Clams at The Cellar in San Clemente. (Photo by Cindy Yamanaka, OC Register)
“How long do you think the wait will be for a party of four on Friday night?”
The Cellar in San Clemente doesn’t take reservations, so I call to ask about the wait. “If you get here after 7, the wait can get pretty long,” says the voice on the other end of the phone. “People often camp out for the music, which starts at 7. And if you show up even later, say, 8, you might end up waiting more than an hour.”
I call some friends who live in the neighborhood and ask them to meet me at The Cellar at 6. “I think we should get there earlier than that,” they respond. “Let’s aim for 5.”
Five o’clock seems more like lunch than dinner to me, but I go along with the plan, trusting these friends know what they’re talking about. When I arrive promptly on Friday afternoon, I’m expecting to see an empty dining room, but I’m both shocked and relieved to see The Cellar already abuzz with activity. Every table along the banquette has already been commandeered, and there’s not a single unoccupied stool at the bar, which is mobbed with a two-deep line waiting to order drinks. A waitress squeezes through the crowd carrying a flight of red wines. Another waitress trails behind, carrying a long cutting board topped with an oblong pizza in one hand and a beautiful cheese platter in the other. My party is already ensconced at the end of one of the tall communal tables, and it looks like they’ve saved the last remaining stool for me. They’ve already ordered a huge basket of truffle and Parmesan popcorn, which is cooked to order on the stovetop. It’s still warm, and the basket is large enough that we don’t have to take turns reaching for a handful. We all attack it at once.