Comments & Curiosities: Five Crowns is back, as good as ever

Are you British? I'm not. Were you born in 1936? I wasn't.

But I know someone that can answer "yes" on both those counts. Well, something actually, not someone — Five Crowns in Corona del Mar.

The venerable landmark checked itself into rehab about a month ago after it started to look like a certain columnist I know. It was a little, um, worn, had to double pump to get up, and a few parts were falling off here and there. Nothing major, just a few.

But that's over now. Five Crowns is back, fluffed, folded and fresh as a daisy. Thursday is the grand reopening and you will be totally impressed. Promise.

How do I know that? Because at a preview dinner this week at the new and improved Five Crowns, the place looked great and tasted even better. Not to worry, it is still the Five Crowns you know and love and all your faves are waiting for you — the Lawry's signature prime rib, the Yorkshire pudding, the rib eye, the creamed spinach and the creamed corn and the profoundly decadent desserts, all of it low fat and high fiber. Sort of.

But the new Five Crowns Executive Chef, Ryan O'Melveny Wilson, has pushed the menu's refresh button and created a gaggle of fresh, innovative newcomers beside the veteran players. As far as looks go, it is still a classically authentic English country inn, only one that looks like it's been run through the Magical Go-Back machine and come out shiny and classy and wow.

The other thing I really like about Five Crowns is that it is a family affair, top to bottom, stem to stern. Both of those.

At the preview dinner, we had the pleasure of sitting with Richard N. Frank, the chairman of Lawry's Restaurants, and his wife, Mary Alice, who tipped me off to some fascinating Five Crowns trivia, which we will get to in a bit.

Their son, Richard R. Frank, the current Lawry's CEO and chairman, gave everyone a warm welcome and introduced the woman who oversaw the new Five Crowns' makeover. She was Susie Frank, who is Lawry's design director, and by the way, Richard's sis.

Oh, and the Five Crowns Executive Chef, the talented Mr. Wilson? Richard and Mary Alice Frank's grandson. See? A family affair.

It was 1950 when Richard Frank signed on at Lawry's, which was founded by his father, Lawrence Frank, and his uncle, Walter Van de Kamp, in 1922, which was even earlier than 1950.

But I wasn't there just to take up space and run up the carb counter. I was there to get the 411 on two very important items: the legendary Tommy Martin, and Five Crowns' resident spirits — and we're not talking about single-malt scotch.

The very good news is that Tommy Martin will be back, working his wine-pairing magic as the best sommelier since the invention of grapes, which was, I don't know, just after they invented water. If you're lucky enough to be at Tommy's station when you're at Five Crowns, thank someone. Twice.

And what about the spirits of Five Crowns — the Woman in White and the Man in Black? No trace of them last week, but time will tell. In case those two names don't ring a bell, here is the very abridged history of Five Crowns, ghosts inclusive.

The building you and I know as Five Crowns is built by a New York woman with the fabulous name of Matilda "Tillie" Lemon and her daughter, Matilda, in 1936. Tillie calls it "The Hurley Bell," after an English inn she loved in Hurley-on-Thames.

The M&M girls live in it for a while then try a number of ventures, none of which amount to much. By the late 1940s, the Hurley Bell is feeling poor and looking worse, with all sorts of rumors swirling about what goes on there, some of which can get you arrested.

That's also when the claims about the place being haunted start. As the years go by, the stories from guests and workers about hearing things that go bump in the night, and day, pile up. Many of them involve a woman in white and a man in black, who for lack of better names, come to be known as the Woman in White and the Man in Black. Sometimes simple is best.

And that brings us to the trivia nugget that I got from Mary Alice Frank. She and her husband bought Five Crowns in 1965 — the fifth in their portfolio of restaurants. The fifth place, in Corona del Mar, the Crown of the Sea. "Five Crowns." It's perfect.

I think that's it. Prime rib, Tommy Martin and a pair of ghosts. Wait long enough and everything old is new again.

Live well, eat better, life is short. Just ask the Woman in White. I gotta go.

PETER BUFFA is a former Costa Mesa mayor. His column runs Sundays. He may be reached at

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