Before I can talk about the new Tommy Bahama restaurant in Laguna Beach, I have to begin with the man himself. Though not as funny or popular as Dos Equis’ Most Interesting Man In the World, the dashing, gray-haired fellow who embodies the clothing brand in print ads serves pretty much the same purpose: a mascot to live vicariously through. But as an aspirational character, Tommy Bahama is the polar opposite of the Dos Equis guy, a man who doesn’t do heroic things so much as he seems to lounge around in silk Hawaiian shirts, travel a lot between pricey island-vacation homes, sip mai tais and generally live life as “one long weekend.”
He is a hero of a different sort, a Jimmy Buffett of the corporate world. The founders of the company conceived of the character and his never-ending-beach-vacation fantasy before designing a single garment for the lifestyle label. To devise the product line, they asked themselves: What would Tommy wear? Power suits? Never. Khaki shorts and tropical-print shirts? Always.
What role does food play in this? When it came to advertising, the founders shunned TV commercials and did something unexpected for a clothing company: They started a restaurant. Its theming and resort meals all played into the Tommy Bahama persona, and more important, it worked. While guests waited for tables, they’d browse the clothing store. Since the first eatery/clothier opened in Naples, Florida—a beach-y, tourist town where Tommy himself could be an indigenous inhabitant—the restaurants and their attached merchandising units saw soaring profits. One executive told reporters, “If you serve them a meal when they’re on vacation, you’ve got them forever.”
This brings us to the newly opened Tommy Bahama in Laguna Beach, a city in the sweet-spot of the company’s demographic, much like the Newport Beach store and restaurant that preceded it. Occupying the bottom floor of the historic Heisler Building, a full two-thirds of the acreage is a roomy, stretch-your-legs-out dining area so bright and breezy it looks like it came out of the home-furnishing section of, well, a Tommy Bahama catalog. At the back, a glass-encased kitchen is hermetically sealed from the rest of the room so as to not transfer its smells onto the exorbitantly priced shirts and accessories displayed in the shop directly adjacent.
The food the kitchen produces, however, is unlike its sister store in Newport Beach—or any other store. In fact, every Tommy Bahama restaurant seems to function as an independent entity. While the Newport Beach restaurant names its dishes after vacation destinations such as Pebble Beach and Torrey Pines, the Laguna Beach eatery is content in just telling you what you’re going to have for dinner, be it a burger, a shrimp BLT or an ahi noodle salad. A lobster corn dog is really a lobster corn dog: hunks of sweet, quivery crustacean meat impaled on sticks and encased in a deep-fried-cornbread batter indistinguishable from those made at the mall food court by girls in embarrassing uniforms. This is to say, it’s good.
Too bad the rest of the menu can’t live up to the delicious simplicity of a hot dog. Lobster shows up again with truffle oil and shiitakes to justify the markup of lowly mac and cheese. The dish, already overplayed and clichéd before it made it onto the menu, had the DNA helix twirls of the cavatappi pasta playing the role of macaroni. But the whole thing was absent any texture, no better than what comes out of a supermarket box and not helped by the neoprene chewiness of the overcooked shellfish. I went home with the usual stink of truffles haunting my upper lip and a doggie bag of overpriced leftovers I was not looking forward to eating. I was able to finish an appetizer of oversalted, steamed Prince Edward Island mussels, but I had to drain each shell of that unbearable broth before scraping off the meat.
It was at this point that I wondered whether I would’ve taken more kindly to these dishes had I been a tourist on vacation instead of a local reviewer on assignment. A clueless, newly arrived out-of-towner, after all, would be oblivious to the other terrific restaurants on the same block, but I couldn’t help but think about the better meals being served at Watermarc, Nick’s or even House of Big Fish. Only when the mahi mahi arrived did I encounter a dish to finally validate the young kitchen despite its earlier mistakes. The crispy crust on the fish concentrated its coriander-dill rub. What wasn’t covered in the seasoning or dolloped with the watermelon-pineapple salsa went to soaking up a Meyer lemon beurre blanc so well-made I quickly became obsessed with not wasting a single buttery-citrusy drop. Everything became objects with which to sop up the sauce puddle: the unnecessary garnish of Dungeness crab meat; the couscous-y presence of quinoa; and the smoky grilled asparagus, whose sleek surface made for a good squeegee.
Putting me in a mood more conducive to spending three figures on a Hawaiian shirt I’ll probably never wear was Chris, our waiter, who took the good-natured, rowdy verbal jabs of a particularly drunk table with aplomb and offered to split a shared plate between my date and me at no extra charge. Even if the food I sampled is not yet up to Laguna Beach standards, his is the kind of service that is. I dared not tell him that I thought the banana-cream pie he suggested for dessert had a stale crust akin to shoe leather or hardened Play-Doh. I bet Tommy Bahama wouldn’t, either. He’s that kind of guy.
Tommy Bahama, 400 S. Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach, (949) 376-6886; www.tommybahama.com. Open Sun.-Thurs., 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11:30 a.m.-midnight. Appetizers, $6-$16; entrées, $13-$25. Full bar.
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This review appeared in print as "A Slightly Off-Key Bahamian Rhapsody: Tommy Bahama’s new Laguna Beach restaurant-cum-clothing store has some kinks to work out before it can relax on the beach."