Though it’s something I rarely wonder about when I’m dining somewhere, this time, I couldn’t shake it: How many investment bankers, lawyers and executives are in the room? Maybe it was because at the garage for the mandatory (but complimentary) valet, I saw more Audis than Toyotas. Or maybe it’s because now, more than when the place was Tabu Grill, the customers looked as though they just came off a Fortune magazine photo shoot. But then, so does the restaurant.
Gone are Tabu’s wicker chairs and parasol-covered ceiling. Now, there’s a lounge in which a piano player’s tip jar overflows with greenbacks. On the patio, flames lick the glass in a fire pit that doubles as a fence. But at reserved tables in the main dining room is where the wealthy and powerful sit. Leonardo DiCaprio from Titanic would feel out of place here, but Leonardo DiCaprio from The Wolf of Wall Street would be right at home. Or I should say Leonardo DiCaprio from The Great Gatsby? The space is supposed to summon the spirit of the Art Deco style of Manhattan’s Drake Hotel, which was built in the Roaring Twenties—right around the time F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel was published.
The room certainly seems as if it could host one of Jay Gatsby’s lavish café-society parties. Sexy drapes separate booths. The chairs are plush. A small stage in the middle is designed for live music. And if you pay attention to the tune piped into the restroom, you’ll hear a jazz crooner singing “Meet Me at the Drake.” Yes, the restaurant seems to have its own theme song. Either that, or it’s about the original hotel—I don’t know for sure. The lyrics are impossible to Google without getting results for the other Drake.
As upscale as it is, the service isn’t stuffy or formal. In fact, it’s rather accommodating. Along with the choice of bottled or sparkling water, the waiter also offered tap, which is nice because I always feel weird asking for it when they don’t give you the option. He even suggested to split the order of beet salad. After I agreed, it came out in two perfectly plated portions. Each platter had three beet hunks sitting on their own puddle of runny goat cheese, with green-apple slices and endive stuck upright like sails. Scattered pistachios and a drizzled balsamic reduction elevated the dish from being a trope.
The rest of the menu has few surprises. There are appetizers of tuna sashimi and hamachi tartare. Salads include a Caesar and a burrata with tomato. Main entrées run through the gamut of American restaurant proteins as predictably as Disney remakes its classics. You’d be right in guessing there’s scallops, a salmon and a chicken breast. You’d also be right if you predicted the three steaks are a New York, a rib-eye and a filet. But what I didn’t expect to see were the lobster tacos. Fistfuls of mayo-dressed lobster meat are packed into a thick flour tortilla, then topped with an avocado slice and microgreens—it’s an East Coast lobster roll meets a West Coast fish taco, and it’s one of the better bargains since an order comes with two.
The chefs in the kitchen are a father and son. The father is Paul Gstrein, the cook who opened Bistango and Bayside. His son, Nick, is his sous. But it was because I heard that the elder Gstrein cut his teeth at Spago in Beverly Hills, Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago and Campanile in Los Angeles that I knew his halibut would be cooked as properly as it was. You don’t work at those places without knowing how to sear a fish. That he plates it like so many other fish dishes I’ve had everywhere else—hoisted atop mashed potato and above a pool of white-wine sauce—did not diminish its ability to impress.
If you want to try Gstrein’s hat tip to the Drake Hotel, he prepares venison as a steak Diane, a dish that was invented there. But if there’s a meal that most represents this restaurant and the customers it serves, it’s the apple-glazed pork chop. The chop comes from a Heritage Duroc. It’s the most premium cut of meat from the most premium breed of pig. The phrase “living high on the hog” doesn’t get more literal. Gstrein roasts it to a crispy brown outer crust and medium-rare pink interior. Instead of a starch, he offers the porcine steak on a slaw made from Brussels sprouts because even those who can afford to dine this high on the hog still need to keep up with the Keto.
The Drake, 2894 Pacific Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach, (949) 376-1000; www.thedrakelaguna.com. Open Sun.-Thurs., 5:30-11 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 5:30 p.m.-midnight. Appetizers and salads, $9-$18; entrées, $21-$48. Full bar.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.