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RICHARD N. FRANK’S DREAM of opening an English-style country inn in Southern California fifty years ago may not have come true without Matilda “Tillie” MacCulloch.
The American wife of a wealthy Scotsman lived a privileged life in England, but she never forgot the Southern California she first saw as a child in 1890. Following World War I, Tillie, with her daughter Marguerite in tow, made many trips from England to Newport Beach and Corona del Mar. There, like a generation of speculators before her, she began buying land.
every detail transported guests to another time and place
Determined to bring a bit of the English countryside to the sleepy beach town, she built a replica of England’s oldest inn, Ye Olde Belle, a quarter mile from the ocean in 1936. She called it the Hurley Bell, a name based on the original inn’s location in Hurley-on-Thames.
The incongruous Tudor building stood as a lone sentinel on the relatively new Pacific Coast Highway in an otherwise undeveloped part of the village. It served as a home for the mother and daughter for four years before being leased to Bruce Warren and his business partner, Shelton McHenry – the same Shelton McHenry whose Tail O’ the Cock competed with Lawry’s the Prime Rib on Beverly Hills’ Restaurant Row.
McHenry’s L.A. operation lasted forty years; the new Corona del Mar version closed after only three when the partners split up over McHenry’s objections to Warren’s arranging for “interested” restaurant guests to gamble in secret.
Tillie and Marguerite moved back in, revived the Hurley Bell name and ran it as an inn with guest rooms and a restaurant serving breakfast and dinner. It soon became a hideaway for Hollywood stars and their playmates. Lana Turner, Ava Gardner, Bette Davis and couples like Howard Hughes and Rita Hayworth, as well as Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, all provided fodder for the local gossip mill.
There was nothing like it in Southern California
After Tillie died in 1948, Marguerite felt burdened running the inn, calling it “a real nightmare.” She leased the place to a succession of entrepreneurs who all failed to make a go of it. The Hurley Bell suffered a steep decline and was even rumored to traffic in “unsavory behavior” in its bedrooms. By the mid-1960s, it was time to sell.
The moment couldn’t have been better for Richard to step in. He’d been seeking a way for Lawry’s Restaurants to enter the Orange County market.
The Hurley Bell was made to order, but in its dilapidated condition, it took a year to convert the building into the fanciful, fun Tom Jones era English country inn he envisioned. Prime Rib co-founder Walter Van de Kamp suggested a new name for the place, one that reflected its being the company’s fifth restaurant and the “real jewel in our crown.”
A New Tradition Begins
Five Crowns opened in 1965. There was nothing like it in Southern California. From the authentic antiques and artifacts to the “serving wench” costumes and the “Bille of Fare at Dinner” menu, every detail transported guests to another time and place.
The area boomed in the seventies and Five Crowns earned a national reputation as an award-winning fine dining restaurant. Server costumes and service style changed through the years, but a tradition of warm hospitality and excellence created a loyal clientele.
While Tillie MacCulloch’s original building remains much the same on the outside, renovations like the upstairs dining rooms, the Greenhouse and the garden patio are just a few examples of changes that have kept the restaurant fresh and appealing for a half a century. In 2010, the bar was transformed into Orange County’s first and most popular gastropub, SideDoor.
Today, Five Crowns looks forward to a vibrant future while remaining always mindful of its unique heritage as Lawry’s Restaurants’ jewel by the sea.
3801 East Coast Hwy, Corona del Mar, CA 92625