Tantalizing options abound when it comes to selecting the perfect romantic locale in Laguna Beach.
By Victoria Kertz and Laguna Beach Magazine Staff
Sure, Valentine’s Day has come and gone, but it’s never too late to consider where to take your loved one for a special evening out. And, fortunately, the romantic scene is already set: As the temperatures dip into the low 50s or even high 40s during the evenings in February—which is considered one of the coldest months in Laguna—the area’s cozy, dimly lit and delicious eateries beckon date-night diners to come in and enjoy each other’s company over decadent dishes that pair well with a robust bottle of wine.
Of course, the restaurant itself has to be special, and just right for you and yours. Maybe it’s a place so quiet and dark that you get lost in conversation, or perhaps it’s a bustling atmosphere that inspires you to go dancing afterward. Alternatively, it could be a restaurant with a view of the beach and the setting sun that will start your date night on the right foot.
To help you solidify your plans, we’ve rounded up some of the best romantic locales—all of which boast an ambience as appealing as the menu. And we’ve gone ahead and asked the celebrated local chefs at each eatery for their top picks when it comes to the most desirable date-night dishes they have to offer, as well as their favorite area eatery for a memorable rendezvous for two. All you’ll need is a reservation—and perhaps some roses or chocolates, too.
Alessa by Chef Pirozzi
After a leisurely stroll along Forest Avenue, slide into chef-owner Alessandro Pirozzi’s Italian gem that is Alessa by Chef Pirozzi. A cozy indoor dining room is warmed by an open kitchen and its wood-burning pizza oven. The bar and patio are small, but perfect for sitting close to the one you love. With brick walls, Alessa may appear to be a casual choice, but the food is truly decadent. From the “da dividere,” or “to share,” section of the menu, rich, bountiful appetizers and small plates entice couples to order items like the zucca dish, a house-made organic butternut squash and ricotta ravioli with a sage butter sauce, or the calamari fritti, fried and crispy with an arrabbiata sauce. Of course, you can’t go wrong with house-made pasta options like Bolognese or osso buco—a veal entree that’s perfect for two.
But Pirozzi says the best dish for couples can actually be found on his dessert menu. The salted caramel gelato is his favorite, and the creamy, sweet-and-savory indulgence is made in-house. A generous scoop is served in a large martini glass with a drizzle of caramel and a sprig of fresh mint. “It’s sensual, it’s sexy and it’s fun,” says the chef of his favorite dessert. “You taste the black lava salt crystals—so salty—then you taste the sweet homemade gelato. You say ‘Ooh!’ It’s a mini love-affair. So good to share.”
When it comes to Pirozzi’s favorite local date-night destination, he says that the nearby Moro Beach at Crystal Cove State Park is one of the most picturesque spots in Orange County. “I personally love to go to Moro Beach,” he says. “You park, walk under the bridge. I love to watch the waves with a bottle of prosecco, some olives and cheese, and listen to the sea.”
Splashes Restaurant and Bar at Surf & Sand Resort
Aptly named, Splashes Restaurant and Bar at Surf & Sand Resort is one of the few local restaurants that is located right over the beach—and sometimes, directly above the shorebreak. The crashing waves may come close, but you’re safe in Executive Chef Ron Fougeray’s minimalistic and chic restaurant. Sit inside by large windows that open for an optimum view of the Pacific Ocean, or near a fireplace on chillier nights. Alternatively, you may relish the salty fresh air on the patio—popular for breakfast and lunch as well as for dinner. No matter where you’re seated, expect to enjoy a meticulously prepared meal and artisan cocktail during your date night at Splashes—an evening that should, according to Fougeray, of course begin with oysters when you’re just steps from the sea.
The chef recommends his oysters with creme fraiche and caviar for your special evening, a starter available both in the dining room and in the wildly popular Splashes Bar. “Our oysters are delivered fresh every day to ensure the best quality,” he says. “The brininess of the oyster with the texture of the caviar, rounded off with some house-made creme fraiche is a great start to any romantic menu.” Add a glass of bubbly and savor the array of flavors dancing on your taste buds.
Fougeray can’t help but suggest Splashes as his No. 1 pick overall for local Valentine’s Day dining. “Not to mention the obvious, but our ambience at Splashes is unreal,” he says. “We sit directly on the water with the waves almost crashing onto you. I don’t know what view could come close to ours at sunset. It’s something I never take for granted.”
Fougeray and his wife, who have two young sons, don’t get out as much as they used to, according to the chef. But when they do venture out, they find Broadway by Amar Santana to be very romantic. “And then just an evening walk on Main Beach, with some delicious [gelato from] Dolce Gelato [afterward],” Fougeray adds of his ideal date night.
Selanne Steak Tavern
Walk into Selanne Steak Tavern and you’ll feel like you’re walking through the foyer of someone’s home for a romantic dinner in—in fact, the restaurant is housed in a historic 1934 Laguna Beach cottage. Today, the remarkable decor varies in each of the five dining areas of the sleek, upscale steakhouse: The Loft, The Wine Library, The Tavern and outdoors on the Sunset Terrace or The Veranda. With its ceiling of Moroccan-style light fixtures, The Veranda, open year-round and located just off of the restaurant’s main entrance, provides the softest lighting and most romantic ambience. But it’s the food that will leave the lasting memories for you and your valentine.
Executive Chef Joshua Severson’s menu contains several year-round mainstays such as Selanne’s Mac and Cheese and the Pacific diver scallops. But the chef’s pick for Valentine’s Day is an enticing appetizer that bursts with seasonal flavor and intensity and perfectly complements the restaurant’s featured steaks, which range from filet mignon to a Lord Stanley cut of wagyu beef. “Our Perfect Pear Salad is a refreshing wintry dish made with seductive ingredients: Seckel pears are poached in a rich white port wine, accompanied by delicate, puffy goat cheese gnudi [gnocchi-like dumplings] and finished with a mulled spice vinaigrette. It’s a sexy pleaser to start or complete a date-night meal.”
Where does Severson venture to for an equally romantic date-night locale? “I like to enjoy an incredible evening at one of the three restaurants at Montage Laguna Beach. The food and the service are always good, and each restaurant has great ambience and ocean views,” Severson says. “A romantic way to celebrate the moment is to take a stroll along the gardens overlooking the Pacific after a wonderful dinner there.”
K’ya Bistro Bar
There is arguably no better place to kick off date night than The Rooftop Lounge at La Casa del Camino hotel, whose restaurant, K’ya Bistro Bar, is known for its tapas-style shared plates. Enjoy a cocktail while you watch the sunset and take in sweeping views of the Laguna Beach coastline before heading back downstairs for an interactive dinner date for two. “We offer half-glasses of wine so you can make your own wine tasting dinner, sharing and pairing all kinds of wine, tapas and small plates,” says chef Craig Connole. Menu items range from kale salad to four cheese macaroni, deviled eggs, warm brie and hibachi salmon. And though Connole says that, with all of the options, it’s impossible to choose the single best date-night dish, he recommends the lobster fondue, the grilled petit filet mignon and the bacon-wrapped shrimp for couples to share.
After dinner, there’s no need to rush off to the next place. Rather, you and your significant other can linger and relish another romantic area in the hotel. “Once you’ve finished … [dinner], you move on out to relax by the fireplace in the lobby and listen to the live music with an after-dinner drink,” Connole suggests. “Maybe have a few of the dessert bites we offer.”
As for the chef’s favorite nearby date-night eatery: “For 2016, it was definitely Starfish [Laguna Beach]. Mainly because it’s always my wife’s first suggestion. If you want a good date night, go where your date wants to go,” Connole says. “Why there? Great ambience, service and food. For us, it’s five stars all around. The entire staff makes us feel really comfortable and appreciated as guests. … I’m sure it will be our favorite in 2017.”
Maro Wood Grill
A cozy, small eatery off the beaten path, the Argentinean-inspired Maro Wood Grill teems with character, flavor and amorous vibes. “Maro … is the ideal date-night [spot] because of the romantic glow of the mesquite wood grill. With eight Chef’s Bar seats inside, you can watch the fire dance before your eyes,” says Executive Chef Debra Sims. “Argentinean tango music fills the air and many cozy tables for two on the outside heated patio make this a … go-to date spot.”
Of course, the wood grill helps create the mouthwatering entrees for which Maro is known. From wood-grilled okra, salmon and organic chicken to Argentinean-style short ribs and the Maro burger, there is no shortage of tantalizing options into which couples may dive together. But when it comes to the best—and arguably most fun—Valentine’s Day dish, Sims has one recommendation in particular. “… The wood-grilled shishito peppers or “roulette” peppers are a perfect starter to share, but beware: One in 10 are hot, and you never know who will get the hot one,” Sims says.
The young Australian lamb chops with Brussels sprouts are also “a favorite,” according to the chef. And, adding to the experience is the restaurant’s extensive wine list, which includes a rotating selection of rare Malbecs from Argentina. “For sweets, of course the banana bread pudding is always the best pick,” Sims adds of this award-winning treat. The popular dessert, which features brioche bread, organic eggs and cream, bananas, dulce de leche and a vanilla-bourbon sauce, is the perfect note on which to end your dinner date.
And, when Sims journeys out in Laguna Beach for a romantic evening, she has one preferred place in mind: Three Seventy Common Kitchen & Drink. “The atmosphere and setup is similar to ours in that you can watch them prepare your food,” she says. “They also have great beer on tap and I love the menu that chef Ryan [Adams] has created.”