Funny thing: The most recognizable beach-dining destinations in Orange County aren't even on the beach—they're perched on the Newport Beach and Huntington Beach piers. Now, the Ruby's Diner folks have opened an actual beach eatery, the Beachcomber, that trumps even these OC icons on location.
It occupies one of the old seaside cottages in the Crystal Cove Historic District, a creaky wooden structure so close to the surf it seems in danger of being swept away come high tide. Inside, cozy booths complement a log-cabin look and feel, but the outdoor patio is where you want to be.
With its canopy of oversized umbrellas and chummy wait staff, the Beachcomber is the ideal place to soak in a sweet summer (or late spring) sunset. Unluckily for us on our visit, the May Gray decided to deny us the pleasure: A blanket of clouds covered every inch of sky. With the temperature at a brisk 65 degrees and dropping, we wondered if our light sweaters would keep us warm.
We took our patio seats near a particularly rowdy group of fortysomethings who were celebrating the induction of their newest member: a woman wearing tiara that glittered with the numbers 4-0. They were drunk enough not to mind that it was freezing.
We, the unfortunately sober, held our palms out toward a nearby space heater and rubbed them together. For additional warmth, the restaurant provided embroidered fleece blankets. As I wrapped myself in one, I stammered out an order for a nice, hot bowl of New England clam chowder.
When the thick elixir came, it was full of potatoes, studded with generous bites of chewy clam and rich with a full-bodied flavor that could only come from rendered bacon—a good sign this was a properly prepared chowdah.
But it wasn't very summery, so we also ordered a few seaworthy appetizers. Soggy crab cakes came as a pair, served over a mound of summer corn relish, which turned out to be the best part of the dish. Wonton shells filled with soy-marinated raw tuna were called "tiny ahi tacos" and arrived as a foursome, surrounding a small hill of shredded Napa cabbage. I liked them, but my dining companion found the creamy sauce too sweet. But since each piece took only two bites to finish, we soon turned our attention to the fried calamari.
Despite the presence of a cilantro aioli (a fancy name for mayo) and tartar sauce (mayo with chopped pickles), the calamari was the standard-issue plate of battered squid that's offered ad nauseam at every chain restaurant in America. We savored it down to the crumb just the same—it was the right dish at the right place at the right time.
Now that we'd warmed up a bit, we began to notice that, even shrouded in clouds, the coastal vistas from the Beachcomber are simply stunning. The entrées, however, were not. The grilled flat-iron steak was presliced into uneven hunks and proved a burdensome chew. An oppressive, bitter-tasting frothy emulsion on top of the meat, identified as Béarnaise, made matters worse.
Most disappointing of all was the side of "Crystal Cove potatoes," which was unceremoniously dumped on the plate in a lazy heap. Sliced like scalloped potatoes but cooked like hash browns, the messy mound smacked of short-order cooking—the kind found in early-bird specials at greasy-spoon diners, but out of place in a dish with a $25 sticker price.
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Dungeness crab Louis salad looked as striking as the locale, with red plump tomatoes, whole Bibb lettuce, sliced avocado and a quartered egg arranged on a wide plate. But the crab itself was anemic, existing in dry clumps badly in need of a drawn-butter bath.
Nearly every dessert was served in a martini glass and involved ice cream. The Raspberries and Cream was my choice: two scoops of Dr. Bob's brand vanilla drizzled with Chambord liqueur and adorned with about a dozen red raspberries. My date chose the Gimme S'mores, which featured a marshmallow sauce that had been lightly torched, some chocolate sauce and two graham crackers.
In retrospect, closing our dinner with ice cream was ill-advised: The mercury had now dipped to 58 degrees. But it's nearly summer, damn it. And what's more summery than ice cream at the beach?
THE BEACHCOMBER, 15 CRYSTAL COVE, NEWPORT COAST, (949) 376-6900; WWW.THEBEACHCOMBERCAFE.COM. OPEN DAILY, 7 A.M.-9:30 P.M. DINNER FOR TWO, $50-$100, FOOD ONLY. FULL BAR.