Stay With the Grain in Irvine : GRAIN: Old Town

The Grimms of Laguna Beach are authors of the recently revised travel guide to Southern California, "Away for the Weekend."

Can you imagine bedding down in a bean silo?

Guests at the La Quinta Inn in Irvine sleep in towering concrete silos built to hold 16 million pounds of lima beans.

The former granary is one of seven historic buildings that have been restored in Old Town Irvine, a complex that originally was a shipping center for crops from Orange County's huge Irvine Ranch.

But as business, homes and research centers spread across the fields, structures associated with Irvine's agriculture became ruins. A $20-million restoration project, however, has saved the buildings.

Even if you don't spend the night in the bean silo you can enjoy food and drink in a blacksmith shop, an auto garage or a grain warehouse that have been converted into restaurants.

Tin-Roofed Warehouse

Get there from Los Angeles by driving south on Interstate 5 to the Sand Canyon Avenue exit, turn right and cross into the left-turn lane for Burt Road. Pull into the big parking area to the left of the inn entrance and explore on foot.

Dominating the west side is the enormous silo and tin-roofed warehouse. The long warehouse is the oldest building, built in 1895 to store barley and lima beans.

James Irvine II inherited the 125,000-acre San Joaquin Ranch from his father, who raised cattle and sheep. The younger Irvine decided to concentrate on field crops and other agriculture instead of livestock, and he leased land to tenant farmers who grew barley.

James II also deeded right-of-way across the ranch to the Santa Fe Railroad in return for a freight and passenger depot. Trains then stopped there to pick up grain that had been stored in the vast warehouse.

When lima beans were added, tenant farmers expanded production and formed an association to build a granary that would streamline storage and shipping. Instead of sacking the beans, they were carried on conveyor belts and dumped into the tall concrete silos to await shipping.

Past and Present

Grain chutes still protrude from the silos and some mechanical apparatus is still inside the building, but beds instead of beans fill the bins.

Concrete saws carved through six-inch walls to convert the granary into 92 guest rooms featuring unpainted gray concrete walls decorated with quilted wall and hand-colored photographs of early farm life. Furnishings are rural American.

For those who prefer more traditional lodgings, La Quinta Inn has 56 rooms in a new wing. Summer room rates are $71/$76 on Friday and Saturday, $67/$72 on other nights. Call (714) 551-0909.

Although many years have passed since a train made its last stop in East Irvine, Amtrak still roars by eight times daily on tracks that are only 15 feet from the granary. Unless you're a railroad buff, ask for a room on the east side, farthest from the trains.

Bartenders Ring Bells

Passing trains are a cause for celebration in the adjacent warehouse, where the bartenders at Tia Juana's ring bells to announce "train-call" shots of tequila for $1.

15,000 Bottles of Wine

Billing itself as a Long Bar (reportedly the county's longest at 75 feet) and Mexican Cafe Deluxe, Tia Juana's opens at 11:30 a.m. daily. You can watch the chefs at work in an open kitchen where beans once were cleaned and sacked.

One end of the 94-year-old warehouse is occupied by Sirus Cellars where 15,000 bottles of wine are stored. For a fee, visitors can sample vintages at the wine-tasting bar.

Opposite the warehouse and silos you'll see a trio of freshly painted buildings that were moved to the site. A travel agency occupies a 1913 hotel that once boarded warehouse workers and farmhands. A collectibles shop will open in the 77-year-old Irvine General Store next door, and the East Irvine post office is due to move into an adjacent 1897 farmhouse.

Nearby is another renovated historic building at the corner of Sand Canyon Avenue and Burt Road. Once the showroom and garage of the county's second Ford dealership, it's the home of the Orange Inn, a well-known business that began in 1931 as a roadside stand on Pacific Coast Highway between Corona del Mar and Laguna Beach.

Dining on a Truck

Open daily from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m., the inn boasts a full-fledged restaurant, deli and market. Eat there or order takeout sandwiches and drinks (including freshly squeezed orange juice). You'll also be tempted by the Orange Inn's bakery that displays muffins, brownies, cookies, cinnamon rolls, turnovers, croissants, bagels, strudel and baklava .

Next door, visitors can dine in a refurbished 1912 blacksmith shop that is now part of the Knowlwood chain.

Dine on a 1927 Dodge pickup truck that serves as a lunch counter in the tool room amid bins of nuts and bolts or under rafters decorated with saw blades and other hardware. Knowlwood opens at 10 a.m.

Round trip from Los Angeles to Old Town Irvine is 82 miles.

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