Capistrano: ageless favorite hangout
The train whistling down the tacks as it goes past the Capistrano has meant many things over the years from signaling for shots being a $1 to hundreds of sailors arriving in Orange because their ship was ready.
Henry Bland Sr. had never been to Capistrano, California but knew he wanted the Old Mission style structure for his new restaurant. Bland was operating a dairy in Orangefield when he came up with the idea and knew because Orange had just received a government contract to build 12 destroyers, the restaurant business would prosper.
To move his plan forward, he purchased the property at 1209 Green Ave. from Moise and Johnny Ratcliff and moved their house elsewhere.
Construction on the restaurant began in 1940 after he dismantled the barn on his Orangefield property to use the wood to build his dream. Along with a $3,000 loan, the Capistrano was built and furnished. The Capistrano opened in June 1941 with Henry Bland working days and his wife. Ellie working nights.
Originally a row of booths filled with happy, hungry customers was across the length of the building. The tradition of good food served in a friendly atmosphere was enjoyed for many years by not only workers of the port, but businessmen, secretaries, courthouse regulars, serious diners and not-so-serious people just wanting to be where the fun is located.
One courthouse regular of the restaurant, Mickey Lifton Tompkins, said she and a friend were trying to decide where to have lunch one day when she caught herself saying, “Come on, we’ll decide on the way to the Cap,” according to archives.
The day chef wore a tall white hat and white apron. He had trained in a hotel and specialized in pastry and rolls. The evening fry cook, Smokey, was a favorite of the owner’s daughter, Joann, because he would cook anything she requested.
Carhops wearing brilliant, blue satin uniforms stood under the awning in front of the building. During the day, there were two carhops on duty and three on the night shift. The uniforms were custom made and from a lined satin. In addition, the uniform had long sleeves and heavy collars. Even in the Southeast Texas heat, the carhops were ready with a smile to deliver the food to the customers.
The building was the first restaurant in Orange to be air conditioned. A gas-operated commercial unit was used and was said to be so big that it took up most of one room.
The menu has a variety of items from a hamburger for 10 cents to a T-bone steak with all the trimmings for $1.25. Customers could also order breakfast of ham, sausage, bacon, two eggs, potatoes and toast for 45 cents. No matter what time of day, there was something on the menu sure to fill anybody up if they in search of a good meal. The restaurant offered what they called Capistrano Hot Barbecue which was “generous servings of pit barbecue” of beef, pork or ribs with their own special sauce for 40 cents.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the shipbuilding industry really boomed. Bland was on to something when he decided to have the Capistrano open 24 hours per day and 7 days a week. This was needed to supply meals for all the people who worked non-stop building ships.
With the train depot across the street, and even though there were dining cars on the train, conductors were a frequent customer. They would quickly run inside, grab something to go and get back on the train before their next departure.
As the war progressed, local young men were some of the sailors who boarded the ships or servicemen who got on a train and left to fight in the war. Ellie Bland call the local high school boys her “swallows.” She kept up with them when they were stationed during the war or how they were doing in college. They affectionately called her “mom” and would always check-in at the “Cap” when they returned to Orange. They were her “pride and joy.” The number one song on the jukebox was always “When the Swallows Come Back To Capistrano.” Bum Phillips, who rose to professional football fame, is said to be one of her “swallows,” according to archives.
During the heyday, the restaurant has seen its’ share of stars. One notable county music star who ate at the restaurant one evening was Hank Williams. He asked Ellie Bland if she knew who he was and she told him she did not recognize him. Much to her delight, he put a nickle in the jukebox playing one of his songs. He sang along as the music played.
George Jones, known as the “Ol Possum” and a native of Southeast Texas, dined at the “Cap” on several occasions.
In 1952, Henry Bland Jr. bought the restaurant from his parents. He continued to run the restaurant for the next 17 years. However, the evening cook’s specialty was Mexican food and is said to be a favorite. But, according to archives,Henry Bland Jr. would get aggravated when a good carhop would “run of and get married.”
In 1969 he sold the restaurant to Rose Sherrill who ran it until 1978 and sold it to J.B. Arrington. Eddie LeMoine bought it in 1987 and ran it briefly. But, the restaurant sat vacant for two years as LeMoine pursued interest in another Orange restaurant. The Capistrano was reopened in April 1999 by current owner Lonnie Givens, but as a bar.
Givens retired from Louisiana Pacific where he was a manager and decided to act on a lifelong desire which was to own a bar.
“It was in horrible shape when I bought it,” Given said.
But, he did some remodeling and changed some of the building. What was once the kitchen area is now the bar. In addition, an arched doorway is gone and the room was enclosed for a dance floor. There is also an area next to the dance floor for a live band. This week, there is no cover charge for the live entertainment from 9 p.m. to midnight Thursday. The entertainment is Charles Bilal. Thursday and Friday the bar is open 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. and Saturday from 4 p.m. to 2 a.m.
Of course there will be $1 train shots. But, there has to be a train passing nearby, Givens said.
In the past, Given said with chuckle, people would stand at the bar, shaking as if a train was near in order for the chance to buy a $1 shot. The schnapps shots come in several delicious flavors such as cinnamon. peach, watermelon,peppermint and butter shots. Trains frequently pass by and when they do, customers eagerly buy shots not only for themselves, but for their friends too.
‘People really look forward to it,” Givens said of the shots.
One thing which has remained constant no matter if it is a restaurant or bar is it has been a favorite local hangout. The regulars compare the Capistrano to the famous bar, Cheers, where everyone knows your name and all are friends at the “Cap.”
Lonnie Givens, current owner of the Capistrano, invites everyone to come and have a good time at this historical place.