Scandal! Murder! Intrigue! If the walls of San Juan Capistrano’s adobe abodes could only speak. . . . In the meantime, the docents who lead the city’s weekly walking tours know plenty.
Start your own tour back in time with brunch in the Los Rios Historic District, the oldest neighborhood in California.
LATE MORNING 1
The Ramos House Cafe occupies one of the board and batten houses popular around the time it was built in 1881.
The menu says that owners John and Lisa Humphries live and work in the house--John bakes, Lisa keeps the books. Ice cream is made on the back step.
The restaurant is open for breakfast and lunch, with porch and patio seating.
Morning starters include Granny Smith fritters ($4.50). Among breakfast entrees are the French toast-like blueberry pain perdu ($8.50), and lemon, rocket and green apple scramble ($8.75), an egg dish with rocket arugula and ricotta cheese. Lunch highlights include duck soup (cup $4, bowl $6) and smoked turkey and crawfish gumbo with rice and fried okra ($8.50).
Fresh off the back step is caramel peach ice cream ($5).
AFTERNOON 2 3
Look for a “Visitor’s Guide to Historic San Juan Capistrano” inside little green boxes near Mission San Juan Capistrano and the Los Rios Historic District. Your best bet might be opposite the mission at the Trading Post, from which a docent-led, one-hour tour departs Sundays at 1 p.m. San Juan Capistrano Historical Society docent Barbara Davies enlivened many tour stops by showing us vintage photos in an album she brought along.
Davies began the tour at the mission, founded in 1776, noting that the Great Stone Church now under restoration was destroyed by an earthquake in 1812, killing 40 Indians who were attending Mass. A historic pile of adobe bricks sits in a parking lot adjacent to the Camino Real Playhouse en route to the large Blas Aguilar Adobe (13806 El Camino Real), formerly the mayor’s house.
Other adobe remains are buried at Historic Town Center Park. Occupying a dilapidated area at one time known as “Gilligan’s Island” was the Burrell adobe. Martina Burrell acted as decoy for bandit Juan Flores and his gang during a local robbery. Later she was suspected of being a bruja, or sorceress, who could turn herself into a black dog. Davies showed us a photo of Burrell.
The Judge Richard Egan House (31892 Camino Capistrano), a.k.a. Harmony Hall, has fallen into disharmony. For some time, the recorded message at Egan House Restaurant has said that it’s closed due to the chef’s emergency surgery; a Historical Society volunteer said it’s no secret that it’s fallen victim to domestic squabbling.
As our tour continued, a Sheriff’s Dept. team was scouting around outside El Adobe Restaurant (31891 Camino Capistrano), formerly two adobes, one of which served as the jail. Rumors of buried treasure surround the adobe (31831 Camino Capistrano) that was home to Juan Avila, called “El Rico,” or “the rich one.”
Capistrano Depot (26701 Verdugo St.), now a restaurant, dates to 1894; time it right and you’ll encounter a delightful cacophony of live jazz and train bells.
The Lupe Combs House of 1878 (26711 Verdugo St.) was home to Modesta Avila, a young woman who held the distinction of being Orange County’s first convicted felon.
According to local legend, she strung her laundry across the train tracks as a protest against the railroad; in reality, it wasn’t laundry but a railroad tie, and she removed it before the train arrived. Still, she went to prison, where she died. She was apparently quite pretty, and the town’s leading ladies might have influenced the severity of her sentence.
The Montanez Adobe (31745 Los Rios St.) of 1794 is one of three of the original 40 adobes--built for Indians converted to Christianity by the missionaries--still standing. It’s open to the public; proceeds from the walking tours ($2 for adults, $1 for children 12 and younger) go toward its preservation.
The Rios Adobe (31781 Los Rios St.) is the oldest residence in the state continuously occupied by the same family; it’s home to the 11th generation of Rioses. The Albert Pryor Residence (31831 Los Rios St.) houses the O’Neill Museum and the Historical Society. Pryor and his wife were poisoned; his wife survived. Who was behind the dastardly deed? “Lots of secrets in this town,” Davies noted.
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1) Ramos House Cafe
31752 Los Rios St., (714) 443-1342.
8 a.m.-3 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday.
2) San Juan Capistrano Historical Society Walking Tour and Maps
Meet in front of Trading Post, Ortega Highway and Camino Capistrano, opposite Mission San Juan Capistrano. Historical Society, (714) 493-8444.
Guided tours Sundays at 1 p.m.
3) O’Neill Museum (Historical Society office)
31831 Los Rios St., (714) 493-8444.
9 a.m.-noon and 1-4 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, noon-3 p.m. Sunday.
Parking: Free and metered parking in public lots near Mission San Juan Capistrano along Camino Capistrano, Ortega Highway and Verdugo Street.
Buses: OCTA Bus No. 397 runs along Ortega Highway and Camino Capistrano with service to the San Juan Capistrano train station. Bus No. 91 runs along Camino Capistrano with service to the depot and Mission San Juan Capistrano.