Laguna Beach’s most popular time of the year occurs over the summer during art festivals season. Yet the preferred time for locals is the remainder of the year, when driving through Laguna Canyon isn’t at a grinding halt and residents can roam its dining selections as they sustain small businesses during the off-season.
Anne Marie Panoringan
Voice of OC’s food columnist — reporting on industry news, current events and trends. Panoringan’s prior work includes writing about food for eight years at the OC Weekly in which she interviewed more than 330 chefs, restauranteurs and industry professionals for her weekly “On the Line” column. She has been recognized by the Orange County Press Club and she also is a recurring guest on AM 830’s SoCal Restaurant Show.
After a difficult 2020, this idyllic beach town is back with an abundance of good eats. Wine bars, sushi experiences, rum-focused beverage programs and pizza dominate this year’s agenda. A number of them are also participating in Taste of Laguna Food and Music Festival on Oct. 14. If you’ve held off on visiting this part of Orange County, it’s time to get caught up.
PCH North and Downtown
Wine, pizza, sushi and Latin cuisine. If these eateries don’t encompass the coastal preferences of South OC residents, I’m not sure what does. From 10-seat omakase dining to venues for planning open-air celebrations, Laguna serves up variety.
Spanish for “dreams,” Sueños represents owners and spouses Kay Ayazi and Jose Gutierrez’s goal to grow as first-generation American entrepreneurs. Per Ayazi, “It’s always been a dream of ours to open a beachfront restaurant, and with Sueños, we get to share that dream with the community by celebrating the Laguna that locals love and visitors dream of.”
Bookended by its enclosed, covered patio plus bar focusing on rum and agave-based spirits, the indoor dining room of Sueños offers a glimpse inside the kitchen beneath a surreal mural by local artist Carlos Rodas.
A Latin American-inspired menu, its doors opened on Sept. 17. Culinary director Yen Wu and executive chef Alan Sanz bring experience that includes residencies at Puesto Irvine and Gracias Madre Newport Beach, respectively. Featured ingredients such as Oaxacan blue corn masa beneath a ribeye tetela and habanero ash salsa in my slow-cooked rabbit entree infladita de conejo contribute authenticity to the dishes ordered.
A Paso Robles-based winery, Bianchi Tasting Room began pouring selections along North Coast Highway in early September. The Bianchi family has resided in the beach community for nearly 40 years and has been wanting to dedicate a space in the city it calls home. Exposed brick and wood beam elements by local designer Lisa McDennon remained intact when Bianchi took over the space originally built in the 1970s as a custom MG convertible dealership.
Guests 21 and older are welcome to explore the expansive wine portfolio listing chardonnays aged in new French oak barrels and a cabernet possessing floral plum notes which earned a gold medal in the 2017 San Francisco Chronicle’s wine competition. “The exceptional wines of Bianchi are the product of great estate and select Central Coast vineyards, artisan winemaking and our family’s dedication to producing premium wines,” said owner Glenn Bianchi.
Supplementing Bianchi’s bottled offerings, the tasting room also serves bites from various local businesses including Laguna Beach Gourmet Popcorn, G’s Peas, desserts from Joshua Lozano’s Uprising OC as well as a charcuterie board collaboration with The Butchery Quality Meats.
Sal’s Famous Pizzeria debuted at the end of August within the neighborhood plaza off Boat Canyon. A project by brothers Michael and Scott Brandon, the Sicilian slices (with subtle nods to Roman and Detroit-style pies) continue the current wave of squared-off pizzas. Oven-fried wings, a quartet of desserts and substantial salads allow for well-rounded meals. An abundance of parking and outdoor seating make Sal’s an accessible choice for all ages.
A 10-seat counter in the former Central space is the home of Rebel Omakase. Initially opening in mid-August, this progressive 19-course experience is not for everyone. However it is interesting to note that in addition to Rebel’s many plated courses, add-ons of sashimi, nigiri and handrolls are allowed. Reservations are accepted for omakase, but a limited walk-in capacity is allotted for à la carte dining.
Outdoor events and celebrations in Laguna Beach slowly started up when regulations were loosened earlier this year. Executive chef Donald Lockhart took over catering duties at Laguna Premiere Events (LPE), representing three unique venues in the city: Terra (where he worked alongside Craig Strong during Pageant season), 7 Degrees and 777. 7 Degrees brings a private club atmosphere, Terra is housed in a theater venue near the Irvine Bowl and 777 has guests in a hacienda setting.
Lockhart’s approach to smaller catered events leans toward a family-style dining service. “Sharing a meal is priceless. People really want that intimate experience,” he said. Encouraging genuine quality time between guests, he strongly encourages this option. Over 80% of LPE’s reservations agree. “I believe that this time that we’ve had over the last 18 months has given us food for thought and reflection on things that matter,” Lockhart said. “People want to reinvest in their family.”
Destinations having an address of South Coast Highway and thereabouts echo many of their northern counterparts. Diners need not travel far to partake in vino, Asian cuisine or upscale hotel dining.
Chef Craig Strong wrapped up his time at Terra once the Pageant of the Masters season ended. He has turned his focus to opening his long-awaited restaurant inside the renovated Hotel Laguna. Going by the name Larsen (after Eiler Larsen, the city’s official greeter), it will offer lunch and dinner daily along with weekend brunch. Patio dining will be available, but hotel guests will likely request their meals and cocktails be sent down to the sand as its liquor license allows for service on the beach. Additional dining details are not yet public, but his prediction of a mid-October unveiling when I spoke to him a month ago appears to be on schedule as limited soft opening service is happening at the time of this writing.
Seabutter sushi is the second branch of a Japanese brand originating out of Beverly Hills. Housed in what was previously San Shi Go’s dining space, Seabutter began serving in mid-July of this year. Known for its pressed sushi and rolls which incorporate premium ingredients, one of its signature items is the YTJ consisting of yellowtail and jalapeño tempura topped with tuna sashimi and yuzu sauce. Small bites, oysters and soups can also be ordered.
Casual counter-service spot Saigon Beach has a sister location in neighboring Newport. Open as of May this year, its all-day menu features gluten-free soups and spring rolls. Saigon’s dinner selection accommodates vegan preferences and nut allergies. Consider picking up a grilled pork banh mi sandwich to enjoy at your leisure or try its “legally addictive” 420 green rice flavored with cilantro and garlic.
The end of April saw La Casa del Camino’s Comedor dining room open to the public. Spanish tapas with a California twist equate to sharable bites influenced by the coastal environment. Its cocktail program, weeknight happy hour and beach accessibility give the property a staycation vibe.
Pearl Street General caters to locals and visitors with fresh coffee, wine bottles to-go, modest eats plus small housewares. Yet the draw for those in the know is toward the back of the store where The Seahorse lounge resides. Primarily a wine bar with rotating beer taps and low-key dining, the menu was revamped in February by consulting chef Leo Bongarra. Spreadable trout rillettes and soft cheese are savored while larger format plates of seafood or grilled pizza are being prepared. Live music entertains the evening crowds.
Whether a property is working on finishing touches, hiring kitchen and dining room staff or is still in the planning stage, the following eateries are currently under development in Laguna Beach.
San Shi Go’s disappearance was only temporary, as this popular Japanese specialist is transitioning into the previous Okura space at 858 S. Coast Highway. Construction is almost complete, and opening is expected later this month. Online orders are still being accepted out of the temporary kitchen nightly.
In Laguna Niguel, Bottega Angelina is the next act for ownership behind Irvine’s Angelina’s Pizzeria. Occupying the former Savannah Chop House footprint at 32441 Golden Lantern, the structure will highlight an on-site Italian market; this modern mercato will include artisanal pastries, gelato and charcuterie made in-house. A Stefano Ferrara oven imported from Naples will be the centerpiece of Bottega’s dining room, with garden elements of olive, citrus and cypress trees filling both interior and exterior spaces. Expected opening is slated for later this fall.
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Spirits fans can look forward to Rum Social Kitchen and Cocktails at 448 S. Coast Highway. Taking over the upstairs/downstairs Watermarc restaurant, full-service dining is planned for the main level with elevated bar seating upstairs. Tropical, rum-inspired offerings will influence both food and beverage menus. Rum Social is currently hiring for all areas. Of note: The proprietors also oversee Gelato Paradiso in the same plaza.
One of Laguna Beach’s strongest supporters, Diane Armitage recently wrote about Finney’s Crafthouse and Kitchen (the same Finney’s headed to Old Towne Orange), taking over what was once the White House at 340 S. Coast Highway. She discusses what the city’s planning commission has approved on her website. Look out for Finney’s at the beach in 2022.
Bonus Find in Tustin
Toast Kitchen and Bakery originally opened in 2018, replacing the long-standing Golden Truffle space in Costa Mesa. Serving the community during COVID by providing meals to local hospitals, it has placed people over profit since day one.
Recently I stumbled upon a second location in the works at The Village at Tustin Legacy. Executive chef John Park’s eclectic eats that include massive breakfast burritos, curry fried chicken and a prominent dessert case will be ready in early 2022.
Anne Marie Panoringan is the food columnist for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.