Photo by Keith MayMuch has changed during the past 20 years in Laguna Niguel. In 1981, new residents were so new that Angie's Pizza treated them to a bottle of celebratory champagne. A Carl's Jr. played country music and had a place to tie up horses out back. Occasionally, a horseback rider would even order at the drive-through window.
Now Angie's is long gone (perhaps due to all the free champagne); the fast-food restaurant still stands, but it now blares Top 40, and SUVs pull up to its drive-through. Most telling is that an upscale Scott's Seafood Grill & Bar recently opened just blocks away. Shopping centers such as Plaza de la Paz (where Scott's is located), the Marketplace at Laguna Niguel and Ocean Ranch offer a mix of eateries and shops in addition to the vast expanse (more than one-third of the area) of open space beckoning to be biked and hiked. The city, incorporated in 1989, is unabashedly residential. The heart of Laguna Niguel beats, clear of clogged arteries, in its cul-de-sacs and soccer fields.
National Archives and Records Administration, Pacific Region. This archive contains a number of noteworthy items, such as the naturalization records of Alfred Hitchcock, Greta Garbo and other celebs, as well as records of the LA Zoot Suit Riots and the pre-presidential Richard Nixon. It's located in the Chet Holifield Federal Building—"The Ziggurat," as it's commonly known. The sand-colored step-pyramid building reportedly made an appearance in the 1975 schlocky classic Death Race 2000, one of Sly Stallone's first films. 24000 Avila Rd., (949) 360-2641.Orange County Natural History Museum. For the moment, the museum is a trailer. Despite this temporary location, though, plenty of pinned, stuffed, fossilized (including "Waldo," an eight-million-year-old pseudo-walrus that lived here when oceans washed across most of our region) and living Orange County creatures are on display. There are also artifacts from the area's two native tribes, the Acjachemem (Juaneo Mission Indians) and Tongva (Gabrielino Mission Indians). Here's a bit of trivia for you: Laguna Niguel is named after Rancho Niguel, the area of land granted to Mexican ranchero Juan Avila in 1842, which was named after a local Indian village called Niguil. Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park entrance, 28373 Alicia Pkwy., (949) 831-3287; www.ocnha.mus.ca.us.
Laguna Design Center. Forty interior-design showrooms packed with fancy-schmancy hand-carved walnut-wood tables, chandeliers and tapestries. This is a prime location for a yuppified mecca such as this, considering how many new homes there are in the area. Showrooms vary as to whether the public (and not just interior designers) is deemed worthy of browsing or purchasing items in them. 23811 Aliso Creek Rd., (949) 643-2929; www.lagunadesigncenter.com.
Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park. With an array of native wildlife and plants, this qualifies as the city's most impressive natural park. It's a popular mountain-biking and hiking destination, with 30 miles of trails covering more than 3,500 acres of varied terrain. 28373 Alicia Pkwy., (949) 831-2790; www.oc.ca.gov/pfrd/hbp.
IWS Board Shop. Where all the skate rats hang out and watch skate videos. There's a bit of a rivalry between this store and Doheny Board Center in San Juan Capistrano, but nothing along the lines of the Crips and Bloods. 32411 Golden Lantern, (949) 443-9179. www.iws-boardshop.com.
A Store for Cooks. A lot of cookware, decorations and condiments packed in here, but what makes this store particularly wonderful is its abundance of demonstration classes. They've got one-time "Lunch and Learn" and "Dine & Dash" classes with mouth-watering gourmet offerings. 30100 Town Center Dr., Ste. R, (949) 495-0445; www.astoreforcooks.com.
Apple-a-Day Health Goods & Deli. The "Works" is what makes this health-food store's sandwiches so yummy: mayo, shredded Monterey jack cheese, tomatoes, alfalfa sprouts—and here's where it starts getting funky—sunflower seeds and soy "baco" bits. The Valley avocado, egg Delight, hummus (with avocado) and Laguna tuna (dolphin-safe, of course) are some of their more memorable offerings, which come with fruit salad or tossed vegetable salad. If you choose the latter, be sure to get the honey-sesame dressing. 30262 Crown Valley Pkwy., Ste. A, (949) 495-3250.I Love Bagels. Owned by Howard Amster, who descends from a long line of bagel bakers, this South County phenomenon has mostly withstood the process of natural selection (the exception being the small Lake Forest location that shut down not too long ago) with its wide variety and just-right bagel consistency. An added bonus: everyone who works behind their counters seems genuinely nice. 28985 Golden Lantern, (949) 249-9300; 32371 Golden Lantern, (949) 443-3300.Mollie's Country Kitchen. This is theplace for Laguna Niguel breakfast. While they've got all the goods you'd associate with a restaurant that has "country kitchen" in its title (such as biscuits and gravy), their ultimate specialty is Mexican food, which includes morning-associated stuff like huevos rancheros and machacha burritos. It's served all day, so late risers can appreciate the food, too. 27932 La Paz Rd., (949) 643-9174.
ChocObean Coffee. Walking into ChocObean feels like entering a tract home—especially the back area where they prepare bagels, which seems like someone's brand-new kitchen. If you're into almonds, be sure to get either their toasted-almond or mocha-almond royale. Sure, you can get almond syrup added to any espresso drink at most any coffeehouse, but with these babies, you get toasted almonds sprinkled on top of the whipped cream. As you sip this delicious beverage, the almonds slowly soak up the rich liquid and become, as Ned Flanders might say, scrumpdiddleyumptious. 30211 Golden Lantern, Ste. E, (714) 363-8025.
Edwards Rancho Niguel. This film theater used to be hoppin', but with the opening of two big stadium cinemas five minutes away in opposite directions (Aliso Viejo and Mission Viejo), Rancho has become one of Edwards' handful of so-called Cinematiques, showing foreign and independent films. This is a mixed blessing: it may be the only place in the area to see such films as Tom Tykwer's The Princess and the Warrior(the follow-up to his surprise hit Run Lola Run), but like many art houses, the joint is falling apart. Some of the screens have absolutely impossible-to-ignore spots and rips in them (how do those things happen, anyway? Do people sacrifice their $10 drinks to play Angry Film Critic?), and the restrooms might as well be located in a gas station on the road to Vegas. 25471 Rancho Niguel Rd., (949) 831-0446.
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