Richard Nixon ate here

Four classic Orange County restaurants will wow you too
DAVID LANSING
Persnickety customers, temperamental chefs, and food fads that veer from nouvelle to comfort to Atkins-friendly. Running a successful restaurant has never been an easy business, yet a number of Orange County eateries have managed to thrive over the decades, some for more than 50 years. Why? Because, in one way or another, they're wonderful ― they may be the last places around where you can still get Hawaiian spareribs or President Richard Nixon's favorite chicken dish. Enjoy a meal at any or all of these four classic Orange County dining spots, and you'll understand.

NEWPORT BEACH

The Crab Cooker. Bob Roubian likes to say that his customers named his restaurant. When the avid fisherman and sometime pianist opened a seafood restaurant in 1951, its name was Seafood Varieties. But nobody called it that. "In front of the restaurant, we had large lobster and crab cookers, and everyone referred to us as the place with the big crab cookers," he says. "So after about three years, I changed the name."

Roubian learned to grill fish over a mesquite-charcoal fire as a kid back in the Depression, and that's still the way it's done here. There's nothing fancy about it. Shrimp, scallops, and chunks of fresh fish, many grilled on skewers, are served on paper plates with coleslaw and pimiento- and garlic-laden Romano potatoes by sharp-tongued waitresses, some of whom have worked here for more than 35 years. $$; lunch Mon-Sat, dinner daily. 2200 Newport Blvd.; 949/673-0100.

ANAHEIM

Mr Stox. When Harry Fahnestock (the restaurant's name is an abbreviation of his surname) opened this Anaheim eatery in 1967, the signature dish was cheese fondue. "A big deal at the time," says Chick Marshall, who, along with his brother, Ron, and his wife, Debbie, purchased the business 10 years later. The Marshalls bid adieu to the fondue, but another popular original item, cheddar cheese soup, is still served every Wednesday.

Mr Stox has a reputation for hanging onto both customers and staff: Many of the latter have been working here since the restaurant opened. Others, like chef Scott Raczek, "have only been here 17 years or so," says Chick. Along with the cheddar soup, specialties include Maryland crab cakes and gourmet breads like kalamata olive and rosemary. The restaurant also has an impressive stone wine cellar stocked with more than 20,000 bottles. $$$$; lunch Mon-Fri, dinner daily. 1105 E. Katella Ave.; 714/634-2994.

DANA POINT

Olamendi's. As with any good restaurant that has been around awhile, part of Olamendi's charm is its venerable decor, including seashell necklaces hanging from iron chandeliers and the display of gold-framed photos, most taken more than 25 years ago, of Olamendi's famous customer, Richard Nixon. In 1973, when Olamendi's first opened, the Western White House was just a few miles down the road. The former president is gone but not forgotten at Olamendi's. In addition to the photos, there's pollo a la Veracruzana ― chicken sautéed with onions, herbs, and jalapeño ― a dish said to be his favorite.

Olamendi's is a family affair; Jorge Sr. is here most days, chatting up customers, as is his wife, Maria, and one or more of their five children. They happily explain the specialties of the house, which come from all parts of Mexico, from the chiles en nogada ― stuffed chiles in walnut sauce, a delicacy from Puebla ― to the classic mole Oaxaqueño. $; lunch and dinner Tue-Sun. 34660 Pacific Coast Hwy.; 949/661-1005.

LAGUNA BEACH

Royal Hawaiian. This Laguna landmark, with tiki statues and palm fronds framing its entrance, opened in 1947, a year after president Harry S. Truman urged Congress to grant statehood to Hawaii. Under a thatched roof, you could sip a mai tai and dig into Hawaiian spareribs ala moana.

The grass mats on the walls and the old, stylized Polynesian paintings ― with coconut trees and sarong-wearing fishermen in outrigger canoes ― were probably a lot more exotic in the '50s. These days the decor seems a little corny, but it's still a retro attraction for the legions of customers who hang out here, particularly on weekends. Order an Island Special (fruit juice, rum, and anisette), and giggle over the little green ceramic tiki lamps. $$; dinner Tue-Sun. 331 N. Coast Hwy.; 949/494-8001.