You know you've reached paradise when the most contentious debate in town is whether one man's palm tree blocks a fraction of another man's view of the vast Pacific. Such is the case in Laguna Beach, a small mountainous seaside resort located three miles south of Corona del Mar on Pacific Coast Highway. There are residents who are pro-view. There are residents who are pro-tree. But this is California, after all, and so there are also residents who don't give a damn about views or trees as long as surfing conditions are adequate. Not to make light of the tree dilemma. More than a few residents have awakened to find their beloved trees victimized by deadly middle-of-the-night saboteurs. Only delicate police negotiations have prevented subsequent fistfights between neighboring millionaires.
Heisler Park. When pale friends fly in from snow-covered Minnesota desperate to catch California fever, take them to Heisler Park—perhaps the most photographed spot in coastal Orange County. The palm-tree-lined oceanfront park—which old Hollywood used to shoot tropical-island scenes—offers unforgettably spectacular views, beautiful beach coves, flora-covered cliffs, picnic areas and a gazebo. Cliff Drive near Main Beach.
Five Feet. It's no secret why snazzy Ritz-Carlton guests in Dana Point head north to Laguna Beach each night. For more than a decade, chef/owner Michael Kang has ranked among the most creative in California. Particularly popular is the whole catfish in hot braised sauce or the pan-roasted scallops. Reservations are a must. 328 Glenneyre St., (949) 497-4955.Mark's. This popular, locally owned restaurant/bar offers a contemporary setting and consistently good California cuisine. 858 S. Coast Hwy., (949) 494-6711.Madison Square & Garden Cafe. One of Laguna's early homes is now the town's niftiest breakfast and lunch restaurant. This is not a greasy spoon. Order at a counter inside the house (try the apple pancakes!) and then wait for food at your table outside in a peaceful, wonderfully landscaped garden. 320 N. Coast Hwy., (949) 494-0137.
LAGUNA LOOKS FOR COMPANIONSHIP
Las Brisas. One of the best views in Laguna doubles as a decent Mexican restaurant and, for those on the prowl, a nightly meat market for guys and gals. 361 Cliff Dr., (949) 497-5434.Main Beach. Beneath the noses of elderly strollers and families frolicking in the surf is one of Laguna Beach's biggest pickup spots for lonely heterosexuals and homosexuals: Broadway and Pacific Coast Highway between the lifeguard stand and the basketball courts. Pacific Coast Highway and Highway 133.
Mosun Saki Bar & Nightclub. The second-floor dance club in this Japanese restaurant draws an energetic, hip weekend crowd that occasionally includes recognizable fashion models. 680 S. Coast Hwy., (949) 497-5646.
The Hotel La Casa del Camino. There are nice, expensive hotels for families (Surf-n-Sand, Inn at Laguna), but if there are just two of you, we'd recommend a room on the third floor of this small renovated European-style hotel overlooking the ocean. 1289 S. Coast Hwy., (949) 497-2446.
LAGUNA CANYON ROAD WARRIOR
Main Beach Basketball Courts.You've driven past them, seen them on post cards, in commercials, TV shows and movies. Perhaps, you've even fancied yourself playing on these hallowed courts but were intimidated by the competition that can range from quality high school to top-notch college. But the fact is those players are the least of your worries. The Main Beach court's placement makes it picturesque but also makes for unique and ever-changing playing conditions that a certain race of player—usually stumpy, scruffy and seemingly non-threatening—have mastered. We once held down the court for a game with a top college player only to be done in by one of these guys who, standing 25-feet from the hoop, perfectly allowed for the wind and always shot the ball two feet to the left of the rim. He didn't miss. Not once. We soon found ourselves sitting, mocked by the court's beauty. The Sandpiper (a.k.a. The Dirty Bird). Young drunks and cover bands. Bad cover bands. Really drunk. So bad even George Clinton and Parliament sound dry and loveless. So drunk they'll knock your beer out of your hand when they try to toast you, and then glare at you for having the bad manners to drop your beer. You gotta love this place, for about seven minutes. Then it's off to Woody's and the Boom Boom Room, where no one will try to have sex with you if you're a girl (except the swingers, of which there are lots). 1183 S. Coast Hwy., (949) 494-4694.Woody's by the Beach. Woody's is perfect for one beer, at approximately 9:30 p.m. on a Friday. The piped-in music doesn't drown out the conversation by the fireplace on the patio. You stop in, smile at the cute gay bartenders (tip well!), and make some nice new gay friends. Perhaps you could show them your breasts? They don't mind: gay men love breasts! 1305 S. Coast Hwy., (949) 376-8809.The Boom Boom Room. Management is mean, but the bouncer who has been at the door for a thousand years will remember you every time. The music's awful—if I hear Cher's “Do You Belieeeeeeeeve” one more time, I'm taking hostages—but the boys are friendly (not as friendly as at Woody's, but you can't have it all) and there are go-go dancers shakin' that ass up on the bar. Bring dollars. 1401 S. Coast Hwy., (949) 494-7588.The Art Institute of Southern California. The pretty little campus on Laguna Canyon Road has been mocked by the cognoscenti for nigh on decades as a reactionary school. It's definitely not Cal Arts or Otis. But here at the backward, reactionary Weekly, we think that's a good thing! Students here actually have to learn how to draw and paint before they get their degrees, and their teachers include some of Southern California's finest painters, like F. Scott Hess and Stephen Douglas. 2222 Laguna Canyon Rd., (949) 376-6000.The Day Laborer Place on Laguna Canyon. In TC Boyle's Tortilla Curtain, the good liberals of Topanga Canyon become so freaked by Mexicans they use all their good liberal influence to get Topanga's hungry day laborers, standing sad and quiet at the side of the little general store, “cleaned up.” The good liberals also make sure they can't stand at a 7-Eleven in the Valley because their prospective real-estate customers might get queasy. The good liberals do lots and lots of bad stuff in that book. But not in Laguna! There, if you're a day laborer, there's a bench under a grand oak, with shade, water fountains and a driveway for prospective employers to pull up in. That may not sound like much, but you should read Tortilla Curtain and see how everybody else treats day laborers, and then you'd understand. It's practically paradise. The Marine Room Tavern. This is mostly for old folks—but cool, fun, friendly old folks, not like the old folks in, say, Brea. It kind of looks like Cheers. It has fancy beers. Sometimes, it has bagpipers. When there are bagpipers, you should go. 214 Ocean Ave., (949) 494-3027. Elena Zass Gallery.The sunny, Coast Highway gallery is hushed. It's maybe a little pretentious, like a gallery in Beverly Hills—but you're not going to find many galleries that aren't. What Zass has going for her is an eclectic stable of (often-Russian) Expressionists, their palettes loaded with bold color. It's bright, figurative work that's often whimsical and never jarring. Sometimes it's even the tiniest bit edgy! I've seen nudes there! 330 N. Coast Hwy., (949) 494-1969.
Seven.Pretty, pretty Seven! Where there is never an empty champagne glass, and you, too, can hold your company do amid art that's inoffensive without being offensively inoffensive. They have jazz, too, but sometimes it blows. The plant itself flows here and there like a baby Gehry, lit like the Mothership and overlaid with naturally fallen koa wood (they checked). Go hungry. It's outstanding. 891 Laguna Canyon Rd., (949) 376-1555.
LAGUNA BEACH GENIUS
Tyler Stallings.Ha ha, Los Angeles! Y'all think we're so backward, but you can't swoon enough over Laguna Art Museum's hip and bitchen curator. He's real shy and bespectacled, and he stammers. He reminds us of a squirrel. And he pulls together shows that are truly on the avant garde, without caring a whit whether they're hip or cool or not, which is the hippest and coolest thing of all. Sometimes, his shows are about aliens! Laguna Art Museum, 307 Cliff Dr., (949) 494-8971.
Illustration by Bob Aul
VEGETARIAN FOOD. Growing up in East LA was all about the food—damn good food. So when I moved to Laguna Beach as a Chicano vegetarian—two words rarely used together—the quest for tasty, veggie-friendly Mexican fare seemed challenging, but here's what I found: Taco Loco is where tie dye and Mex-comida collide on Pacific Coast Highway, serving up blackened-tofu-and-mushroom tacos with an amazing avocado salsa that's as hot as any my grandma Cuca made when she was pissed-off. The Stand on Thalia and PCH makes a great vegan tamale, but you've got to ask for the extra hot sauce over the top. Order the vegetable soup at Olamendi's on the corner of Oak and PCH, dump the whole condiment bowl of salsa fresca in it, and weep. Taco Loco, 640 S. Coast Hwy., (949) 497-1635; The Stand, 238 Thalia St., (949) 494-8101; Olamendi's, 1100 S. Coast Hwy., (949) 497-4148. (Louie Perez, Member of the rock group Los Lobos, eight-year resident of Laguna Beach)