Ever since The White House Restaurant & Nightclub opened its doors in 1918, Laguna Beach has been patiently cultivating its presence as a haven for fine dining. An aromatic aura seems to hover over the town that beckons locals and visitors alike, appealing to a wide range of taste buds and olfactory inclinations. On South Coast Highway alone, 25-year mainstay San Shi Go offers a variety of sushi and tempura just up the road from Mozambique Steakhouse, Bar and Lounge, which dishes up exotic South African cuisine. Nearby, Adolfo’s has been offering authentic Mexican fare for 30 years, while popular chain BJ’s Restaurant & Brewhouse has been at its location a few blocks north for two decades.
Mozambique celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2015, and owner Ivan Spiers marked the occasion with the opening of a new concept, Skyloft, in the former Rock’n Fish space on South Coast Highway. Boasting authentic Americana items like smoked brisket and baby back ribs, the eatery is Laguna’s foray into smokehouse barbecue—yet another jewel to add to the city’s crown of diverse establishments. “There is a sense of community and pride here,” Ivan says. “I think that’s why so many people go out to dine or unwind … because they know that inevitably they will run into someone they know.”
As recent additions like Skyloft pop up alongside decades-old legacies, the city’s dining scene continues to cater to the ever-evolving tastes of local clientele. In doing so, it forges its own path toward epicurean innovation and longevity—achieved by a culinary landscape made up of restaurants both old and new.
New to the Scene
For a restaurant to catch the eye of local diners, it is essential that the owner create an atmosphere that embodies Laguna’s artistic culture and ambience. Boasting 10 years of experience in the area, Ivan is no stranger to this dynamic: In Skyloft, the restaurateur has captured the welcoming paradigm he created in Mozambique with a complete transformation of the space—opening the interior and choosing colors and textures that reflect the ocean, resulting in a bright and airy setting.
“If you live in Laguna, you know you never want to leave; so rather than commute to another city, I decided to open Skyloft [here],” he says. “With the city’s approval, we set out to add a third level where guests can enjoy panoramic views of downtown Laguna, Main Beach and the beautiful homes on the hills all while enjoying a refreshing cocktail.”
Rooftop dining appeals to locals and visitors alike, while two horseshoe-shaped bars encourage a social atmosphere to enjoy “fun and playful” Americana options like jambalaya and shrimp ceviche. “Our live music takes center stage every night where we have some great bands lined up … [offering] everything from reggae to rock,” Ivan adds. “We think it will appeal to people of all ages in Laguna.”
The city’s warm and friendly culture will also be reflected in Reunion Kitchen & Drink, which is slated to open in the Boat Canyon Shopping Center in late spring and will serve up modern comfort dishes, seafood and steaks amid rich leather booths, decorative lighting and an enclosed patio for an indoor/outdoor feeling to the space. Owner Scott McIntosh harnessed his entrepreneurial expertise for two years at the restaurant’s original Anaheim Hills location before deciding to open a second venue.
“Laguna made the best sense for our expansion,” says Scott, who previously owned Mexican eatery Asada on South Coast Highway until its closure in 2013. “We’ve learned a lot, taken some lumps, but all in all, we have loved the town and the people who dine with us.”
He says the city embraces new businesses, which has helped independent restaurant owners navigate through the permit process with ease; so much so, in fact, that he also plans to open Asada Tacos & Beer—a smaller version of Asada—nearby in the same plaza in the spring.
“We feel that Reunion and Asada will bring the same guest appeal to the Boat Canyon [Shopping] Center and add a great dining destination in north Laguna,” Scott says. “There is a great synergy of established restaurants together with new [restaurants], which add a great deal of options for locals and tourists.”
While Reunion will offer staples like Rosemary’s chicken and biscuits (named for Scott’s wife) and hand-battered fish and chips, Asada will dish up Mexican favorites made with fresh ingredients and handmade tortillas. Scott says he designs his menus around items that will “provide crave and value” to diners. “Lagunans have many choices to dine, and the competition can be fierce,” Scott explains. “However, I think that our guests appreciate quality in both food and service of both concepts.”
Value is also placed on food quality at Centrál Coastal Peruvian on Forest Avenue, which opened last summer. The restaurant uses free-range, hormone-free chicken to produce dishes like pollo sliders alongside its signature filet mignon and seafood-based options like “ceviche Peruano” (Peruvian ceviche) and “pescado a lo macho” (fish, calamari, shrimp and octopus in spiced sauce). All produce is organic, and owner Anna Driggs says she imports the eatery’s quinoa, chilies and spices directly from Peru. A unique addition to the myriad global cuisines currently thriving in town, Anna says setting up shop in the city was a no-brainer.
“[Laguna’s] eclectic culture is what convinced my family and I to become a part of its culinary fabric,” says Anna, who spent childhood summers here before moving into town after getting married. “I knew that a foodie town like ours would not only embrace our concept and flavors but that we were actually craving the change that Centrál provides.”
As more new concepts emerge in Laguna, a number of age-old establishments continue to flourish. The city’s welcoming culture is epitomized in The Greeter’s Corner Restaurant, which has served breakfast and lunch for nearly four decades and is known for keeping alive the memory of Laguna’s original greeter, Eiler Larsen.
From the Turkish fare coming out of GG’s Bistro for the last 10 years or the tantalizing racks of lamb and tandoori chicken served up by Natraj Cuisine of India since 1990, many of the eateries that have been successful for decades reflect the city’s diverse population—Laguna gets 3 million visitors per year, according to the city website—and artistic perspective. On Ocean Avenue, for example, Hennessey’s Tavern boasts a 25-year tenure of Irish hospitality, while Beach Street anchor Polina’s Salerno Italian Restaurant has been serving up a plethora of pastas for nearly half a century.
Ivan, too, realized the city’s embrace of varied cultural cuisines 10 years ago with Mozambique, which boasts signature dishes like peri-peri prawns and samoosas. “It reminded me of home [in South Africa], and I felt like Laguna Beach would be the perfect fit for what I was envisioning, which was [an] upscale restaurant that served South African flavors but with a contemporary American twist to them,” Ivan says. “We were fortunate that people responded to those tactics, and that’s why we’re still here 10 years later and going strong.”
Like many other long-standing establishments, Mozambique’s tenure has not been without change, as Ivan conducted significant remodeling of the venue—most notably the third-level veranda, which overlooks the Pacific Ocean—in 2013, and added the Durban Bar & Grill, a 35-person capacity area with its own bar, patio area and outdoor entrance, last year. For other restaurants in town, however, maintaining as much of their original presence as possible has been vital to continually attracting customers. Laguna Avenue dining legacy Thai Bros. has been serving Thai dishes like its Famous Yellow curry for 20 years, and owner Panida Pikultong says it was important to maintain the same look and design that customers have grown to love, keep the menu simple and hire experienced chefs in order to stay relevant within the evolving Laguna restaurant scene.
“Three years ago, we got two of our family members to come from Thailand, so we are set in the kitchen,” Panida says. “We believe our customer retention rate is fairly high. Once we can get you in here, we have a good chance of keeping you.”
Expressing a similar sentiment, Ivan believes that while trends come and go, it is great food, service and ambience that will attract and keep new customers, both locals and tourists alike. And competition often encourages businesses to strive for a higher level of excellence.
“I think with the mix of great restaurants, there will be a natural push to raise the bar in menu, service expectations and the overall dining experience,” Scott adds. “I don’t like to make predictions, but it looks like it’s shaping up to be a busy 2016 in Laguna Beach.”
In Laguna Beach, there are myriad eateries to choose from, depending on your specific tastes and moods. Here are venues to try that opened their doors in 2015:
Centrál Coastal Peruvian: 949-715-0801
Gu Ramen: 949-715-0825
Seaside Lounge Laguna: 949-497-4148
Sergio’s Empanadas: 562-298-0251
Urth Caffé: 949-376-8888
—Written by Peter A. Balaskas | Photos by Jody Tiongco