Celebrating its 95th year in operation, Laguna’s old guard dining establishment embodies the town’s maverick spirit.
By Bruce Porter | Photos by Allen Bradley
Whether by design or intuition, Laguna Beach has fought tooth and nail to stave off corporate America from adding another notch in its belt. Strip malls are few and far between and look nothing like the ones on the other side of the greenbelt. The nearest McDonald’s is in Laguna Niguel. Residential homes are mostly custom built. Original artwork is preferred over old masters prints. There’s a strong tradition of eschewing cookie-cutter efficiency in favor of eclectic inefficiencies.
The White House stands as a testament to Laguna’s longstanding commitment to supporting its own. Originally called Bird’s White House when it was built in 1918, the restaurant has evolved over the years—though always with a healthy distance separating its family-owned, hands-on approach from, say, the Sizzler’s mechanical flowchart to bottom-line profits.
Standing the Test of Time
“At a time when businesses around here are going corporate, with rigid structures, we’ve stuck to our own way of doing things, realizing what we do works for us,” says Travis Grogan, a waiter with the restaurant for two years. “We’ve survived while others have failed because we’ve embraced our identity as a Laguna institution. We’ve tried to stay unique. This place has seen four or five generations of people come through this town. The owners, the management and the people who work here try hard to make guests feel at home every time they come in.”
“It’s been here for so long; it’s been touched by so many people,” General Manager James D. Schultz says modestly of the venerable establishment he oversees. Jimmy, as his friends know him, began working at the White House in the early 1980s. He mentions conversations with out-of-state strangers who cite the White House as evidence of their visit here—like Laguna’s version of the Empire State Building. “Johnny calls it ‘world famous,’ ” he adds, quoting longtime bartender John E. Daub. “I don’t know, but I sure have come across a lot of ‘small world’ stories. Or guys who will say, ‘My wife and I had our first date at the White House 35 years ago.’ ”
High-profile residents, like brothers Frank and Phil Interlandi, acclaimed cartoonists for national newspapers and magazines, were staples of the bar crowd back in the 1970s. “Reggie Jackson and O.J. Simpson used to come in almost every Saturday and sit right over there,” Jimmy says, pointing to the barstools at the far end of the lounge. “Kobe Bryant has a favorite table in the back of the dining room, though he didn’t come around much this season.”
A complete list of celebrity visitors—from Mick Jagger to Michael Jordan—would be impossible to detail. It would be superfluous, in any case, for a venue that’s always been a locals’ favorite above all. It’s the locals, and even the thousands of tourists who’ve sought it out, who tell the real story of this place.
The Menu is Subject to Change
Over the course of its 95 years, the White House has taken on a number of guises—some good, some bad, but never boring. In the 1960s, owner Jules Marine championed “amateur chef night” on Mondays. After-hours music was jazz at a time when jazz fans were young and predisposed to running up hefty bar tabs. The next owner, Bob Mikels, tested out an 89-cent buffet and altered the menu’s emphasis, which gave the White House a reputation as one of the premier steakhouses in the beach cities.
It didn’t hurt that there were few upscale restaurants in the area at the time. Nevertheless, a shuffle of ownership, a lack of a visionary hand and an air of complacency nearly led to its demise by the end of the 1970s. Trendy hot spots were popping up all over the place, adding a competitive element that the White House was unprepared to meet. Suddenly, Laguna’s flagship restaurant wasn’t the only game in town.
“When I first started working here, the White House was open 24 hours,” Jimmy says. “When the bar closed you’d have people wander over to the dining room to get some breakfast at 3 or 4 in the morning.” With an arched eyebrow, he adds, “So that was interesting.”
“It’s probably something restaurant management would prefer to forget,” an insurance agent sitting at the bar says, before asking to remain anonymous. “Back then there were three bars in town that catered to the heavy drinkers: the Sandpiper, the Marine Room [Tavern] and the White House. It’s not like that anymore, but back then, yeah.”
Once infallible, the restaurant waffled and soon began to lose the goodwill of its patrons and the community. Prospects were grim when, in April 1981, the White House was sold to an unassuming fellow named George Catsouras. Changes in the company’s culture came swiftly and decisively.
“George has done wonders to the place,” volunteer community liaison Sande St. John says. She used to have an office across the restaurant’s back alley. “The one thing I know he stresses is good service—the customer is always right.”
In the early days, the White House stretched south to the end of the block, but over the years the property has been subdivided to its present size—half of what it was in the 1970s. George has also overseen several structural and cosmetic improvements. Now, it barely resembles the White House Cafe seen in old black-and-white photographs.
The year after he bought it, George had the restaurant completely redone. “The last major remodel was in 1995,” Jimmy recalls. “We took out the fireplace and put the patio out front. We took out the Tiffany lamps and put a door between the bar and dining room.”
Approaching the Century Mark
Today, the remnants of a staid steakhouse are all but gone. Jazz has given way to modern tunes. It’s half restaurant, serving an inventive take on California cuisine, and half nightclub, providing an energetic yet cozy party atmosphere with live music and deejays spinning dance tracks nearly every night. Bartenders are liable to recommend a Pink Floyd, but thankfully they haven’t forgotten how to make a terrific Old Fashioned.
An expanded menu includes some outside-the-box recipes. “Putting banana in a seafood dish is different; it’s original,” cooking instructor and caterer Caroline Cazaumayou of CaliFrench Cuisine says of the Rasta Pasta on the White House’s dinner menu. Even the usual favorites are served with something extra, like the smoked Gouda and garlic mayonnaise on the White House Burger.
Caroline also says she loves the new colors of last year’s interior makeover—though this may be the one change George has made that has not met with universal approval. “It’s the White House, but it’s orange,” another patron quips.
On any given afternoon, the customers sitting around the bar will credit Johnny’s dry wit as a primary reason for making this their go-to watering hole. He claims to have started here in 1982, at age 26, but he barely looks 40. Perhaps his trademark bow tie—green on the Saturday afternoons when Notre Dame is playing—contributes to his youthful appearance.
Sunday brunch has earned a stellar reputation. “We’re visiting friends in town,” Bob Adams says. He, his wife and two children are down from Portland, Ore., and are finishing their meals on the patio. “Look around; what’s not to like? I’ve had eggs Benedict in just about every major city in the country, but I have to say this may be the best hollandaise sauce I’ve ever had.”
George’s transformation of the White House will never really be complete: Like any successful business, it remains a work in progress. His kids Demetri, Lexi and Zoe now help as co-managers of the once-again thriving Laguna landmark. It’s possible, however, that George will be remembered more for his contributions to the community at large.
For nearly three decades, George has donated his restaurant’s services to everything from the Memorial Day pancake spread hosted by the local police and fire departments to arranging a yearly Christmas party for low-income families, complete with presents.
“George is incredibly generous,” Sande says. “Any emergency I have in the city, I just call him up and he’ll feed everybody. And I’m not talking bread and water. It’s all delicious. He feeds everybody who comes to the back door. He can’t stand to see anybody go hungry. He really cares about this town—the man has a heart of gold.”
The White House plans to celebrate its 95th anniversary with events throughout the summer. With an enthusiastic core of frequent flyers, there’s every reason to expect an even bigger celebration when it hits the century mark. Amanda Burke, an interior decorator and regular for more than two decades, says fondly, “It’s the personal touches, the attention to small details, that sets it apart. Many of my fondest memories have come out of this place.” LBM