Photo by Keith Mayby CJ Bahnsen, Eric Greenwell, Victor D. Infante, Steve Lowery, Arrissia Owen, Anthony Pignataro, Rebecca Schoenkopf, Will Swaim, Ken Widmann and Dave Wielenga BEST CHEAP VIEW Yeah, Las Brisas is nice, and the view can't be beat. There's something thrilling about watching the sun sink into the Pacific while you dine, the sky flickering in shades of pink and orange until finally it's gone, leaving only a deep black. It's edifying. It justifies why we live here. But Las Brisas costs real money, so we wholeheartedly suggest the budget version down the street a bit: the Greeter's Corner, where instead of sitting by the window, sipping margaritas and feasting on Alaskan halibut, you sit on the wooden back porch, drink coffee and munch delicious, juicy cheeseburgers. Trust us. The sunset's pretty much the same. 329 S. Pacific Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach, (949) 494-0361.
BEST BONFIRE Nothing says "summer" like staying out late and burning stuff while the police watch pensively nearby—and nothing says "summer" this summer like the Democratic Convention in downtown LA. Closer to home, try Bolsa Chica Beach. An ample supply of pits makes this the perfect place to sit around the fire, toast marshmallows, strum an acoustic guitar, bang on bongos and make out by firelight. And remember, kids: in the event that the beach is crowded, share your fire with the scraggly hippie kids who turn up late; odds are they'll—ahem —pass along the karma. On Pacific Coast Hwy. between Golden West Street &Warner Avenue.
BEST FISHERMAN'S DIVE BAR The smell of stale beer and fish. The sight of grubby fishermen, skin leathery from decades of exposure to the sun. Forty-year-old women in revealing, skintight outfits. Men crying in their Budweisers, recounting heroic tales of "the one that got away." The distinct sense that making eye contact may indeed be hazardous. The boisterous camaraderie born of a common love of the sea. Turk's doesn't register on the tourist's radar in Dana Point Harbor. And you get the distinct impression the regular patrons like it that way. 34683 Golden Lantern, Dana Point, (949) 496-9028.
BEST ALCOHOL-BASED TONGUE SPANKING There's something consoling about the polished fermenting tanks that stand just behind the handsome bar in the Newport Beach Brewing Company, like the holding tank for Brewhound Red Ale, aggressively hopped and heavy enough for stout lovers but light enough for pale riders who appreciate its ruby-red, malty richness. Ahhh, but the John Wayne Imperial Stout: a two-time silver-medal winner at the '97 and '98 Great American Beer Festival, it's a mouth spectacle with its rotund-bodied flavor, a paragon of dark craftsmanship. As far as stouts go, this one is a roasty meal in a pint, surpassing others with raw, badass bite and the taste of blackstrap molasses: an unforgettable tongue spanking. Thank you, sir, may I have another? 2920 Newport Blvd., Newport Beach, (949) 675-8449; www.nbbrewco.com. 60-ounce pitchers, $10; 16-ounce pints, $3.25; 5-ounce pilsner, $2.75; 5-ounce taster, $1.
BEST OCEAN-VIEW BAR It's common on warm summer nights to find the bar at the Blue Beet Caf jammed with sunburned tourists and the rooftop patio completely empty. Take advantage of these moments—there is no better place to sit in the ocean air, have a drink and watch the sun set over the Pacific. 107 21st St., Newport Beach, (949) 675-2338.
BEST JUKEBOX Sometimes you want to go where absolutely no one knows your name, particularly when the tourists have flocked to the beach and turned PCH into a parking lot. Go to Knuckleheads. Order a beer. Put Agent Orange, the Clash, Social Distortion and—for variety—James Brown on the jukebox. Drink heavily. Wait patiently for autumn. 1715 El Camino Real, San Clemente, (949) 492-2410.
BEST PLACE TO FIND KNUCKLEHEADS We hear the Young Americans for Freedom hang out at Hurricanes Bar &Grill. 200 Main St., Huntington Beach, (714) 374-0500.
BEST PLACE TO MIND YOUR OWN DAMN BUSINESS I'm not saying a lot of fights break out at Cassidy's, the venerable Balboa bar. I'm not saying that sometimes the fights break through the back door into the street. I'm just saying that if you drive past Cassidy's around closing time on a Saturday night, you might have to change lanes to avoid running over a couple of guys fighting in the traffic lane. I'm just saying. 2603 Newport Blvd., Newport Beach, (949) 675-8949.
BEST POST-SURF GRUB FOR HEALTH-CONSCIOUS SURFERS On the corner of Warner and PCH on the border of Sunset and Huntington, amongst the sushi bars and head shops in a strip mall, there is Juice for You, a vegetarian restaurant disguised as a smoothie joint. Even the chicks who work at Mother's sneak off for lunch to fill up on the stuff. And word is Layne Beachley, Jodie Nelson and gobs of other pro surfers fuel up there regularly. And their smoothies are unrecognizably dairy-free. 3801 Warner Ave., Huntington Beach, (562) 592-4494.
BEST POST-SURF GRUB FOR NON-HEALTH-CONSCIOUS SURFERS By far the best little taco stand in South County, Pedro's Tacos adds the magical lard that makes it oh-so-good. And it's cheap, which is usually the deciding factor for surfers anyhow. The rice is scrumptious, their beans are sinful, and I've never tasted a better egg burrito in my life. A quick drive from Trestles, T-Street, Old Mans and San Clemente Pier. 2313 S. El Camino Real, San Clemente, (949) 498-5904.
MOST JARRING BEACH-BUM/ BIRD-SANCTUARY/BOMB-FARM JUXTAPOSITION Life and death and laid-back Southern California beach culture collide along Anaheim Bay, the bridged inlet between Sunset Beach and Seal Beach. You're heading north on PCH, coming out of the scuffed affluence of the Sunset Beach Colony, where most of the rich residents keep the myth of their funkiness alive by keeping their money—and their multimillion-dollar homes—off the main drag. But the hang-loose hodgepodge of surf shops, diners, bars and tattoo parlors collects like a lump in the throat as you blast past the corporate headquarters of Simple Green and onto the bridge. The startling vista includes a teeming, natural saltwater marsh on the right, a stark expanse of man-made earthen berms up ahead, and often a huge, gray Navy warship docked just off the highway to the left. The ship is being reloaded—via railroad tracks that run from the dock to the berms—with the latest and most explosive military technology. This is the Seal Beach Naval Weapons Station and Bird Sanctuary—and, all things considered, about the likeliest place in OC for the world to end.
BEST PLACE TO WATCH CARS HIT DRUNKS ON BIKES AND VICE VERSA Get your lawn chair and plant yourself at the corner of 18th and Balboa Boulevard in Newport Beach. The show runs all day every weekend and continues through the end of the summer. The high points are early Saturday morning and late Sunday afternoon.
BEST VISCERAL EXPERIENCE There's no retail outlet for the Sea-Doo-to-Catalina personal-endurance run. So you'll need to procure a few things: a Sea-Doo (Jet Skis not recommended), cell phone and GPS. Wet suit is optional but highly recommended. Departure time: 6 a.m. at the latest. Leave from Seal Beach or Long Beach Harbor. When the water is glassy, it's a smooth ride and there is plenty of time to contemplate the huge, hungry creatures cruising along beneath you. The catch is coming back, when swells run between 3 and 7 feet. Returning to the mainland at full throttle will most likely unseat you, and it's work getting back on, trust me. A 46-mile round trip, it is the workout of a lifetime.
BEST SUMMER STAIRMASTER Someone once told me there are only 400 or so stairs down to South Laguna's Thousand Steps Beach, a lovely, enclosed public beach just north of ritzy, private Three Arch Bay. I think that certain someone is a rat-faced liar. Going down these steps is strenuous—by the halfway point, your knees are smarting from the steep incline. Up is worse. Even the healthiest-appearing runners are glistening with sweat by the end of jogging up. Here's my method for the stair-climbing expedition: (1) One-quarter up: rest, smoke. (2) Halfway: rest, ham sandwich, bottle of water. (3) Three-quarters: smoke. (4) Reach the top and crow like you've climbed Everest.
BEST PLACE THAT YOU WOULDN'T NORMALLY EXPECT TO HEAR VIRULENT ANTI-DISNEY TALK ON A WARM SUMMER'S EVE The seats are cheap in Edison Field's center-field Family Section, but emotions run high. I've sat there twice, and each time the fans, mostly accompanying kids, have expressed little but rage—from the singing of the national anthem through the seventh-inning stretch and out into the parking lot after the game. They were pissed that the Angels traded Jim Edmonds, and they let it be known by mocking Daren Erstad each time he caught a ball ("Edmonds would have caught that barehanded!"). They were pissed about the Angel pitching staff ("I can throw harder than that guy!"). But the real fits started when a home-run ball hit near us was retrieved by a stadium employee who would not—in keeping with convention—throw the ball into the crowd. Instead, the lard-ass in polyester fingered a fan who had gone over the railing to retrieve the ball and had the guy thrown out. I thought the place would explode. "Is this what Disney calls 'customer service'?" one fan screamed to a backing chorus of "Disney sucks!" Unfortunately for Disney, it can't blame beer for riling up the fans. Beer isn't sold in the Family Section. Edison Field, 2000 E. Gene Autry Way, Anaheim, (714) 674-2000 or (714) 663-9000.
BEST PLACE TO PARK ON THE BALBOA PENINSULA At the risk of further alienating myself from my neighbors and mail carriers, I recommend parking—discreetly—on Alvarado, Montero, Anade and Island streets on busy summer weekends. They're located on the bay side of Balboa Boulevard a few blocks west of the Balboa Pier. And please, please, don't tell anyone I sent you.
BEST DOG BEACH Who would've guessed: Dog Beach. At the corner of Seapoint Avenue and Pacific Coast Highway, Huntington Beach.
BEST SUMMER COOLING DEVICE THAT'S NOT BASED ON CHLOROFLUOROCARBONS (CFCs) The blended mint mocha ($3.25) at the Gypsy Den is a chocolatey-sweet vasodilator blended up with frozen something-or-other (ice, maybe) and, of course, some sort of essence of mint, mentha picata, which not only accounts for the drink's powerful cooling effect but also (research shows) repels rats (and that may be why the Gypsy Den is such a habitable place) and also, in some forms, functions as a carminative —that is, something that causes one to expel flatus, though why one would want to achieve this, er, end is unclear, except as a natural side effect, an unavoidable outcome, of relaxation, yet another attribute of mint, particularly on a balmy afternoon on the patio outside. 2930 Bristol St., Costa Mesa, (714) 549-7012. Also in Santa Ana, at the corner of Broadway and Second Street, (714) 835-8840.
BEST SURF SHOP We've seen bumper stickers reading "Where the Hell Is Killer Dana Surf Shop?" as far away as Rhode Island. The entrepreneurial brainchild of surfers Gary Wright and Chris Andrews, this rugged little neighborhood shop has retained its character and not become a "Surf Mall" like some other places we—and you—could mention. Yeah, you can buy the hip new Quiksilver trunks or whatever, but the business' soul is devoted to the basics: Mark Ellis' sleek, custom surfboards and a cool, knowledgeable staff that's up on today's surf conditions and, important these days, water-pollution conditions. 24621 Del Prado Ave., Dana Point, (800) 228-SURF.
BEST BEACH FOOD OF NO NUTRITIONAL VALUE WHATSOEVER Who would have guessed that the chili cheese strips at Jack's Shack on Huntington Beach—globs of chili and cheese atop crisp tortilla chips—could be so delicious? And yet somehow combining these three disparate, seemingly irreconcilable elements—centuries-old rivals, really—produces a taste that is really good, you know, taste-wise, and makes for just wonderful grub while you sit and make fun of all the fatties who look so stupid in swim trunks because they can't control their snacking habits. Stupid fatties. Zack's on the Beach, 21351 Pacific Coast Hwy., Huntington Beach, (714) 536-2631; Zack's Too Concession, 21579 Pacific Coast Hwy., Huntington Beach, (714) 536-2696.
BEST BEACH READING Speaking of Gary Wright, he and poet G. Murray Thomas once co-edited Paper Shredders, an odd little collection of surf writing, mostly poetry. This highly entertaining book ranges from meditations on the Zen experience of surfing to the more personal ruminations of a man still surfing at age 40. It's been out for five years now, but it's such a distinctly OC classic that it deserves to be dredged up from time to time, and the writing's as fresh today as it was when it first rode in. Orange Ocean Press, P.O. Box 13019, Long Beach, CA 90803. 68 pages, $8.
BEST TERRIFYING BEACH READ We love San Clemente, where, according to Amazon.com, the three best-selling books are (in order) Learning Windows 95, A History of the Modern World and On the Beach. Is it possible that San Clementians are judging this last one by its cover? Perhaps: Nevil Shute's 1957 novel describes a world in which nuclear war has obliterated all but a few bits of the Southern Hemisphere, where a kind of 1950s hedonism takes hold—including hedonism on the beach. But San Clementians are an odd lot: ranking No. 5 on the Amazon.com hit parade is dark Laguna Beach writer T. Jefferson Parker's creepy thriller The Blue Hour.
BEST TEENY TINY LITTLE STRIP OF SAND ON WHICH TO SUN YOUR RICH SELF FAR FROM THE MASSES Do you love the beach but hate the fact that it's open to anyone? What good is the ocean air if you have to breathe it along with everyone else? If you've got a $4,500 initiation fee (plus dues) you just don't know what else to do with, might we suggest Newport Beach's Balboa Bay Club? There, in addition to some brunches that can only be described as "really good," is the cutest little 30-foot strip of bayfront sand you've ever seen. And we've actually seen socialite moms lying on it, DK sunglasses on and iced tea at the ready, while valets park Jaguar S-types just feet away and a bunch of old drunks pilot large boats about. Weird fact: the land was given to the city of Newport Beach for a public park, and city officials decided that "public" meant "long-term lease for Bay Club." Between Newport Boulevard and Dover on Pacific Coast Highway, (949) 645-5000; www.balboabay club.com
BEST BEER & CEJAS The interior is sleek, well-shaped, majestically laid out in a long wood-warmed room, and most of the staff has some sort of big-screen beauty, whether it's the waitress with catwalk legs or the bartender looking like a young Robert De Niro, but with an Al Pacino kind of jive in his walk. The oblong bar—emphasis on long—surrounds 180 different tap handles with half-yard and yard shot glasses. Quickly order up a Slo Brickhouse Pale Ale (pint, $3.50). It's disarmingly smooth, with phenomenal quenching powers and a manly after-kick—truly dog years ahead of any pale ale I've imbibed. And one can find a nice cigar, particularly an Arturo Fuente Churchill ($15) in the front "beer gear" gift shop. The Yard House, Triangle Square, 1875 Newport Ave., Costa Mesa, (949) 642-0090; www.yardhouse.com.
BEST WAY TO IMITATE A TEXAS SENATOR While campaigning for the U.S. Senate, Lyndon Johnson flew around vast Texas in a private helicopter. As the great metallic bird neared the ground, Johnson would doff his 10-gallon Stetson and nonchalantly flick it into the crowd, an offering from the gods. One of the thrifty gods, though: the senator always dispatched an operative to retrieve the hat, sometimes wresting it from the clutches of a desperate child. Grasshoppering around the state, Johnson re-enacted this noblesse oblige many times a day. You can assume something like the grandiose style of one of our most troubled presidents, right from the convenience of John Wayne Airport. Departing from the airport's top floor, HeliStream offers aerial tours of the Southern California coastline. A half-hour flight along the coast to Dana Point and back runs $325—more than 10 bucks per minute. Passengers don headphones and talk with the pilot while he whisks you above Newport Beach and the stunning cliffs of Crystal Cove State Park. HeliStream also offers customizable tours (tuxedoed pilots, chilled champagne and so on; fall-of-Saigon re-enactments not available). A $290 all-inclusive package called Heli-dining, which sounds like a rather unpleasant combination of activities, is less nauseating than you might think. Along with a sunset buzzing of the Newport Beach coast, the deal includes limousine service and a four-course dinner at Irvine's Bistango restaurant. Bring your own Stetson. HeliStream Helicopter Tours, 3000 Airway Ave., Ste. 350, Costa Mesa, (714) 662-3163; www.helistream.com.
BEST SUMMER SPEED TRAPS You know that stretch of Sunset Beach, heading north on PCH, right after you pass Daimon's Sushi and before you hit the bridge? Traffic has let up because there are no more stoplights, and the speed limit's a little higher? Plus, you've got wetlands on both sides to make you feel like you're in the country and there's that curve in the road to add to your driving performance? That place? Do not speed! You will get a ticket. Since the speed limit is 50, keep it under 60 miles per hour. Okay? May we also not recommend: Laguna Canyon Road, where the local coppers will pull you over at the precise spot where the speed drops from 55 to 40.
BEST DADA BEER HOUSE Portraits of Al Capone, "Long" John Dillinger and Machine Gun Kelly; wooden pelicans; and barred windows aren't threatening. But the uniformed, rifle-wielding mannequin in a guard's tower and the Dada model of the Golden Gate bridge? In bad lighting, that kind of stuff could scare you incontinent. That and the prices. But the Birdman Brown (pint, $3.75), an English-style ale, is worth springing for; it's a one-way ticket to Stupidsville, aggressively hopped and heavy enough for stout lovers but light enough for pale riders who appreciate its sweet malty bruise. Just keep your back against the wall and never bend over to pick up the soap. Alcatraz Brewing Company, the Block at Orange, 20 City Blvd. W., Ste. R-1, Orange, (714) 939-8686.
BEST WAY TO RELIVE THAT PEACEFUL, EASY FEELING OF SOCAL IN THE 1970S Check out Mother's Bar in Sunset Beach, an itsy-bitsy roadhouse on PCH. It's full of ugly bikers, and some of their B.O. can knock you down. It's crammed floor-to-ceiling with endless bits of detritus, and Neil Young's "Only Love Can Break Your Heart" is on the box. I saw a young woman, dragged in by her friends, order a glass of wine in there once. The bartender, who felt very sorry for her, explained that all their wine came in boxes. Perhaps she would like a beer? Yes, thank you. 16701 Coast Hwy., Sunset Beach, (562) 992-2381.
BEST PLACE TO HEAR TRAINS WHILE SIPPING MARGARITAS Oh, yeah. It's Tuesday. You're tired. You've been working really hard as an office manager or whatever the hell it is you do. You want a happy hour! With oysters! And you want to hear trains while you're at it! Go ahead. You've got your choice of a couple of restaurants on the San Clemente Pier, without any ugly oil derricks to mar your view. But good luck getting enough chairs for your party. I've seen fistfights break out.
BEST PLACE TO SEE THE SUNSET NOT AT THE BEACH You could pay and head up to the fabulous Orange Hill Restaurant and drink too much and eat rich food and blow a week's salary by the end of the evening, or you could climb Santiago Peak (5,700 feet) for free, though we don't recommend doing so at sunset because the temperature drops to something approaching the inside of your automatic icemaker and the wind picks up, so forget we mentioned it and stick with the Orange Hill Restaurant. 6410 E. Chapman Ave., Orange, (714) 997-2910. Don't believe us about Santiago? Talk to the experts at REI, 1411 Village Way, McFadden Place Center, Santa Ana, (714) 543-4142; or Adventure 16, 1959 Harbor Blvd., Costa Mesa, (949) 650-3301.
BEST SURFING POLITICIAN Eightysomething Sally Alexander challenged "Surfin' Congressman" Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach) to a wave-catching contest when she ran against him two years ago. He chickened out and failed to show, but Alexander caught four waves on her boogie board. Recently, at the Orange County Democratic Convention, Alexander (after receiving a garland of flowers) cackled that she'd been lei'd.
BEST PLACE TO WATCH GAY VOLLEYBALL Mmmm, gay volleyball! Main Beach, Laguna Beach. Don't pretend you don't know how to find the place. Unless you're a tourist. In which case, call us and we'll tell you all about it.
BEST GIRLS' SURF SHOP After the demise of On Edge Surf Shop, Girl in the Curl stands strong as Orange County's female connection to the surf world. The shop stocks boards, clothing, wet suits, Hawaiiana, sea-inspired decorative toilet seats, and anything else a surfer girl's heart desires—and in-house professionals who cater to female-specific needs without condescension. 74116 Pacific Coast Hwy., Dana Point, (949) 661-4475.
BEST PLACE TO SEE THE MOON DURING YOUR MORNING COMMUTE While zipping along PCH at 8 a.m., I always slow down near Golden West Street for the show: crowds of surfers dropping trou to wriggle in and out of their wet suits beside their cars, trying desperately (or not trying at all) to keep a towel wrapped around them. I've seen so much ass on that stretch of PCH that I feel as if I get some every morning. It's better than coffee.
BEST BURGERS IN SUMMERTIME ORANGE COUNTY You'd think a great, cheap hamburger would be available everywhere, but it ain't. Sure, we're drowning in drive-throughs, but (and let's be honest) they suck. Anyone over the age of 12 who gets excited by a trip to McDonald's needs foster parents. Who wants a tasteless meatwich fried by a computer?
Apparently, most of us. But if you want to experience American cooking with pride, go to T.K.'s. T.K. Burger serves up charbroiled, fully but not overdressed hamburgers that taste so damn good I ordered one to take home and eat later, for when my stomach made more room.
With just two locations—one by the pier in Newport Beach and the other on PCH in Huntington Beach—T.K.'s is a study in simplicity. The menu has about five items, almost all of them grilled and wedged into a bun. You can tell by the way they're carefully flipped and hand-wrapped right in front of you that these cheese-topped masterpieces are made with love. T.K.'s patties are thin enough for each bite to balance itself with toppings and bun yet thick enough to retain their warm juice. Bring a napkin.
At $3.95, the "Big Bargain Special" secures you a cheeseburger with lettuce, pickles, red onions, tomatoes and dressing, plus a big ol' bag of fries. And, oh, those fries: crispy and dark, with just the right heft. T.K.'s also grills up smoky veggieburgers (Gardenburger brand, for those who care) topped with bell peppers and red onions.
T.K.'s is no secret; it's been broiling char here for around two decades. The clientele is a diverse mix, the dcor is (of course) surfing-themed, and the music isn't the usual timid fast-food fare. But you ain't there for the music. 2119 W. Balboa Blvd., Newport Beach, (949) 673-3438; 110 Pacific Coast Hwy., Huntington Beach, (714) 960-3238.
BEST SUMMER DRIVE How do you find Chino? Not bad! [Rim shot!] But seriously. No. Really. You take the 57 north out of OC to the 60 east and drive until you smell the unmistakable stench of cow shit! [Rim shot!] And then you turn left! [Rim shot! Rim shot!] But no. I love Chino. Love it a lot. Chino makes Arkansas look like Oklahoma! [Rim shot!] Just as you're entering Chino, bang a right onto the 71 and go south. When you hit the 142—that's called Carbon Canyon Drive—proceed south again. If you're from Orange County, you're headed home; if you're from Chino, you're probably wearing an orange jump suit and manacles! [Rim shot!] Am I right?! [Rim shot!] Am I right?! [Rim shot! Rim shot!] And the car you're driving is stolen! [Dead silence, save for sound of cricket chirping and distant wolf howl.] So, where was I? ["142 south!"] The 142 south, Carbon Canyon Drive, one of the most beautiful summer drives in Orange County. You're going to see things you thought were long gone from Orange County. Scarce things—scarce things like an open road! [Rim shot!] But seriously: rolling green hills, canyon oaks and scrub oaks and California oaks. Winding road. Oh, and a little community called Sleepy Hollow. "Sleepy Hollow." Can you believe that? You're in Orange County, and you're thinking "headless horseman"! [Rim shot!] But no, that's just "heedless horseplay" at the nearby La Vida Roadhouse! [Cricket chirp.] But—you're gonna love this, here's the point, here's the really funny part of the whole thing: at the southern end of the 142, just before you enter Yorba Linda, you'll start to see these little homemade signs saying, SAVE OUR HILLS. Just like that: SAVE OUR HILLS, SAVE OUR HILLS, SAVE OUR HILLS. And then, alongside the road, with these greener-than-green hills and oak trees all over like big green fists, suddenly the shoulder alongside the road is bare earth, freshly turned up and bulldozed, and it's clear there's some road-widening project going on, and you're thinking—I know I'm thinking, I'm not sure about you! [Rim shot!]—you're thinking they're going to tear up the wilderness so that more people can enjoy the wilderness. And then you see the houses. And you realize, no, they're just going to tear up the wilderness. Period. Thank you! You've been great! God bless!
BEST PLACE TO SEE A HARE KRISHNA DRINKING BEER Ocean Avenue Brewery is a refreshingly small, non-corporate, copper-toned brewery, where a diversity of Epicurean Laguna locals find solace and refuge against unsettling summer tourists, Hare Krishnas, Deadheads, neo-hipsters and Harley bangers who converge along the avenue, especially outside the Marine Room across the way. Smoked glass divides the philosophical patio from the inside, and everything here is earth-colored and non-abrasive to the eye—it's like being inside the belly of a friendly whale: enveloping, organic, gas-lamp toasty. There's an array of award-winning brews to imbibe here, most exemplary among them the Red Sunshine (pint, $3.50). It's an American-style pale ale that offers a candy-caramel nose, lithe carbonation, delicate hops and a sweet finish that leaves the mouth aroused and wanton. Ocean Avenue Brewery, 237 Ocean Ave., Laguna Beach, (949) 497-3381.
BEST PLACE TO HAVE TEA WHEN SOMEONE ELSE IS PAYING High tea is a custom rarely practiced in this country, and it's too bad (although if we voted to take on another European custom, I'd lobby for the midafternoon siesta). Tea can be a wonderfully social and unifying event. I was bicycling with a friend through the English countryside one summer when a local couple flagged us down. It was time for afternoon tea, and, they observed, we obviously had none; they insisted we hop off our bikes and share their tea and homemade crumpets. So we did. I'm not sure that kind of impromptu fraternizing among total strangers could happen here without serious gun legislation. Until then, we'll be wary. And when we're flush again, we'll try high tea at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Dana Point.
We parked across the street from the hotel in the coin-op public lot to avoid the valet-parking scene, strolled inside and headed for our tea party. The dcor is what you'd expect when the telephone reservation hostess replies, "Two o'clock is just grand. You will be sitting in the library." The library kinda looks like your stuffy grandfather's parlor, if your stuffy grandfather had a ridiculous view of the Pacific.
There are actual books in this library, but most of them are encyclopedias. They look old and unread. A pianist tinkles nearby; when not in the restroom, he plays light jazz. The walls are wood-paneled with brass fittings, and a 4-foot model of an old wooden schooner squats in the center of the floor. Two oil paintings of Kid Rock line the back wall. No, that's a joke: the paintings are of grim-looking aristocrats. Couches abound, and three tiny tables sit adjacent to a huge window overlooking the beach below. At a few hundred feet up, the expansive ocean view is stunning.
Now for the tea. There are only three menu selections: the traditional and Pacific teas, at $30 each, and the royal tea, $35, which throws in a Kir Royale, fresh strawberries with cream and the beheading of any peasant you desire. I had the traditional tea, selecting the "Ritz-Carlton Blend" as my tea of choice. No single-malt, this tea was a blend of five different teas. Together, they combined on the palate for a smoky, deep-forest flavor that smelled a lot like Deep Woods Off! bug repellent. Surprisingly, it was not unpleasant. My companion ordered the "Special Tea Blend," which had a very floral bouquet with strong notes of jasmine and oolong. She loved it.
Thirty bucks should include a hell of a lot more than tea, and it does. The food arrived all at once and looked to be about four bites, total. Don't have high tea on a low stomach.
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But those four bites were exquisite. A terrific egg and chive salad bejeweled with diced tomatoes was poised on what looked like a soggy communion wafer the size of Shaq's thumbnail. That, unfortunately, was the largest bite. Bite No. 2 took care of dill cream cheese adorned by tiny cucumber slices atop a tease of white bread. That was also fantastic. Bite three was a salty veneer of smoked salmon resting on a pumpernickel crumb. Not the best. Some sort of Lenten hoagie followed as well, featuring a perfectly crunchy asparagus tip nestled within a swatch of ham no bigger than a dangling earring.
A few dessert morsels followed the heartier fare, almost all of them wonderful —in particular some sort of almond and chocolate mousse doughnut concoction. The fresh strawberries were ripe and bulging, although each berry's bitter-tasting pith (that's the white center just under the stem) was not removed. At around $6 a bite, one might demand such things.
Nevertheless, all of those morsels added up, and by the time the check arrived, we were no longer hungry. Smiling, sated and poorer, we walked out into the afternoon sun. 1 Ritz-Carlton Dr., Dana Point, (949) 240-2000.
BEST SAMPLER You won't find the waspy surf crowd here—dudes sporting the standard salon-spiked hair and Hawaiian silk shirts with surgically reconfigured chicks in tow. This amicable stone-floored, hangar-sized, ballsy beer house caters deft brews to inland menfolk wearing their favorite button-down or T-shirt preserved since high school—because, um, because they don't give a damn, by God. And, as always, the women outclass their male counterparts, wearing tight, silky tops and clingy skirts, sitting coyly amid beer bellies and microbelches. The waitresses don't have practiced smiles or silicon shelves, working the room with genuine hospitality and corn-fed figures. Order the Sample Set ($5.25), an initial excuse to get lugged-up on five 5-ounce tasters of inevitably fine house brews. Or go for a Golden Spike light ale (pint, $3.50), a malt-fermented, crispy treat. Tustin Brewing Company, 13011 Newport Ave., Ste. 100, Tustin, (714) 665-BEER.