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The new Watson’s: ice cream and booze

Even for those who didn’t grow up surrounded by sock hops and soda jerks, there’s something endlessly nostalgic about getting sticky with a real ice cream milkshake, straw in mouth, spoon in hand and a venti-sized tin of whatever extras wouldn’t fit into the traditional dessert glass at your side.

Double that nostalgia when the shake is being consumed at a marble bartop surrounded by dusty ephemera unearthed from the basement of California’s first soda fountain, Watson’s, which reopened in its Old Towne Orange spot three months ago after a massive half-year remodel.

On a recent visit to the newly rehabbed space — which is lush with dark wood and brand new burgundy booths — I saw that most of the patrons sitting at the U-shaped bar that now anchors the restaurant were consuming one of Watson’s classic milkshakes, countering the outcry from locals that adding a liquor license to the one-time pharmacy would turn it into a hipster-packed gastropub. (Granted, I am a millennial who wears glasses, and my own milkshake did have Jack Daniels in it, but, hey, it was a long day. And they had bourbon in the 1950s, right?)

Fears of the changing demographics of Orange Circle (excuse me, The Plaza) aside, new owners Bill and Laurie Skeffington have deftly turned Watson’s Drug & Soda Fountain into Watson’s Soda Fountain & Cafe, a Watson’s for the 21st century that does more than pay homage to its rich history.

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The business, founded in 1899 as K.E. Watson’s, was first on Glassell Street before being moved to its current location, just off the traffic circle on Chapman Avenue. In 1915, a soda fountain was installed, and Watson’s became the first in the state to sell soda, ice cream sundaes, malts and fizzy drinks to drug store patrons. A kitchen was added along with a menu of comfort food, and straight through the mid-century golden age of American soda fountains, Watson’s was a haven.

In 1971, as ice cream parlors around the country began to close, a pharmacist named Scott Parker bought the business, and until 2015, when Parker sold to the Skeffingtons, Scott’s son Steve managed it. The two maintained Watson’s throwback atmosphere but tried to keep up with the changing times, eliminating the pharmacy altogether in 2011 and adding an adjoining gift shop after a travel agency next door closed.

The Skeffingtons — who are also behind the revamp of Villa Park’s Rockwell’s Bakery, which included the addition of a restaurant and bar, The Post — purchased the historic diner and closed it last August for its grand overhaul. (Steve Parker remains on board as a historical consultant.)

The new Watson’s is still a local gathering place where book clubs meet and families do weekday dinners, albeit one without mediocre food, a tacky tchotchke shop and blinding fluorescent lights. All that’s been replaced with a massive, if not thoughtful, menu of deli and diner dishes (93 items deep, including $7 mix-and-match lunch specials; breakfast is served all day) and an interior design that incorporates old Orange County newspaper clippings blown up and printed on wallpaper plus apothecary and soda fountain items discovered in the store’s massive basement.

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Lots of flat screen TVs are the main indication that this no longer the shell of a drugstore and is now Watson’s circa 2016. But the fact that most of them are on an endless loop of “I Love Lucy” and “Happy Days” episodes keeps the chaos of contemporary life at bay a bit.

Next door, the old travel agency has been painted all white and converted into a soda fountain slash Rockwell’s annex. Old-school candy is sold from a cart in the middle, bulk sweets are on display along the west wall and you can buy fresh pastries from the case or order a Star Wars cake (or one that looks like a Louis Vuitton purse) from the on-site artist-bakers.

There’s even a walk-up window where soda jerks await ice cream orders — expect a line come the summer heat.

At the large wooden bar, which occupies the same space as the original counter did (and is now staffed by suspender-wearing “bar jerks”), couples who probably met at a soda fountain 50 years ago share space with college students on a study break and business-suited office workers seeking a post-work craft beer.

The one thing that’s stayed the same at Watson’s the last 100 years is still its main draw — a nice cold milkshake. Booze optional.

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SARAH BENNETT is a freelance journalist covering food, drink, music, culture and more. She is the former food editor at L.A. Weekly and a founding editor of Beer Paper L.A. Follow her on Twitter @thesarahbennett.

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