We were in the Claremont area last week with Carolyn Wing Greenlee and Hal Baker shooting interviews for both our documentary on Milford Zornes and Carolyn's on Betty Davenport Ford. Both shoots involved artist Tony Sheets, son of the legendary Millard Sheets. We had lunch at Mike Verbal's "Pizza and Such" restaurant in Claremont Village. Usually, there's a discussion about where to eat because Claremont has so many wonderful eating places. And I got to thinking about what a unique gem of a community it really is—culinary and otherwise. There's a reason why Milford Zornes kept coming back to Claremont.
Milford Zornes first walked the streets of Claremont sometime in 1930 when he arrived at Pomona College to enroll as a sophomore and seriously study art. It was a well established village by then, serving the colleges (Pomona and Scripps) and the booming citrus industry. Claremont would be a recurring character in his life for the next 78 years, so naturally our documentary in many respects revolves around Claremont. Over the many months we have been shooting interviews and events for our documentary, many of them have been in the Claremont area. We've really come to love the town. It's quaint, friendly and a wonderful place to shop and eat.
Located in the tallest building in the village (the two-story old bank building on the corner of Yale and 2nd street) Pizza and Such http://pizzansuchclaremont.com/ is one of Hal's favorite lunch spots. He loves their salads. There's a lot more to the "…and Such" than salads, but make no mistake, their pizza is awfully good too. Mike and Sue Verbal started it about 30 years ago as a small hole in the wall around the corner and expanded it to take over from a pharmacy which occupied the corner store for many years after the bank moved out. Of course everyone still calls it the Old Bank Building even though the pharmacy was there for over 30 years and the cornice at the top of the building now clearly labels it The Verbal Building. Did I mention that Mike is the same Mike Verbal who owns Claremont Fine Arts? http://www.claremontfinearts.com/He was a long-time friend of Milford Zornes and has a number of his paintings for sale. Claremont Fine Arts specializes in Californa Scene Artists from the 1930 through the 1960s and has a really wonderful selection for buyers to see. But no, you can't take your pizza into the gallery!
Besides having a wonderful history, the city fathers of Claremont have for generations gone out of their way to preserve the small, indosyncratic nature of the village just east of Indian Hill Boulevard. A few years ago when they needed to expand, they did it so flawlessly that what the old-timers call the newer "West Village" on the other side of Indian Hill, looks like it was always there. Among other destinations, the huge old College Heights Citrus Packing Association warehouse has been transformed into a warren of shops and restaurants similar to the original village. All together Claremont features over 150 boutiques, galleries, antique stores, restaurants and other businesses to visit. It's the perfect place to shop and stroll and there's plenty of night time entertainment.
Famous for it's 100 year old Elm Trees which create an impressive canopy over Indian Hill Blvd between Foothill and the Village, Claremont looks to many like a Midwestern town from a century ago. The streets of the village have smaller trees and shady spots to sit with benches and plenty of bike racks. One favorite sitting area is outside the Village Grille, (Restaurant left, sitting area right) on the corner of 2nd street and Yale, especially when that corner diner hosts a Hot Rod Cruise Night. Many years ago the Village Grille was a location for a film by director Richard Benjamin. (known for My Favorite Year, The Money Pit and 22 more)
Claremont was actually created by the Santa Fe RR in 1887 http://www.ci.claremont.ca.us/about-us/city-profile/history-of-claremont (remember the Golden Spike and all that?) as one of close to 30 towns on the right-of-way to Los Angeles. Luckily a lot of the property was deeded a year later to Pomona College which influenced the growth of the community into a 'New England Style.' That influence, and the early push of land sales in five acre lots as gentleman-farmer citrus groves, was the foundation of what Claremont is today. Of course, after WWII the citrus groves started to disappear but thanks to businessman Herman Garner and his wife, Bess, the always-present Arts Community became prominent. Among the many luminaries of the art world from the post war era who lived in Claremont are Milford Zornes, Betty Davenport Ford and the influential Millard Sheets. But the village area around the colleges remains a treasure trove of historic architecture-everything from original Victorians to original Craftsman to unique masonry homes of local stone washed down from nearby Mt. Baldy.
The people of Claremont truly respect its heritage (http://www.claremontheritage.org) as an arts community and a college community. Those two influences, while subtle, are very important. There's an old record shop that years ago was taken over by Rhino Records (Left) and it still feels like an old record shop. Just down the street is the landmark Folk Music Center,(Right) http://folkmusiccenter.com/ a third-generation-run bastion of every kind of musical instrument with a Public Poetry Kiosk out front. Yep, from doggerel to Shelly you can find it on Yale Ave in Claremont.
Oh, did I mention the north-oriented streets are named after Ivy League Colleges: Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, Columbia? There are actually seven or eight colleges in Claremont. http://www.claremont.edu All are small, and exclusive and highly rated and wonderful resources for the community. The student population of all the colleges together could probably fit into a small dining room at UCLA. But with a significant number of foreign students they bring an international as well as intellectual flavor to the village.
The Claremont Colleges operate as a consortium, similar to Oxford, and they're very picturesque—well worth the short 2 block walk from the village. Except for a stray sign or two and some differences in architecture, I can never tell where one college ends and the next begins. But I can tell you that the largest, Pomona College, (Estab 1887) has been used as a stand-in for an authentic east coast Ivy Leaguer in a number of Hollywood films. (Tinsel Town is only 60 miles or so East but a world away.) Pomona College is also the alma mater of Milford Zornes. His papers are archived there.
But back to the food… What a variety! I could be wrong but I believe Claremont has only ever had one or two chain restaurants in the village. There's a few up on Foothill Blvd—the old Rte 66—but I can only remember an El Pollo Loco actually in the village and that's no longer there. The competition from one-of-a-kind family-run eateries is too much, I guess.
I've got so many favorites I never know where to begin—well that's not true, I have to begin with Walters. http://www.waltersrestaurant.com Featuring local artist's work including stained glass. Walters is nominally an Afghan cuisine but they have a long and varied menu of tasty food—and an impressive Sunday Brunch as I recall. Nevertheless, I always feel compelled to order their Afghan fries: home-style cut potatoes deep-fried in a delicious batter. They have dining booths along Yale Ave—effectively outdoors, and an area which once upon a time was the driveway between two rows of bungalows. It's now covered with pullback sun-shades and is like dining on an interior covered patio. The bungalows have private dining spaces, small and large, and of course there is also a front bar & grill room. You want ambience, you go to Claremont!
On the next block is Yiannis Café. Yes, authentic—and wonderful— Greek food with the requisite Baklava. Just a few doors down the street is Union on Yale. http://www.uniononyale.com/ Union is relatively new but like all the elements that make Claremont what it is, you could easily think it's been there forever. Forever being the 1950's. Restaurateur John Solona took over the space from a florist/garden center and smartly transformed the outdoor section to patio dining with cozy firepits and a fun bocce ball court in the middle. The mid-century style of the place fits the funky Claremont vibes perfectly…and the food is fabulous. It's Solona's second of four restaurants in the village he's opened with business partner Erik Johnson. Search out his first: the Back Abby http://www.thebackabbey.com/ gastropub in the west village for truly gourmet burgers and a billion imported beers on tap. It's in an old converted power station—a small, fun place. In 2013 Solana also opened a true taco shack hidden —and I mean hidden—on First Street opposite the train station. He calls it Petiscos. http://www.eatatpetiscos.com/ It's tiny: basically a kitschy patio behind a narrow, colorful shack. Finding it is like winning a scavenger hunt…and the prize is the fabulous food--all tacos.
Across the street from Union on Yale is a little paseo with a bagel shop serving breakfast and all kinds of sandwiches—on a bagel, of course— and a Spanish tapas place called Viva Madrid. http://www.vivamadrid.com/
Speaking of Paseos — in New York we'd call them alleys and they were to be avoided—Claremont is full of cute Paseos. You've got to see the one next to Heroes & Legends Bar & Grill, which by the way has both great burgers and steaks. This paseo, like most in Claremont leads behind the buildings to a parking lot. If you come upon it you won't be able to pass by. It sports a trompe l'oeil mural on one wall depicting Claremont, old and new— an engaging look at the history of the colleges and the community. Muralist Art Mortimer playfully added himself to the montage.
Follow the paseo from Yale avenue into the parking area/alley and you'll find La Piccoletta, http://www.lapiccoletta.com/ a tiny concrete pasta palace with more trompe l'oeil painting on its exterior. Good luck finding the front door. It's one of John Solana's newer incarnations of a Claremont tradition and only open for dinner. It's rustic, family style dining (it only holds 35!) where pasta reigns (with three or four kinds of traditional sauce to choose from) but with a limited selection of beef and fish entrees as well.
Meanwhile back on Yale Ave is one of my two favorite Italian restaurants. Aruffos Italian Cuisine is an institution for good reason—the food is superb. And despite the fact I took this picture (on the right) from across the street, you can find Aruffos' not only because of its red and white striped awning but because it's probably the only other building besides the Old Bank that has an upstairs. Above Aruffos' was (for eons) a used and rare book seller. I'll bet he's still there—that would be just like Claremont. Only a block away on First Street at the corner of Harvard is my other favorite Italian cucina, Tutti Mangia. Completely different vibe but equally great food.
Last but not least—and only last because of time and space limitations—is my double threat of Espiau's and Some Crust Bakery. Espiau's is on the corner of First and Yale and has a very nice outdoor patio converted from an old gasoline filling station. Like the rest of Claremont, it's quaint and to call it merely pleasant would be a disservice. The interior is friendly and the food is traditional with a full additional menu of Mexican food. I say it's a double threat because I have never left Espiau's without going next door to Some Crust Bakery. Great hand-brewed coffee and delicious desserts are complimented by scrumptious cookies, cakes and other baked goods. Some Crust is always my last stop before I leave Claremont, cookie in one hand and coffee and a bag of pastry in the other.
Don't let the length of my ode (Some might call it epic) fool you into thinking I've covered the gustatory gamut of Claremont Village. No such luck, my mouth watering protégé! I haven't touched on many great spots on Harvard Ave or across Indian Hill in the West Village. If there's one word with which to tease you to visit Claremont, it is DISCOVER. Half the fun is discovering unique shops, the other half is discovering wonderful eateries. They're all over the village!