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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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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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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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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

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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

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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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“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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“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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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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Ruby’s Diner donates percentage of sales to Laguna Food Pantry through Dec 8

Ruby’s Diner Laguna Beach is partnering with Laguna Food Pantry to donate a percentage of Ruby’s sales from 7 a.m. until 9 p.m. all week – through Sunday, Dec 8. 

Patrons can come dine in or order take-out from Ruby’s Diner and 20 percent of all food and non-alcoholic beverage sales will be donated to Laguna Food Pantry. 

Laguna Food Pantry is an almost completely volunteer-run enterprise that provides free, fresh, nutritious groceries to individuals and families in need.

Ruby's Diner Sgt Cota

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From archives

Sgt Jim Cota at Ruby’s during the annual Tip-a-Cop fundraiser

Laguna Food Pantry collects and distributes 5,000 lbs. of food every weekday, serving 500+ families a week in South Orange County, and more than half the shoppers have babies and children to feed.

Ruby’s Diner is located at 30622 So Coast Hwy. For more information, call (949) 497-RUBY (7829)

The fundraiser is good on all purchases for dine-in and to-go orders.  Excludes the sales on alcoholic beverages. 

Please mention the promotion when ordering.

For more information about Laguna Food Pantry, go to www.lagunafoodpantry.org.

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Las Brisas hosts holiday pop-up with award-winning bartender Scott Baird on Dec 12

Las Brisas, the Laguna Beach landmark restaurant, and Scott Baird, renowned bartender and owner of the famed San Francisco cocktail bar Trick Dog, will host a holiday pop-up with Ancho Reyes on Thursday, Dec 12 in Las Brisas’ bar and lounge. 

Handcrafted cocktails prepared by Baird will be served, there will be Ancho Reyes merchandise and liqueur sample giveaways, live music from 6 - 9 p.m., and more. 

Las Brisas Baird

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Renowned bartender Scott Baird will host holiday pop-up with Las Brisas on Dec 12 

Having earned several accolades since its opening in 2013, Trick Dog was a semi-finalist for the James Beard Foundation Award for an Outstanding Bar Program in 2014 and 2016, and a finalist for the prestigious award in 2015 and 2018.

Making a special appearance at Las Brisas, Baird brings his talents to Laguna Beach, crafting holiday-themed cocktails available for one-night only. On the menu, cocktails will be paired with Ancho Reyes liqueur and agave spirits including:

--Hot Buttered Toddy – Ancho Verde, Patron Anejo, lemon, honey, hot chamomile tea, organic grass-fed butter on top

--Navidad Aperitif – Ancho Reyes Original, Campari, soda, fresh passionfruit, cinnamon foam

--Clarified Ancho Coquito (Holiday Coconut Punch) – Ancho Reyes Original, reposado tequila, pineapple, vanilla coconut cream, lime, sugar, spice and everything nice, organic milk

--Las Brisas Poinsettia – Patron Silver, Ancho Verde, lime, ginger beer, hibiscus float

For more information, visit www.lasbrisaslagunabeach.com

Las Brisas is located at 361 Cliff Dr.

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The Ranch debuts Grill ‘N Glow fire pit rentals at Lost Pier Café 

Savor quintessential California beach days year-round with new Grill ‘N Glow fire pit rentals at The Ranch at Laguna Beach’s Lost Pier Café. The new program includes portable fire pits and specialty Grill Packages with ingredients for burgers, s’mores, and more, providing everything needed for a fun, convenient, and safe grilling experience on Aliso Beach.

The new Grill ‘N Glow program at Lost Pier Café allows locals and guests of The Ranch at Laguna Beach to legally rent and operate portable fire pits on Aliso Beach, which is the only beach in Laguna to allow fire pits. The portable grills are available for $85 for 3-hour rentals and accommodate up to six people per grill.

The Ranch grill

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Guests can now rent and operate portable fire pits on Aliso Beach 

Patrons can bring their own ingredients or purchase specialty Grill Packages with top quality ingredients selected by The Ranch at Laguna Beach’s Executive Chef Kyle St. John. The Grill Package ($55) includes four burgers and four hot dogs, as well as burger buns, hot dog buns, lettuce, tomato, onion, pickles, cheese, ketchup, mustard, and chips. The S’mores Package ($24) includes ingredients for four s’mores, including chocolate, graham crackers, marshmallows, and roasting skewers. Beach chairs are also available to rent for $7 per person.

The Grill ‘N Glow fire pit rental program is the latest amenity from Lost Pier Café to enhance the dining experience on Aliso Beach. The restaurant added a beer and wine list to its menu this summer, and recently earned an “Ocean Friendly Restaurant” designation by the Surfrider Foundation for sustainable practices.

Grill ‘N Glow fire pits at Lost Pier Café are available by reservation only on a first come, first served basis. 

To make a reservation, visit www.lostpiercafe.com/firepit or call (949) 715-4210.

For additional information about Lost Pier Café, including menus and beach rentals, visit www.lostpiercafe.com

For more information on The Ranch at Laguna Beach’s farm and sea to table culinary program overseen by Executive Chef Kyle St. John, visit www.theranchlb.com.

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Wine Gallery’s Tasting Tuesdays offer great tips with tastes

Story and photo by Diane Armitage

For several months now, Wine Gallery’s Chris Olsen has been uncorking great wine-oriented events called “Tasting Tuesdays.”

Normally scheduled a couple times a month, “Tasting Tuesday” offers inexpensive entrée into a generous flight of lesser-known wines. And, just as any wine tasting at any winery, if you like what you try, there are bottles available to buy. 

Neighborly, chatty fun

It’s always a fun, chatty evening as locals tend to dominate the seats. The restaurant’s full menu is available, but the staff is happy to help with suggested food pairings and Chef Josh always drums up a few spectacular specials for the evening. And, although you always have a printed menu of what wines are to come, Olsen still moves from table to table, explaining each selection for that evening’s theme. 

Last week’s Tasting Tuesday focused on the best wines to choose for your Thanksgiving table. As an added Thanksgiving bonus, well known Master Sommelier Michael Jordan played host…and played the guitar, too. (Who knew we had a Singing Somm?)

Wine Gallery's wine

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Tasting Tuesdays at Wine gallery offer great, inexpensive tastes of lesser-known wines

Hollywood tends to profile sommeliers as somewhat stuffy or arrogant. Michael Jordan is the furthest thing from it. He ambles to the various tables, tells great stories about wine and grapes and where their dirt resides, and breaks off to sing another set of songs as he plays guitar. 

At Tuesday’s Tasting, we enjoyed six of Jordan’s top picks, two of which hailed from my favorite Willamette Valley in Oregon. (My family lives there, so I might be slightly biased.) Nearly three hours later, I said my goodbyes to my Wine Gallery buddies with Thanksgiving-designated bottles tucked under my arm.   

December’s dates still pending

With just a tiny window of options for Tuesdays in December, Chris says that he hopes to put at least one Tasting Tuesday in place, but the date is still undecided. The events will definitely return in January, so check in at www.winegallerylaguna.com and RSVP well in advance as Tasting Tuesdays are gaining significant momentum!

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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