10 Essential Laguna Beach Restaurants

10 Essential Laguna Beach Restaurants
Photo by Keith May

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.

Don't see yours on here? That's what comments are for. Share it and justify, justify, justify your nomination!

1. Alessa

10 Essential Laguna Beach Restaurants
Photo by Kevin Lara

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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

10 Essential Laguna Beach Restaurants
Photo by Meranda Carter

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

10 Essential Laguna Beach Restaurants
Photo by Keith May

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.

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