It's no coincidence that when you drive into Laguna Beach, your radio reception fades into static. Both geographically and spiritually, Laguna Beach has always been a refuge from the rest of Orange County and Southern California. Surrounded by steep hills and canyons, Laguna's isolation is even reflected in the weather. When it's nice out in the rest of Orange County, it's perfect in Laguna.
Photo by Tenaya Hills
Best Buzz After a quick note on irony—that a restaurant called Hush gets more buzz than a honey-covered nude—we'll get to the point: this is one of the few places whose New American standards (such as rack of lamb, salmon and pork tenderloin) are worth $50. Hush, 858 S. Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach, (949) 497-3616.
Best Rooftop Tapas La Casa Del Camino. Built in 1927 and recently renovated, this hotel is a landmark of Laguna Beach history. It boasts a ground-floor four-star restaurant, Savoury's, with fantastic fusion cuisine, but its best amenity is the rooftop view of the Pacific, which made it a popular spot for weddings—until it stopped hosting weddings. Oh well; try the excellent tapas, the fire-roasted Japanese chiles and cocktails on the roof. 1289 S. Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach, (949) 497-2446.
Best Day Laborer Center in the World Laguna Beach Day Laborer Center. Jornaleros across Orange County travel here to the only city-supported day laborer center left in Orange County. It's not just the allure of government approval that draws Mexicanos in, though: it's located just outside downtown, on a hilly stretch of Laguna Canyon Road with gorgeous hillside views, ample shade, consistent sea breeze and generous employers. Only problem: the neo-Nazis who protest outside once a month. When things get too hectic, though, the day laborers bum-rush them away. 1765 Laguna Canyon Rd., Laguna Beach.
Best Caribbean Cuisine Eva's Caribbean Kitchen. This joint occupies the same simple cottage that the dearly missed Drew's Caribbean Kitchen rented for many years. The best remnant from the Drew's days is an open kitchen that continues to flamb and saut a cruise-ship tour of Caribbean cuisine, with stops for moist Bahamian conch fritters, a sweet St. Martin-style salad and enough varieties of rum to give Captain Morgan cirrhosis. Don't miss the Cajun prawns, or anything marinated in Eva's lightning-hot jerk sauce. 31732 S. Pacific Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach, (949) 499-6311.
Best Patio The Terrace at Hotel Laguna. Like the other historic seaside hotels that dot the Pacific Coast, the Laguna Hotel has a guest register reading like a who's who of Hollywood's golden age: Humphrey Bogart and Errol Flynn have rooms named after them here, and James Irvine was reportedly the prima donna of the hotel's glitterati circa 1900. Originally built as the Arch Beach Hotel in 1886, the structure has survived several fires/condemnations and is now in roughly its 1930 form. The Terrace is its and the city's best-kept secret: an outside patio perched above the hotel's private beach with views of the Pacific rivaled by few locations in Orange County. Forget Las Brisas: the prices here aren't as steep and the milieu not nearly as formal. Order one of the hotel's signature chocolate martinis or luxurious lemon drops and enjoy! 425 S. Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach, (949) 494-1151.
Best Shortcut to Belgium Brussels Bistro. In a well-lit basement on Forest Avenue, once the home of David Wilhelm's Southwestern caf, Kachina, Brussels Bistro looks like a European caf—small tables in primary colors packed close together, a jazz singer who seems to speak each line as if she's asking a question, a bar and well-dressed servers. The food is astonishing, a revelation, artistry. I had the crepes with Gruyre, ham and scallions. My wife ordered a stew with chuck so tender it reminded me again why we humans, some of us, eat meat. The Belgians are big on fries, so please order the pommes frites; when I say they'll remind you of burger joints near the beach, you'll understand that I mean that as high praise. 222 Forest Ave., Laguna Beach, (949) 376-7955.
Best Heap of Singer/Songwriters The Marine Room. Go back four decades, and Orange County abounded in folk music venues, where singer/songwriters could try their stuff out before an audience and their musical peers: the Golden Bear, the Prison of Socrates, the Mecca, the Rouge et Noir, the Paradox and other espresso holes, all long, long gone. The closest thing these days is Tuesday nights at the Marine Room, where Honk alum and splendific songwriter Beth Fitchet Wood hosts an inspired mix of new voices, veteran song sages and hit writers. From 8 p.m. on you'll hear articulate teen angst, followed by vets who actually came up in the Bear-Paradox-etc. scene, followed by the likes of the unfollowable Richard Stekol, whose songs and guitar playing are so distinctive that he really should have a doctor take a look at them. 210 Ocean Ave., Laguna Beach, (949) 494-3027; www.bethfitchetwood.com.
Best Gay Bar Woody's at the Beach. This place used to be Little Shrimp, one of Laguna's oldest gay bars. It's straight-friendly and features patio dining, which, thanks to a fireplace, is cozy even in the dead of winter. Inside are fantastic martinis and—sorry, fellas!—cute bartenders, most of whom are . . . straight! 1305 S. Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach, (949) 376-8809.
Best Martinis Sorrento Grill. Sorrento's is a popular pickup spot for well-heeled locals and boasts a menu of 20 martinis. We recommend anything made with Bombay Sapphire—it reduces the chance of a nasty hangover—or, if you're adventurous, the Key Lime Pie. 370 Glenneyre St., Laguna Beach, (949) 494-8686.
Best Antidote to Wyland Peter Blake Gallery. Peter Blake's been lording it over all the Laguna Beach crap-and-sunshine galleries since 1993, with blue-chip LA artists like Ed Moses and Joe Goode flocking to sell their Important Art to his moneyed clientele. We've had our differences over the years—we can be sort of mean, sometimes—but if Blake's artists are sometimes coasting along on their years-before accomplishments, at least they're not selling seashells. Or crap. 326 N. Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach, (949) 376-9994.
Best Museum Laguna Art Museum. This isn't just the best museum in Laguna Beach, but is also one of the best museums in Orange County. Only the Irvine Museum has a bigger collection of early 20th-century landscape art by the masters of the Laguna Beach scene—but Laguna Art Museum does “contemporary” just as well, with seminal low-brow shows like “Kustom Kulture.” The permanent collection includes more than 500 works from 80 artists from every major period in California 20th-century art. It's a great place to sober up after binging on margaritas at Las Brisas, conveniently located next door. 307 Cliff Dr., Laguna Beach, (949) 494-8971.
Best Coffeehouse Koffee Klatch. This colorful independent oozes character: cozy sofas, assorted plants, work by local artists, friendly service, free wi-fi, shaded outdoor seating and occasional performances by area musicians. 1440 S. Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach, (949) 376-6867.
Best Music Store The Sound Spectrum. While no longer in its original location, this store has been around since the 1960s. Ever since Mystic Arts World burned down in 1970, it is all that's left of Laguna's glory days as a hippie mecca: arguably the best record store anywhere in Orange County for reggae—just about the only place where you can find Prince Buster, for example. Otto, who also produces The Reggae Showcase for KSBR 88.5 FM, still runs the place. Drop in during the afternoon, and you're likely to find him there. 1264 S. Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach, (949) 494-5959.
Best Champagne Brunch The Beach House. There are other Beach Houses—in Dana Point and Cardiff-by-the-Sea—but this is the original. It's been around since 1968 and features a narrow wooden deck just wide enough for a row of tables for two. Breakfasts and brunches are heapingly large and delicious. Try the smoked salmon benedict or the seafood omelet. A bottle of champagne is de rigueur, but if you're walking home, we suggest the divinely inspired Bloody Mary or our favorite, the Hurricane Laguna, a 24-ounce punch of passion-fruit-infused rum. 619 Sleepy Hollow Lane, Laguna Beach, (949) 494-9707.
Best Pastries Heidelberg Pastry and Bistro Shop. Across the street from the Sandpiper, Heidelberg has a great patio that's perfect for munching on your pastry while reading this issue.Try the cinnamon nut rolls or almond Danish and test the patience of the elegant, statuesque barristas by asking for a triple-double half-decaf nonfat dry latte. 1100 S. Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach, (949) 497-4594.