Nestled along Interstate 5, near the spot where Laguna Niguel, San Juan Capistrano and Mission Viejo meet, is a little greasy spoon filled with the smell of bacon and fried eggs and the chatter of truckers, locals and early-morning regulars.
At Buffy's, real buttermilk pancakes and country-fried steaks still reign. But the grill at this 1960s-style diner and beloved landmark is about to go cold.
In a few months, Buffy's will be torn down to make room for a new Carl's Jr. No more bar stools or "homemade" berry pies. They're being replaced by a drive-through window and assembly-line hamburgers.
"You're not going to find another place like this one," says Robert Grzegorczyk, 53, who's been a Buffy's regular for almost a quarter century--even after he moved to Lake Elsinore a few years ago.
But after four decades, Buffy's is showing its age. The building is old. It needs new paint, new air conditioning, new appliances, new plumbing. Owner Doug Siewert says a make-over would simply be too costly.
And thanks to the energy crisis, the restaurant's electricity bill has doubled--making it even tougher to keep money in the till, Siewert says.
Buffy's demise will mean the end of an era for the regulars who have made breakfast at the diner a weekly, or daily, ritual--customers like Jim Rogers.
Rogers, 68, has plunked himself down at the same booth every morning at 7 on the dot for the past 28 years. Now, he says, he's going to have to find a new place to "hold office."
That booth is where he meets with his painters to talk over the day's jobs. Char Sprinkling, the waitress who calls everyone "doll," keeps his coffee cup full.
"Now what am I going to do? I guess I'll have to go to Carrow's. It won't be like this, though," says Rogers, of Mission Viejo.
Rogers took a liking to the restaurant after moving to San Clemente from Boston in 1973. Back then, Buffy's had a Western theme, and the owner used to show cowboy movies.
Buffy's has a country kitchen motif today, and fresh apple and berry pies fill a bakery case near the door. The soup is made from scratch. Garage sale notices and business cards are pinned on a community bulletin board near the cash register.
A suggestion box sits next to the till. Mostly, the customers use it to praise their favorite waitresses. But every once in a while, a regular will slip in a joke or friendly jab--"I don't like the color of your tablecloths. Just kidding!" one note jested.
In its heyday, Buffy's was a popular truck stop. Morning, noon and night, truckers hauling everything from lumber to vegetables between San Diego and Los Angeles would pull off the freeway and file through the door for a hot meal and a good cup of java. "Truckers were the mainstay here for many years," says Siewert.
So many truckers came in that the cooks created the Truckers Special--a double order of bacon or sausage, three eggs, hash browns, toast and jelly, and a glass of juice.
Buffy's still sees its fair share of big rigs, but not as many as it used to. The trucker clientele began to dwindle in 1997, when heavy rains from El Nino wiped out a portion of Camino Capistrano, the freeway frontage road the restaurant calls home.
These days, Buffy's is more popular among families and church groups.
The Rev. Dave Hicks and several members of his congregation from the Crown Valley Church in Laguna Niguel are there every Tuesday at 6:15 a.m. They say it's the kind of old-fashioned, mom-and-pop joint you might see depicted in a Norman Rockwell painting. And they are sad to see it go.
"Just because something is older and has been around awhile doesn't mean it's not worth keeping," Hicks says. "I can guarantee you, we won't be coming here when it's a Carl's Jr."
It's sad for Siewert too. He's worked at the restaurant since he was 12, first washing dishes, then waiting tables, then cooking. His father bought the restaurant in 1979, and he took over ownership in 1998.
For Siewert, now 34, Buffy's is full of memories.
He'll never forget "Railroad Rhonda," the homeless woman who, some 20 years ago, used to hang around the tracks across the street. Siewert and a number of Buffy's regulars used to take her food. But they lost track of her after she was hit by a car as she crossed Camino Capistrano. She survived, Siewert says, but her health declined, and she was placed in a residential care facility.
And there was the time a water pipe burst in the middle of the Sunday morning rush.
"Me and the cook went up to the attic, and he slipped in the water, and his foot came through the ceiling right into the dining room," Siewert recalls.
Nowadays, though, the upkeep for the aging restaurant has just become too much to bear, Siewert says.
"The cost to run the restaurant has made it tough. Our electricity bill has doubled. We're paying more and using less energy. And since the road's been closed these past few years, we're just not doing the kind of business we used to."
So when Gary Wiles of Wiles Restaurant contacted Siewert six months ago with an offer to buy him out, he was willing to consider it.
"In the past 10, 15 years, we've had lots of chains contact us, but nothing's ever come of it until now," Siewert says. "And for the right price, everything's for sale."
Wiles' proposal to build a Carl's Jr. was approved by the Laguna Niguel Planning Commission in April without a glitch.
Siewert's not ruling out the possibility of opening another Buffy's somewhere nearby. His family used to own two others--one in San Clemente, another in Carlsbad, both of which were sold and renamed years ago.
"I know 80% of the people who walk through that door," Siewert says. "Buffy's has been part of my life since I was very young. It's all I've ever known."