Steve Freeman has been coming to Southern California from his Maryland home about twice a year since 1975. And every time he comes, he visits the Crystal Cove Shake Shack.
"I get the same sandwich every time, and when I finish the sandwich, I get either a strawberry or banana shake," Freeman, 55, said. His logic in getting the shake after the sandwich? It makes the visit last a little longer.
Richard Luff, 41, of La Habra Heights has been coming to the shack for about 10 years. On a recent visit, he ordered the veggie burger. He's trying to follow his doctor's orders to eat more healthful foods.
"It's the worst-tasting 'hamburger' I've had," he said between bites, "but you can't beat the view."
Mike Yetter, 44, of Orange brought a business associate visiting from Munich. "A colleague of Mike's said there's a place, if you want to know about California, you have to go to the Shake Shack," said Mathias Koch, 41.
If you want to know about California ... and certainly about Orange County.
The Shake Shack, a postage stamp-sized icon on a bluff overlooking the Pacific, is one of those places that help define the Southern California lifestyle, like Venice Beach or Surf City -- also known as Huntington Beach.
Over the 57 years that the shack has been at its spot on Coast Highway between Corona del Mar and Laguna Beach, just about everything around it has changed.
The thousands of acres of coastline are now in the hands of the state parks department, the untamed hills and canyons inland from Coast Highway have been leveled for multimillion-dollar homes and a chi-chi shopping center, and even the highway has been widened to accommodate the population and traffic booms.
But the Shake Shack is immune to such influences. When the shack passed from private hands to state ownership, the lease-holders had to promise to keep the shack just as it was ... rustic, small and familiar.
"That's what everybody wanted," said Katie Flamson, who operates the shack with her husband, Mike.
The Shake Shack's few benches, which of course face the ocean, and its big round community table on a tiny patio quickly fill up at lunchtime. The shack still serves just four cold sandwiches -- roast beef, turkey, albacore and vegetarian -- but there's a variety of milk shakes, the best-known of which is the rich, creamy date shake.
The date shake is such a part of the shack that that was how the place was known for many years -- the Date Shack.
For more years than there are cities in Orange County, teens have spent their summer days swimming and surfing at Crystal Cove, then topping it off with a shake and a sandwich.
"People who come by, their parents brought them when they were young and now they bring their kids," said Katie Flamson. "And they always ask, 'You still have the date shake?' "
In the summer, the shack goes through about 70 pounds of dates a week. The recipe is simple enough -- two kinds of dates (which kinds, the Flamsons won't say), vanilla ice cream, whole milk and a sprinkling of nutmeg -- but the result is unexpectedly tasty, sweet but not sugary.
Flamson, a tiny, energetic mom of two boys, 10 and 7, is OK with the date shake, but her favorite is the Monkey Flip: peanut butter, dates, bananas and chocolate syrup. "It'll make a monkey flip," she says, laughing. No kidding.
The family also owns the Place, a sports bar in Corona del Mar, but the shack is ... different. It's not just a business, it's a piece of history, a piece of California.
That's why the Flamsons, who took over the shack in 1990, are quick to acknowledge that as jobs go, the Shake Shack is one in a million with the view, the breezes and its special place in California's history.
"It's pretty hard to say I'm not going to come to work," Flamson said.