Special Ed Kids Mourn Loss of Landmark Eatery

From closest to furthest: Moorea Howson, Alina Fiocca, and Alex Martin.

The Cottage Restaurant, a Laguna Beach landmark for nearly half a century, will close its doors by month’s end, its co-owner confirmed this week.

The owner of the historic home turned café sold 308 N. Coast Highway and the new owners plan to open their own restaurant on the premises, said Jennifer McCulley, who has run the restaurant with her sister and partner Julie McCulley for 12 years.

As much as loyal patrons may miss their favorite breakfast spot, one group expects to feel the loss more keenly. For the past three years the McCulleys have warmly welcomed the high school’s special education students, providing them with weekly on site training, even jobs. Mindy Hawkins, the high school’s special education teacher, said that due to the small size of their vocational education program, they must rely heavily on community help to succeed. While many local restaurants turned them down, “the Cottage really came forward for us,” said Hawkins, adding that they “are devastated” to see the restaurant close.

Cottage Restaurant co-owner Julie McCulley.

Since the new owners purchased the property but not the business, the McCulleys don’t have much cash to start fresh, even if it were possible to replicate the Cottage elsewhere, a tall order.

“Half of what we are is because of where we are,” said McCulley, alluding to the combination of the historic white cottage, its beautiful geographic location, and the Laguna Beach community that supports it. “You can’t reproduce the same atmosphere in a strip mall,” she said.

Customers apparently hold the same view. One Trip Advisor review posted in October states: “The best part of this restaurant is the building itself…It is adorable, well maintained and we loved it. It’s worth eating here just to see this cute home from a time gone by with all of its charm.”

Customers waiting for a table are treated to a slice of Laguna history in seats from the original Playhouse.

Constructed in 1917, the historic building housed its first restaurant when Howard and LeClaire Planalp opened the Laguna Vista Cafe on the premises in 1938. Though they ceased to operate the cafe due to shortages during WWII, the Planalps resided there until 1957. For the next seven years the building housed the Pancake Cottage, until, in June of 1964, the Cottage Restaurant settled in for the long haul, a metamorphosis that involved restoring some original features that had been removed, such as the original solid oak front door, found in the garage. Subsequent curiosities added over the years served to enhance the nostalgic allure of the restaurant. Notably, the seats in the eatery’s lobby, having served theatergoers for 40 years at the Old Laguna Playhouse on Ocean Avenue, were purchased when it closed in 1969. And a series of character studies of one of Laguna’s famous greeters, Eiler Larsen, created by the late Dr. Ronald A. Greene, grace the lobby walls.

Many artists have appreciated the restaurant’s historic aesthetic.

But for Hawkins’ special ed students, the Cottage’s value lies in the generosity of its proprietors. “Jennifer and Julie have extended themselves beyond what we even asked to make sure our students always feel supported and welcomed,” said Hawkins. Each Tuesday morning the class comes in and sits around the big wooden table in the center room where they get to work rolling silverware into napkins, sorting sugars, wiping menus, and scooping butter, among other things.

The students, hard at work on a recent Tuesday, approached their assigned tasks diligently and cheerfully, gently guided and encouraged by their teachers and passing staff members, exchanging light banter with each other and their mentors, more like a large happy family if you didn’t know better. “I like the Cottage best,” said Andy Kemp, an expert at rolling the silverware into napkins. His peers chimed in with similar exclamations. McCulley also employed two of the students over the summer and another currently works at the Cottage on weekends.

The Cottage’s demise will end onsite training for the high school’s special education students, clockwise from bottom left, Andy Kemp, Alina Fiocca, Alex Martin, instructional aid Dana Rice, Andrew Arredondo, Tyler Fisher, Natalia Law, and Moorea Howson.

With nine students currently in the program, Hawkins said it’s been hard finding opportunities for them all. Sundried Tomato, for example, found space for two students each Tuesday morning to help set tables. So they rotate that task, which takes about 20 minutes, before joining the others at the Cottage.

Notably, the Assistance League of Laguna Beach has reached out to Hawkins’ students, offering cooking classes in their chapter house kitchen and retail skills at their Turnabout Thrift Shop. The class meets there twice a month to prepare a meal as part of their life skills training.

Hawkins called the Assistance League’s contribution “another blessing,” but still laments the imminent loss of the Cottage and wonders if they’ll find another restaurant to take on most, if not all of their students.

Asked why the restaurant agreed to mentor the special ed kids, Julie McCulley replied, “Why wouldn’t you do it?” Her sister Jennifer agreed. “They are great kids,” she said.

Though McCulley admitted operating the restaurant hasn’t been easy in a distressed economy, they love their business because of the connections they have made within the community, from their loyal customers to neighbors like John Madison, owner of the neighboring Madison Square and Garden Café, who will all be sorely missed. “We had a really great time,” she said.

“We just have to get through this and figure out on the other side what we are going to do,” said a noticeably saddened McCulley, who has vowed not to be bitter. Despite the loss of her business, she said she’s grateful that the new owners apparently like the old building and plan to maintain its historic integrity.

In the meantime, the Cottage will host a farewell Christmas party that will coincide with First Thursdays Artwalk from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Dec. 6. They hope friends and customers will stop in for holiday cheer, along with art exhibits including a display of Christmas ornaments by abstract artist Jess Black.

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