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Guilt-Free Fare

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Who says you have to sacrifice happy hours with friends to stay fit? Savor these waistline-friendly (yet still flavorful) dishes and drinks.

By Beth Fhaner | Photos by Jody Tiongco

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Happy hour specials at Nirvana Grille change seasonally, incorporating fresh flavors, organic produce, and sustainable meats and seafood.

Enjoying healthy food and drinks at happy hour might sound like an oxymoron, but that’s no longer the case in our foodie-obsessed culture. With diners now seeking fresh, healthier sustenance at all times—not to mention attempting to keep all those New Year’s resolutions to eat better—Laguna’s restaurants are successfully meeting the demand for lighter fare and libations at the end of a long work day. From organic veggie burgers and low-cal cocktails to light seafood dishes, our town’s eateries have got you covered. So, gather a group of friends or coworkers and indulge in tasty happy hours without the guilt—we’ll cheers to that.

Nutritious Nosh

Chef Lindsay Smith-Rosales of Nirvana Grille is known for her “clean” California cuisine, which utilizes local and organic ingredients; sustainable, fresh seafood; and hormone- and antibiotic-free meats and poultry to make the scrumptious dishes found on both Nirvana’s regular and happy hour menus. “At Nirvana Grille, we change our menus seasonally and, as such, the happy hour menu changes with our dinner menu,” Lindsay says. In addition to a bar menu featuring wild mushroom ravioli, an organic veggie burger and a grass-fed organic beef burger, Nirvana’s happy hour menu includes tantalizing dishes such as organic spinach and warm mushroom salad served with a balsamic-Dijon mustard vinaigrette; roasted poblano chile; pita fries and truffle hummus; and grilled Caesar salad and house-made soup, among other good eats. Best yet, Lindsay’s seasonal fare is adaptable for any gluten-free, vegan and allergy needs. (949-497-0027; nirvanagrille.com)

At K’ya Bistro Bar, located inside the historic La Casa del Camino hotel, patrons will find a menu loaded with satisfying, California-Mediterranean dishes served as small plates. Additionally, the restaurant has partnered with the Art of Fitness in deeming certain regular menu items healthier alternatives, including a grilled salmon fillet and an herb-grilled chicken salad, among other options. With an emphasis on fresh food using organic and local products, nutritious items such as hummus and pita, caprese skewers (Buffalo mozzarella, tomato basil and pesto dip) and Hawaiian ahi poke can be found on K’ya Bistro’s happy hour menu, while chilled edamame and grilled hummus flatbread (olive, roasted pepper, tomato and feta) are available on the “Snacks” menu. (949-376-9718; kyabistro.com)

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Hawaiian ahi poke is just one of the small plates found on K’ya Bistro Bar’s happy hour menu.

The health benefits to following a Mediterranean diet—rich in fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts and fish—have been lauded in recent years. At GG’s Bistro, customers can nosh on popular Turkish, Greek, Italian and other Mediterranean-inspired dishes at all hours of the day. With a happy hour menu that includes a trio of appetizing salads such as the Mediterranean salad (with homemade olive oil and lemon dressing), Caesar salad and eggplant salad, plus other tempting bites such as hummus, calamari fritti, a pizzetta and chicken kebabs, diners don’t need to feel guilty about indulging. (949-494-9306; ggscafebistro.com)

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At GG’s Bistro, the Mediterranean salad is topped with homemade olive oil and lemon dressing.

Succulent Seafood

An advocate of healthy eating, Executive Chef David Fuñe of Splashes at Surf & Sand Resort serves his savory, California coastal cuisine to patrons who get to enjoy gourmet bar food and beverages alongside gorgeous ocean views. Happy hour guests can partake in light seafood choices such as six oysters served on the half shell with condiments; Spot Prawn & Friends (bacon vinaigrette, vegetable shavings and quinoa); and jumbo shrimp cocktail served with horseradish sauce. Other solid bets on the bar menu include fish tacos, a Paso prime grass-fed burger and baby heirloom tomato flatbread. Regarding Splashes’ bar menu, David notes, “We lighten things up with pickled components on flatbreads, like cauliflower, kimchee or mushrooms. We also use lots of fresh and raw elements on plates that are colorful and complementary. Our portions are shareable but not overwhelming.” (949-376-2779; surfandsandresort.com)

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Charred octopus at Splashes at Surf & Sand Resort.

Okura Robata Grill & Sushi Bar, which is located in the former Katsuya location, is a recent newcomer to the Laguna dining scene. With a happy hour menu abundant with fresh seafood and sushi options, diners at this Japanese fusion restaurant can select from among a variety of items at the sushi bar, including salmon, shrimp, albacore and unagi sushi, in addition to other mouthwatering dishes such as a California roll, spicy tuna roll, shrimp tempura roll and much more. Curry scallops, Dynamite Mussels and Dynamite Rock Shrimp are other excellent choices during happy hour. (949-793-4320; okurasushi.com)

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Happy hour sushi at Okura Robata Grill & Sushi Bar

Skinny Cocktails

For guests concerned about the calorie count of their cocktails, there’s no need to fret, since several Laguna eateries serve low-calorie beverages or “skinny” cocktails. Splashes features a refreshing concoction called The Superfruit Martini, which incorporates VeeV Acai Spirit, Stoli Blueberi vodka, mangosteen juice, pomegranate juice and lime juice. Infused with antioxidants, this is one delicious drink that’s actually good for you.

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The antioxidant-rich Superfruit Martini at Splashes

Additionally, Nirvana Grille offers tasty low-calorie beverages including the restaurant’s signature cosmopolitans: the Skinny Pomegranate-Agave Cosmo and Skinny Pear-Agave Cosmo. Both drinks are made with agave nectar and whole fruit purees—decidedly healthier options without the refined sugar. Nirvana also uses and carries Purity Vodka, an organic and gluten-free spirit.

Many other local establishments serve skinny cocktails, including Carmelita’s Kitchen de Mexico, The Deck, Rock’n Fish, Las Brisas, GG’s Bistro, Starfish Laguna, K’ya Bistro Bar, Mozambique and The Rooftop Lounge, to name just a few.
With an array of light and healthy fare to choose from, there’s no reason to skimp out on happy hour in the new year. From skinny cocktails to fresh, seasonal cuisine, take time to indulge, sans the guilt. LBM

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