For many years, The Arches restaurant in Newport Beach claimed they opened in 1922. That’s wrong. The Arches opened in 1926.
They also claimed to be the oldest restaurant in Orange County. That would be tough to prove, but it might actually be true. Interestingly, I can’t find anybody else on line who claims to be older, and usually you’ll get lots of people trying to be the first, or the oldest, or the biggest, or any adjective they can find.
The Arches started out as a service station and restaurant. Construction began in 1925, the same year the Coast Highway opened up from Huntington Beach to Newport Beach.
Frank Vilelle (1860-1945) bought the corner there in January 1925. He was born in France and came to the U.S. in 1892. His father was born in Spain. Incidentally, there is still a street in Newport Beach called Vilelle Place, where he lived.
Frank’s son, John Vilelle (1897-1981) built The Arches. Originally he had a partner named James Sturgeon, but he didn’t stay around that long. Vilelle & Sturgeon ran the gas station, and their wives, Fern Vilelle and Anna Sturgeon ran the restaurant.
The Arches was named in a contest. They took out ads in the newspapers asking for suggestions. Their ad in the Balboa Times for April 22, 1926 asks:
“What’s in a Name?”
“We used so many ideas in designing and building our new $25,000.00 filling station and restaurant that we were entirely out of ideas when it came to giving the place a name,” the ad continues. So they were looking for ideas -- no more than three words. Then the ad explained:
“What The Name Must Express.”
“First the name should suggest that we have complete equipment and supplies for servicing the motorist.
“Second the name should suggest that this is the most elaborate service station and that the restaurant is one of the best on the Pacific Coast.
“Third the name should suggest that every convenience is at hand for the motorist to be served, to rest and to refresh himself.”
Finally, they suggested that people drive down and see the place for themselves. The winner would receive a Goodrich tire; nine others could have their choice of a tank of gas, a can of oil, or dinner for two at the restaurant, which, according to the ad, specialized in “a la carte orders.”
In May, 1926 they picked a winner – Victor Chatten. He was only 10 years old, which may explain why they gave him $5 instead the tire. That would have probably bought several dinners at the restaurant.
The name comes from the Mediterranean style of the original buildings, with arches and red tile roofs. Many people assume it was named for the Newport Boulevard bridge over the Coast Highway, but it was the other way around. The bridge wasn’t built until the 1936. Before that, the corner there where Newport Boulevard (now Old Newport) crossed the Coast Highway was considered one of the most dangerous intersections in the county. But, of course, a busy intersection meant a good location for The Arches.
The bridge and the area around it came to known as The Arches because of the gas station. By about 1930, you already see it being used as a place name. In fact there were other businesses that used the name, including the Arches Motel at 224 Newport Blvd. There was also a second Arches service station in Corona del Mar in the 1930s.
The service station sat at an angle, so drivers could enter from either Coast Highway or Newport Blvd. The office was in the center, with two arches on either side that led to the gas pumps. The whole building was 20 x 82 feet. It was torn down in 1969, and the market covers part of the site today.
The restaurant was next door, along the Coast Highway. It does look like at least parts of it still stand. The original building was 44 x 34; then in 1936, a 25 x 30 foot addition was built on the east side. The current façade, with its brick fireplace and short round turret seems to have been built in the 1960s.
The restaurant seems to have started out as your basic roadside diner, but the menu grew over the years. Not long after prohibition ended in 1933, Johnny Vilelle got a liquor license, and started serving cocktails. An ad from 1941 brags, “Featuring unexcelled Steak Dinners and Good Coffee. Cocktail Bar in connection.” In 1949 Vilelle advertised “Steak, Chicken, Lobster in Season, Cocktails.” By the early 1970s, The Arches was being touted for its French food, and – if the old Orange County Illustrated magazine is to be believed – the bar had a reputation as a place for “swingers.”
The Arches was owned by the Vilelle family until at least the 1950s, and maybe longer. It was run by other chefs in more recent years, closed briefly for remodeling, and reopened as A Restaurant in 2008. (One of the former tenants claimed ownership of the name, and the new owners didn’t want to fight about it.) It remains a popular Newport Beach night spot.