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Commission approves new restaurant at White House, music at Harley, new fine art shop

By SARA HALL

In a trio of hearings this week, a city commission approved launching a new restaurant for the historic White House location, adding live music to another downtown restaurant Harley Laguna Beach, and establishing a unique new fine art gallery.

The Planning Commission voted unanimously on all three items at the meeting Wednesday (September 15) with enthusiastic support for each application. 

The most notable conditional use permit on the agenda was for a restaurant with the service of alcohol, increased seating, outdoor seating, and a 34 percent historic parking reduction at 300-340 South Coast Hwy (formerly the White House Restaurant). The item also included approval of a coastal development permit. 

Commissioners were very supportive of the new restaurant (which will very likely still maintain “White House” somehow in its name) and renovation of the building.

Chair Pro Tem Jorg Dubin noted the long history of White House in Laguna Beach.

“I’ve been in town for 45 years and I’ve broken a few cocktail glasses in that place over that time,” he joked. 

It’s been tired for many years and it’s exciting to see the building get restored and become vibrant again, he agreed with his fellow commissioners. 

“I applaud the effort and we’re all looking forward to seeing that happen,” Dubin said. “It is a prime, front row, center location in town and it’s always a shame to see a place like that just sort of linger, and the more that we can get those places revitalized it’s going to be a plus for the whole community.”

Commissioner Susan Whitin agreed and wholeheartedly support the project.

“It’s a bonus that you’re renovating or restoring the entire exterior, not just…the White House piece, but the entire exterior,” Whitin said. “That is a real gift to the city.”

The property has a 6,600-square-foot, four-unit commercial building that was constructed in 1915. Current tenants include Crazy Shirts, Carats Jewelry Store, the White House Restaurant (closed), and an upstairs office.

Project includes updating/repairing the exterior of the building, enlarging the existing dining patio, and exterior modifications to the K-rated structure listed on the city’s Historic Register. A variance to exceed the maximum building height allowed was also approved to make room for rooftop equipment. 

Commission Mary Hurlbut

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

The currently closed White House restaurant in Laguna Beach

The applicant proposes to establish a full-service restaurant and bar with a total of 143 seats. 

The tenant currently operates other restaurants in the region under the name “Finney’s Crafthouse” in Westlake Village, Santa Barbara, Ventura, San Luis Obispo, Burbank, and Porter Ranch.

Although these restaurants share the same name, staff believes that each restaurant has a unique presentation and does not take a formulaic or mass market approach; therefore, the proposed restaurant and existing restaurants are not classified as formula-based businesses.

The proposed menu features more than 50 made-from-scratch favorites, including shareable appetizers, gourmet salads, tacos, flatbread pizzas, signature burgers, sandwiches, and steaks. The applicant also proposes to feature rotated craft and locally sourced beer on tap. Prices range from about $9-$14 for starters to $10-$15 for salads, tacos, pizza, wings, sandwiches, and burgers. 

Hours of operation will be from 7 a.m. to 1:30 a.m. daily. Live entertainment was not proposed at this time.

According to city staff, the seat count will increase quite a bit from the previously allowed 90 seats. The applicant indicates that the previous White House restaurant had a similar number of seats, however, city records note that the restaurant was only allowed a maximum of 90 seats.

Local architect Morris Skenderian clarified that the size of building is not increasing, the floor area is still 4,789 square feet. 

However, when they counted, the restaurant had 132 seats plus the dance floor, which will be removed to become an ADA bathroom. So, 143 seats are not much more than the previous tenant.

“It’s a practical increase of 11 seats,” Skenderian said, “so you’re not going to see any physical difference.”

The other key point of discussion was the variance for the rooftop equipment. The new exhaust fan and a make-up air fan will exceed the maximum 18-foot height limit in the downtown.

They are removing a large shed and exhaust and replacing it with smaller equipment, Skenderian explained.

“We’re taking out more than we’re putting back,” he said. 

They also moved the exhaust to the side several feet so it will be a lot less visible and hidden from view from Park Avenue.

Plans for signage and the full name will return to the commission at a later date. Although it will likely be Finney’s at the White House or Finney’s White House.

“But the main White House will stay with the project in some form and visible signage from Coast Highway,” Skenderian said.

The cocktail sign will also remain visible. 

Commission historic

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Courtesy of City of LB/Tom Pulley Postcard Collection

Historic photos of the White House restaurant and building

Keeping the White House name in some way was important, noted Jules Marine, whose father bought the White House in 1959 and ran it through the 1950s and 1960s. 

At the time, it was the place to be, he said. His father later sold the business, but kept the land, explained Marine, who worked at the restaurant as a busboy and dishwasher when he was a teen.

“This is kind of like the jewel of our family properties,” Marine said. 

The former owner and operator had been there for nearly 40 years, Marine said. It started to go downhill, basically turning into a dive bar, he stated.

It closed just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

“The building definitely needs some new blood and we’ve got a terrific tenant,” Marine said. “I think we can restore it back to its glory days.”

Finney’s specializes in older buildings, Marine said, with three of their locations more than 100 years old.

“They want to do the same thing to the White House as they’ve done to their other properties, and that is to show off all the architectural elements,” Marine said.

Plans include bring back the brick walls back, open up the ceiling and the doors, he said. 

“White House means a lot to me,” Marine said. “I would like to see a super dynamic restaurant there.”

It will be a wonderful asset to Laguna Beach, he added. 

Finney’s will also appeal to local residents during the months without tourists, Marine said. While menu prices do fluctuate, he has no doubt it will be successful in Laguna Beach.

Commission renderings

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Courtesy of City of LB/Morris Skenderian and Associates

A rendering of the proposed restaurant at the White House location

Commissioners agreed that the structure is in dire need of restoration.

The building needs a lot of work, agreed Commissioner Steve Kellenberg. It has decades worth of accumulated wires and pipes, he noted. 

“It’s really a strategic location downtown and it really needs to be alive, the building’s really tired,” Kellenberg said. “It needs a serious refresh, so I think this is great.”

The vibe of the place is great, he added. 

Pushing the wall back and extending the patio will really make a difference, Kellenberg said.

The expanded patio will be a nice feature, agreed Commissioner Ken Sadler. 

“It all looks very good to me,” Sadler said, adding that he hopes the rehabilitation of the building is successful.

Commission Harley's

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Courtesy of City of LB

The performance area at Harley Laguna Beach for the newly approved live music

Also on the Planning Commission’s agenda on Wednesday was an amendment for a CUP for another downtown restaurant. 

Harley Laguna Beach requested adding live music at its location at 370 Glenneyre St. The commission unanimously approved the application. 

Doors and windows will remain closed during live performances. Up to four musicians would be allowed to play daily.

Harley chef and owner Greg Daniels said he’s happy with the staff recommendation.

“I am not trying to push any boundaries by turning this into a live music venue by any means, I’m just looking to accompany the dining experience,” Daniels said. 

They haven’t been able to get the late-night clientele they were looking for when they first opened in 2018, he explained. They cut hours in an effort to control costs, he explained, especially during the pandemic.

“This is an attempt to add an experience to the restaurant that drives more guests,” and create another revenue stream, Daniels said. 

Sadler, who provided the lighthearted disclosure that he loves the restaurant’s fried chicken, said Harley Laguna Beach did a lot to help out locally during the pandemic while they were also struggling.

Dubin likened it to a place where people can go for an after-dinner cocktail and enjoy the music.

“That part of town could use a little livening up, in terms of its nighttime presence,” he said. 

As a musician himself, Dubin said it’s great to have another local place for musicians to perform.

Daniels said he was fine with the 1 a.m. closing, as opposed to the requested 2 a.m. the ABC license allows. 

“There’s not much that happens after 1 a.m. that I want to be part of in the bar and restaurant industry,” Daniels noted. 

Commissioners unanimously supported the modified 1 a.m. closing time and liked the idea of the annual review of the live entertainment portion. 

If there are a lot of complaints or any problems with the later time or loud music, staff will hear about it and review the permit, Whitin noted. 

“It fits a niche, both geographically and in terms of a cultural music niche for a segment of our population,” that would specifically enjoy this type of entertainment, Kellenberg said. 

Commission fine art

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Courtesy of City of LB/Suzanne Barber/Gianne de Genevraye/Crystal Lockwood

Art from (left to right) Suzanne Barber, Gianne de Genevraye, and Crystal Lockwood will all be featured at the new gallery

Earlier in the meeting, commissioners also unanimously approved a CUP to establish and operate a fine art gallery at 206 North Coast Hwy (previously Lagona Apothecary). 

The artist-owned and operated gallery will feature Suzanne Barber and a few other local complementary artists. Original works only, including painting and sculptures, will be displayed. 

It will be her first foray into gallery ownership for Barber, currently the gallery director at Signature Gallery on Forest Avenue.

The artwork will be staged with furniture vignettes. 

“This unique presentation would give potential customers an opportunity to visualize the artwork in their homes and may also prompt interior design conversations,” Viera said. 

The guest will be able to “see and feel” what it would be like for the art to be in their own home, Barber added. 

The interior designer’s services would also be offered to customers but would not be on-site. 

Commissioners liked the interactive use of the space, calling it entertainment retail, that it’s a good use of the location, and that it there’s no intensification of use. Whitin said she also liked that it’s a collaborative group of local women.

 

Shaena Stabler, President & CEO - Shaena@StuNewsLaguna.com

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