The Old Place
Most people expect to have to make dinner reservations at a four-star restaurant. “Reservations required” usually implies impeccable service and quality. Well, now Pepperdine students have an unusual place to add to their list of “call ahead before visiting.”
The strange reputation of “The Old Place” preceded it, so bringing along a few friends just in case trouble arose helped to appease any fears. The drive down the meandering Mulholland Highway was only complicated by having to keep my eyes peeled for any sign of activity. The treasure hunt was finally over when the buzzing gleam of a few neon beer signs poured out from dusty windows, signaling our destination. Upon closer observation, a barely noticeable corroded miner’s ore cart sitting out front was emblazoned with chipped paint: “Old Place Steak and Clams.”
Walking onto the front porch, we opened the screen door to see what looked like a scene from the Old West. The hollow sound of boots boomed across the antique wooden floor in the room dimly lit by cobweb-covered exposed light bulbs dangling from the ceiling. We set down at the booth that read “Go North” on its adjoining wall—our other choices being “Go East,” “Go West,” “Go South,” or “Stay Here.” Within a few minutes the looks from the regulars must have tipped off the waitress of our presence.
“Did you guys come for some steak?” said the energetic woman, with one strap of her denim jumper halfway off her shoulder. “We sure did!” we answered with a smile. “You have to call ahead so that we can already have it cut to put on the fire,” she replied to our surprise. “It’ll be an hour and a half before I can even tell you if we’re going to have steak.” So we decided to order some steamed clams, the only other option on the menu. Rumors affirmed that the only non-alcoholic drink they had was apple juice. “We don’t have that anymore, that was a while back.” she replied. “It’s Coca-cola these days.” “All right, we’ll take two,” we agreed.
The Old Place is shrouded in mystery and enchantment. The owners for more than 30 years, Tom and Barbra Runyon—the latter acting as our waitress, are quite reserved about publicity—as evident in their unwillingness to be interviewed.
Consequently, most information about the place is passed on by word of mouth, and a quick search of the Internet will bring up blogs and web pages about the varying experiences visitors have had there.
With a façade that looks as if it came from an old country-western movie, the place is predominately occupied by “the regulars.” There isn’t a menu. Hand-cut top sirloin steak, or steamed clams are your choices—both served with sliced Pioneer sourdough bread and real butter. Beef Stew is served only on Sundays.
Among the hodge-podge decorations of an antique cash register and ornate liquor bottles, booth dividers made out of doors recovered from a hotel built in 1906 after the California earthquake add to the authentic feel of The Old Place. Also dotting the interior are columns salvaged from the Santa Barbara mission during its restoration in the 1960s.
My friends and I sat there discussing the awkwardness of the whole situation when Billy Gale, a self-proclaimed country music legend, came up to our booth with a guitar strung around his neck and eyed us. I asked if he played here and he replied, sarcastically, “No, this [guitar] is just a growth I have hanging here.” This statement is about what one would expect from a guy donned with a cowboy hat, long silver hair, and a belt-buckle as big as your fist.
Assuming that’s all he played, I mentioned that I like country music.
Standing a little too close for comfort, he began to tell us about his musical heritage and how he befriended country legend Waylon Jennings who wrote the song he sang entitled “Old-Timer.” He also told us an elaborate story involving Jennings, Buddy Holly, and a plane crash. His website www.billygale.com verifies that Gale has been a staff writer for numerous companies, including Capitol Records, and that he was once referred to as “the best kept secret in country music,” by Cliffee Stone, founder of the Academy of Country Music.
“I would have invited him to sit with us if we had ordered steak and had to wait,” said Pepperdine freshman Cecily Small, “because he probably would have told us more really interesting stories.” He also played David Allen Coe’s “Mona Lisa Lost Her Smile” and Joe Diffie’s “Welcome to Earth (Third Rock from the Sun)”. When he finished performing, Gale took his place behind the bar as though he owned the place. It was at this point in the evening, about 8:30, that I overheard another customer ask Barbra, “Did he light the fire yet?” I realized then that the Old Place was the real deal.
At the end of the night, I left The Old Place feeling as though I had just walked out of a MasterCard commercial. Two orders of steamed clams, sliced sourdough bread, and two cans of Coke...$39. And, of course, having a fascinating story to tell all of my friends…Priceless.
- - Bob Dylan once played here, and the place was packed for months afterward as word of mouth got around about “A bar in Agoura where Bob Dylan plays.” li>
- - The interior of The Old Place was once recreated on the MGM lot for a Charles Bronson movie.
- - Want to learn more about Billy Gale? Check out www.billygale.com.