1927 or '88, It's Downtown Garden Grove

Patrick Mott writes regularly for Orange County Life.

Downtown Garden Grove?

Those are three words you don't usually hear. In the city that has been known for years as one of Orange County's most heavily residential municipalities--a "bedroom community"--you might get a lot of confused looks if you ask how to get downtown.

But, in the years when a home in Garden Grove easily could have been a farmhouse, there was a downtown district, a blocklong collection of small shops and businesses on--what else?--Main Street that catered to the local population.

It's still there, and it looks and operates in much the same way it did during the 1920s. After a face lift 10 years ago, the street continues to offer a combination of day-to-day practicality and the occasional flight of fancy.

In official municipal parlance, the block is the Main Street Historical Retail Combining Zone. Walk onto it, though, and you'll probably be overcome with a strong sense of deja vu : Whatever it may be called in the city records, the block you're looking at could be the Main Street of any small town. In Orange County, that qualifies it as a true anachronism.

Take Zlaket's Food Market. The centerpiece of the street, it has been there since 1927 and is the sort of place you go to shop for food when you don't care much for supermarkets and you're not in a hurry. The selection of groceries is limited, but there's a bakery, a hot deli and, in particular, a meat counter that draws loyal clientele from far beyond the end of Main Street. On a recent morning, owners George and Leo Zlaket had visits from regular customers from Canyon Lake and Laguna Beach.

"We always call people by their first names here," said George Zlaket. "It's never, 'Hey you.' I don't have to sell $5 million in merchandise to be happy."

Minimalism thrives on Main Street, which "is more pedestrian oriented" since its redevelopment in 1978, said Hilda Veturis, an economic development specialist for the city.

"The idea," she said, "was to make the street look like it did prior to the 1933 Long Beach earthquake."

It may be slightly fancier than it was in the old days, what with hanging plants and decorative lighting along the sidewalk and flagstones lining the street. But it's still downtown and remains a working commercial street. There are a handful of specialty shops for the browsing, but there's also a florist, photo studio, tuxedo shop, liquor store, bar, bank and Mexican and Chinese restaurants, among other businesses.

For the more fanciful visitor, there are antique shops that seem to specialize in nothing in particular and everything in general. The Whistle Stop, operated for the last 14 years by Pauline Stempniak, is one of the more unusual. In Stempniak's shop, eclecticism reigns, with items on sale ranging from a cable-car bell to antique watches to porcelain knickknacks to penny candy.

"Mainly, I get people in here who are collectors of things like jewelry or toys," Stempniak said. "People get to know what I have, and I have regular customers. I try to get whatever they ask for.

"It's a mom-and-pop kind of business, like most of the businesses (on the street). People get individual attention that they don't get in the malls. Sometimes I'll just do things with a handshake when people say they don't have the money now, but they'll be in next week. That's not done much anymore."

Stempniak acknowledged that Main Street's low profile doesn't exactly make for constant turn-away business, but "people think it's quaint, and they like to stop in to see things that are different from what they'd find in the malls. And they just think it's great. Some people will say they've lived in Garden Grove for 10 years and didn't know this street existed."


Where: One-block shopping district between Garden Grove Boulevard and Acacia Parkway, Garden Grove.

Shops: Antique and collectibles shops, small grocery store and meat market with bakery and deli, Bible bookstore, bar and two restaurants, other commercial shops.

How to get there: Exit Garden Grove Freeway at Euclid, north; left on Garden Grove Boulevard three blocks to Main Street and right.

History: Formerly known as the downtown district of Garden Grove. Restored 10 years ago to architectural style circa late 1920s.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World