From: Vol. 6, Issue 1, January 4-10, 2008

By Jonathan Volzke

The Capistrano Dispatch

Owners promise to rebuild Dana Point Harbor favorite

Steve Zdrakas didn’t let the fire that gutted the family-owned Proud Mary’s Restaurant stop him from serving his customers: As would-be patrons began to arrive Sunday morning just hours after firefighters doused the flames, Zdrakas had donuts on hand for anyone who was hungry.

“We’d just like to thank our customers for all of their support and ask them to bear with us,” Zdrakas, of San Juan Capistrano, said Sunday. He’d gotten a phone call from authorities about 7:30 p.m. Saturday alerting him of the fire at the Dana Point eatery, which he bought more than two years ago with his son, Nick; daughter, Stephanie and her husband, Ben Roberts.

Zdrakas, who also owns Ballpark Pizza in town, said he was impressed at the line of fire engines in the harbor when he arrived. Flames were confined to Proud Mary’s. The fire caused more than $1 million damage and is believed to have started with rags left on top of a dryer in the restaurant office.

The restaurant, opened in 1977 by namesake Mary Merrill, was closed when the fire started and no one was injured.The owners gathered Sunday morning to sift through the rubble. The ceiling fans were melted, photographs by a local artist on the charred walls were destroyed, the new carpet covered with sooty mush. “This stove is a week old,” Zdrakas said in the kitchen. The heat of the fire turned a rack of fresh bread into toast. An acrid smell hung in the air.

Among would-be customers who arrived unaware of the blaze were Eric and Velva Berger of San Clemente. The Bergers have been eating at Proud Mary’s every weekend for so many years that a key in the cash register is programmed for Eric Berger’s favorite breakfast: a three-egg sandwich on toasted sourdough with a slab of onion in the middle.“It just feels like home here,” Velva Berger said. “We’ve very sad about the fire.”

Those sentiments were expressed again and again as regulars showed up for Sunday morning breakfast, only to gasp when they saw the burnt-out wreckage of their favorite spot.

John Trepl of Dana Point was taking photos. He is another 10-year customer, and Proud Mary’s was a regular breakfast spot “because of the setting, the view, the absolute serenity,” Trepl said. “They always remembered my name. Mary knew, always knew it. Nick always knew it.”

Trepl said he’s moved out the area a few times over the last decade but always returned. And he always returned to Proud Mary’s. “It’s like this place has always been here,” he said. “I felt like I was at home.”

The county is working on a plan to rebuild the shops and restaurants in much of Dana Point Harbor, but Zdrakas said the wing of buildings housing Proud Mary’s is not part of the plans, so getting the restaurant reopened should move quickly and smoothly.

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