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OC Restaurant Week starts on Sunday

By Diane Armitage

OC Restaurant Week is just around the corner with dates set for Sunday, March 8 – Saturday, March 14. For locals here in Laguna Beach, this can be a bane or a boom, depending entirely on the opinion you chose.

On the bane side, this always designates a much busier restaurant traffic flow in Laguna Beach. Although more than 100 restaurants participate across Orange County, I’m not exaggerating or bragging when I say that many diners choose Laguna Beach above all others simply because of the culinary reputation we have.

On the boon side, this is a perfect week to adapt the motto, “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,” as at least a handful of our preferred restaurants offer exceptional dining values throughout the week.

There’s no better time to get out to one of your favorite restaurants or choose to dine in a Laguna-based restaurant you haven’t yet tried.

Amenable menus for both lunch and dinner

In a departure from previous years when each restaurant had to choose a “pricing slot,” there seems to be more freedom in allowing the restaurants to price prix fixe menu options that will prove most amenable to visiting diners. This year, there are also specialty items called out, such as Spicy Menu items, Featured Cocktails, and more.

OC Restaurant Nirvana

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Submitted photo

Nirvana Grille is participating in OC Restaurant Week

Lunch options from $15 – $25

Starting with the lunch options, Skyloft is offering $15 lunch prix fixe menus.
Skyloft’s big sister, Mozambique, is also open for lunch with $15 three-course prix fixe menus.

O Fine Japanese is also offering a three-course $25 lunch that includes a 12-piece sushi dish.

At $25 for lunch, Starfish is again featuring the most options with small and large plates.

Featured cocktails for $12

In the mood for just dropping in for a cocktail and appetizer? Four of the participating restaurants are offering $12 Specialty Cocktails with Ketel One, Maker’s Mark, and/or Chambord:

Royal Hawaiian has created two newbies with its “Island Sunset” featuring Maker’s Mark Bourbon Whiskey, house-made honey syrup and passion fruit liqueur, and “Best of Coast Worlds” featuring a smooth meld of Ketel One vodka, Pisco Brandy, and fresh juices.

Fishbone offers “Berry Berry Sour “(Ketel One and Chambord), Smoked Negroni With Roku Gin, Carpano Antica and Campari, and “Fishbone Sunset” with Hornitos Tequila and blood orange juice.

Mozambique has created a “Not Your Traditional Sour” with Maker’s Mark, orange bitter, and agave nectar.

Skyloft is featuring a “Spicy Vodka Rita,” featuring Ketel One, muddle cucumber, and jalapenos.

Dinner options

$30 Prix Fixe Menus

Nirvana Grille offers two dinner menu options, so I’ll start with the $30 three-course prix fixe menu. Chef Lindsey offers a solid range of starters, entrée offerings that include her Basil Aioli Steelhead Salmon and Braised Beef Short Ribs, along with dessert options with a host of add-on items for a small additional

cost. 

Mozambique also offers a $30 three-course prix fixe dinner menu with a handful of best-selling options to choose from.

$40 Prix Fixe Menus

Skyloft offers a $40 three-course prix fixe dinner with appetizer, entrée, and dessert options that include their popular tri-tip and stroganoff options.

OC restaurant lumberyard

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Submitted photo

Lumberyard’s cedar-planked King Salmon is a great option 

Lumberyard is back again, too, with a three-course prix fixe at $40. Choose from best-sellers including filet mignon and their cedar-planked King Salmon.

Starfish is offering a $40 dinner menu plan with “elevated features” as well as a handful of large plate substitution recommendations for $10 additional.

$50 Prix Fixe Menus

Royal Hawaiian is offering a $50 four-course prix fixe dinner, which includes Chef Maro’s selection of a premier glass of wine. The four-course dinner includes appetizer, salad, and dessert choices along with large plate entrée options that include his recent award-winning “OC Best Steak” option, the 12-ounce Petite Tender Steak along with his crowd-pleasing Wild Hawaiian Opah and the Sonoma Chicken Breast (that I can’t get enough of).

O Fine Japanese offers a $50 prix fixe dinner menu with a long assortment of options that include a six-piece sashimi combination, a three-piece sushi offer, and wild-caught sea bass done three ways.

Las Brisas offers a $50 three-course prix fixe menu with popular starter, entrée, and dessert options.

Fishbone, our relative newcomer to Laguna, is offering a three-course dinner with an amuse bouche starter. Entrée options include a Spanish Octopus dish and flat iron steak.

Nirvana Grille gets second mention here for its $50 three-course prix fixe dinner with entrée options such as grilled sea bass and filet mignon plus eight recommended add-on items for a small additional cost.

Make reservations now!

Here’s your chance to finally try that Laguna Beach restaurant you’ve been hearing about! Chart your path now and make those reservations (even for lunch, trust me), as these restaurants will be bustling all week long.

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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New news on Wild Taco, Sapphire, Bear Flag and the Boom

By Diane Armitage

Here’s this week’s latest update on our restaurant world here in Laguna Beach. 

Chef Azmin’s last day at Sapphire is Sat, March 7

For 13 years, Chef Azmin Gharhreman has offered one of the most innovative, globally oriented menus in Orange County. While I’m a fan of everything I’ve had the pleasure to try at Sapphire, I have to tell you this, straight up: If you’ve never tried the hot dog at Sapphire, you had better make haste. 

I chatted with Sapphire’s beloved Chef Azmin last Sunday at Adam Bernstein’s fundraiser, and he told me, “Our last day of service will be Saturday, March 7. Then, we’ll be moving and clearing through March 10 so that Russ and his team can take over from there.”

new news azmin

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Submitted photo

At Adam Bernstein’s fundraiser on Sunday, Chef Azmin was feeling particularly breezy

New owner/operator Russ Bendel says that he and his team have plans for some minor rework in the interior dining room before a hoped-for opening of Sapphire, Cellar. Craft. Cook. in mid-April.

When Chef Azmin founded the restaurant in 2007, the community gained a real treasure, and we are thrilled to assume the stewardship of Sapphire,” Russ told me.

Our plans are to polish the property and bring in touches from our other restaurants at Vine, Ironwood, and Olea, but we’ll keep the hospitality and ambiance the same,” he said.

Wild Taco soon to offer earlier hours for breakfast burritos

When Bear Flag Fish Co’s Wild Taco restaurant opened six weeks ago in the old Johnny Rockets location, they chose to start with lunch and dinner items. Breakfast, however, is a very big deal for Newport Beach fans at the original Wild Taco, so Operations Manager Joe Klooster says it’s time to start incorporating the morning goodness here in Laguna.

“We’re starting a roll-out this Saturday,” he said. “We won’t be offering all of the breakfast burritos immediately, but we’re definitely starting with a build-your-own breakfast burrito.”

new news wild

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Courtesy of Bear Flag Fish Co

Wild Taco will begin serving build-your-own breakfast burritos this weekend

Noting that at least 80 percent of the new restaurant’s incoming traffic is that of locals, Klooster says that the breakfast addition is primarily geared toward locals who are up early on weekends and still in possession of the town before the crowds begin to arrive.

“We are not just that summertime spot,” says Klooster. “We came here for the locals, and that’s the audience we aim to serve for years to come.”

Hours may not change from their current opening at 11 a.m. this weekend, but look for the company to make a decision on earlier opening hours in the week ahead. 

Bear Flag looking at 18 months before opening in old Boom Boom Room

In August last year, the same Bear Flag Fish Co of Wild Taco announced its intentions to move its third Bear Flag Fish Co restaurant into the former Boom Boom Room space.

At that time, Bear Flag founder Thomas Carson noted that he had always wanted to open his first Bear Flag in Laguna Beach and, while his timetable flipped a bit, he never gave up on the idea of being in Laguna Beach. 

While Bear Flag is completely committed to the renovation of this space, it’s going to be a longer development process than we all had hoped. 

New news boom

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

The future site of Bear Flag’s third restaurant

“We’re saying now that it’s going to be about 18 months out. It’s disappointing, yes, but we’re all on the same page about this, so we’re really working together to make this renovation happen in its best and fastest way,” said Bear Flag Manager of Operations Joe Klooster. 

“And,” he added, “Because we came into Laguna Beach with Wild Taco first, we now have a much better understanding of how the permitting process works in Laguna. The City is doing what it can to support us, and that’s all that matters. We all want to see the revival of this iconic space.”

Watch for more weekly updates in my blog and in Best of Laguna Beach social platforms. 

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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Longtime Laguna bartender Adam Bernstein needs our help

Story by Diane Armitage

If you’ve been in Laguna Beach for any length of time, you’ve probably met the great bartender and mixologist Adam Bernstein. The guy brought sunshine and light to a few local establishments, the last being Sapphire Laguna for more than 10 years. 

About two years ago, Adam left our fine town for a great offer in Newport Beach. But now he could use your help no matter where he lives…or where you live. 

Last June, just days before he married his longtime fiancé, Rachel, she had a seizure and lost the use of the left side of her body. Being the eternal optimist that he is, Adam insisted the wedding still take place. 

Longtime Laguna couple

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Photo by Adam Bernstein

Rachel and Adam Bernstein

Two days later, they discovered that Rachel had stage 4 brain cancer. It’s an aggressive beast. Since June 2019, Adam has been caring for Rachel and unable to work.

Their family just reached out this weekend for help from us. They’ve set up a GoFundMe page to help Adam and Rachel with mounting medical bills and living expenses. I think it’s a great time we all came together to far exceed the goal they’ve established for this wonderful couple. 

There will also be a fundraiser at Salon Bleu in San Clemente on February 23 from 1 - 5 p.m. More on that later. For now, click here for the GoFundMe. 

Adam’s great talent and creativity made our worst days so much better. Even if you only have a little to donate, you can help Adam and Rachel with what is now their worst day.

To read more from Diane Armitage, visit www.thebestoflagunabeach.com.

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Laguna Chefs share the love on Valentine’s Day

Story by Diane Armitage,

The Best of Laguna Beach™

Yesterday, I was talking to one of our Laguna chefs about Valentine’s Day. 

Oddly, reservations for Valentine’s Day tend to occur well in advance, while Mother’s Day reservations tend to happen at the last minute. Imagine that. 

If you’re still putting your plan together for next Friday, Valentine’s Day, here’s a quick round-up from many of our local restaurants. More details are still rolling in from chefs, so be sure to check my blog at TheBestofLagunaBeach.com for the latest details. 

Note: Keep in mind that prix fixe menu pricing below does not include tax and tip. Please show some love to your servers wherever you choose to roost. 

The first required stop

Thank the gods that De Francis is still at it with her sliver of a store, The Chocolate Soldier, in the short alley across from Sapphire Pantry. No matter how quickly she crafts these heavenly treats, the shop will be practically stripped bare by Valentine Day’s dawning. Stop by early next week for best selections, including traditional Valentine hearts you can fill yourself or chocolate boxes that can hold any number of Valentine gifts.   

Laguna Chefs chocolate

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Photo by Diane Armitage

De Francis’ enduring Chocolate Soldier offers the freshest chocolate treats around

Flights to send you in the right direction for Valentine’s Day

Jason and Sofia McLain are celebrating the anniversary of their first date (February 13) with Pre-Valentine’s Day wine tastings at their Canyon-based McLain Cellars from 11 a.m. - 7 p.m. Wines will be paired with cheese, charcuterie, and chocolate. 

Then, on February 14, a different tasting event occurs from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.

 Reserve either day here.

Restaurants with specially created Valentine’s Day menus

First, if Friday Night just doesn’t seem right…

Sometimes, the end of the workweek is a tough time to romantically rally. 

I believe the only restaurant offering a special Valentine’s prix fixe menu on both Friday (Feb 14th) and Saturday (Feb 15th) is Royal Hawaiian Fire Grill.

Mixologist Sean Melia owns the first item on the menu, an “Our Love is Alive” cocktail consisting of vodka, hibiscus, lime, and pineapple juices with a champagne float. Chef/Owner Maro Molteni takes it from there with off-menu sublimes such as Seared Tuna & Burrata, Wild Caught Alaskan Salmon, a Free Range Wood-Grilled Venison Loin, and more. The regular dining menu will be available as well. 

$75/person

Reserve: RoyalHawaiianLB.com or call (949) 715-1470.

Nirvana Grille – It’s always important to keep Chef Lindsay’s Nirvana on your list. This year’s Valentine menu offers up options such as Blackened Scallops, Coriander Crusted Swordfish, Pepper Crusted Filet Mignon, and her awesome Lobster Bisque.

Laguna Chefs Lindsay

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Chef Lindsay, co-owner of Nirvana Grille

$89/person. Add Drew Barrymore Rosé for $9 a glass or bottomless Jean Phillipe Champagne for $25 per person. 

Reserve: NirvanaGrille.com or call (949) 497-0027. 

Splashes at Surf & Sand Chef Ron Fougeray’s Valentine treat this year offers appetizer options such as Smoked Albacore Tartare and Herb Stuffed Quail, with entrée options such as Petite Filet, Poached Brill, and Scallops. 

$150/person with $50 additional option for wine pairings. 

Reserve: Call (888) 281-3502

Wine Gallery Laguna One of my favorite (and somewhat undiscovered) chefs, Chef Josh Mason has crafted a four-course dinner that brings back the best of Josh. Options include Crab Cake, Salmon en Croute, and NY Strip Steak. 

$75/person with $35 additional option for wine pairings. Some items from the regular menu will also be available. 

Reserve: WineGalleryLaguna.com or call (949) 715-8744.

K’ya Bistro Bar – Chef Craig Connole never disappoints with his four-course tapas-style menu. Share plates such as Grilled Vegetable Risotto, Braised Short Rib, Grilled Branzino, and more. 

$50/person or $99/couple

Reserve: Call (855) 990-0281.

Broadway by Amar Santana Chef Amar (the new Papa!) has come up with the usual inventive menu that starts with a Smoked Sturgeon amuse bouche and shimmies into Pheasant, Wagyu Beef Tongue & Cheek, and Tete de Moine. An a la carte menu is also available. 

$135/person. Credit card required at reservation. 

Reserve: Call (949) 715-8234.

Driftwood Kitchen Chef Rainer Schwarz’s innovation this year begins with a champagne toast and moves into items such as Hamachi Tartare, Petite Filet with Braised Beef Short Rib, Pan Seared Arctic Char, and more. 

$95/person. 

Reserve: Call (949) 715-7700.

Mozambique – Always a believer in music and great food, Chef Braulio has created a menu that includes 10 entrée options featuring Chilean Sea Bass, Steak & Lobster, Cioppino, and more. Live music on Valentine’s features Dallas & Doll in the Durban Room and the Springsteen Experience on the main stage. 

$89/person. 

Reserve: Mozambique.com or call (949) 715-7777. 

Studio, Montage Laguna Beach You know you can’t go wrong for romance at the renowned Studio. The amuse bouche starts with Hamachi Crudo with additional items featuring Seared Arctic Char, Wagyu Flat Iron Steak, and more. 

$225/person, includes wine pairings. 

Reserve: Call (949) 715-6420.

The Loft, Laguna Beach Chef Joosung Lee’s menu offers items such as Roasted Sunchoke Bisque, Coffee-Braised Wagyu Zabuton, Prime Filet Mignon, Pan-Roasted Branzino, and more. 

$135/person, includes a half bottle of Veuve Clicquot per couple. Regular menu is also available. 

Reserve: Call (949) 715-6420. 

Laguna Chefs Loft

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Courtesy of Montage LB

Special Valentine’s Day dessert created last year at the Loft, Laguna Beach

Valentine featured items served with regular menu

These restaurants are featuring specials along with the nightly regular menu: 

Harley – Settled in and loving it, Chef Greg Daniels is just into his second year now. He will be offering a number of off-menu specials throughout the weekend. 

Reserve: Harleylagunabeach.com or call (949) 715-1530.

Lumberyard – Always a local favorite, Owner Cary Redfearn has drummed up new specials. Sorry, mum’s the word on this. 

Reserve: LBLumberyard.com or call (949) 715-3900.

230 Forest Chef Marc is offering up a number of specials along with the regular menu on both Friday and Saturday. 

Reserve: 230ForestAvenue.com or call (949) 494-2545.

Watermarc At his other popular restaurant, just a block from his initial 230 Forest restaurant, Chef Marc has also organized a number of specials true to Watermarc’s cuisine. Also available both Friday and Saturday. 

Reserve: WatermarcRestaurant.comor call (949) 376-6272. 

Sapphire Laguna Chef Azmin has come up with specially featured items such as Pan-Seared Barramundi & Shrimp Raviolini, Grilled Beef Tenderloin, and Butter-Poached Lobster. 

Pricing ranges from $71-$95/person. 

Reserve: Call (949) 715-9888.

Oak – Chef Sanchez is offering off-menu specials as well, including Pecan Crusted Mahi, Three Cheese Ravioli, Roasted Vegetable Quinoa, and more. 

Reserve: Call (949) 940-3010. 

Starfish Laguna – And the last entry to hit my desk before publication, Starfish will be featuring Valentine’s Day dishes and libations through the holiday weekend. I hope this means that mixologist Neil is doing an encore of his Love Potion No. 9. I need some of that!

Enjoy your holiday weekend! 

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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Chef Craig Strong closing Ocean at Main February 5

By Diane Armitage

One of the most talented chefs we’ve yet seen in Laguna Beach is calling it quits. 

Award-winning Chef Craig Strong of Ocean at Main at 222 Ocean Ave has announced he’s closing on February 5.

The shuttered doors come just 16 months after his grand opening in September 2018. 

It’s a significant loss to Laguna Beach, especially to those locals who first came in contact with Chef Craig’s genius at Studio at the Montage Laguna Beach. He raised that restaurant to the only five-star eatery between San Diego and San Francisco, and Ocean at Main was another testament to this chef’s extraordinary talent.

Chef Craig close up

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Courtesy of Ocean at Main

Award-winning Chef Craig Strong

Chef Craig, a longtime local here in Laguna Beach, says it won’t be long before we see his face somewhere in the restaurant geography here or around Laguna Beach. 

“I am actively looking for my next spot,” he assured me. 

“Challenges in Laguna Beach” statement

In a statement released on Sunday by Chef Craig, he noted: 

“It is with a heavy heart that we announce the last day of service for Ocean at Main will be Wednesday, February 5. Since 2018, we have loved serving and connecting with the Laguna Beach community. Ocean at Main has been the adventure of a lifetime, and we are honored to have served so many wonderful guests, created lifelong friendships, and hosted so many memorable celebrations. We are wholeheartedly grateful for our hardworking staff who brought this place to life and for our guests and regulars who called our restaurant home. 

“As a Laguna Beach local, it breaks my heart to see the challenges the restaurant community faces in Laguna Beach – and across California. With rising costs of rent and labor, we, along with many other restaurants, have experienced this incredible challenge.

“When one door closes, another opens. We are actively looking for another location, and I look forward to serving you again soon.”

Room 222: A storied history in retail and restaurants

Dallas-based Lombardi Family Concepts still owns the building in which Ocean at Main resides. In the 10 years previous and prior to Lombardi’s purchase, the space had been a rug store and a Big Dog Sportswear store. 

Lombardi purchased the property in 2015 and invested $2 million and 18 months of time to repurpose the tattered retail space into a contemporary restaurant space, Taverna. The Italian concept (with the most beautiful kitchen I’ve seen outside of a Laguna resort) opened in Spring 2016. 

Two years and two months later, Lombardi Concepts closed Taverna on Sunday, July 1, 2018. At that time, they confirmed that Chef Craig Strong would be stepping in with his own concept.

Chef Craig avocado

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Photo by Diane Armitage

Chef Craig’s Ahi Avocado Toast

Chef Craig opened with a remodeled look and a higher-end farm-to-table concept with his standard – read: phenomenal – creativity in late September 2018.

On January 7 of this month, Lombardi Family Concepts announced the building for sale at $8.45 million with Chef Craig’s long-term lease and operation included and intact in that pricing.

The commercial agents on the listing could not be reached for comment before deadline. 

“We were very surprised,” said Robert Clayton, Vice President of Lombardi Family Concepts. “Craig is such a talented chef, and he created such a beautiful space for Ocean at Main. We’ve only heard great things about his food, and he was figuring out the revenue and costs and making adjustments – it just seemed that he was getting past that first year and breaking through,” continued Clayton.

“We worked with him and would have continued working with him – this is what you do as a landlord with a chef with so much talent,” said Clayton. “But Craig was at a point where it was just too much of a struggle. We’re really very sorry to see him go.”

Clayton says that he and his team will be here that first week of February to decide their next steps.

 

The bestselling 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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Beach Boys tribute Surfin’ brings waves of nostalgia and high jinks to the Playhouse

By DIANNE RUSSELL

Unfortunately, although their music was the soundtrack of the sixties at a time when almost every girl wanted to be Gidget, I never saw the Beach Boys in person. However, that omission was partially remedied on Saturday with the superb Beach Boys Tribute Surfin’ performed at the Laguna Playhouse. The musicians put on the show as if they are The Beach Boys – same garb and instruments, and they always stay in character. 

Each band member possesses the uncanny ability to channel one of The Beach Boys, bringing back the Golden Age of music – which Brian Beirne, producer and host, describes as a more innocent time of “drive-ins and not drive-bys.”

All talented musicians

Of course, it helps that they are all talented musicians in their own right. Christopher May as Mike Love, Dan Carson as Brian Wilson, Bob Moore as Carl Wilson, Shawn Nourse as Dennis Wilson, and Chris Farmer as Al Jardine proved that the band’s music is truly timeless. Farmer spent 12 years as musical director, road manager, vocal arranger, lead vocalist, and bassist touring with the Beach Boys. 

I doubt there was anyone in the audience who didn’t silently mouth the words to almost every song. The Surfin’ playlist is long and sentimental, eliciting memories of swaying to “Don’t Worry Baby” or fast dancing to “Barbara Ann.”

Beach Boys on stage

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Courtesy of Laguna Playhouse 

Beach Boys tribute band

The woman sitting next to me took full advantage of the fact that we were in the last row and stood up to dance for a large part of the performance. I must admit, it was pretty difficult to sit still.

I’m sure many of the audience members had forgotten, just as I did, how many incredible songs Brian Wilson (and others) wrote that were performed by the Beach Boys during their careers.

A partial playlist on Saturday: “Wouldn’t it Be Nice,” “I Get Around,” “When I Grow Up,” “Surfin’ USA,” “Help Me Rhonda,” “Fun, Fun, Fun,” “Little Surfer Girl,” “Be True to Your School,” “Do It Again,” “In My Room,” “Catch A Wave,” “Kokomo,” and “Good Vibrations.” A personal favorite was “Sail on, Sailor” sung by Chris Farmer (Al Jardine).

In addition to great vocals, Christopher May did a commendable job recreating Mike Love, jumping around the stage, soliciting the audience to do waves, and we happily complied. 

Dan Carson has the beautifully high and sometimes melancholy voice of Brian Wilson. Bob Moore is a fantastic guitar player, and paid homage to Dick Dale, the godfather of surf music who passed away last year, with a soulful rendition of “Misirlu.” Shawn Nourse was outstanding on the drums.

Beach Boys lobby

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Photo by Dianne Russell

Meet and greet in the lobby after the performance: (L-R) Dan Carson, Bob Moore, Shawn Nourse, and Christopher May

One review of the show stated, “The incomparable beauty of their vocal harmonies, the crashing back beat of Dennis Wilson’s drums, the soaring surf guitar of Carl Wilson, and the genius of Brian Wilson’s music is all here.”

As promised, Surfin’ is a faithful recreation of what it would have been like to see the Beach Boys live, in concert, in their prime. It was an emotional and entertaining afternoon spent revisiting the days of endless summers via the enduring songs that we all know and love. 

Don’t miss the concerts coming up next at the Playhouse: January 30-Febuary 1, Folsom Prison Live, a Tribute to Johnny Cash; February 6-9, Tina Live, a Tribute to Tina Turner featuring Cookie Watkins; February 10, Late Night Catechism; February 13-16, Direct From Las Vegas, The Rat Pack is Back.

Laguna Playhouse is located at 606 Laguna Canyon Rd. 

For more information, go to www.lagunaplayhouse.com or call (949) 497-2787.

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Wild Taco’s wild ride

Story and photos by Diane Armitage

Bear Flag’s popular taqueria concept, Wild Taco, opened on Thursday, Jan 16 in the old Johnny Rocket’s space at the corner of Ocean and Coast Hwy. 

Interestingly, the opening was 362 days from the day the City of Laguna Beach granted the company access to begin renovating that space. 

Wild Taco's interior

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Newly opened Wild Taco marries clean contemporary with retro Laguna

“It’s definitely been a long time coming,” said Bear Flag’s Operations Manager Joe Klooster. “I guess you could say it makes the victory of opening that much sweeter.”

The renovation proved a stem-to-stern change-up, from grease traps to kitchen, and outdoor signage to booth cushions. 

“Our owner, Tom (Carson), grew up in Newport Beach and he’s always had a soft spot in his heart for Laguna,” added Klooster. “So, it might have been a longer wait than we had hoped, but it was all worth it. We’re here for the long haul and are embracing Laguna as our community. We love it here,” he said.

A sea-to-table concept

While unique in its shiny new look, Wild Taco is serving up the same popular menu its older sister first introduced in Newport Beach. 

Carson initially developed the Wild Taco concept as an alternative to fast food, especially for kids. He and business partner Scott Breneman own fishing boats that almost daily ply our coastal waters, ensuring a super-fresh catch, a sort of sea-to-table kind of concept.

The restaurant also serves grass-fed beef, chicken, and pork. 

Business as usual, right from the start

In its third full day of business, I popped in as soon as the doors opened. 

As a rule, I say it’s never proper to judge a restaurant’s fare in its first three weeks of business. No matter how many eons of experience they may have under their belts, a new restaurant “infant” is a personality all its own, and it takes a bit of time to settle everyone into a familiar routine. 

This “rule of thumb” didn’t seem to matter at Wild Taco. The staff was friendly, the managers talkative, the drinks frosty and cold, and the food quite delectable. Given that they’ve been fairly pounded with business from each day’s opening bell, they are handling their crowds with uncanny grace. 

Plenty of options

Breakfast items on the menu are not being served yet. Klooster figures they might need a month or two to feel firmly situated before adding it in. There are, however, plenty of options to choose from.

Wild Taco's grill

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The Wild Taco grill

Small bites range from their bestseller, (oddly) Chips, Guac and Salsa, to Shrimp Cocktail, Mini Quesadillas, and Oysters on the Half Shell. I decide to dive into the deep end with a Diablo BBQ Oyster for starters. It arrives grilled and nestled down in its own tiny pond of housemade Diablo sauce. The Diablo starts on a friendly note and warms to quite a crescendo. Fair warning to those readers who prefer “mild” salsa, but if you like the heat, this is the kitchen of your dreams. 

The three-page menu boasts salads, Baja bowls, and a variety of crafty burritos and nacho towers. I mosey past the enchiladas and a vast assortment of mix-and-match taco combos to land on the skillet dishes. 

I’ll eat anything in a skillet – breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I’ll even order a dessert if it’s in a skillet. It’s an affinity I can only track to a possible past life as a rancher out on the plain; I don’t know why I love skillets. As far as I’m concerned, nothing goes wrong in a skillet.

My hopeless adoration is proven correct once again. 

Wild Taco's skillet

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The Swordfish Skillet is one of several skillet offerings at Wild Taco

In just minutes, I’m served the Swordfish Skillet, tiny tendrils of steam still rising from the freshly grilled piece. It’s a large cut that fairly blankets the Spanish rice and grilled peppers below. A hearty dollop of black refried beans edges its way onto the skillet, while the Super Secret dippin’ sauce and street taco-sized flour tortillas can’t even find room. They settle for the table next to the skillet.

True to rumor, this is super-fresh fish. It’s perfectly grilled and seasoned, and I munch through almost half of the hearty fish serving before I remember that I can make street tacos with it, too. Street taco assemblage is the only arts and crafts project I’ve ever excelled at, so I’m happily busy for several more minutes. 

Margaritas of a saké kind

For the time being, Wild Taco serves up wine and beer. This, however, does not stop them from making inventive sangrias and mimosas, as well as margaritas made with Sabé, an infused saké. Laguna local and new manager Chad Abell tends bar while his servers tend to the crowds, and it’s a never-ending pour of draft beers, mimosas, and the saké margs. 

Wild Taco's Sabe

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Wild Taco GM Chad Abell shows off an infused saké for inventive margaritas

Locals at play

Within 25 minutes of the restaurant’s opening, the 49 seats filled around me. I recognize a few locals, and both Abell and Klooster say they’ve met more locals than tourists in their three-day run. “It’s great to see the locals’ interest in our place, and they’ve been very supportive,” said Klooster. “With our Bear Flag concept planned for the other side of Laguna, we’re really looking forward to a longtime, healthy relationship with the residents of Laguna Beach,” he said. 

Wild Taco opens at 11 a.m. seven days a week. It operates until 8 p.m. on Sunday and Monday, and until 9 p.m. Tuesday through Friday. 

The Bear Flag Fish Co. currently operates two restaurants of the same name in Crystal Cove and Huntington Beach. Their first Wild Taco restaurant resides in Newport Beach. Carson’s third concept, Circle Hook, is a shared business with boyhood fishing buddy Scott Breneman in Lido Marina Village. 

The bestselling 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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Rumor mill is bunk: Alessa and Salerno Ristorante not going anywhere

By Diane Armitage

Chef Alessandro Pirozzi has been in the spotlight this week, thanks to a rumor mill that announced he would be closing both of his restaurants in Laguna Beach, Alessa and Salerno by Chef Pirozzi. 

And he wasn’t happy about it.

For the record, Chef Pirozzi has no intention of leaving or selling either of his two restaurants in the downtown corridor. 

When the rumor hit Facebook on Sunday night, I contacted Chef Pirozzi in Italy, where he’s recently flown to care for his mother. 

“It’s disturbing to have someone post information about my businesses, without any idea or right to start these rumors, when I’ve never been anything but fully committed to the town of Laguna Beach,” he texted. 

“Most of my employees have been with me since the year 2000. I’ve been telling them for years now that if we survive to 2020, I will do the unthinkable…I’ll personally cook for each of them and their wives/husbands/significant others at each location to thank them for being such a foundational part of my success.

“I don’t know,” said Pirozzi. “Maybe this seemed crazy to some employees, like a last curtain call to the best show in Laguna Beach! But this is not the case. Thriving 10 years as a restaurant in any place in the world is significant.

Rumor mill Chef Pirozzi

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Submitted photo

Chef Allesandro Pirozzi attributes the success of his many restaurants, including two in Laguna Beach (Alessa and Salerno) to his staff

“My employees have been the bedrock of my success, and we all deserve this celebration. My job is to appreciate those people closest to me.”

Chef Pirozzi said he’s looking forward to serving his own servers, bartenders, and kitchen staff and that he’s already planned the “celebration menu” with lobster, house-made “Mamma’s lasagne,” prime ribs, and more. 

“Like my Nonna used to tell me, ‘Do good and forget about it…do better and everyone remembers it for life.’ This is what makes it worth it all.”

A no-term lease

Pirozzi noted that he has a “no-term” lease on Alessa in Laguna Beach until 2049. He plans to serve the same family recipes at both locations “until I’m dead…which, hopefully, will be well past 2049,” he added.

Pirozzi has two longtime homes in Newport Coast and Laguna Beach, a “perfect go-between” option for his Laguna and Corona del Mar restaurants. “We made a commitment to Laguna Beach and this Crystal Cove/Corona del Mar corridor many years ago for a reason. I chose these towns as mine,” he finished.

For more information on Salerno, located at 220 N Beach St, call (949) 497-2600.

For more information on Alessa, located at 234 Forest Ave, call (949) 497-8222.

The bestselling 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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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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