SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO, Calif. — What an appealing slice-of-life California town, an easy day trip by car or train. Come for the history, stay for the food. This restaurant-intensive ranch town is the oldest community in Orange County. If San Juan Capistrano — or SJC — had a dating profile it would say: “Self-deprecating, authentic, still likes a good time.”
Choices here are limited, though a new hotel is on the way. Till then, you have the Residence Inn Marriott, with one- and two-bedroom suites starting at $179 (33711 Camino Capistrano; (949) 443-3600). It gets the edge over the only other choice, the Best Western (27174 Ortega Highway; (949) 493-5661, starting at $129).
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This is a pretty accomplished restaurant town. Cedar Creek is one of the go-to places for classic American cuisine (26860 Ortega Highway; (949) 240-2229, www.cedarcreekinn.com; dinner entrees from about $14). El Adobe has been around so long that Richard Nixon used to go there for burritos (31891 Camino Capistrano, www.eladobecapistrano.com; (949) 493-1163; dinners from about $20). The rustic old Ramos House is popular for weekend brunch (31752 Los Rios St.; (949) 443-1342, www.ramoshouse.com; weekend brunch $35). Sarducci’s is a stylish stop for a romantic dinner (26701 Verdugo St.; (949) 493-9593, www.capistranodepot.com; from $16). Though the place gets mixed marks, the portabello lobster appetizer I tried was first rate ($14).
Well, there’s that famous mission, which draws a constant stream of school buses and tourists ($9, ages 4-11 $5; (949) 234-1360). And the swallows, which don’t come back each spring like they used to, but still are reason to celebrate in March, when the Swallow’s Day Parade rolls through town (first Saturday after St. Joseph’s Day). Swallow’s Inn is a landmark honky-tonk, with live music six nights a week and one of the most welcoming vibes in California. Ask for Steve, the owner, or Scott, a cool bouncer (31786 Camino Capistrano; (949) 493-3188, www.swallowsinn.com). This is not a boutiquey town, but there are several antique shops on Los Rios Street near the train depot, one of the oldest residential streets in the country. Also check out the O’Neill Museum for a glimpse into life a century ago (31831 Los Rios St.; (949) 493-8444; $1 donation requested).
—The lesson learned
This friendly town always seems to be one wine bar away from becoming the next Carmel. Thankfully, it stays true to its cowboy heritage, which dates to 1769. Don’t be put off by the fast-food joints off the freeway. Make your way into town and knock about for a day, or make a lunch stop on the drive to San Diego. Either way, you’ll have a glimpse into California’s past.
From L.A., a tank of gas will get you there and back. On Amtrak, a round-trip fare from Union Station runs $20. So a day trip for two, with lunch, can be had for around $100.