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Council approves Crafthouse restaurant at former White House location


In a split vote, a majority of City Council approved new restaurant plans for the historic former White House location in downtown. 

Council voted 3-2 on Tuesday, Oct. 19 to move forward with the planned restaurant at 300-340 South Coast Highway. Councilmembers Toni Iseman and George Weiss dissented.

Finney’s Crafthouse will include the service of alcohol and outdoor seating. There will not be live entertainment and, after a discussion and modification by council, the restaurant will close at midnight. 

Plans include 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 folding door will be installed between the dining and patio areas. 

A variance to exceed the maximum building height allowed was also approved to make room for rooftop equipment, which was moved out of public view. New skylights were also approved.

Finney’s operators like to buy and restore old buildings, said White House property owner Jules Marine, noting that at least three other locations are more than 100 years old. 

“It’s going to be a wonderful project for Laguna Beach,” Marine said. 

Most of Tuesday’s discussion revolved around the hours, location of trash containers, the seating count and parking.

Mayor Bob Whalen made a recommendation, which was later worked into the approved motion, to set the closing hour at midnight (as opposed to the 1:30 a.m. requested in the application), a maximum of 120 seats (compared to the requested 143), and that the property owner obtain an agreement with the county to continue use of the library space for trash containers. If the agreement cannot be maintained, the applicant shall be responsible for constructing a new trash enclosure on-site or entering into a new agreement for storage of trash.

Council approves crafthouse rendering

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Courtesy of the City of Laguna Beach/Morris Skenderian and Associates

A rendering of the proposed restaurant at the White House location

They’ve been in touch with the county for assurances that the restaurant (along with the retail on the property) will be able to continue to use the library space for trash containers. 

Trash containers have been located by the library for about 40 years for use by the White House, the library and Forest Avenue shops because there’s no other place to put it, Marine said. Although there’s no written contract yet, it’s been grandfathered in over the years, Marine is currently working on an agreement with the county.

Hours were originally suggested from 7 a.m. until 1:30 a.m. Most councilmembers agreed they didn’t want the restaurant and bar open that late.

“I think we’re making a mistake (allowing the late hours),” Iseman said. 

She later noted the number of drunk driving cases in town.

“That comes with business,” Marine said. “If you don’t want any problems in town, close up all the businesses and there’ll be no traffic, there’ll be nothing. But if you want to have a vibrant town, you’ve got to have people in here and there’s going to be noise, it just comes with it.”

The midnight hours are acceptable, said local architect Morris Skenderian, noting that it usually takes restaurant staff about an hour to clean and close everything down.

There likely wouldn’t be much business after midnight anyway, since Laguna pretty much closes up by then, Marine agreed.

Both Iseman and Weiss were also not comfortable with the number of seats and thought the tenant should have been available to speak during the meeting. They also mentioned parking and the type of restaurant Finney’s is as reasons for their no vote. 

“I think you’re asking for too much in terms of intensification of use,” Weiss said. 

The applicant indicates that the previous White House restaurant had a similar number of seats compared to their requested 143, however, city records note that the restaurant was only allowed a maximum of 90 seats.

Weiss questioned why the tenant isn’t keeping it at the city’s previously recorded 90 seats. There’s no official documentation more than that, he noted. 

The White House has historically operated with 135-145 seats, Skenderian said. They even have the old seating plan, he added. 

“We counted seats before we demoed,” he said. “We’re going to have about the same amount of seats.” 

For some reason, the old occupancy permit was for 90 seats, Skenderian noted, but how that was calculated was not explained. The restaurant previously occupied the entire building, he pointed out. 

“That’s what’s so baffling about the limitation of 90. The restaurant has gotten smaller over the years,” with retail being added upstairs, Skenderian said. “It’s not going to operate any more intensely than it did (in the past).”

They asked for 143 seats now because the dance floor and music stage will be gone, replaced with ADA bathrooms, storage, an exit path out the rear door and seating. Square footage is actually getting smaller because space in the back has to be dedicated for utilities and a few other smaller items, he said.

“We’re not intensifying, we’re de-intensifying,” Skenderian said. 

They can compromise to the 120 and hope to come back at some time in the future for the increase, he said. 

Council approves crafthouse White House

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

The currently closed White House restaurant in Laguna Beach

Councilmember Peter Blake also called the project a “de-intensification” of use. It’s going from a nightclub with live music and people “pseudo dancing” into a restaurant, he explained. 

“It’s not going to be nearly as rowdy,” he said. 

Previously, most of the revenue came from alcohol, not food, Blake said, so removing the nightclub/bar element means they need all the proposed seats in order to keep up revenue. But it will be quieter, he added, since the use will be so different. 

“You’re actually coming in with a much better project than when it was the White House,” Blake said. 

It’s a full-service restaurant, which typically means there will be wait staff serving the patrons, but they may offer a variation in service options, meaning guests could order at the bar or order for take-out. Marine visited five of the other Finney’s locations, all of which were sit-down restaurants with wait staff. 

It’s a California casual, American tavern restaurant, Skenderian explained. It’s not fine dining, he clarified. 

The cost-effective menu will be appealing to both residents and locals, Marine added. 

Planning Commissioners unanimously supported the project on September 15, recommending that council approve the required conditional use and coastal development permits for the new restaurant. 

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. 

They want to see the White House restored, Weiss said, and Skenderian has traditionally done a great job on projects like this, but it looks like fast-casual dining. That can have negative impacts on the neighborhood, he said.

Employees will likely be parked in the neighborhoods, causing more grief for residents in an already intense areas, Iseman said. 

Both Iseman and Weiss commented that the 120 seats was still too high. It seems to be an intensification of use that will be busy and noisy, Weiss said. 

“That’s what you want, I’m not sure that’s what everyone wants,” Weiss said. 

People waiting in line for a business or restaurant is not a problem, Marine said, responding to some criticism of possible negative neighborhood impacts. 

“Laguna Beach needs a shot in the arm,” he said. “Laguna Beach, right now, needs some noise, right? It needs some people…You want 143 seats; you don’t want to limit it. You want a big restaurant; you want people to come into this town.”

Although that’s not exactly how Iseman saw it. It’s a difficult discussion, she said, because of the different values and priorities. She’s excited about a successful restaurant opening in the location, but there needs to be compromise, she said, and she’s not hearing any give and take.

Marine said he was willing to work with the city and asked for suggestions. 

“You need us and we would like to welcome you,” Iseman said. “But we don’t need a restaurant that doesn’t provide a location for its own trash. We don’t need a restaurant that will stay open until 1:30 (a.m.) A restaurant that has no place to park its employees. It’s a problem.”

People are excited about the White House reopening, but concerned that its replacement is a chain restaurant.

She also suggested live music be added, although not everyone on the dais liked that idea. The location has historically had music, Iseman pointed out, and a gallery or something would be a nice way to honor some of the musicians who have played there over the years. 

They are currently acquiring historical photos of the White House for a wall of photos and history, Marine confirmed. 

While the final motion didn’t include live entertainment, it did include fewer seats, shorter hours of business, and a commitment to obtain an agreement with the county regarding use of the trash containers on the library property. While the motion ultimately passed, the council was still split on the project.

“I just don’t know why you’re trying to stifle business in town,” Marine said. “It seems like it’s an uphill battle. With so many vacant restaurants right now, we need to get a restaurant in here.”


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