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The Ranch at Laguna Beach champions sustainability while keeping guests and team safe

The Ranch at Laguna Beach announced this week a new co-branded partnership with Pathwater to provide recyclable, refillable personal water bottles to guests and restaurant patrons at the coastal canyon resort. 

The new partnership adds to ongoing sustainability measures at The Ranch at Laguna Beach, which continues to uphold a wide range of recycling and conservation practices while implementing new health and safety measures due to COVID-19.  

The Ranch at Laguna Beach reopened on May 15, 2020 as one of the first hotels in California to earn the Clean + Safe Certification from The California Hotel and Lodging Association. As the hospitality industry shifts to single-use amenities, added plastic, and disposable individual packaging, The Ranch at Laguna Beach is harnessing new ways to uphold sustainability while keeping the resort clean and safe for guests and staff.

The Ranch view

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The Ranch at Laguna Beach announces new sustainability measures 

The latest step in this mission is The Ranch at Laguna Beach’s new partnership with Pathwater. Now, guests at The Ranch at Laguna Beach will find their rooms furnished with brand-new Pathwater bottles made from recyclable aluminum and containing pure reverse-osmosis filtered water. 

The co-branded bottle itself is infinitely recyclable, refillable, eco-friendly, and made in the U.S. The new Pathwater bottles will also be available for purchase at Ben’s Pantry adjacent to The Ranch at Laguna Beach’s golf course, as well as the resort’s oceanfront restaurant, Lost Pier Café.

“As the hospitality industry makes necessary shifts to disposable materials for guest amenities and food service, we at The Ranch at Laguna Beach are finding creative ways to stay true to our sustainable philosophy while keeping guests safe,” said Kurt Bjorkman, General Manager of The Ranch at Laguna Beach. “Our new partnership with Pathwater supports a fellow small business, helps curb unnecessary single-use plastic at the property, and provides guests with an infinitely-recyclable souvenir to take home as a reminder of our ongoing commitment to the planet.” 

The new lightweight aluminum Pathwater bottles are 100 percent recyclable and made from one of the most recyclable materials in the world. Recycled at twice the rate of plastic, aluminum also boasts a smaller carbon footprint for its recycling process compared to liquid packaging alternatives like plastic or glass. The material is infinitely recyclable, while plastic is often downcycled and results in more waste.

The Ranch bottle

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The Ranch’s new water bottle is recyclable, refillable, and eco-friendly 

The new co-branded Pathwater partnership is the latest in a wide range of sustainable initiatives at The Ranch at Laguna Beach, including:

Water Reclamation: The Ranch at Laguna Beach saves an estimated 21.2 million gallons of water annually by using reclaimed water for irrigation on the resort grounds and its Geo-Certified Ben Brown’s golf course. 

Bamboo Room Keys: The Ranch at Laguna Beach helps keep 25,000 plastic key cards out of landfills by swapping plastic room keys with biodegradable wooden and bamboo keys. These keys can either be returned to the Front Desk upon check-out for full sanitization or kept as a souvenir. If keys do make their way into the trash, they will degrade back into the soil over time.

Adopt a Channel: Volunteers from The Ranch at Laguna Beach currently maintain a 0.75-mile stretch of the Aliso Creek Channel in Mission Viejo. Since December 2015, the resort team has removed more than 2,500 pounds of trash and debris from the channel – mainly bottles, cans, plastic wrappers, paper – effectively preventing this harmful material from clogging the channel or making its way to the Pacific Ocean.

Bottles to Bunkers: The Ranch at Laguna Beach recycled five tons of glass in 2019 through its Bottles to Bunkers program. The Ranch at Laguna Beach is the first hospitality entity in North America to operate a GLSand glass-bottle crusher, which crushes and sifts glass bottles into fine sand for the resort’s golf course bunkers. This program reduces glass waste at the resort by 90 percent while keeping bunkers filled.

OC Birds of Prey: Every Saturday, The Ranch at Laguna Beach hosts an interactive and educational encounter with the Orange County Bird of Prey Center, a volunteer organization dedicated to treating and rehabilitating injured raptors and returning them to the wild. Guests can see these majestic birds up close and learn how to protect their natural habitat.

To learn more about sustainability practices at The Ranch at Laguna Beach, visit

For information about the property’s cleanliness, sanitization, distancin and safety protocols to combat COVID-19, visit or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

To make a reservation, visit www.theranchlb.comor call (949) 499-2271.

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Chef Craig Connole finds new level of expression at Ristorante Rumari 

By Diane Armitage

Fourteen years ago, I decided I’d make a hobby out of covering all the “best of Laguna Beach.” Initially, it was just a few lonely blogs that – just as the movie Julie & Julie reported – seemed to only attract my mom’s attention and comments. Fast forward 14 years, and it’s become quite an entity that has surprised me more than anyone else.

The very first chef I asked to interview for my then-rocking three-article blog was Chef Craig Connole of K’ya Bistro and Rooftop fame. He proved so easygoing and interesting that he was the encouragement that led to my hundreds of chef and restaurateur interviews and food reviews.

Chef Craig Connole helped puts Laguna on the map

While I spent my 14 years building out my blog and subsequent books, Chef Craig spent the same amount of time transforming two restaurants at the La Casa del Camino Hotel into globally renowned eateries. 

Despite changes in ownership and hotel management groups, Chef Craig continued to turn out new culinary innovations, even introducing “small plates” in 2008 and 2009 when our economy took a dive. He and business partner Chris Keller were always ahead of the puck, quick to change, feint, and scramble forward. 

Chef Craig closeup

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Photo by Diane Armitage

Chef Craig Connole

Now, the two have reunited at Chris Keller’s newest restaurant ownership, Ristorante Rumari, and a whole new game is in play! Over the years, Chef Craig would chat with me about possibly moving to another town to start a new restaurant, and I was secretly terrified of losing this great talent. I couldn’t be happier to see my first chef buddy in Laguna turn to a whole new venture in our very own Laguna Beach.

At the end of March, COVID-19 struck just at the time that Craig Connole had decided to exit La Casa and head over to Rumari. The next three months gave the business partners plenty of time to change up the interior, update the kitchen, and modernize everywhere – I covered this bit of news in my article on June 9th.

A flawless & flavorful dinner experience

Last week, I was able to try the food, which made for an altogether fabulous evening. 

For starters, Ristorante Rumari is following all the recommended protocols in this COVID-19 era, even completely removing dining tables inside and working on completing a back patio for outdoor seating. Lucian Stefonik, the returning General Manager, has done a great job training his front of house staff as well. And, one of the best moments was discovering that longtime favorite server Martin has returned once again. He had left Rumari a few months ago to start his own restaurant, but COVID-19 had another plan. Ever gracious, he told me that it was meant to be. 

Chef Craig has brought the Ristorante Rumari menu down in size, both to hone his staff’s ability to quickly expedite and to clear the menu of items that were rarely ordered. Although many popular items remain, Chef Craig sheepishly tells me that he’s “tinkered” with a few to “update their flavor profiles.”

While he suggests that we try a Rumari favorite appetizer, Spiedino (shrimp wrapped with pancetta), Martin scoffs good-naturedly. 

“You’ve had that how many times?” he asks me. “I think you should try what Chef has brought to us instead.”

Martin directs us to starters Mushrooms & Polenta and the House Greens. We discover that Chef Craig has chosen to send the Rack of Lamb appetizer to the table, too. 

One bite of the Mushrooms & Polenta and I’m a different human being. This is sheer craftery…and we’re talking everyday mushrooms and polenta here. It is perfection all the way to its sprinkle of coarse salt on its crown. 

The lamb chops arrive next. They’re so beautifully plated I’m initially reluctant to touch them. I’m one of those odd people who has to try lamb chops anywhere at every turn. For me, if a restaurant serves lamb chops, it is as telling a dish as soup – you can learn anything you need to know about a chef by his lamb chops!

Chef Craig lamb

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Photo by Diane Armitage

Ristorante Rumari’s impeccable Rack of Lamb appetizer

Chef Craig’s revised Rumari Rack of Lamb is simply impeccable. Tender, and super mild in taste, the meat is finished on the grill and sauced with the Italian version of sweet and sour sauce (agrodolce).

Even my good friend, Ali, whom I’ve brought along with me as a representative of the Surf & Sand Resort, loves this lamb – and she never eats lamb. 

Then, the “House Greens” makes its way to the table. It is bright, fresh, and beautiful with thin slices of heirloom tomato, red onion slivers, olives, cucumber, and skillet-tossed nuts in a spare red wine vinaigrette.

Figuring we have to leave some sort of room for a main entrée (the secondi), Martin clucks over us as we narrow from nine pasta options. 

Chef has told me that he “slightly reworked” the Rumari red sauce, so I ask for the Rigatoni Bolognese. Martin thinks we should also try the new Gnocchi Al Pesto, so we haggle until he agrees to make half-size portions of each. 

When the dishes arrive, I can only hope that Chef Craig chose to simply ignore my haggle for half. There is plenty on one dish to feed an army of teenagers. 

There are two camps on Rumari’s red pomodoro sauce: Those who love it and those who don’t. There is no gray area here, and it’s long been a point of contention at coffee discussions everywhere in town.

Chef Craig bolognese

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Photo by Diane Armitage

Ristorante Rumari’s Veal and Beef Rigatoni Bolognese

I don’t know if Chef Craig’s “slight tinkering” will cause new drama but I thought it was magnificent. The Bolognese is a gorgeous blend of veal and beef ragu with just the right amount of sauce to lift the flavors from the pasta. 

The Gnocchi Al Pesto is a heavenly pillow of fluff. Unlike the usual heavy pellets you commonly experience in gnocchi, this mushroom gnocchi is light in texture and – surprisingly – pan-seared like a dumpling. The sear releases more of that hearty mushroom flavor, and it all blends beautifully with the housemade pesto (called “salsa verde” by Chef) and a fluff of fresh ricotta.   

Salmon perfection

At this point, we’re stuffed. The show, however, must go on. (I can’t write a dining column without a main course, for heaven’s sake.) So, we choose the lightest item on the secondi menu – Filetto di Salmone – as a split between us. 

I love salmon. I love several renditions of salmon in this town (Lumberyard’s planked, 230 Forest’s char-grilled, and Royal Hawaiian’s grilled salmon come first to mind.) 

The new Rumari salmon takes a stage all its own. The salmon is so tender, it almost tastes like a poach with a finishing grill. It is the flavors, though, stacked layer upon layer, that make this such a memorable dish.

Chef Craig salmon

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Photo by Diane Armitage

Ristorante Rumari’s Filetto di Salmone

Fresh peeled heirloom tomatoes, artichoke hearts, basil, asparagus, and purple carrots shoulder next to a heaping serving of polenta. Together, they serve as foundation for the generous salmon filet, which is then topped with the Italian salsa verde, minced parsley, capers, and tiny garlic bits. 

Extra virgin olive oil is whisked with lemon juice, red pepper flakes, Maldon sea salt, and black pepper to create the perfect dipping partner. The entire presentation is truly magnificent.

Dessert finalé

Yes, of course the famous Rumari Semifreddo has returned. But, I’m familiar with that dessert, so Martin points us toward the Homemade Cannoli. 

Chef Craig dessert

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Photo by Diane Armitage

Ristorante Rumari’s Homemade Cannoli

The dish arrives, a plump cannoli with ends rolled in chopped pistachio and a ramiken of warmed chocolate sauce on the side. Martin pours the sauce from way up high and, though we claim only one bite a piece, the dessert magically disappears. (So much for the menu’s recommendation to take one home for morning coffee.)

Dear readers, this was a meal of perfection, through and through. I’m beyond pleased that Chef Craig Connole has found a new level of expression from the foundational Italian cooking roots of his culinary career. In 14 years, I hope we will still be enjoying this Chef’s great contribution to Laguna Beach.

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 and follow on Instagram @BestofLagunaBeach (look for Diane’s smiling face).

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Yard Bar

Yard Bar waiter

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Ready for Happy Hour!

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Yard Bar patio restaurant debuts to happy acclaim

By Diane Armitage

On Wednesday afternoon, a new patio restaurant was born in the heart of downtown. Aptly named Yard Bar, this patio is more of a little brother to the Lumberyard restaurant on Forest. 

A concept dreamed up by the ever-innovative restaurateurs Cary and Suzanne Redfearn, the Yard Bar is tucked into the outdoor courtyard that used to cater to The Grove on Forest’s coffee crowd.

Yard Bar seating

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Photo by Diane Armitage

The Yard Bar, a Lumberyard “open-air solution,” opened Wednesday on Forest

“James [Taylor] closed his coffee shop right as COVID-19 hit in March and that whole, beautiful courtyard just sat there looking so forlorn,” said Cary Redfearn. 

“So, as it became apparent that outdoor seating would probably be the most comfortable bridge for many of our dine-in patrons, I started thinking about how we could convert the patio into an extension for the Lumberyard,” he explained.

With ABC (Alcoholic Beverage Control) and Laguna’s City Council working to help area restaurants survive the shutdown and continue to thrive, Redfearn says his idea was met with great support.

“Councilwoman Sue Kempf has been particularly awesome in helping us bring this to fruition. It really came together quickly,” said Redfearn.

“The Yard Bar is a perfect, creative example of how restaurants can expand their dining options during a very difficult time,” said Councilwoman Kempf. “I think it’ going to be a big hit.”

The Yard Bar is open from 4 - 8 p.m. weeknights, and until 9 p.m. (or later, depending) on weekends. This Friday begins live music from 6 - 9 p.m. with Lumberyard returning favorite Bob Hawkins. 

A little bit o’ love goes a long way

“Everything in the Yard Bar is sort of a miniaturized version of the Lumberyard,” said Redfearn. 

Yard Bar servers

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Photo by Diane Armitage

The Yard Bar offers a “patio” menu of new and popular appetizers with bartenders at the ready

Redfearn ordered a custom-built seven-foot bar to be shipped from the other side of the country. Somehow, it’s in Texas right now, so Redfearn scrambled earlier this week to find a rental bar that would at least allow for the planned Wednesday opening.

The bar anchors the east side of the patio while tables and chairs are scattered throughout. Two large chalkboards announce the day’s mini menu specials in food, specialty cocktails, wine, and beer. The nearby kegerator serves up an ever-changing option of three craft beers, too. 

In addition to some of Lumberyard’s most popular appetizers (i.e. the Panko Fried Zucchini, Grilled Artichoke, and Sweet Potato Fries), the Yard Bar is introducing new summery items such as Olive & Almond plates, Red Crab-stuffed Arancini (flash-fried balls stuffed with crab and risotto), and a larger Mediterranean Platter of roasted garlic hummus, manchego cheese, olives, and more. 

Yard Bar food

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Courtesy of Lisa Anderson for the Yard Bar

Food items at the Yard Bar include shareable appetizers, salads, and more

Patrons simply step up to the bar, order and pay, and then seek out a free table. With its string lights and greenery all around, it has an energetic and inviting vibe all its own.

Lumberyard retail neighbor George Nelson of Fawn Memories was the first to take a seat at Yard Bar’s Wednesday opening.

“I think this is a fabulous idea,” he said. 

“The Promenade on Lower Forest is certainly bringing in larger crowds there, and it’s great that our ‘anchor restaurant’ here on this end of Forest is able to create a similar feel. It’s charming here. I think it will prove a great draw.” 

Patios are poppin’ everywhere

Meanwhile, restaurants throughout Laguna Beach have been given the green light to innovate workable, expanded patio space with the ability to simply sketch their plans to submit for City approval. Subsequent approved patios and expanded seating areas are popping up everywhere in town, many of them quite creative renditions. 

“As a restaurant in this town, when you have to open at 50 percent occupancy, I don’t know how you’re going to make it,” said Councilwoman Kempf. 

“We had some restaurants fail pre-COVID, and others were feeling very shaky. I just wanted the City to do what we could to help these restaurant owners hang on through this unprecedented time.”

When the lockdown happened in March, Kempf was invited to the Laguna Beach Restaurant Association’s weekly calls.

“I just wanted to find out what they were doing and what their plans were so that I could start thinking of ways the City could help,” said Kempf. 

“Once we realized that outdoor dining space would be a commodity, I started working with the City to expedite temporary use permits (TUPs) for expanded outdoor dining. But the real creativity lies in these restaurant owners and their ideas. They have a sort of sense of humor about it; their energy and camaraderie have been great.”

This week’s City Council meeting also loosened restrictions for retailers. 

“Some of these decisions are temporary measures and some are more permanent,” said Kempf.

“Who knows? Some of the temporary solutions may become longer-term. We’re doing what we feel we can do, and we’re seeing how it all evolves,” she said. 

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 and follow on Instagram @BestofLagunaBeach (look for Diane’s smiling face).

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Chef Pirozzi’s dream come true

Chef Pirozzi's dream

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Chef Pirozzi of Alessa beside his fully seated Forest Ave patio. “The Pirozzi team is thrilled with this new establishment, and we can’t wait to seat our loyal Laguna Beach locals and all those who come from afar,” says Pirozzi.

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The W’s Have It: Wild Taco and Wine Gallery make their re-entry

By Diane Armitage

Bear Flag’s popular taqueria concept, Wild Taco, has reopened for both limited dine-in and takeout in downtown Laguna Beach, and fans immediately began flocking.

“It’s awesome to be back and see so many locals dropping in,” said General Manager Chad Abell. “We felt like we were just getting to know everyone and then everything shut down on us.”

The restaurant redo in the old Johnny Rockets space took months longer than expected. While the Bear Flag folks hoped to open in May of 2019, they finally dragged their bedraggled selves over the finish line eight months later on January 16, 2020. 

Wild Taco exterior

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Courtesy of Wild Taco

Wild Taco in downtown Laguna Beach has reopened with a happy sigh

Just two months later, the stay-at-home order rolled into play. While the eatery initially tried to stay open with takeout service, orders were slim. The team decided to temporarily close on April 8th.

It was yet another two months before Wild Taco reopened its doors, choosing to wait until they could also offer a limited amount of dine-in options. 

Wild Taco’s specials & local love

During the time off, Abell and his team brainstormed inventive solutions.

For starters, the entire menu has been added to Yelp’s online ordering platform. Wild Taco is also using DoorDash as a delivery vehicle, but the menu is available for pick-up as well.

The team has also negotiated a smaller menu with Marine Room’s Owner Chris Keller so that he, too, can open his bar with food options. 

“It primarily consists of appetizers, small bites, and a few of our larger items,” said Abell. “We can simply expedite down to the Marine Room; it’s super easy for us.”

Wild Taco skillet

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Photo by Diane Armitage

A best-seller at Wild Taco, the cast iron skillets offer steak, chicken, or the wild fish of the day, pictured above

Taking advantage of the “cocktails to go” scenario, Wild Taco is also selling closed container margarita pitchers to go, which serve up four to six margaritas for just $25. 

Breakfast items have also been added into the mix seven days a week, served 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on weekdays, and from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on weekends. Add in bottomless mimosas for just $15 per person.

“Our team is back, masked, gloved, and making it happen,” said Abell. “Our Executive Chef Alfredo Rosette keeps the whole team upbeat,” added Abell. “He’s the best hire I think I’ve made in my life.”

Another local favorite, Wine Gallery, opens Thursday

While many fellow restaurateurs jumped back in the fray as soon as dine-in was allowed, co-owners Chris Olsen and Paul Spiegelman of Wine Gallery Laguna Beach decided to take their time with their reopening.

Wild Taco Wine Gallery

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Courtesy of Wine Gallery

Wine Gallery re-opens this Thursday, June 18th

“We wanted to be completely prepared for both our guests and our employees,” said Olsen. “We’ve worked too hard to build a family here in Laguna, and we want it to be completely comfortable and safe for everyone.”

Spiegelman and Olsen reopen on Thursday, June 18th, almost three months to the day they closed. Initially, Olsen delivered more than his fair share of wine bottles to avid buyers in that timeframe, and a few weeks ago, the team re-opened for takeout with Chef Josh back in the kitchen.

Now, with new upgrades, added outdoor seating and a spic-and-span restaurant, the local favorite will no doubt be up to its eyeballs in well-wishers on Thursday.

Wild Taco wings

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Courtesy of Wine Gallery

Wine Gallery Chef Josh says he’s spent three months working out new wings recipes

“We’re still providing our takeout menu with retail wine bottles for anyone who’s not ready to venture out,” said Olsen. “Hey, we didn’t feel comfortable opening three weeks ago until we felt we were really ready; everyone is entitled to do what they feel is best for them.”

Stay tuned for daily announcements and specials at my Instagram page, noted below. 

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 and follow on Instagram @BestofLagunaBeach (look for Diane’s smiling face).

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The Hive is happening 

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

The Hive umbrellas

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Umbrellas are up and ready 

The Hive couple

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Jeff Redeker and Susan Shea enjoy some fun 

The Hive music

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Music to help the mood

The Hive wine

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Wine on a lovely day

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Nirvana Grille adapts its innovative co-op and expands takeout as doors open for dine-in


It’s been three months since the stay-at-home order, when everything ground to a thudding halt, grocery store shelves emptied, and we experienced a strange uneasiness with regard to food shopping. 

However, it didn’t take long for Lindsay Smith-Rosales, Nirvana Grille’s owner (along with her husband Luis) and executive chef, to start those gears back up again and in a most innovative way. Practically overnight, her co-op and takeout service took shape and have been life-savers for many residents. Fortunately, it’s evolving and expanding.

Nirvana Grille Lindsay

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Nirvana Grille Owner and Executive Chef Lindsay Smith-Rosales

With restaurant restrictions lifted, Nirvana Grille opened for dine-in both inside and out on the patio on May 28, with safety restrictions in place. Smith-Rosales has minimized the dining seating and placed distance between tables, added exterior patio dining, and is having guests access the menu through a QR code that can be changed at a moment’s notice. 

Smith-Rosales says, “It has been amazing to add and delete as needed – based on availability. We also have staff using iPads for the orders and a chip reader to pay so that the guest only touches their credit card with no need for pens, checkbooks, etc. This eliminated so much of the sanitation challenges we were looking at! 

Nirvana Grille scanner

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

QR scanners are used to access menu

“Dine-in has been great on the weekends. We are really enjoying being back to it and it is so great to have that revenue back!” Smith-Rosales adds. “We see that while adding lessor priced options, we can adapt to the more casual and fine dining model seamlessly and have a larger demographic audience because of it and not just be reliant on the festival and playgoers any longer as the bread and butter of business.” 

In previous articles I’ve sung the praises of Nirvana’s dine-in cuisine. It’s unbelievably creative and fresh – the tomato burrata salad, salmon, mushroom ravioli, tofu – pretty much everything I’ve ordered (or sampled from a friend’s plate) is extraordinary.

As good as the restaurant already is, Smith-Rosales is constantly updating the menu. “I did not do a rollout like past years but have not ruled it out. We are working on the upstairs with adding two new wooden gazebos and when that is done, maybe we will do a cool night of dinner to release with a tasting. Not sure. The nice thing is we get an R&D restaurant that people want to support while we find a model that works and they get a much-needed chance to get out!” 

Nirvana Grille co op

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut


As for the co-op, Smith-Rosales says, “We are doing all we can to offer as much variety and make sure that the best products can be made available. Since our menus only are an example of the quality we can get, our customers are the direct benefactors of this access. It has been great to be able to share with them this service and convenience.”

Now I will sing the praises of the co-op and takeout, which remains a convenient, fast way to grab from a variety of produce, meat, seafood, pasta, sauces, and household items. We’ve ordered takeout twice, the first time stocking up on staples from the co-op, olive oil, etc., and ordering a couple of hot entrees – the vegetable risotto (my fav), the salmon, the mushroom ravioli, and a baguette. They all traveled well and were up to the same standards as dine-in. 

Nirvana Grille swordfish

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Photo by Dianne Russell

Frozen Australian Wild Swordfish from Nirvana Grille’s co-op – all cooked up

However, the new and surprising discovery was the frozen fish. We ordered a pound of Wild Australian Swordfish and stuck it in the freezer, unaware of what a fantastic treat it would be. A week later, we decided to defrost it (it comes in one piece, and once sliced, serves two with ample portions and some leftovers), pan-seared it, and then popped it into the oven for five minutes. Top it with a sauce of melted better, chives, garlic, and lemon juice. Beyond description. It’s so flavorful, it doesn’t need any accompaniment except for the light sauce – hold the tartar sauce! 

So enamored were we that we ordered five more pounds over the weekend to keep in the freezer.

Smith-Rosales has more creative ideas in the works for co-op and takeout. “We will do it until we feel the need no longer exists. Although it has decreased, we are thinking of ways to adapt and change to find out what people are looking for to continue to order.”

Nirvana Grille tables

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Tables distanced for safety

“We are expanding with more family kits soon and entertaining size meals to-go and pulling a bit back on the grocery variety to be mainly the produce, dairy, meats, and seafood we carry plus in-house made options. We’re trying to focus on easy-to-make and bake options or hot pick-up ready-to-serve items to allow people entertain with ease at home for groups.”

How Smith-Rosales fits anything else into her schedule is a mystery, but she says, “I started doing catering in-home again too! We will be adding Zoom cooking demos twice month – on Wednesdays – starting next week, too, with delivery of groceries from us for class as an option.

“We will have guest chefs who are local and others who are colleagues cooking alongside. A nice way to get out of our restaurant, visit, chat, and let people be entertained. I may end up doing the demos every week if popular enough! We will be also providing all the items we will be cooking through the market side, so all is portioned and ready. We unpack and start cooking together and then dinner is ready by around 7 p.m. to eat. We have done a few and they were a blast.”

Nirvana Grille exterior

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Nirvana Grille 

“We still will do all the to-go as well daily from 3 to 9 p.m., excluding Mondays.”

For those who don’t want to cook on Father’s Day, here is your answer.

Smith-Rosales says, “We are back open starting this Sunday for to-go for Father’s Day. We will see as Sawdust does its pop-up if we continue to do dine-in service or add to-go service on Sundays but will close in-house dining on Wednesdays and only do to-go for now.”

There are all kinds of options to enjoy the fare at Nirvana Grille – dining in, cooking at home with a meal kit, picking up a ready-to-eat meal, or buying fixings from the co-op; in any case, you’ll be delighted.

Ordering couldn’t be easier – input it online, and then pick it up curbside.

Nirvana Grille is located at 303 Broadway, #101. 

For more information or to order for pick-up, go to or call (949) 497-0027.

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New Sapphire, Cellar. Craft. Cook lives up to its name 

By Diane Armitage

Nothing gives me greater pleasure than seeing a talented restaurateur choose Laguna Beach. 

In Sapphire, Cellar. Craft. Cook’s case, Restaurateur Russ Bendel has stacked the deck with additional talent that plays at a very big culinary level. 

For daily operations, Russ chose Operating Partner Chris Hutten, a supremely talented and longtime Executive Chef plucked from South Coast Plaza’s Capital Grille. 

Then, he brought in his Executive Chef Jared Cook to design a Laguna-specific menu. 

And, he pulled the popular Mastro’s Ocean Club General Manager Xavier Quintanilla to help with front-of-house operations. 

New Sapphire chefs

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Photo by Diane Armitage

Restaurateur Russ Bendel (right) and Operating Partner Chris Hutten have opened the new Sapphire, Cellar. Craft. Cook

End result? A smoothly running, well-oiled machine of friendly hospitality, significant food, and polished professionalism. 

An airier look for a local favorite

“We were planning to open in early April but the year 2020 had different plans for us,” said Hutten. 

“It gave us time, though, to create new solutions that handle the temporary situation for social distancing along with a long-term solution for seating in our restaurant that we hadn’t been considering at first.”

While the restaurant has repurposed most of the furniture and chairs from the former Sapphire, the space looks significantly different with a lighter palette, modernized bench seating, and an airier feel all around. 

“We wanted everyone in the dining room to be able to see out to the ocean,” said Bendel. “After all, that’s why everyone is here!” 

New Sapphire interior

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Photo by Diane Armitage

The new Sapphire, Cellar. Craft. Cook has opened with a fresh look

Amuse bouche set the tone for the evening 

While COVID-19 stalled the opening of the dine-in restaurant, the new Sapphire ownership hustled to open its Sapphire Pantry by the end of March. (See my website for April 3rd’s review of the Sapphire Pantry.)

Next door to the larger restaurant, the Pantry served as a great tease for menu items that would be debuting on the dine-in restaurant’s menu. 

Everything I tried through the Sapphire Pantry proved quite satisfying, but it only got better on Tuesday evening when I was seated on the open-air patio for my first “dining in” experience. 

Let’s start with the starter “amuse bouche,” which is a complimentary bite of food that a chef may or may not choose to serve at the very beginning of the dining experience. This hors d’oeuvre’s appearance can often depend on how busy the kitchen is, so the amuse bouche is not something I’d say is etched in stone. If it shows up at your table, it’s always a lovely surprise. 

New Sapphire amuse bouche

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Photo by Diane Armitage

The Sapphire, Cellar. Craft. Cook “amuse bouche”

This proved the case when Executive Chef Jared delivered a “bite” of food that turned out to be about 10 bites of food. I finished it all, knowing that I had already ordered two appetizers and planned on eating an entrée, too. (Thankfully, my dining buddy, Ali North, Chef Concierge of Surf & Sand Resort, pledged to help me through the remaining courses.)

This particular evening’s amuse bouche was a hearty slice of focaccia bread with the tiniest bit of grill on its edges. It was heaped with a mix of fresh crab meat, beets and capers, with a darling crown of watermelon radish. 

I could have left the Sapphire patio at that point and been completely pleased with my dining experience. It was that good. 

But then the house-made Duck & Berkshire Pork Meatballs showed up. 

Hearty, delightful appetizers

Three sizable meatballs arrived, nestled in a “forest mushroom” sugo (essentially a thick mushroom sauce) with freshly spun rosemary cavatelli pasta, bits of mushroom, and fresh chunks of truffle goat cheese. 

New Sapphire meatballs

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Photo by Diane Armitage

The Sapphire, Cellar. Craft. Cook Duck & Pork Meatballs in forest mushroom sugo

The pasta was heavy, more like a gnocchi, a perfect choice to hold up beautifully to its partnered sauce. The meatballs were light in texture but dense in flavor. Duck meatballs can often become too “ducky” in flavor, in my opinion, but the mix of pork in Chef Jared’s creation created something truly sublime.

When the Brussels sprouts made their way to the table, we knew we were in trouble. Typically, a Brussels sprouts dish is made up of…well…Brussels sprouts. You might have bits of bacon or small chunks of pork belly, but the main feature is usually all about the sprouts. 

New Sapphire Brussels

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Photo by Diane Armitage

The Sapphire, Cellar. Craft. Cook Brussels sprouts

In this case, not a chance. Arriving in a still-sizzling cast iron skillet, the Brussels sprouts were jumbled with slightly charred cauliflower, a surprising sprinkle of pomegranate seeds, and Ricotta Salata crumbles (sheep’s milk cheese that is cured for at least 90 days – it’s heavenly creaminess with just the right amount if salt.) 

It took a moment to find all of this, however, because the dish arrived with two gorgeous pork belly planks crisscrossing the mound of veggies underneath. The Brussels sprouts mix would have been delightful enough, and I’m sure people who don’t prefer pork belly can ask for just the vegetables, but the addition of these perfectly grilled pork belly portions was simply sheer bliss. 

If you still have room for an entrée…

At this point, my dining buddy and I decided we would split an entrée. 

The entrées on the menu cover the gamut, from Prime Beef Cheek Stroganoff to Lemon Verbena Poached Salmon, a giant Bone-in Ribeye Steak, their already-popular Wagyu Beef Burger, Crispy Pork Schnitzel (Chris Hutten claims it’s his favorite dish on the menu), and more. 

On our waiter’s recommendation, we chose the Wild Caught Alaskan Halibut. 

New Sapphire halibut

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Photo by Diane Armitage

The Sapphire, Cellar. Craft. Cook Wild Caught Halibut

Once again, you can choose to eat the vegetables that accompany this large portion because they’re a feature in and of themselves. The flaky halibut arrived atop a mix of cherry tomatoes, English pea tendrils, fava beans, and barely salted banana fingerling potatoes. Tossed lightly in a coriander gastrique, the vegetable combination was another perfectly finessed ally to what is probably one of the best halibut filets I’ve had in years. 

Always room for dessert

At this point, my friend, you might as well just give up the fight and order dessert. And, order this dessert, good glory. 

Titled “Dark Chocolate Chunk & Fromage Blanc Cookies,” it doesn’t seem to be an intimidating dessert, right? What appears, however, fulfills your heavenly ice cream sandwich dream. 

Chewy, freshly baked chocolate cookies do their best to bookend house-made peanut butter cup gelato. The gelato, itself, has chunks of dark chocolate imbedded, unbelievable. The entirety is topped with freshly made butter brickle with just the right toss of micro-chopped hazelnut. 

New Sapphire cookie

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Photo by Diane Armitage

The Sapphire, Cellar. Craft. Cook Dark Chocolate Chunk & Fromage Blanc Cookies

If I invent a “Best of Laguna Beach™” Top 5 Dessert List” for Laguna Beach, this goes right to the top. No questions, no apologies, and certainly never any leftovers. 

One of the finest dining experiences in Laguna Beach

When globally-renowned Chef Azmin Ghahreman chose to sell his Sapphire restaurant several months ago, we all knew we were losing a unique talent to Laguna Beach. It is so refreshing to see this new ownership take up the mantle, producing what could easily be called “culinary decadence” at the new Sapphire, Cellar. Craft. Cook. I couldn’t be more pleased that Russ Bendel chose our town. 

Sapphire, Cellar. Craft. Cook. is open at 4 p.m. daily on the patio and in the dining room. The Pantry is open from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily and continues to provide a hearty menu of takeout items as well as grab-and-go, fresh-baked treats, and coffee. The restaurant will be opening for lunch in the weeks ahead, with weekend brunch following suit. Stay tuned to my social platforms (see below) for those announcements. 

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 and follow on Instagram @BestofLagunaBeach (look for Diane’s smiling face).

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Popular Chef Craig Connole moves to Ristorante Rumari

By Diane Armitage

After 15 years of creating renowned success as the Corporate Chef of La Casa del Camino’s K’ya Bistro and The Rooftop, Chef Craig Connole has moved four blocks south to Ristorante Rumari

“I was planning to leave Casa at the end of March and take off the month of April before starting up at Rumari,” said Connole. “But the stay-at-home order happened the third week of March, and I sort of got April and May off, instead,” he said.

Popular Craig

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Photo by Diane Armitage

Popular Chef Craig Connole has taken over the kitchen at Ristorante Rumari 

Rumari reopens this Wednesday, 7 days a week

Chef Craig quietly reopened Ristorante Rumari last Friday evening, inviting a handful of friends and family in to test the wheels of the machine. On Saturday and Sunday, the restaurant began taking very limited reservations. 

For the time being, Chef Craig is offering a limited menu of Rumari bestsellers and a few new innovations of his own. 

“It’s me and two cooks I brought with me from K’ya,” said Chef Craig. “That’s my entire staff in the kitchen right now. Clearly, I need to ramp up my staff.”

Fabled business partners Chris Keller and Chef Connole reunite

Chef Craig joins former business partner Chris Keller, who purchased Ristorante Rumari in 2019 from the original Crivello family ownership. 

Chris and Craig initially began working together on the restaurant side of La Casa del Camino hotel in 2005. As the years wore on, they each stepped into varying degrees of ownership, with Keller taking on more of the hotel operations. 

“When Chris first started looking at buying Rumari, he asked me to come over and walk through the kitchen to, you know, look for possible issues. At that point, we just couldn’t stop talking about taking over the whole operation. It just took us several months to actually get there.”

Aside from a “serious update” in the kitchen, Chef Craig and Chris have devoted the last several weeks to modernizing the interior and doing structural repairs. The partners are also adding a back patio to the eatery, which should be completed this coming weekend. 

Popular Rumari

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Photo by Diane Armitage

Ristorante Rumari reopens this Wednesday with new look, new chef

Lucian, Martin, and Sammy also back in play

Front of house is still under the management of Lucian Stefonik, who returned to work for Keller at the end of last year. 

Stefonik first met and worked with Chris and Chef Craig at K’ya in 2005. He worked his way up to manager of K’\’ya before taking on the management position at House of Big Fish + Cold Beer, which also began under Chris and Craig’s operating partnership.

“It’s like a little reunion,” said Connole. “The three of us just work well together. We have a lot of fun plans for the future.”

Chef Craig assures me that both Martin, the long-standing head waiter, and Bartender Sammy have returned to Rumari as well.

Back in the Sauce

“I haven’t worked in a fully Italian restaurant since I opened Zeppa in Fashion Island in 1989,” Connole told me. “It’s been fun getting back into this kind of menu. There are a million things I want to do, but I’ve still got to sort it out in this limited kitchen space. The key is to keep it super fresh with that old-style feel still woven in.”

I’ll be writing a larger “review” (hopefully from the new Rumari back patio) next week. Stay tuned! 

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 and follow on Instagram @BestofLagunaBeach (look for Diane’s smiling face).

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