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Laguna Beach restaurateurs chime in on biggest challenges

By Diane Armitage

In the last two weeks, I’ve written about restaurant growth, changes, and trends over the last decade in Laguna Beach.

Local restaurateurs have found themselves facing significant changes and trends in the last decade at both state and local levels. As a result, net profitability is shrinking, leaving owners to grapple with finding new solutions or closing their doors. 

In this third and last column, a few well-known restaurant owners note the biggest challenges – and wins – as restaurateurs in Laguna Beach. 

It was an education for me. Despite the close work I do with restaurants, their candid responses heightened my respect for these individuals who still have a sense of humor and an unrelenting passion for serving their patrons in Laguna Beach. 

Here’s where they’re feeling the greatest impact: 

Minimum wage increases aren’t so ‘minimum’

“The minimum wage has gone up every year for the last three years,” said Chef Rainer Schwarz of The Deck and Driftwood Kitchen. “It only goes up a dollar or so each year, which doesn’t seem like a lot, but I have over 250 employees and that really makes an impact.

laguna beach rainer

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Photo by Diane Armitage

Rainer Schwarz, co-owner The Deck Laguna and Driftwood, and Hendrix in Ocean Ranch

“In places like San Francisco, the restaurateurs are adding a new line item in each dining bill to help offset employee costs, but – in my opinion – you can’t pass this on to your customers,” continued Schwarz. 

“They say, ‘This is your problem, it’s not my problem,’ and I understand that thinking.”

Added Schwarz, “We see the shift to counter service happening in an attempt to reduce one’s cost of employees. But our Laguna Beach residents are established in a prosperous town – they love eating out, and they like the full dining experience. 

“Bottom line…we do what our patrons prefer, especially when our success relies so heavily on our locals frequenting our restaurants year-round. So, we have to look at other ways to keep afloat and, hopefully, profitable.”

Minimum wage spawns larger pool of costs

“Each time the minimum wage goes up, it’s exponential,” said Chef Owner Cary Redfearn of Lumberyard and Slice Pizza and Beer. “I want my servers and bartenders to be able to work as many hours as possible. I’ll gladly pay for that consistency in service, and I’m happy to provide more income to them. 

laguna beach cary

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Photo by Diane Armitage

Cary Redfearn, owner, Lumberyard & Slice Pizza and Beer

“But, as their hours go up, we edge into overtime, and that takes minimum wage from about $12 to over $19 an hour. That’s just not sustainable. And, as the payroll total goes up, workers’ comp payments go up, too.

“We’re also one of just six or seven states remaining that won’t allow us to count tips toward wages, but we are required to count tips when it comes to taxes. So, my employees pay taxes on their tips and we, as restaurateurs, also pay tax on those same tips.

“In a world where the price of everything is going up, you just try to find solutions to keep it balanced and viable,” continued Redfearn. 

“But there are a lot of unintended consequences that haven’t really been thought out, and that’s forcing more chefs and owners to close their doors.” 

Rising rents and lease factors

“The biggest change we’ve seen since we’ve been in Laguna as Wine Gallery is the rise in minimum wage and the rent increases,” said Chris Olsen, founder and co-owner of Wine Gallery Laguna Beach.

laguna beach chris

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Chris Olsen, co-owner, Wine Gallery Laguna Beach

“As an example, the building we are in was sold. Even though our lease was protected, it ultimately increased our monthly nut because of the new property taxes and the required tenants’ share of that tax on our triple-net leases. 

“The growing industry of third-party delivery has made an impact, too,” added Olsen. “Although we have more orders happening with Uber Eats and such, patrons are obviously not coming into the restaurant where they might also order an appetizer or a couple of drinks.”

Added Sharon Haron of long-standing The Cliff, “My Dad built our restaurant from the ground up and, when he opened in 1980, the rent was reasonable. The rent, though, goes up every year, and the last 10 years have been absolutely dramatic. It’s a leaps and bounds kind of thing.”

“My kingdom for a dishwasher”

“A dishwasher is the most important person in our kitchens now,” said Chef Owner Maro Molteni of Royal Hawaiian Fire Grill with a laugh. 

laguna beach maro

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Photo by Diane Armitage

Maro Molteni, co-owner Royal Hawaiian Grill (right), with co-owner and brother Martin

“Most of the line cooks and dishwashers working in Laguna can’t afford to live here, so they choose to drive here from places like Santa Ana…and that choice is usually related to us negotiating a much higher than minimum wage,” he said.

Chef Owner Rainer Schwarz agreed, “The 100-plus restaurants here in Laguna are definitely grappling for the same line cooks and dishwashers because there are many, many restaurants between us here, and where they live there. We have to get creative to entice and keep them working for us in our restaurants.”

Meet the new beast: Social media

“Social media came out of nowhere a few years ago and now it dominates the conversation about every experience everywhere,” said Owner Scott McIntosh of Reunion Kitchen and Asada Cantina. “This can be a blessing and a curse…and both can happen many times on the same day!”

Said Rainer Schwarz, “If I overcook a chicken at Hendrix in Ocean Ranch, 100 people in Laguna Beach know about it the next morning.”

(He pauses to chuckle.)

“For the most part, though, people are forgiving. If they’re regular patrons, they remain supportive and continue to return to your restaurant,” said Schwarz.

Maro Molteni added, “Sometimes it feels like the people who love you the most don’t post reviews, even though you see them in your restaurant a lot. And, sometimes the lowest reviews come from people who haven’t stepped foot in your restaurant. Those are the hardest reviews to stomach because they didn’t even give you a chance.”

He paused to think a moment. “But, that’s OK. It just makes me love and appreciate more the people who come in again and again. Social media, yes, it can be good feedback and it matters. But Laguna residents and visitors who support you…that’s what really matters, and that’s where I like to direct my energy.”

A changing demographic

“Seeing the changes that have evolved since I was a child in Laguna Beach is really eye-opening,” said Lindsay Smith-Rosales of Nirvana Grille.

laguna beach lindsay

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Lindsay Smith-Rosales co-owner Nirvana Grille (in center)

“Something that’s completely out of our control here is that our summer season is now shorter. Where we used to have a few solid months of summer visitors, many kids from various states and countries now have to be back in school in the first three weeks of August. Two or three weeks of MIA summer traffic makes a really big difference for those of us gathering nuts for winter.”

Chef Lindsay added, “But the bigger deal lies in the fact that, over the last 10 years, both the local residents and incoming visitors have changed. Many of our residents don’t live here full time, and that percentage has gone up as more have aged and retired. They travel more and have homes elsewhere, or they’re simply not eating out as much as they did 10 years ago.

“And, now we also have thousands of confirmed ‘day trippers’ who bring coolers of food with them rather than dining in our restaurants,” she added. 

“Combine all of that with – now – 60 to 70 dine-in restaurants in the same city limits we’ve always had, and you can see why even the best restaurants in town aren’t full and are possibly struggling.” 

A changing…or non-changing…Laguna

“What makes Laguna Beach such a gem is that we’re this secluded, wonderful town,” said Cary Redfearn. “And that’s exactly why it’s difficult, too. 

“We’re difficult to get to. And when you do finally crawl your way into town as part of these long lines of bottle-necked cars, there’s nowhere to park,” continued Redfearn.

The parking puzzle

“As much as people love and use our trolley system, many visitors want to be in closer proximity to their cars while they spend the day in Laguna Beach. So they ignore the trolleys and circle around and around looking for parking.

laguna beach traffic

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Photo by Mike Altishin for BestofLagunaBeach.com

A typical busy day of traffic during a Laguna summer

“We need more parking,” Redfearn said flatly. “The City hasn’t built new parking in 30 years, and the new Village Entrance took parking away. Many locals don’t even want to come into Laguna during the summer because they anticipate a parking issue. 

“So, our residents have chosen Laguna Beach because they love its special culture,” said Redfearn. “But they can’t experience that culture as much as they’d like to because they feel parking is such a hassle.”

The parking requirement

“When you want to put your restaurant in Laguna Beach, the first thing you find is the space. And the second thing you find is the parking requirement for that space,” said Reunion’s McIntosh.

“When we opened Nick’s, and when I later opened Asada in that same block in the old Javier’s space, we had the fortune of being able to access the Glenneyre parking structure as part of our fulfillment of the parking requirement,” he said. 

“The main reason I chose to build Reunion in the old Umami Burger location was because of all that great parking in Boat Canyon. But I can’t tell you how many times I’ve turned away from a potential restaurant site here in Laguna Beach because of the parking requirements. It’s usually an unforeseen struggle for restaurateurs who really just want to open and operate a restaurant here in Laguna.”

Bruce Russo, the General Contractor for what would become the Taverna space (now Ocean at Main), said he had more delays in trying to find the required parking spaces for the proposed restaurant than in entirely converting the weathered retail space to restaurant use.

“Nothing is grandfathered in Laguna Beach when it changes ownership,” said Russo. “So, you might have had a retail or restaurant space that had existed here in Laguna Beach for 20 years, but when you come in with new ownership and plans for revamp…even if you’re in the same square footage…the parking requirements of 20 years past are obsolete. It’s a new rule, and a new requirement.”

laguna beach sharon

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Photo by Diane Armitage

(L-R) Co-owners and sisters Sharon Haron and Kathy Gibson ofThe Cliff

Added Sharon Haron of The Cliff, “The parking requirement is a bit of a double-edged sword. Over the years, we’ve tried applications to expand our footprint for the restaurant – our kitchen is the size of a postage stamp – but we can’t because of our parking restrictions. In the end, it ultimately constrains the square footage of our restaurants and how big we can grow.”

They’d still choose to be restaurateurs

As restaurant owners talked candidly over these many weeks, one truth emerged: They each chose Laguna Beach for its unique town and people, and they are committed to staying here.

“Clearly, the last couple of years have been an educational forum for all the residents in Laguna Beach,” said Redfearn. 

“We’re all more aware of challenges and issues here, and hopefully as the light shines on the dark corners, we will all find a way to make it a better place. It’s important that we understand and recognize the challenges and act as one community in concert to find a better solution…because I know, as far as restaurants go, we all want to stay and thrive.”

Said Smith-Rosales of Nirvana Grille, “You start to wonder, ‘why in the hell am I in this business?’ and then you remember…because I love it! The energy of it, the ability to be connecting with people, the ability to make a difference and be in people’s memories as they experience your food and celebrate a special occasion. It is magical!”

And they’d still choose Laguna Beach

Added Wine Gallery’s Olsen, “We’re just trying to cater to our locals and build a sense of community for them here at Wine Gallery. It’s amazing how supportive our locals really are. They really do keep us all afloat.”

Said Molteni of Royal Hawaiian Fire Grill, “I’ve chosen Laguna twice: Once when I moved my family here in 2008 because no other city in Orange County had a vibrant downtown like Laguna. We had a great time in my first restaurant, but eventually I sold it and took my kids to Argentina for a year to explore my homeland. When I returned to the States in 2017, I chose Laguna again because I had missed the people of Laguna Beach. 

“That’s the best reason in the world to return to something.

“Right now, our downtown isn’t as vibrant,” continued Molteni. “We’re dealing with a lot of vacancies and viewpoints from both sides. But the people here are good people. And when you have good people working together, you always find a way.”

The best-selling author and blogger on The Best of Laguna Beach™, Diane Armitage is on an endless quest for the most imaginative adventures in Laguna’s restaurants, events, and lifestyle. Check out chef interviews, retail and restaurant news, and favorite events at www.TheBestofLagunaBeach.com and follow on Instagram @BestOfLagunaBeach (look for Diane’s smiling face)

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Locals rejoice over Wild Taco’s long-awaited opening

Locals were treated to the surprise opening of Wild Taco, the long-awaited restaurant located in the building previously occupied by Johnny Rockets at 188 S Coast Hwy, on Thursday.

The opening comes over a full year after owner Thomas Carson and the Bear Flag Fish Co. gained Planning Commission approval on the 56-seat, family-style Baja California/Mexican seafood eatery. This is Carson’s second Wild Taco location (the other is in Newport Beach).

Local Pat Gallis was one of the first customers to enjoy Laguna’s newest restaurant.

Locals rejoice over Wild Taco

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Photo by Pat Gallis

Wild Taco is now open

I walked by daily for the last few months waiting for opening day! Thursday it opened. I sat at the counter, and had the carnitas tacos and a Nerga Modelo draft beer. Seated at the counter were five city residents I recognized having lunch. I sat next to Carmelit Green, a member of the Laguna Chamber of Commerce [Board of Directors]. Good food and draft beer! Great location and a great view out the windows!”

Wild Taco’s hours are Tuesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., and Mondays and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.

For more information, call the restaurant at (949) 549-4282.

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45+ top Orange County chefs are tackling OC homelessness

Story by Diane Armitage

The biggest, swankiest chefs’ dinner in the LA Basin, OC Chef’s Table, is back at the largest ballroom Disneyland has to offer in Disneyland Hotel’s Grand Ballroom on Sunday, March 1.

Here’s your chance to dine at your favorite chef’s table and give to a worthy cause that we’re all working together to find a solution for – homelessness.

Each year, more top-ranked chefs in Orange County (and now Los Angeles and Palm Desert, too) fairly clamor to be involved in this one great night as they individually cook for 10 guests while collectively raising more than $1 million in funds for specific projects such as emergency and permanent housing for homeless families with small children.

More than 45 celebrity & award-winning chefs in one room

This year, Food Network’s Celebrity Chef Jet Tila is back with his darling Pastry Chef wife, Ali. 

45+ top Sutton

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Courtesy of Illumination Foundation/OC Chef’s Table

Napa Rose Executive Chef Andrew Sutton tries a new sauce while sous chefs look on

Disneyland’s Napa Rose Executive Chef Andrew Sutton is host again, and he’s welcoming chefs from all points including Rich Mead (Farmhouse at Roger’s Gardens), Bryan Brown (Bourbon at MBR), Chris Simons (Andrea at Pelican Hill), Corey Muir (Bosscat), Alfonso Ramirez (Catal), Clint Chin (Club 33), Magellan Moore (Mastro’s Ocean Club), Stephen LaFountain (Mastro’s Steakhouse), Peter Lai (Blind Rabbit Speakeasy), Chef of the Year in OC John Park (Toast), and many more.

45+ top Daniels

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Courtesy of Harley Restaurant

Chef Greg Daniels of Harley is returning again to OC Chef’s Table along with three other Laguna Beach chefs

Laguna Beach is (so far) sending up four great chefs, all of whom have participated in the past – they’re hooked! Chef Greg Daniels at Harley, Chef Andrew Gruel with Slapfish and co-host of the popular OC Restaurant Radio Show, and Chefs Nick Bennett and Jayro Martinez at the newly rocking AhbA will be there

Doing what it takes to get homeless people back on their feet 

This is a renowned annual gala, produced by Illumination Foundation, the fast-growing nonprofit agency working to disrupt homelessness on a permanent basis. While Illumination Foundation started with a mission to primarily help homeless women and families, its work has rapidly expanded to provide temporary housing and a full circle of services to everyone struggling in homelessness, including our veterans and homeless individuals requiring assistance and recuperative care after hospitalization and surgery. 

45+ top group

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Courtesy of Illumination Foundation/OC Chef’s Table

Food Network Celebrity Chef Jet Tila, far left, mugs with fellow chefs before the OC Chef’s Table dinner gets underway

Clearly, I love what this group is doing, and I’ve been lucky enough to be interviewing each of the chefs involved in the event for three years now (such amazing individuals). 

To find tickets and tables, click here

To see all the chefs participating, click here.  

To read my blog interviews at the OC Chef’s Table website as I’m weekly adding more, click here.  

The best-selling author and blogger on The Best of Laguna Beach™, Diane Armitage is on an endless quest for the most imaginative adventures in Laguna’s restaurants, events and lifestyle. Check out chef interviews, retail and restaurant news, and favorite events at www.TheBestofLagunaBeach.com and follow on Instagram @BestOfLagunaBeach (look for Diane’s smiling face).

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Restaurants in Laguna Beach: A decade in review, part two

By Diane Armitage

On Friday last week, I wrote “Part One” about restaurants in Laguna Beach and how they’ve changed and fared since 2010. This is “Part Two” on when the accelerated growth, and consequent churn, began. 

A couple updates

First, a couple of additions, most of which were graciously submitted. I noted that we had 59 restaurants in January 2010, with 56 offering wait staff service and three offering counter service. 

As it turns out, we actually had 62 restaurants (quite possibly more, but we’re only at “Correction, Round One” here). While 56 restaurants remain the count for wait staff, another four offered counter service (Husky Boy Burgers, Orange Inn, Papa’s Tacos, and Wahoo’s Fish Taco adding to the three I first noted: Taco Loco, Zinc Café, and La Sirena Grill). 

At least 30 restaurants are proving time eternal

Next – yes – we have quite a number of current-day restaurants here in Laguna Beach that have been around far longer than January 2010’s calendar. Last week’s article was focused on the last decade’s movement, but praise is well deserved to our restaurants that have stood a much longer test of time. 

At my last count, at least 30 existing restaurants opened before 2010, at least six of which opened even before The Empire Returns took box office gold in 1980. 

Prior to 1980, Dizz’s As Is and Las Brisas (formerly Victor Hugo’s) were late 1970 bloomers here in Laguna. Husky Boy Burgers, our longest surviving counter service restaurant, still remains from its opening day in 1951. Royal Hawaiian and Penguin Cafe remain since the 1940s (although Royal has had some changes in monarchy), and part of the existing footprint of Splashes at the Surf and Sand Resort was the hotel’s original restaurant in 1948.

The Orange Inn counts, too, even though it began in 1931 just past Crystal Cove. (Longtime Owner John Bodrero was at that cottage restaurant as well as the new location in 1986, so I say it counts.) 

And, we’re all hoping that our longest running restaurant In Laguna’s history, White House Laguna Beach, will continue in some way, shap,e or form from its inception in 1918. (Rumors abound as to possible changes, but nothing has been announced.)

The 1980s: A new kind of cookin’

When David Wilhelm’s Kachina landed on Forest Avenue in the early 1980s, our culinary world began to change. Within several months, Michael Kang’s Five Feet and Hotel Laguna Proprietor Claes Andersen’s Claes were also in play. 

Restaurants in mag cover

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Courtesy of Restaurant Row Magazine archive

Now considered one of the top restaurateurs in the country, David Wilhelm opened Kachina in Laguna Beach in the early 1980s, introducing what many considered a higher culinary experience to the town

“Some people started referring to us as ‘the golden triangle’ because suddenly there was this higher culinary activity in not one but three restaurants,” said Wilhelm. “I think that’s when people began to think of Laguna Beach as a destination for dining and, fortunately, so did other talented chefs.”

The Cedar Creek Inn moved into play in 1989, the same year that Wilhelm took over the management of already-existing Sorrento Grill

All five of those restaurants are gone now, but that single decade changed everything. 

Restaurants in Zoolu

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Photo by Diane Armitage

Chef Michael Leech and wife, Toni, were daily fixtures at Café Zoolu 

(photo taken 2015)

It created momentum for incoming chefs on all sides of town, from Rumari’s Ristorante (1989) to the early 1990s’ debut of places such as San Shi Go and Romeo Cucina, Michael and Toni’s popular Cafe Zoolu, and Chef Marc Cohen’s foundational menus in fresh, contemporary cuisine at 230 Forest (1995). Wilhelm’s next concept, French 75, opened in 1998, and seemed to usher in the new century with perfect aplomb. 

The boom of the mid-2000s

The indy chefs just kept coming, and investor dollars began to roll in larger quantities, allowing for significant renovations in existing and new spaces. This timeframe also marked the beginning of “the churn” as older restaurant brands and owners turned in their chefs’ coats. 

For many Laguna residents, it was a sad goodbye to fondly remembered entities such as Tortilla Flats (late 90s), Jolly Roger (2005), Royal Hawaiian (with the Cabang family in 2006), and Javier’s (2008). 

The incoming new blood was vast. To list just a few…

In 2004 and 2005, Chris Keller and Chef Craig Connole completely revamped the Rooftop Lounge and K’ya (formerly Savoury’s) at the Casa del Camino, while Ivan Spiers innovated the town’s first indoor live music and dining venue in Mozambique from the dilapidation that was once Tortilla Flats. 

Meanwhile, just a few blocks farther south, Joe Hanauer was completing the anchor restaurant for the rehabilitated Pottery Place, and Chef Azmin spectacularly moved into play there with Sapphire Laguna

Restaurants in Lumberyard

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Photo by Diane Armitage

Restaurateur Cary Redfearn completely renovated the old Cedar Creek space (photo taken 2009)

And, in the downtown quadrant, restaurants were changing hands and being significantly renovated with Cary Redfearn’s Lumberyard, Chef Lindsay’s Nirvana Grille, and Nick’s all opening in 2008. 

And, in 2009 – the year when the whole world fell apart – Chef Marc Cohen seemed impervious, opting, instead, to reinvent the former Partner’s Bistro space with Watermarc

Churn and flips: one and done

Of the roughly 60 restaurants that have landed in Laguna Beach from 2010 forward, less than a handful were built as new restaurants (i.e. Wine Gallery, Slice Pizza and Beer, Rasta Taco, The Deck at the Pacific Edge Hotel). 

Restaurants in The Deck

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Photo by Diane Armitage

Chef Rainer Schwarz’ The Deck on Laguna Beach (photo taken 2016)

All the others have walked into a previous chef’s space and redesigned or renovated where needed to suit their own kitchen and service. 

In most instances, only one “flip” has occurred, such as Chef Amar’s triumphant Broadway by Amar Santana in the formerly triumphant Five Feet space. 

When French 75 closed in 2011, Teemu Selanne opened his flagship in that same space two years later. 

When Umami Burger gave up in 2015 at its Boat Canyon location, Reunion Kitchen took hold and landed success from 2016 forward. 

Restaurants in Reunion

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Photo by Diane Armitage

Restaurateur Scott McIntosh at Reunion Kitchen’s opening, 2016

When Rock‘N Fish closed, Ivan Spiers took over the space, renovated it completely as Skyloft, and added a roof deck, to boot. 

Multiple flips

Other locations have flipped three or four times in the last ten years.

What was most recently Okura Sushi was Katsuya until 2013, which was Hush until the end of 2010. The space is currently empty. 

Sorrento Grille became 370 Common + Kitchen with Chef Ryan Adams in 2011 and, then, renovated as Harley in 2018 with acclaimed chef Greg Daniels. 

The former Aegan Greek restaurant became House of Big Fish + Ice Cold Beer under Keller and Chef Connole’s watch. In 2014, Corona del Mar Bungalow owners stepped in and rebranded it as Big Fish Tavern. When that closed in 2017, South of Nick’s took on the baton with yet another industrious remodel.   

One restaurant – Royal Hawaiian – has carried the same name forward through four owners and four renovations, the last of which belongs to Chef Maro Molteni of former Maro Wood Grill fame.

Restaurants in Maro

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Photo by Diane Armitage

Owner & Chef Maro Molteni now at Royal Hawaiian

Harkening back to the original name, Royal Hawaiian Charcoal Grill, Molteni re-introduced a giant wood grill to the kitchen and has added “Fire Grill” to the iconic name. 

And, there’s one restaurant space in town that, with its November 2019 closing, could be inviting a fifth (or sixth?) tenant in less than 10 years. While there’s talk, no formal application has been filed yet with the City. 

Next Week: Restaurateurs chime in on the churn

In all of these situations, we find very experienced chefs and restaurateurs with great intentions. Why, then, have more Laguna restaurant doors closed in the last two years than in any other year of the recent decade?

Feel free to send your thoughts on this matter to: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

In my third (and final, I promise) column on Laguna Beach restaurants from the last decade, longtime restaurateurs and chefs chime in on where they’ve seen the biggest changes in the last 10 years, and the biggest challenges they’re facing as we move forward into the new decade.

The best-selling author and blogger on The Best of Laguna Beach™, Diane Armitage is on an endless quest for the most imaginative adventures in Laguna’s restaurants, events and lifestyle. Check out chef interviews, retail and restaurant news, and favorite events at www.TheBestofLagunaBeach.com and follow on Instagram @BestOfLagunaBeach (look for Diane’s smiling face).

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Restaurants in Laguna Beach: A decade in review, part one

By Diane Armitage

When I started writing TheBestofLagunaBeach.com back in 2006, I was just interested in getting to know our chefs and restaurants in town. I had no idea that so much would change in these last years. 

About a week ago I decided to do a “Decade in Review,” looking back at 10 years of restaurants in this town, and the trends we may see for the years ahead. 

For starters, we definitely have more restaurants now than we did in January 2010. 

But first, a disclaimer: When it awards a business license, the City of Laguna Beach does not differentiate between restaurants and other types of businesses, so I’ve relied on my own 16-year blog and the archives at Visit Laguna Beach to curate these facts. If I’m slightly off on dates, or have missed specific restaurant openings or closures, you can help by submitting any missing information to me directly. 

Number of restaurants: Then vs now

In January 2010, Laguna Beach housed a total of 59 restaurants in town, which included specialty items such as coffee houses, chocolate factories, and ice cream hang outs. At that time, the Visitor’s Bureau didn’t count Jack in the Box, Taco Bell, or grocery store delis. 

Of those 59 eateries, 56 offered wait staff service while just three offered counter service (Taco Loco, Zinc, and La Sirena Grill).

restaurants in zinc

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Submitted photo

John Secretan’s Zinc Café was one of the first “fast casual” concepts in Laguna Beach

Today (January 2020), Laguna Beach offers 132 eateries, this time, though, with inclusion of entities such as Whole Foods, juice bars, and our three fast food chains. Of the 132, I’d say 95 qualify as “restaurants.” I’ve omitted the grocery, gelato, and chocolate/cookie shops for more accurate comparison. 

The trend of fast casual

Of the 95 remaining, 64 Laguna restaurants offer wait staff (sit and order) while a significantly larger number – now 31 – offer order-at-the-counter service. This is a notable shift. In the industry, we call this “fast casual” – still offering higher quality food and chef-driven recipes above a fast food restaurant’s fare, but you order at a counter, and food expediters and bussers primarily handle your table.

Restaurateurs like our Laguna Beach-based Scott McIntosh, Cary Redfearn, and John Secretan have already launched into both industries. 

Scott has two thriving restaurants in Boat Canyon, with Reunion Kitchen offering wait service and Asada Cantina providing fast casual. 

Cary’s popular Lumberyard restaurant had a sister act join the family just across the street in the form of the fast casual Slice Pizza and Beer. 

John’s popular Zinc Café counter service concept is now dotting the coastline, but his latest (and very large) LA Zinc’s Café in the Art District offers both types of service in the same location. 

restaurants in santana

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Submitted photo

With two booming full-service eateries, Chef Amar Santana is now opening a combined concept in Costa Mesa that includes “fast casual”

Broadway’s Chef Amar Santana is opening a combined concept by South Coast Plaza while Teemu Selanne (Selanne Steak Tavern) and Maro Molteni (Royal Hawaiian) have either recently ventured or are planning ventures into other parts of Orange County with fast casual concepts, too. 

Why fast casual works

While most of us would conclude that this “fast casual” shift is being done to accommodate an aimlessly wandering tourist, Slice’s Cary Redfearn believes that “fast casual” or “single concept” restaurants are being put in play to accommodate Laguna’s own residents. 

“I raised my kids here in Laguna Beach, and there just wasn’t much to offer busy families who had a car full of hungry kids coming home from a game or a show,” he told me. 

“Suzanne and I created Slice because we were those parents who wanted to pop into a Laguna eatery, know we were getting great, high-quality, nutritional product at a reasonable price, and be in and out in 45 minutes or less. That doesn’t mean that finer dining is going away. It just means that the same people in this town will eat out for different reasons, depending on their day.”

Scott McIntosh echoes the sentiment. “I’m always going to want that full-service dining experience where I can sit and enjoy the food and the company. I look forward to that interaction. I think as our days get busier, we all actually anticipate having that lunch or dinner that allows us to really sit back and take a breath. Full-service dining is never going to disappear.”

The fast casual ratio in Laguna

One of our newest entries on the Laguna dining scene, The Drake, is fully committed to the “full-service” dining experience.

restaurants in drake

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Submitted photo

The Drake is booked full most nights

In 2019, six of our eight new restaurants cater to guests with wait staff. In 2018, six of the nine new restaurants were full service. 

So, where’s all this “churn” coming from?

Wherever I go in this town, people ask me the same two questions: “What’s my favorite restaurant in Laguna?” and “Why are all these restaurants closing their doors?”

I will never answer the first question. I love too many different dishes and too many chefs and restaurateurs in this town. 

As to the second question…given the increase in number of restaurants this decade – we’ve nearly doubled the number of restaurants in the same square mileage of space – we really aren’t seeing the same ratio of increase in closed or failed restaurants. 

The last two years, though, have seen 17 Laguna restaurants close – nine in 2019 and eight in 2018 (that I’ve tracked). That’s an increase above the “norm” of four or five each year in years prior. 

Next week, in part two of my Decade in Review, I’ll take a more in-depth look at the favorites we’ve lost and the successes that are still triumphantly working. 

The best-selling author and blogger on The Best of Laguna Beach™, Diane Armitage is on an endless quest for the most imaginative adventures in Laguna’s restaurants, events and lifestyle. Check out chef interviews, retail and restaurant news, and favorite events at www.TheBestofLagunaBeach.com and follow on Instagram @BestOfLagunaBeach (look for Diane’s smiling face).

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Kick off New Year at [seven-degrees] with Common Sense and Addie Hamilton

Kick off the New Year at [seven-degrees] with performances by local legends Common Sense, as well as up-and-coming Hollywood starlet Addie Hamilton, and maybe a few surprises along the way at.

[seven-degrees] is an award-winning venue in the Laguna Canyon, which offers 25,000 sq. ft. of beautiful indoor and outdoor space. Typically reserved for private events, this is a rare opportunity to enjoy this space on a one-of-a-kind evening.

Tickets start at $159 and each guest will enjoy the phenomenal venue, along with top quality food provided by Driftwood Kitchen, The Deck, and Hendrix restaurants. 

Kick off Common Sense

Submitted photo

Local hit band Common Sense to perform at [seven-degrees] on NYE

In addition to the venue and the food, the entertainment will be in high gear with headliner Common Sense. Not just another reggae band from Orange County, this Laguna-born Southern California band brings a small beach town attitude to its reggae-rock influences with its own unique style developed over the last 20-plus years. 

The food will be plentiful, tray passed, and stations will be available throughout the venue all night. One hour of open bar will be available upon arrival during the opening of the event, to include beer, wine, and champagne. Cash bars will be placed throughout the venue serving cocktails and throughout the night.

A VIP experience will also be available with access to upper deck bars, additional food, and private performances.

Tickets can be purchased here.

For questions, contact Tony at (949) 289-6684. 

[seven-degrees] is located at 891 Laguna Canyon Rd.

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Kick off New Year’s Eve at [seven-degrees] with Common Sense and Addie Hamilton

Kick off the New Year with local legends Common Sense, as well as up-and-coming Hollywood starlet Addie Hamilton, and maybe a few surprises along the way at [seven-degrees].

[seven-degrees] is an award-winning venue in the Laguna Canyon, which offers 25,000 sq. ft. of beautiful indoor and outdoor space. Typically reserved for private events, this is a rare opportunity to enjoy this space on a one-of-a-kind evening.

Kick off Common Sense

Submitted photo

Local hit band Common Sense to perform at [seven-degrees] on NYE

Tickets start at $159 and each guest will enjoy the phenomenal venue, along with top quality food provided by Driftwood Kitchen, The Deck, and Hendrix restaurants. 

In addition to the venue and the food, the entertainment will be in high gear with headliner Common Sense. Not just another reggae band from Orange County, this Laguna-born Southern California band brings a small beach town attitude to its reggae-rock influences with its own unique style developed over the last 20-plus years.

Kick off Addie

Click on photo for a larger image

Submitted photo

Addie Hamilton will also hit the stage on NYE 

The food will be plentiful, tray passed, and stations will be available throughout the venue all night. One hour of open bar will be available upon arrival during the opening of the event, to include beer, wine, and champagne. Cash bars will be placed throughout the venue serving cocktails and throughout the night.

A VIP experience will also be available with access to upper deck bars, additional food, and private performances.

Tickets can be purchased here.

For questions, contact Tony at (949) 289-6684. 

[seven-degrees] is located at 891 Laguna Canyon Rd.

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2nd Annual Kitchen Tours to Stock the Pantry event raises nearly $9K for Laguna Food Pantry

More than 150 locals and not-so-locals attended the “2nd Annual Kitchen Tours to Stock the Pantry,” resulting in a total donation of almost $9,000 to fund Laguna Food Pantry programs. 

Five fabulous families opened their five fabulous kitchens to tour participants on Sunday, Nov 10 with a reception following at the Compass offices in downtown Laguna Beach. 

All expenses for the tour were underwritten by the Mike Johnson Group of Compass, with all of the ticket proceeds flowing straight to the Laguna Food Pantry. 

2nd Annual Group

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Submitted photo

“Pearl of the Cove” kitchen owned by the Edington Family – (L-R) Patricia O’Brien, Mike Johnson, and Susan Thomas

Attendees visited a wonderfully re-imagined cottage kitchen, a massive contemporary kitchen in a home that formerly housed a church, an island-inspired kitchen, the re-born kitchen of a 1920’s Woods Cove home, and a classic South Laguna estate home. 

Munchies at the reception were provided by Lindsay Smith-Rosales of Nirvana Grilel, and Sarah of Temecula Olive Oil Company Company provided some tastings while Geoff Glass put on an incredibly beautiful guitar performance throughout the event.

Compass extends a special thanks to the White, Duensing, Edington, Nelson, and Dickinson families for opening their homes. 

--Itty Bitty White House: The re-born kitchen of a 1920s Woods Cove home (owned by the White Family)

--Holy Transformation: A massive contemporary kitchen in a home that formerly housed a church (owned by the Duensing Family)

2nd Annual Kitchen

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Submitted photo

“The Holy Transformation” kitchen owned by the Duensing Family

--Pearl of the Cove: A classic South Laguna estate home (owned by the Edington Family)

--Brazilian Den: An island-inspired kitchen (owned by the Nelson Family)

--Grace and Style: A wonderfully re-imagined cottage kitchen (owned by the Dickinson Family)

For more information on Laguna Food Pantry and to support its mission, visit www.lagunafoodpantry.org.

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Skyloft revitalizes brunch menu: they had me at fried green tomatoes 

By DIANNE RUSSELL

More than anything else, Ivan Spiers, owner of Skyloft – and Mozambique – wants residents to know that Skyloft is not closing. He says, “Many people think I owned Tommy Bahama and have assumed Skyloft is closing too.”

On the contrary, Skyloft has just introduced a new brunch menu, Happy Hour menu, special prices for Sunday Kickoff sports viewing (they have 17 televisions), and have added new items to the lunch and dinner menus. And hands down, they have the best sound system and musical venue anywhere in town, featuring incredible local bands.

Understandably, Spiers is concerned about all the vacancies in the vicinity. Now that Tommy Bahama has closed, the spaces on either side of Skyloft are vacant.

“We also lost business when Hotel Laguna closed. They could accommodate 300 guests who frequented our restaurant,” says Spiers.

Skyloft revitalizes Ivan

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Ivan Spiers and his dog Max on Skyloft’s patio

However, in the wake of these unfounded closure rumors and existing vacancies, Skyloft has reinvigorated their menus and added unique items.

My husband and I sampled two of their brunch items, and they immediately had me at fried green tomatoes. These crispy disks were panko crusted and seasoned to perfection, yet firm on the inside. Absolutely delicious. These are not an item one typically sees on local menus. They were offered as a meat substitute – a genius choice.

I had the egg white scramble with mushrooms, spinach, sweet onions, tomatoes, avocado, potatoes, and feta cheese, which added a complementary tangy flavor to the other, more mellow ingredients.

My husband had a breakfast of over easy eggs, potatoes, and fried green tomatoes, served with Texas toast, a thick bread perfect for dipping into the eggs.

Even though this was a traditional breakfast, many times, the simplest dishes are the most difficult to do well, so when they are, congratulations are in order. And of course, the addition of fried green tomatoes made it anything but traditional.

Skyloft revitalizes eggs

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Photo by Dianne Russell

Egg white scramble 

Although we didn’t try it, we were told by others that the French Toast is wonderful and has granola included for added crunch.

Spiers adds, “We’re bringing in new things and updating the menu and focusing on BBQ.” They have their own in-house smoker and Cali Smokehouse food items for lunch and dinner.

The NFL Sunday Kickoff menu is available on Sundays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on the main level only and features unbelievable drink specials and food such as calamari, wings, and rack ribs with fries.

The Happy Hour Menu is offered on Monday from 3 p.m. until closing and Tuesday through Friday from 3 until 6 p.m. It features specials on drinks and items such as tacos, chilled shrimp sliders, and a Cali Smoke Mix plate.

They also offer patio dining – with an incredible panoramic view of the ocean and the trails to the north. The patio and an outside section downstairs are dog friendly which is a huge bonus for dog owners.

The current chef, Matt Nagana, is not the original chef, and when asked what he looks for in a chef, Spiers says, “Consistency, control over the kitchen, and experience.” All of which Nagana possesses.

Spiers is not the only one concerned about all the closures. At a meeting recently with 12 other restaurateurs in Laguna, he relates, “They said they haven’t seen the business climate so bad here in 20 or 30 years.”

Skyloft revitalizes bar

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Photo by Dianne Russell

Traditional eggs over easy breakfast 

Spiers has been here for 25 years and said they just experienced their slowest summer ever. He’s hoping to entice diners to come back and enjoy the new menu.

Spiers has new endeavors on the horizon in other areas of the U.S., ideas that he’s been thinking about for two years. 

He has opened a Skyloft in Albany, New York, in a mall. This Skyloft holds over 1,000 people and focuses more on music and private events. Spiers is incorporating a unique concept. Inside the 18,000 square foot space, there will be food trucks with different cuisines which all will cook out of the same kitchen. Patrons can order from the various trucks and sit where ever they want. There will be bars all around. The only food service is in the VIP area.

He is also opening one in Columbus, OH, close to Ohio State in the German District, in a free standing old brewery and one in Covington, KY, outdoors in a shopping mall on the river. 

Skyloft revitalizes Josh

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Submitted photo

Josh, our server 

But getting back to the Laguna Beach location, Skyloft has much to offer as well. 

The staff is wonderful and accommodating. Josh, who has been with Skyloft for two years, served us. 

Skyloft has so much for the community to experience and enjoy: new menu items and brunch menu, happy hour, the sports bar during the day, live music, and a dog friendly patio with views of the ocean town and hills. 

And then there’s the fried green tomatoes – don’t miss the opportunity to try them!

Spiers says, “We have such beautiful town, and it is my hope that more people start coming to see it.”

Skyloft is located at 422 S Coast Hwy.

For the menu and more information, go to www.skyloftoc.com or call (949) 715-1550.

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Community invited to Holidays at the Hive on Sunday

Join together for Holidays at the Hive, a community-wide holiday event, on Sunday, Dec 15. Come spread the holiday cheer with the familiar faces of the Hive plus a pop-up marketplace featuring unique vendors for all your gifting needs this season. Enjoy a real snow sledding hill, live music, and libations from the colony at the Hive! 

The Hive will be buzzing from 12 to 5 p.m.

Community invited to

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Photo by Scott Brashier

Bring the family for a real snow sledding hill at the Hive on Sunday

Pop-up vendors include: Mago Hot Sauce, Wilding Works, Ali Rybczyk Art, Momeh Boutique, Honey Girl Grows, Raptor Jewelry, Terramar Collection, Sunari Lifestyle, Blessed Booch, Kungfu Tonic, Laguna Love, Merritt Charles, Lumion Skin, and more to come.

Participating nonprofits include Help Heal Vets, KX 93.5, and Laguna Food Pantry 

Offsite parking, trolley, and ride share are encouraged.

For more information, visit www.holidaysatthehive.com/.

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