Retorts: They built it, and we showed up

AT STEELCRAFT (left to right), Marilyn, Dianne and Erin (Orange County Tribune photo).

What’s more of a cliché than “If you build it, they will come”?

It’s difficult to find one, but sometimes clichés have an element of truth to them. Case in point, the SteelCraft urban outdoor eatery (or open-air food hall, or whatever else you want to call it) now open on Euclid Street in Garden Grove’s nascent downtown area.

We’ve reviewed this development from a food standpoint – very good, if a little pricey – before, but what is striking now is the role it’s playing in community life.

City officials have previously spoken about the desire to turn the Big Strawberry’s downtown into a “living room” where people gather for entertainment, food, drink and camaraderie.

If that’s so, then SteelCraft is one of walls of that living room, the one with the fireplace and the comfy chairs that people are drawn to. I’m speaking symbolically here – there’s no fireplace, yet – but the principle applies.

With its barn-like covered common area, the big screen TV and stage, and the wide variety of sitting and chatting options, this is a place that is drawing folks from all over Garden Grove and beyond.

Marilyn and I have been back to SteelCraft five or six times since it opened, and on each occasion, we’ve run into someone we know. This doesn’t just include the folks at the Ralphs or Target from the neighborhood.  These are people who live across town or even in another city. It’s people who used to live in Garden Grove but came back for a look and were impressed. It’s people who you haven’t seen in years.

We’ve waved at – or sat down with – city councilmembers, old school chums, the “usual suspects” community activists, visitors from out-of-town and much more.

The design and ambiance of the place has challenged the city’s reputation as nice-but-nothing special with its originality and potential for human interaction.

To me, though, the key point here is “what have we learned from this?”  How does the experience of this one development serve as a useful influence going forward?

DINING under the trees at SteelCraft in Garden Grove.

The first thought that occurs to me is that different is good. Like many other suburban cities, we have our shares of Wendy’s, Walmarts and Toyota dealerships. There’s nothing wrong with that, those businesses fill a need in the community, but do not lend it character that make it feel special or which would attract outsiders to feel that way.

A couple of weeks ago, we brought my close friend Dianne and her daughter Erin to SteelCraft. They are both former residents of Garden Grove and now live in Huntington Beach (technically; Erin has a place in New York City for the time being because of her work at the United Nations, no kidding).

They were both impressed and delighted. So much so, that they drove back by themselves the very next night for tacos and more. They’ll be back again. Pretty nice validation, I thought.

The second thing is that people really do crave community. You can hide in your booth at some restaurants – I’ve done it, plenty – but at a place like SteelCraft you end up being drawn into conversations with other folks as their dog goes barking by or you need advice on what to order.

With an audience of all races, ages, ethnicities and canine breeds, this is the sort of place to feel like you can make new friends, belong, and people-watch to your hearts’ content. No wonder more businesses are dreaming of moving nearby.

The long-delayed Cottage Industries project a couple of blocks east could offer another boost to the downtown area’s new cozy quirkiness. There are signs that the nearby historic Main Street is becoming a hipper and heartier location.

Downtown was nearly ruined with overzealous bulldozing two generations ago. Most of the city’s original core was knocked down, but now we can see it building it up again. A cliché is becoming a happy reality.

Retorts appears on alternate Wednesdays. And no, Jim does not own stock in SteelCraft.


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