age, you look at crumbled 19th century ruins and don’t appreciate the loss that goes beyond the building. You see artifacts and relics without grasping the gravitas and coolness. You walk the grounds without grasping they were first trod upon the same year the Declaration of Independence was signed. You wouldn’t be able to fully gauge the significance of the buildings dotting the Los Rios District or the fascinating nature of Nixon’s culinary respite at that stage of your life, either. Thankfully, you’re an adult now. It’s time for you to appreciate Capo’s coolness.

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