The uninitiated will be forgiven for assuming Claes is the Nordic word for class after entering this swank joint encased in the "world famous" Hotel Laguna lurking over Main Beach. The host wears a freshly pressed suit, the mood is upper crusty reserved and the dining room itself is small, meaning your bill will take up the slack for the lack of tables.
But in actuality, Claes is the first name of the hotel's owner and the fine dining establishment's proprietor, Claes Andersen. His century-old hotel is nice enough—think a mini Del Coronado, only with cheaper rates, dirtier carpets and none of that annoying world-class luxury—but when Andersen bought the place 21 years ago, his goal was to create a first rate restaurant with Claes. He has succeeded. Oh, the circle of life: if only the gastronomically challenged Del Coronado had one restaurant half as exemplary as Claes.
Whether you're up for blowing the per diem, meeting friends for a quiet dinner (on them!) or sneaking into a corner for a romantic rendezvous, it doesn't get much better than Claes. Our party of two fell into the latter category and, sensing this immediately, the young host had us follow his pressed suit northward and promptly seated us against the glass overlooking Main Beach, insisting that we both sit on the same side of the table to get equal dibs on the killer ocean view.
A quick glance at the opening page of the dinner menu revealed a long list of alcoholic indulgences. The first mistake was assuming this was a Dave and Buster's-esque list of sugary sweet butt kickers like Fuzzy Nipples or Raspberry Razzamatazz Fuddleknockers or Double Crunch Chocolate Malt Vanilla Cherry Fudgy Wudgy Packers. No, as previously indicated, this is a dignified destination. The block of type on that opening page actually listed all the vodkas Claes pours. It's up to you to come up with a mix, or not.
More on those pours: Claes must serve the stiffest drinks on the coast. My usual Bombay gin martini in an oversized martini glass may as well have been the bottle from which it sprang because drinking straight gin could not have been any stronger than the concoction I gulped down. If you're smart, you'll nurse one Claes cocktail all night. Besides being more economical than pounding away like a frat boy, it'll make the walk back to the car (or room) much safer. Too bad I'm not smart: I had another Bombay bomb midway through the meal and awoke the next morning with my head feeling as if Buddy Rich used it as his snare at all three shows the previous night.
But, really, a stiff 'tini just adds to the high life lovin' vibe the little dining enclave emits. You'll also appreciate attentive, knowledgeable servers, a phonebook-thick wine list (Claes has its own cellar) and the especially brief dinner menu. Like the Hotel Laguna's lower-scale eateries the Lounge and the Terrace, actually, Claes constantly mixes things up based on the freshness of the available ingredients and a willingness to try out new entrées. Choices from a recent dinner menu were sparse. No specials, no substitutions; you'll take what you get and you'll like it, mister.
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What this means is chef Ryan Wreyford and his staff can better concentrate on your individual order, greatly enhancing the chances that what you pick will be among the best of those main dishes you've ever been served. That was certainly true of the scallops I woofed down (with class!) on my night there. Plumb and charred to perfection, the scallops—combined with the flavors of the creamy sauce is was dunked in—left me thoroughly satisfied, impressed and willing to dip into my 401k to pay for it.
The contents of the fresh bread basket also helped sop up some of that ill-advised second gin martini—but not so much that I did not black out too early in the evening to know whether I had anything good or bad to report here about the peach sorbet dessert that I saw listed on the receipt I found in my trousers on the way to the cleaners several days later.
My aching head will surely prefer the Claes lunch or Sunday brunch next time.
CLAES AT HOTEL LAGUNA, 425 SOUTH COAST HWY., LAGUNA BEACH, (949) 376-9283; WWW.CLAESRESTAURANT.COM. OPEN MON., 7 A.M.-2 P.M.; SUN., TUES.-THURS., 7 A.M.-9:30 P.M.; FRI.-SAT., 7 A.M.-10 P.M. DINNER FOR TWO, $64-$76, EXCLUDING VERY STIFF DRINKS. FULL BAR.