Laguna Beach is the New York of OC's restaurant scene. If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere. Proof: Katsuya, that high-priced, high-concept sushi joint that has branches at LA Live and Brentwood, didn't last more than two years here.
The Laguna crowd, which will quickly flock to the next new hot restaurant opening as easily as they'll abandon the stinkers, are a finicky and particular bunch.
So herewith are this finicky and particular food writer's favorites.
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Located within view of the lifeguard station, on the city's busiest one-way street, Alessa takes no reservations and routinely spawns crazy lines on weekends. It's noisy, cozy and cramped, less a restaurant than a bar with tables and chairs squeezed into every possible corner to maximize the prime real estate. You'll no doubt be seated almost shoulder-to-shoulder to the next guy, so close you'll mutually drool at what each other's having. Around and sometimes above you, waiters deliver dishes, swoop up empty plates, and coordinate the controlled chaos with a mishmash of Spanish, Italian and coordinated hand signals. No one writes anything down, but no one botches an order, even as the lights are dimmed so low you can barely make out the faces on the framed pictures of Alessandro Pirozzi's large clan hung in clusters on one wall. You can get just about everything offered at the other two Alessas, like the zucca, a butternut squash-stuffed ravioli drenched in brown butter and topped with deep-fried sage leaves. But Laguna Beach's Alessa features a prosciutto-and-mozzarella bar the others don't. There's also a playful salad called fragole that bursts in Technicolor with red strawberries and yellow beets. And only here in this Alessa do tart apples and micro fennel garnish a very compelling crudo of yellowtail wrapped into bundles and dribbled with limoncello gelée.
2. Broadway by Amar Santana
The best way to eat at Broadway by Amar Santana in Laguna Beach is to stick with the small plates. It's here where Santana cuts loose and reveals his knowledge what works and what doesn't. His Kobe beef sliders don't seem as juicy as when he made them at Charlie Palmer's, but the dish of fried Brussels sprouts with Chinese sausage is revelatory. Redolent of full-mouthed complexity, with a sweet-and-sourness that's never too cloying, this veggie side dish humbles even Santana's elegant chicken-liver mousse. The mousse is, by the way, wonderful: light, frothy, insulated by a layer of aspic, and decorated with pickled onions and potato chips until you scoop it up from its jar and onto grilled bread.
3. House of Big Fish and Ice Cold Beer
Hats off to whoever came up with the House of Big Fish and Ice Cold Beer. As the cliche goes, it is what it is. The place has quickly become a boisterous hit not only on the simplicity of its name, but also the lowness of its prices. A wall of people gluts the door. The noise level inside is deafening even before the band starts playing. It's proof that everyone, including Laguna Beach's privileged class, is willing to wait two hours for cheaply priced, massive plates of seafood that will have them busting out of their couture.
4. Laguna Thai by The Sea
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The only Thai faces you'll see are in the kitchen and servicing the dining room. But this says more about the community of Laguna Beach than it does about the authenticity of the food. It makes no sense why there are futbol pendants that function as theming. And the place looks more like a breezy fish taco stand than something that serves panang and pad Thai. They've got exactly three parking spaces in a lot shared by an apartment complex, which posts dire warnings should you even think about stealing one of their spots. Most nights, people come in and out picking up phone orders of their best dish: a fruity house fried rice with raisins, grape tomatoes and pineapple. The coconut-milk-enriched tom kah soup also uses those tomatoes. This soup relies on other domestic veggies rather than the exotic. But it's a good brew--a sip as warming as any you've had in LA's Thai Town or even Bangkok itself.
5. Mare Culinary Lounge
The site was formerly Blue Laguna, which, like Mare was a clubby lounge set anachronistically inside a quaint Holiday Inn with wrought iron balconies reminiscent of New Orleans Square. While Alessandro Pirozzi's other restaurants are fit for families; Mare is intimate and sexy. The cold blue lights and shiny metal makes it look like a futuristic set from a scene in Blade Runner. A looped movie of bathing elephants projected on one wall is beguiling on purpose. There are other features that indicate the restaurant also wants to be trendy. For those come to enjoy Mare as a lounge and bar, it already has the best plate of fried calamari that beats any offered on PCH. The lighter-than-air batter covering the tender squid rings, Castelveltrano olives and house-pickled jalapenos tastes rich and almost buttery. From there, move to the tissue-thin octopus carpaccio, which melts like snowflakes on the tongue as the sprinkled black Sicilian lava salt crunch between the teeth. There are direct imports from the Alessas, including the indispensable and incredible butternut squash ravioli with brown butter and fried sage. Here it's cut into heart-shapes and called cuori. But even an out-of-place appetizer called "Tacos Mai Way", which employs the fluffy steamed Chinese bun all Momofuku aspirants tend to use, is well-done. Instead of pork belly, Pirozzi stuffs his "tacos" with braised oxtail, sweet onions, carrots and a homemade Saba. The oxtail is seen again tangled up between the pappardelle, tape-wide green-tinted noodles that tastes like it was just freshly churned out from a pasta press. The lasagnas use the same pasta, but cut wider and laid down with béchamel for a balanced dish layered with a slow-cooked meat sauce.
6. O Fine Japanese
O Fine Japanese Cuisine operates on the assumption you really like California rolls. In fact, it counts on it. Rolls make up more than half the menu. The California is just a start; there are some that don't employ a single grain of rice, a single sheet of nori, nor a single drop of soy sauce. There are also teriyaki combos, tempura this, sesame that, dishes that come with names involving the words "dynamite" and "volcano." On the plates, you see retina-stimulating splashes of color, cucumber rinds fashioned into rakes, dribbles of multihued sauces and garnishes taking up more real estate than the actual dish. If traditionalist sushi bars like Tustin's Sushi Wasabi is Monet, O Laguna is Warhol. The chosen medium: crab meat.
Sapphire is stalwart of outdoor eating in Laguna Beach. They cook their meals with locally sourced, organic ingredients, yadda yadda yadda. But check out the patio, and you'll realize what it's really about. The area is elevated from the sidewalk, so you won't be pestered by gawking pedestrians. And best of all, there's a firepit to combat those chilly evening coastal breezes. Also, it's a good excuse to cuddle. If they have sautéed barramundi on that night's menu, take it. With a crackly crust and a pearly flesh that will taste of fresh, cold milk,it will be surrounded by a Technicolor potpourri of in-season vegetables. Colorful, delicious to the last crumb, it will be art on a plate--a fitting dish for the home of The Pageant of the Masters.
8. Studio at The Montage
They never say "sir" or "madam." Instead it's Mr. or Ms. [insert your surname here]. What's more, the servers at Studio Restaurant remember to use it throughout the night. Ask where the restrooms are, and they'll not just point you the way, but they'll also escort you there. When you come back to your table, your crumpled napkin has been folded neatly. If you're part of a large party, each plate served gets its own attendant, who will put the food in front of the diner who ordered it without asking whom it belongs to--and at precisely the same choreographed moment as everyone else. No detail is missed. Everyone has a demeanor that is nothing short of impeccable. You will be eternally spoiled.
9. Three Seventy Common
Three Seventy Common is a cozy and rustic replacement to Sorrento Grille with incredibly in-depth and beautiful, American comfort food. You will find tasty small bites, juicy scallops, the perfect steak, toasty mac and cheese, exotic bone marrow, and impeccable sides. The best night to visit is Sunday, when the chefs toss out the regular menu and offer a rare thing for Laguna Beach: an affordable multi-course dinner. Owner/chef Ryan Adams has dubbed these family-style suppers "Sunday Socials," and they're evocative of meals at home when everyoneâs at the table and the TV's turned off. Every week brings a new protein, sides and dessert. Priced between $16 per person if it's chicken to a few bucks more if it's a costlier meat, Adams' idea isn't necessarily new, but the downright sincerity in how they do it should make Three Seventy Common more beloved than Sorrento Grille ever was in its 23 years.
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Helmed by chef/owner Marc Cohen, who'd previously built a solid reputation in town with his 230 Forest, Watermarc seems to have earned the approval of Laguna Beach's discriminating palates faster than most. A can't-miss is the house-made seafood sausage, for which crab meat and fish mousse are piped into natural casing and served over a bowl of stewed white beans--an appetizer invested with more thought and care than is required.