This is still cowboy country, in that sliver of prairie between Laguna and Camp Pendleton, Orange County's last Ponderosa. Until recently, patrons would ride horses through the bar, till it got too dangerous — presumably for the horses.
Every night, except karaoke Thursdays, there is live music, the kind that makes you jump, the kind that makes you get up and move.
There is rarely a cover charge. The demographic ranges from barely legal to barely breathing.
Steve Nordeck bought the joint in 1994.
"I said, 'I'll clean it up, but I won't change it,'" he recalls promising the sellers, from the bar's originating family.
I'm not sure how much he actually cleaned it, but Nordeck showed the good sense not to mess with history. He says the 58-year-old saloon enjoyed its best month ever in March, thanks, of course, to the town's annual Swallows' Day Parade andSt. Patrick's Day, which fell on a Saturday this year. That never hurts the bar biz.
"I always give the credit to the people who created it," he says of the bar's long run.
What makes a gritty hole-in-the-wall like this a great bar, a local treasure, the kind of friendly joint that lures folks from San Diego or L.A.? Mostly it's fun, without a trace of 'tude.
"There's something unique about the feel," Nordeck says. "No matter who you are, you can be a homeless person, a gangbanger, a cowboy, a millionaire.... Once you step in the door, everybody's the same level."
Swallow's Inn — California's melting pot within the melting pot.
Try to keep your clothes on.