Grandmother June was what people call a giver. There wasn’t a moment she was around where she wasn’t baking something to gift, pressing a dollar bill into my tiny hand, or scouring her cupboards for something to send a visitor off with, even if it was just a 20% off coupon for the department store. If she was breathing, she was giving. I didn’t think much about it until she wasn’t anymore. It’s funny how life works that way, we don’t notice things until we lose them. Fresh baked cookies, dollar bills, and coupons suddenly held more value.
When I was a boy, Grandma June took me to lunch every Sunday. I was her only grandchild, and she was a lonely woman, so she treasured these outings. So did my mother, as it was her break from me.
We always went to the same restaurant. A small fixture backed against the bay, with striped awnings. It was called The Blue Mermaid. It was known for its mesmeric blue milkshakes, which did things to your bowels the next day that I won’t mention here.
The owner, Dan, was a plump man, who doubled as a cook when they were short staffed. He wore one of those white diner hats, like they wore in the 50’s. I was convinced he wore it to cover the balding spot on his head, which would only be revealed if the restaurant was a bit too busy. He would take it off and fold it in his hands, as if to air his frustrations. He wore a matching white apron, which was always stained with the remnants of the day’s special. He wore it with pride, waving proudly at the sight of my grandmother, whom I’m sure was one of his favorite customers. Grandma June had that effect on people. She made them feel appreciated simply for existing.
The Blue Mermaid was a second home to me. The regulars were distant family members. Every Sunday, Grandma June would give me a few quarters to pop in the arcade cabinets that stood at the windows up front. I would battle my way through the pixeled worlds while she gathered that week’s gossip from the other patrons. I got particularly good at the games. I can’t remember what they were called, or I’d try to find them. I’d be interested to see if the skill stayed with me after all these years.
Once I’d run out of quarters and Grandma June had run out of scandals, we’d find our seats in one of the booths that lined the perimeter. They were blue, and the menus had a mermaid swimming across the top. After a point, I stopped looking at the menu. Grams only let me order off the kids’ menu, despite my protests, and there were only but so many options.
I especially enjoyed when we made it in time for breakfast. Dan would make me his “mermaid” pancakes, which had a bright blue frosting and sprinkles showered on top. Grandma June made me promise not to tell my mother she’d let me have so much sugar when I ordered that. My forbidden pancakes easily were my favorite part of The Blue Mermaid.
When Grandma June passed, my visits to The Blue Mermaid stopped abruptly. I begged my mother to take me back for nostalgia’s sake, and she gave in, once. But it felt strange going there without her, as if I was facing the inconceivable truth that she was no longer with us.
I told myself that when I was older and had kids of my own, I would take them there every Sunday, just as Grandma June had. I would feed them blue milkshakes and laugh when they discovered they were shitting green the next morning. I would carry quarters for the old arcade games. I would let them have pancakes with blue frosting and a mountain of sprinkles, but only if they promised they wouldn’t tell their mother.
Unfortunately, I wouldn’t get that opportunity. The Blue Mermaid’s death followed my grandmothers. It closed its doors after a scathing review from a tourist. A food critic who had no concept of the value a place like The Blue Mermaid carried for the natives. That review manipulated the perception of all those after it. It turned away business of travelers that passed through the area, which paid Dan’s rent. It brought the attention of the city itself to the Blue Mermaid, and they gave Dan an offer he couldn’t refuse: to close the doors of The Blue Mermaid to make way for a more ‘modern fit’. It was replaced by a brewery that served finger foods on the water. It raised from the ashes of The Blue Mermaid in a matter of months, like a phoenix, fresh and new. I won’t judge the place. I’ve never been inside. It feels like a betrayal to Grandma June and everything her memory stands for.
To Go, Or Not To Go: Santa Ana
The Blue Mermaid
Don’t let the name fool you. The Blue Mermaid isn’t a pretty one. I arrived with expectations of a burger on the bay and left with regrets that would follow me, long after I crossed its peeling blue threshold.
The cook, a man who looks like he’s had far too many of the blue milkshakes, appeared as if he’d jumped straight out of the film Grease and then rolled in some actual grease. Once he realized I was going to leave a lengthy review, he offered a serving of “mermaid pancakes” on the house. If you don’t know what mermaid pancakes are (because I surely didn’t), it’s enough to put you in a diabetic coma, pancakes smeared with food colored frosting. Who would ever?
I asked for a glass of wine to wash down the overcooked burger and sugar, and I was brought a glass of house wine. When I specified that I’d like something more suitable to my tastes, I was told that they didn’t “have a wine selection”. The house was all they had to offer.
As if the experience with the food and the subpar staff weren’t enough to make me never look back, I must comment on the views. The booths, which are bursting from years of abuse, are crammed so close together that I had a front row seat to the arcade cabinets shoved against the window. Because nothing makes a meal less enjoyable than having to watch a child loudly jam a machine that is visibly crusted with crumbs and ketchup residue.
Even after I’d drawn some distance from myself and this experience, my woes were far from over. It wasn’t long after that I realized I contracted food poisoning from the establishment. Although there’s no telling which angle it came from, the food itself, the owner who didn’t wash his hands once while I was there, or the tables smeared with the meal of the last customer. My advice to the health department is to give this place a long and hard look. My advice to the tourists’ visiting Santa Ana is to spend your hard-earned money elsewhere. The Blue Mermaid may sound enticing with its location on the water, but it’s only a waste of a good plot of land.
Travel Blogger and Expert Food Critic