New Look For 91 Year-Old San Clemente LandmarkAug 30, 2021 12:45PM ● By Tom Marshall
by Tom Marshall
Historic photo credits, San Clemente Historical Society
Landers photos - Carolyn Kipper
As the Covid-19 pandemic wanes, life is springing back to life in San Clemente, although not exactly as it was before the virus rolled through us. One of the pandemic’s victims was the fledgling OC Fresca Restaurant in North Beach which closed just a year after opening; and a new dining experience has taken its place.
Starting a new restaurant at this time could be viewed as ‘taking a chance’. Enter Chance Owen … the operator of Landers Liquor Bar and Supply House. It is named after his hometown up in the high desert near Joshua Tree, and Chance already operates a Landers in Costa Mesa.
At 1814 North El Camino Real, Landers occupies one of San Clemente’s oldest and most iconic restaurant buildings. It was built in 1930 by well-known local builders the Strang Brothers, for Joe and Emma Servus to house The Aquarium Cafe and it included a small dance floor surrounded by dining tables and a large aquarium filled with fish and other ocean wild life. Amazingly, salt water was fed to the aquarium directly from the ocean through a pipe that ran several hundred feet from the sea, under the railroad tracks, to the fish tank. It was pumped uphill by using the engine from their power boat off shore; that is until the boat washed ashore and partially sank in 1933.
According to newspaper accounts at the time, Emma Servus ran the restaurant by herself after Joe had a nervous breakdown and committed suicide by gas in the building just a week before it was to open.
The Aquarium Cafe became a center for social life in San Clemente. Town Matriarch Lois Divel still remembers, “It was THE place to go in its time. It was one of the favorite places to take children, especially. They loved looking at the fish.” She also notes that there was no bar because they did not have a liquor license. But, Emma lived in a small apartment in the rear of the building. “If you wanted a drink, Emma would go into her bedroom where she kept some liquor and she’d mix a drink and bring it out to you,” Divel added.
In 1959, the fish tanks now removed, it became the Anchor Inn Restaurant, operated by several different people. In 1975, owner Howard Means, a Democrat, ruminated that most of his customers were Republicans and were bitter about San Clemente’s Richard Nixon resigning as President after the Watergate scandal. “I don’t know whether we ruined him or he ruined us,” Means said.
In the mid-1980s Jim Kempton changed it to Margarita’s Village. From 1988 to 1991 it was Tecate Bar & Grill. In 1991 it became home to the Ichibiri Japanese Restaurant until it closed in 2017. The building sat empty until Mag Gill bought it in 2019. She spent a fortune remodeling the interior including revealing the original skylight in the center for the first time in decades. It was then opened as OC Fresca. But, even her Yale education couldn’t beat Covid.
She now leases the space to Landers. Owen says the historic nature of the building is “the only reason we moved into San Clemente.” Landers theme is a combination of Old West cowboy and surfer watering hole. The full menu for the restaurant is not offered yet. “We still can’t get enough help for the kitchen,” Owen laments.
Landers plays off the old west theme with a small store of western wear inside the bar area and he has also sparked some minor controversy by mounting a half-size statue of a horse on the roof of the building. Because of the historic nature of the building, city inspectors have ordered him to take the horse down or face a $100 fine. “A member of the City Council came in a couple days later and said I should leave it up, so I’m not sure what I should do,” said Owen.
The horse is not visible from the street and the Historical Society doesn’t have any issue with it according to Larry Culbertson, President, who remarked, “Oddly enough it seems to belong up there.” The horse is visible from the alley behind Landers where the city’s trolleys often announce it to riders as a point of interest, according to Owen.
City founder Ole Hanson, a horseman himself, laid out many of the streets to be horse rider friendly. We even had a horse racing track here. All of this is long gone, of course. We all enjoy the small town vibe here, so if Landers horse is allowed to remain, San Clemente could become a ne-horse town again.