By LB Magazine Staff | September 09, 2011 9:58 AM
Go ahead, take your best shot.
Above: Courtesy of Jody Tiongco
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Enjoy sushi and sake: Katsuya
The brash new kid from the City of Angels brings a holster full of attitude, pizzazz and an established high-end pedigree with it to Laguna. In addition to extensive and tempting sushi options, there are plenty of authentic sake offerings on the menu, from sweet to dry and ranging in price from moderate to jaw-dropping.. Katsuya offers enough varieties of sake and shouchu (a stronger, distilled Japanese cousin to sake) to keep locals stumbling around Coast Highway asking each other, “Dude, where’s my car?”
(858 S. Coast Hwy.; 949-793-4030; sbe.com/katsuya/laguna-beach)
Runners up: Sushi Laguna; 242 Café Fusion Sushi; San Shi Go
Courtesy of Sean Armenta
Dare the hottest dish in town: Eva’s Caribbean Kitchen
Just because your barista calls you “hot stuff” doesn’t mean you can handle spicy cuisine, especially of the Caribbean/Cajun variety. Put your taste buds to the test at Eva’s, a zesty south Laguna joint that serves chicken and salmon in jerk seasoning, curry prawns and a blackened catfish plate that actually warns patrons with three little peppers next to it on the menu. What’s more, Eva herself is almost always on hand to greet customers with her warm smile. When the time comes to drench the heat from her sumptuous cooking with something cool from the Caribbean, Eva can recommend something from the rum list—a list longer and more complex than Rihanna’s dating history.
(31732 S. Coast Hwy.; 949-499-6311; evascaribbeankitchen.com)
Runners up: K’ya Bistro; Sapphire Laguna
Support sustainability: La Sirena
Who would have known that after stuffing your face with one of the most delicious burritos in town, you would actually be helping to save a tree and reduce garbage? Going beyond just using sustainable, locally sourced ingredients, La Sirena packages all of their goodies in earth-friendly to-go packaging, most of which is compostable or biodegradable. The menus are printed on recycled paper, and for those of you who thought soy was just for your lattes, surprise! They use soy-based inks. Good things definitely come in biodegradable packages.
(347 Mermaid St.; 949-497-8226; lasirenagrill.com)
Runners up: Sapphire Laguna; The Stand; Nirvana Grille; Asada
Bite into a bomber breakfast burrito: Orange Inn
The Orange Inn offers its customers a time-traveling experience to the shack days of local beach culture, with its intimate tables and Endless Summer-influenced décor. The breakfast burrito is the ultimate grab-’n’-go morning meal, made with avocado, cheese, egg, vegetarian refried beans and a secret sauce, topped off with tortilla chips and salsa. It’s never good to paddle out on an empty stomach, so before you taste the morning saltwater, savor this epic breakfast burrito.
(703 S. Coast Hwy.; 949-494-6085)
Runner up: Adolfo’s Mexican Food
Courtesy of Jody Tiongco
Talk to a bartender you won’t forget: Cabo Mike at The Saloon
The Saloon has been anchoring Peppertree Lane for quite a while, providing cold beers, friendly bartenders and cozy, standing-room-only confines to all who walk through its narrow doorway. Cabo Mike, as he’s known to most of Laguna, is a man who does more than just pour daytime beers and argue over whatever’s making news: He’s a human community cornerstone that defines the very spirit of Laguna. The welcoming eyes and effortless smile that simultaneously say “come on in” and “I’ve seen it all” are inimitable human traits that are only constructed through years and years of working behind a bar and actually seeing it all. In today’s era of flashy, aloof young guns who pour out just as much noxious attitude as they do booze, Cabo Mike is a delightful throwback to when going to bars was actually a relaxing, engaging social experience. He has the intriguing, worldly demeanor of a man who’s served celebs, whack jobs and slackers alike, from the shores of Laguna to San Francisco and back, and that’s because he has—and he’s more than happy to serve you too.
(446 S. Coast Hwy.; 949-494-5469)
Runners up: Johnny Dobbs at the White House; Mikey Guerrero at Starfish
Meet at the coolest dive bar in town: The Sandpiper Lounge
Known lovingly around Laguna as the “Dirty Bird” and built on a massive hill of hazy memories, loud music and unforgettable characters, the Sandpiper is one-of-a-kind. Featuring live music most every day of the week, including extremely popular Thursday night reggae shows, the Sandpiper packs in thirsty locals and visitors alike. The age, attire and personality range is wildly variable, which makes this quite possibly the most approachable, authentic dive bar on Laguna’s gilded shores.
(1183 S. Coast Hwy.; 949-494-4694)
Runners up: The Saloon; Marine Room Tavern
Stuff your face with free bread: Rock’n Fish Restaurant
To those who have trouble resisting the temptation to fill up on savory bread before even touching the main course, Rock’n Fish will be the end of you. Crispy on the edges, warm and fluffy inside, this bread is served hot right out of the oven. The fresh sourdough arrives at every table just after sitting down. Sorry Mom, but it’s hard to save room for dinner.
(422 S. Coast Hwy.; 949-497-3113; rocknfishlb.com)
Runners up: Sundried Tomato Café; Romeo Cucina
People Watch: Zinc Café & Market
Located on eclectic Ocean Avenue, the atmosphere at Zinc Café bustles with mellow activity, satisfying a loyal local clientele with stellar fare day after day in a warm, sophisticated and urban-chic manner. Take a look at the cars parked on the street—the Lamborghini, the ‘67 VW Beetle and the Subaru with the single-fin strapped on the surf racks—and then try to match the cars to their owners seated on the patio. You can’t. Equally eclectic is the Zinc Cafe patron, a virtual who’s-who of Laguna and beyond, ranging from the ethereal celebrity type to city council members, from Orange County’s titans of industry to the moms-who-lunch crowd and everyone in between. It’s the place to be, with an allure that makes it (in the minds of many a local) “the center of everything.”
(350 Ocean Ave.; 949-494-2791; zinccafe.com)
Runners up: Gina’s Pizza & Pastaria (South laguna location); Rooftop Lounge; The White House
Courtesy of Jody Tiongco
Feel like you’re somewhere else: Brussels Bistro
Sometimes you just want to wander down a couple stairs, open your eyes and feel as though you’re in the heart of Belgium … on second thought, you might want to open your eyes before you wander down those stairs. Brussels Bistro, a subterranean hangout for Belgian expats and everyone else that just enjoys a uniquely cool atmosphere, is sort of like a portal to the European city in the heart of Laguna Beach, complete with moules frites and lambic. The bistro is easily missed, as it sits a few steps beneath sea level along the bustling gallery row of Forest Avenue, but the selection of uniquely Belgian beers served in their uniquely Belgian glasses should not be missed.
(222 Forest Ave.; 949-376-7955; brusselsbistro.com)
Runners up: Splashes; Eva’s Caribbean Kitchen; Montage Laguna Beach; Starfish
Hook up: Hennessey’s Tavern
Tired of the um, “housewives” that roam the bars in Newport? Undo another button on your striped Perry Ellis and take your best pick-up lines and smoothest Rico Suave imitations to Hennessey’s downtown. Serving as more than just a Guinness dispensary, the local Hennessey’s is a lively catalyst for well-oiled young singles to trade digits and shots of Jameson, all while arguing over whether Crystal Cove is actually in Laguna or Newport. Weekends and special events tend to get crowded, so come either early or be patient.
(213 Ocean Ave.; 949-494-2743; hennesseystavern.com)
Runners up: The Saloon; The Sandpiper Lounge; Ocean Avenue Restaurant & Brewery
Watch the sun sink into the Pacific: Rooftop Lounge
Looking out over the Pacific and watching dolphins play in the waves while rehashing your day over happy hour drinks is something not everyone gets to enjoy, but to those kicking back at the Rooftop Lounge, it comes standard. Literally, you look to the right: ocean. You look to the left: more ocean. Perched high above the sea, you can watch the sun as it sinks behind Catalina Island. As a bonus, they specialize in killer mojitos and awesome appetizers.
(1289 S. Coast Hwy.; 949-497-2446; rooftoplagunabeach.com)
Runners up: Las Brisas; Splashes; The Deck; The Beach House; Claes Ovation
Eat a beefy burger: Lumberyard
Not all burgers are created equal. The Lumberyard created a masterpiece when they assembled their half-pound Angus cheeseburger. Made from the finest ground sirloin and prepared perfectly to maintain its savory flavor, this burger remains one of the most popular items on their menu. The thick, juicy beast is complete with half-a-pound of chuck, cheddar, tomato, lettuce and onion on a toasted egg roll, not to mention a side. To those who can clear their delicious, yet daunting plate, bravo—this burger is well worth the food coma.
(384 Forest Ave.; 949-715-3900; lblumberyard.com)
Runners up: Hennessey’s Tavern; Ruby’s Diner; Rock’n Fish Restaurant
Take a date out for a romantic dinner: Tabu Grill
Despite all the ear scratching and hair pulling, ideas for a romantic dinner do not always pop out of thin air. Good food, forgiving light and intimate seating are a few of the prerequisites, and all three are uniquely present and accounted for at Tabu. The small restaurant’s blend of beachy-casual with exotic decor gives the perfect not-too-snotty, not-too-informal vibe. And stay tuned for a refresh and new menu this fall. Their one-of-a-kind cuisine is a blend of Californian and Pan Asian, and it’s the highest-rated Zagat restaurant in Southern California. Not a bad way to impress a date.
(2892 S. Coast Hwy.; 949-494-7743; tabugrill.com)
Runners up: Ti Amo Restaurant; Cucina Alessa
See (or win) a bar fight: The White House
One review of the White House on Yelp, everyone’s favorite site for fawning over great pho, simply says this about the joint: “Kick butt club! Very good people, well if u don’t like to party don’t go here!” Nothing welcomes the average inquisitive stranger quite like profound words of wisdom. There’s always music at the White House, which is awesome. There’s plenty of booze to be had, also convenient. However, as you may recall from your uncle’s last birthday bash, music plus booze minus any space to walk/dance equals an exciting night out. While Laguna is not known for its bar brawls, someone had to win in this mostly-for-fun category, and as Laguna’s oldest restaurant/bar in town, no one else had a fighting chance.
(340 S. Coast Hwy.; 949-494-8088; whitehouserestaurant.com)
Runners up: The Sandpiper Lounge; Hennessey’s Tavern; Royal Hawaiian
Take a vegan: Nirvana Grille
You don’t know how it happened but it did: You went out, you had a few, and before you knew it—bam—you’re dating a vegan girl. Rest assured she won’t be willing to cook your every meal, so you’ll definitely want to take her to Nirvana Grille, which boasts an extensive vegan menu created by chef Lindsay Smith-Rosales, who was raised in a vegetarian household. Built with a tremendous variety of fresh seasonal veggies and lots of bold combinations, Nirvana’s got more than just bright beets and lettuce to make anyone’s mouth water (and yes, there’s an extensive menu for meat eaters too).
(303 Broadway St.; 949-497-0027; nirvanagrille.com)
Runner up: The Stand
Order a healthy snack in a cup: Active Culture
Active Culture gets the nod for the best quick, convenient solution to satisfying your hunger without the guilt. Their signature self-service yogurt, available in an assortment of organic flavors that you can mix, match and personalize with your favorite toppings is not only tasty and fun, but it’s made with raw cane sugar and comes complete with healthy active cultures. In addition to frozen yogurt, they offer a selection of bowls that are the perfect light meal before a long day at the beach. The popular Whole Bowl is made with brown rice, black and red beans, cheddar cheese, cabbage, avocado and their signature “OG” sauce. Yum.
(1006 S. Coast Hwy.; 949-715-5188)
Runners up: Bonzai Bowls; Whole Foods Market
Listen to live music: Mozambique
Reggae grooves, ’80s madness, something called downtempo—it’s all here and it’s a great venue for the best live shows in Laguna. Mozambique has already made its mark with original southeastern African cuisine, and beyond tasty rice and prawns is a jammin’ beat you just can’t not dance to while waiting for your drinks to come up. You’ll be in great company, so check their live music schedule frequently, and get there early or be ready to throw some elbows for a prime spot to shake it up.
(1740 S. Coast Hwy.; 949-715-7777; mozambiqueoc.com)
Runners up: Marine Room Tavern; The Sandpiper Lounge; Zinc Café & Market; Royal Hawaiian
Pile on the pizza toppings: Gina’s Pizza & Pastaria
Gazing at South Coast Highway passersby while lazily munching on a slice of Gina’s pizza is a surefire summer pastime. But something new has been stirring in the shiny ovens and satisfied bellies at Gina’s: the Biggaslice, an oversized pizza slice perfect for customized toppings cut fresh to order from a 30-inch pie. Gina’s distinctive made-to-order system means they half-bake a pre-cut dough then customize the sauce and toppings to allow you to create your very own melty, steam-infused piece of cheesy goodness. Speaking of the new menu, it was created with the help of The Crow Bar’s Chef Scott Brandon and is sure to delight unfamiliar palates in town.
(1100 S. Coast Hwy.; 949-494-4342; ginaspizza.com)
Runners up: Romeo Cucina; Ocean Avenue Restaurant & Brewery; Z Pizza
Go with the kids in tow: BJ’s Restaurant & Brewhouse
Upon entering the lively downtown restaurant with the kids, BJ’s transforms into a haven of big-screen televisions, dynamic rock music and shiny, roomy booths. On the colorful menu, children can create their own kids meal by choosing a variety of favorite items, from deep-dish pizza to a quarter rack of ribs to a mini Pizookie, while decorating paper guitars. The bustling atmosphere means that not only can kids be themselves, but they can do so without disturbing the couple next to you enjoying their date night. Grab a drink from their cocktail menu while the kids rock out, and release your inner child.
(280 S. Coast Hwy., 949-494-3802; bjsrestaurants.com)
Runners up: Olamendi’s; Lumberyard
Courtesy of Jody Tiongco
Indulge in the tastiest margarita this side of the border: Coyote Grill
Drinking a margarita in Mexico is an inimitably sublime experience, but it also has its drawbacks, like say too many of them or getting mistaken for the Arizona governor. No need to fret, this refreshing Mexican signature is produced masterfully by the magic hands of mixology that staff the bar at Coyote Grill. Already a hit with their healthy and fresh takes on Mexican food, Coyote Grill draws a host of regulars to the bar for its spectacular margaritas, a local happy hour favorite.
(31621 Coast Hwy.; 949-499-4033; coyotegrill.tv)
Runners up: Avila’s El Ranchito Mexican Restaurant; Asada
Study the wine list (for an impossible exam): Studio Restaurant at Montage
Studio’s wine cellar includes well over 2,000 different options, whether it’s a bottle, a glass or a half-bottle of whatever red, white or bubbles your heart desires. The focus of their exhaustive list is on not just the headliner wines from the most prominent wineries in the premier wine-producing regions—though there are plenty of those to choose from—but also on emerging vineyards and those that produce varietals that are rare or tougher to find. And the price points vary from a nice affordable bottle with dinner to the “Woo hoo! See honey, I told you we’d win the Lotto someday!” range.
(30801 S. Coast Hwy.; 949-715-6420; studiolagunabeach.com)
Runners up: Nirvana Grille; Claes; K’ya Bistro
Grab a bite when you’re covered in sand and saltwater: Wahoo’s Fish Taco
There is something about sunbathing and sandcastle-building contests that exhaust even the most experienced Oak Street beach bums, and what better way to re-energize for oceanic activities than a fresh fish taco crowned with cabbage and pico de gallo? A convenient double staircase leads directly from the sand to open-air tables of Wahoo’s, meaning you won’t be the only one tracking sand.
(1133 Coast Hwy.; 949-497-0033; wahoos.com)
Runners up: South Swell Donuts; Taco Loco; Adolfo’s Mexican Food; Avila’s El Ranchito Mexican Restaurant
Hold a lunch meeting: Watermarc Restaurant
Perpetually buzzing with people, Watermarc is the go-to for folks who want the hour (or so) respite from the fluorescent lighting and a solid menu of options to choose from. Known more for tapas-style nibbling plates of specialty items, Watermarc is also a natural choice for business martinis. One minute you’re both in agreement that yes, indeed, bacon wrapped dates are the next great culinary breakthrough; the next you’re passionately berating your broker for short-selling your blue chip holdings without so much as a text message. Ahhh, business lunches.
(448 S. Coast Hwy.; 949-376-6272; watermarcrestaurant.com)
Runners up: Las Brisas; Zinc Café & Market; Rooftop Lounge; Avila’s El Ranchito Mexican Restaurant; Nick’s; Sundried Tomato Café; 230 Forest Avenue Restaurant & Bar
Take in a sunday brunch with a view: Splashes
With open-air tables that invite the sun and ocean breeze to dine with you, Splashes is a naturally amazing place to enjoy the plentiful bounty of Sunday’s best. Wood-lined windows part beside tables to reveal waves a mere feet from your skin as you enjoy a light, a la carte item from chef Jeff Armstrong’s seasonal menu. From watermelon gazpacho to hearts of palm, Splashes features healthy dishes that are uniquely Laguna Beach, like the OC Breakfast made of scrambled egg whites with heirloom tomatoes, spinach and turkey sausage. Inhale … hold … exhale. Yes, you are on the beach.
(1555 S. Coast Hwy.; 949-376-2779; surfandsandresort.com/restaurant)
Runners up: Las Brisas; The Beach House
Dine with your dog: Madison Square & Garden Café
Trot through wooden doors that encase a secluded garden, continue over a shaded stone path, and choose which cast-iron table you will dine at with your dog. While pooches are served a treat and water bowl, their human companions enjoy an assembly of fresh ingredients that comprise menu items like grilled sandwiches and salads. In Madison Square & Garden Café’s 13 years of operation, the numerous visiting canines have communed peacefully, undoubtedly due to the serenity of flowing water and foliage sure to relax a member of any species.
(949-494-0136; 320 N. Coast Hwy.; madisonsquare.com)
Runners up:; Zinc Café & Market; Sundried Tomato Café; Taco Loco
Sip a morning cocktail: Las Brisas
Nothing beats the misty morning panoramic ocean view at Las Brisas while sipping on a cool, refreshing mixture of peach schnapps, vodka, pineapple, lemon and lime—appropriately dubbed the Laguna Riviera. Or, opt for the Brisas Mary—a spicy version of the original. At this moment the sea below is simply a Caroline Zimmerman oil painting on display for your personal viewing pleasure, and the most tangible reality is the assortment of all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet morsels on your plate; an omelet, some sausage, watermelon and honeydew.
(361 Cliff Dr.; 949-497-5434; lasbrisaslagunabeach.com)
Runners up: Motif at The St. Regis Monarch Beach; Coyote Grill; The Cliff; The Deck; Anastasia Café; The Loft at Montage Laguna Beach; Splashes
Get a grab and go meal: Laguna Culinary Arts
Food on-the-go often consists of grabbing a Power Bar from the pantry or rushing to the nearest drive-thru for a greasy brick to the gut, but Laguna Culinary Arts offers a variety of alternatives on the fly that don’t include saturated fat bombs or greasy fries. The favorite, pepper crusted Angus tri tip, comprises thinly sliced pepper-crusted Angus on ciabatta bread with caramelized onions, tomato, Gruyere and horseradish sauce. Conveniently located in Laguna Canyon, it’s more than accessible as you’re speeding up El Toro Road to hop on the 73 and make it on time to your doggie-and-me yoga class. Gourmet French food on the go? You betcha.
(845 Laguna Canyon Rd.; 949-494-4006; lagunaculinaryarts.com)
Runners up: La Sirena Grill; Zinc Café & Market; Wahoo’s; Goko Café & Deli
Courtesy of Jody Tiongco
Sample dishes from one of Laguna’s most experimental chefs: Sapphire Laguna
Google the word “monkfish.” Now sit there, take a good look at that terrifying monster and try to imagine it on your dinner plate, freshly caught and nicely prepared with a side of baked polenta and eggplant-tomato stew. Chef Azmin Ghahreman wouldn’t have it any other way. Sapphire boasts not only stunning ocean views from its outdoor terrace, but a menu that is as adventurous as any you’ll find in town. Some of the other unique highlights of the menu include an octopus salad, a barramundi dish with puree of celeriac and a traditional Middle Eastern kibbeh and lebneh sampler. Come hungry and adventurous.
(1200 S. Coast Hwy.; 949-715-9888; sapphirellc.com)
Runners up: Tabu Grill; Watermarc Restaurant; K’ya Bistro
Fight the locals for a table: Café Zoolu
Tucked between buildings on Glenneyre, tiny Cafe Zoolu prepares what folks at Zagat have deemed “the best (swordfish) on the planet” for its overwhelmingly local crowds. It doesn’t throw coupons or have cute young things hanging out the front door to try and lure in tourists—it just produces some of the very best seafood that Laguna has to offer, and the secret of its deliciousness is guarded by locals like a premier parking spot. So if you’re going to go to Zoolu, go early, go with patience and go with a smile—maybe one of the regulars will let you join ’em at their table.
(860 Glenneyre St.; 949-494-6825; cafezoolu.com)
Runners up: Nick’s; Rooftop Lounge; La Sirena Grill; Coyote Grill; Watermarc Restaurant
Happy Hour and Meal Deals: House of Big Fish & Ice Cold Beer
The encyclopedia of beer that they boast is great for happy hour, including that ever-elusive, late-night happy hour that always tempts Laguna’s hungriest and thirstiest after soaking in the Cuervo and moonlight elsewhere. With a happy hour that changes with new daily specials, and a happy hour food menu that is priced to match the time (your quesadilla costs $2.30 at 2:30, $3.30 at 3:30) no matter what day it is, Big Fish can do a lot for your happiness. And if that ain’t enough, buy a drink during happy hour and have a shot at as many 25-cent shrimp or wings as you can devour.
(540 S. Coast Hwy. #200; 949-715-4500; houseofbigfish.com)
Runners up: Mozambique; French 75 Bistro & Champagne Bar; Royal Hawaiian
Dine at an awesome hole-in-the-wall: Dizz’s As Is
Walking into Dizz’s is like walking into a time machine that takes you back to the Roaring ’20s, without the danger of running into Bugsy Siegel. A wooden-framed home-turned-restaurant, Dizz’s is a tiny little piece of Laguna history that offers old-school comfort, generous portions and an eclectic mix of decor. With a quaint little dining room and an outdoor garden to enjoy their seafood and steak menu with a bottle of vino, finding a parking spot will probably be trickier than finding a table.
(2794 S. Coast Hwy.; 949-494-5250; dizzsasis.com)
Runners up: La Sirena Grill; Laguna Thai By The Sea; Eva’s Caribbean Kitchen; Café Zoolu
Experience a total brain freeze: Gelato Paradiso
Upon entering the secluded brick alley of Peppertree Lane, it is nearly impossible to ignore the overwhelming sweet smell of waffle cones wafting out from Gelato Paradiso. Those with the self-discipline to ignore the sinful aroma briskly walk past, while all the rest are lured like moths to a flame to see the 31 flavors of colorful sorbetto and gelato that are made from scratch each morning at this sweet Laguna Beach joint. Whether served in a waffle cone or cup, the creamy treat is the perfect way to cool down on the hottest of summer days. However, watch out: Rapid consumption results in a debilitating brain freeze.
(448 S. Coast Hwy.; 949-464-9255; gelatoparadiso.net)
Runners up: Velvet Yogurt; Chantilly Ice Cream; Dolce Gelato
Courtesy of Kri Sado
Slurp the soup: Sundried Tomato Café
If only every place in town was named after their signature dish, it would make deciding between dinner destinations so much easier. Sundried Tomato, one of their three south county locations, serves up perhaps the most renowned and moan-worthy soup of any. A rich, creamy bowl of homemade goodness that balances the hearty body and flavor of a cream soup with the sweet and tanginess of sundried tomatoes, it could be a meal of its own when combined with a serving of their fresh bread. Now that’s one great way to spoil your appetite.
(361 Forest Ave.; 949-494-3312; sundriedtomatocafe.com)
Runners up: House of Big Fish & Ice Cold Beer; 230 Forest Avenue Restaurant & Bar