Alfresco Feasts

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DJI_0012 Fire pits at The Porch_The Ranch at Laguna Beach
Fire pits at The Porch | Photo by The Ranch at Laguna Beach

Savor spring flavors at these open-air eateries in Laguna Beach.

By Ashley Probst and Laguna Beach Magazine Staff

 

Nestled along the picturesque California coastline, Laguna Beach offers unparalleled dining experiences amid its stunning outdoor settings. Breathtaking vistas merge with locally sourced fare, offering diners an authentic taste of the region. Fire pits and live music elevate the alfresco dining experience, transforming every meal into a memorable celebration of nature, community and the culinary arts.

 

Outdoor Ambiance

Laguna Beach has an abundance of atmospheres for outdoor dining: The terrace at Oliver’s Osteria that transports guests from the canyon to the Italian countryside, rooftop restaurants like Skyloft and Mozambique that provide panoramic views of the sun-kissed shore, and several eateries with small “parklet” patios on Forest Avenue, a favorite spot for strolling and dining downtown.

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Rooftop tables at Skyloft

“I think that the quintessential California experience is that most people want to be outside … [to] enjoy the atmosphere,” says Marc Cohen, executive chef and operating partner at 230 Forest Avenue. “Our regular guests, who have been well-traveled and have spent time in Europe, really enjoy the opportunity to dine outside and have a bottle of wine.”

When the city granted special permission for restaurants on a stretch of Forest Avenue to create outdoor dining parklets when businesses reopened during the COVID-19 pandemic, 230 Forest Avenue was among them. Some of the other eateries here include French bistro Moulin with its crepes, fresh salads and sandwiches and Italian restaurant Alessa by Chef Pirozzi, which serves up pastas, pizzas and other entrees made with traditional family recipes. This dining and retail destination ultimately turned into a permanent pedestrian plaza dubbed The Promenade on Forest.

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A patio with ocean views at C’est La Vie

And it wasn’t only the restaurants that advocated for this space to remain. “The locals really felt that it added to the community,” Cohen says. “I’ve been in Laguna for 30 years and I think that this is the first time we really see people gathering [like this]. … It’s become a meeting place and the gathering point for the city, and it gives it a completely different feel and flavor.”

Just down Coast Highway, The Old Pottery Place anchored by corner restaurant Sapphire, Cellar-Craft-Cook has preserved multiple aspects of Laguna’s history including The Greeter statue and original pieces from The Pottery Shack, which the building previously housed.

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The Promenade on Forest | Photo by City of Laguna Beach

“Sapphire is in an iconic location,” says owner Russ Bendel. “It’s got that nice charm, that historic feel. We’ve got a multilevel patio that has a relaxed, comfortable Laguna Beach vibe that is set up with a fire pit in the center.”

With bright orange umbrellas, peekaboo ocean views, citrus trees lining the patio, succulents and other floral elements, Sapphire captures the essence of this artistic California city.

Of course, in a beach town like Laguna, it’s no surprise that many restaurants take advantage of the coastal location. Among them, California-influenced French cuisine can be found at C’est La Vie restaurant and bakery, which also has a deck overlooking the ocean. And Larsen at Hotel Laguna offers outdoor seating to enjoy a meal; choose from burgers, tacos, a shrimp po’boy, salmon nicoise, moules frites, tuna crudo and more.

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The Promenade on Forest often features live music, like singer Ava August. | Photo by City of Laguna Beach

For a quintessential beach dining experience, Lost Pier Cafe’s patio is right next to the sand at Aliso Beach. Come straight from the surf, with your sandy toes or flip-flops, and enjoy breakfast burritos, fish tacos, poke bowls, burgers or hot dogs while watching the waves crash onto the shore. Even rent a portable fire pit from the cafe to roast s’mores. The Deck on Laguna Beach also offers a close-to-the-beach setting to sip creative cocktails and indulge in fresh seafood from ceviche to oysters, cioppino, shrimp tacos and more on the oceanfront patio.

The Cliff is another place to tuck into a meal while keeping one eye on the ocean views: From chilaquiles, omelets or French toast in the morning to grilled shrimp salad or fish and chips at lunch and surf and turf for dinner. Notably, fine dining spot Splashes at Surf & Sand Resort is expected to reopen in late June after a remodel, so guests may once again enjoy the patio seating where you can hear the crashing waves below.

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Outdoor seating at Moulin, also on The Promenade

In north Laguna, diners will find an expansive patio at Urth Caffé, which serves up European-style delights from waffles to quiche, pizzas with unique toppings, sandwiches, salads, baked goods and coffee drinks. Next door, a garden patio offers open-air dining for Dai Mei Express Hot Pot. The location is ideal for those taking a break from gallery hopping or visiting Laguna Art Museum across the street or fueling up for an afternoon of downtown shopping.

While downtown, a few spots with outdoor seating are La Sirena Grill, with all manner of tacos and burritos plus a popular blackened salmon salad; Rasta Taco, which offers flavorful Jamaican jerk chicken and Caribbean carne asada or al pastor tacos, burritos and Reggae Bowls; or Lumberyard, where comfort food like burgers, meatloaf and baby back ribs can be enjoyed on the side patio to soak up some sunshine and take in the bustling scene.

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The Deck on Laguna Beach

Zinc Cafe is a go-to downtown spot with a large patio and lots of vegetarian and vegan options, unique items like potato arugula pizza, Thai salad, a mushroom Dijon veggie burger and breakfast selections for all-day dining. And before a show at Laguna Playhouse, consider dinner on Nirvana Kitchen & Pantry’s downtown rooftop: Choose from wild mushroom ravioli, pistachio and panko-crusted Chilean sea bass or filet mignon with peppercorn sauce and a cocktail as the sun sinks lower on the horizon, filling the sky with streaks of pink and purple.

 

Culinary Adventures

While the vibrant outdoor settings of Laguna Beach set the stage, it’s within these surroundings that chefs harness the essence of the region to craft culinary masterpieces. Seasonal and locally sourced ingredients are the star of the show, leading to the innovative creations that emerge out of these diverse kitchens.

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Rasta Taco

For breakfast or weekend brunch, there’s no better place than Las Brisas, where guests can enjoy cliffside dining that overlooks the natural beauty of Heisler Park, with a fire pit table at the patio’s center. This Cal-Mex cuisine offers classics like huevos rancheros and chilaquiles as well as decadent dishes like the surf-and-turf enchiladas stuffed with steak and lobster.

Sapphire now offers its brunch and lunch menus every day, with a bestseller being the Meyer lemon creme fraiche waffles with fresh berries and bourbon-maple syrup. Bendel’s personal favorite is the crispy beer-battered fish tacos for a midday meal, while the wild-caught Alaskan halibut is a popular dinner entree.

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The Cliff restaurant patio

Additionally, any heirloom tomatoes on these plates likely come from the restaurant group’s own garden in San Clemente. “We’ll do tomato salads as well as heirloom tomato soup in addition to using tomatoes in a variety of ways to accompany appetizers and some entrees,” Bendel says.

Angel Velazquez, executive chef at both Skyloft and Mozambique, also partners with local farmers to acquire seasonal produce. He also collaborates with San Pedro fisheries for the freshest catches from Baja California.

“I try to play with my plating,” says Velazquez, who’s inspired by the restaurants’ ocean views. “A lot of the dishes come with a little coastal flair.”

Lemon Verbena Poached Faroe Island Salmon Sapphire Carla Rhea
Faroe Island salmon with seasonal accompaniments at Sapphire, Cellar-Craft-Cook | Photo by Carla Rhea

Seasonal specials abound throughout town, including lamb loin with beetroot tarte tatin on the spring menu at Montage Laguna Beach’s on-property restaurant, The Loft, which features two expansive ocean-view patios. Mosaic Bar & Grille, also at Montage, offers cocktails and dishes like shrimp cocktail, nachos, a lobster roll and more served poolside while the resort refreshes this outdoor eatery’s main patio through late spring.

Tuck into Mediterranean fare at GG’s Bistro, from a hummus trio to kebabs of filet mignon, chicken, shrimp or lamb, pita sandwiches and charbroiled salmon with veggies, feta and balsamic glaze. Dine on the charming patio nestled among art galleries and shops while watching passersby stroll down the sidewalk along South Coast Highway.

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Alfresco dining with a fire pit at Sapphire | Photo by Carla Rhea

With something to delight every palate, this vibrant culinary scene invites locals and visitors alike to savor not just a meal, but immerse themselves in the region’s freshest flavors.

 

Beyond the Plate

The delectable dishes and scenic settings that make Laguna Beach’s alfresco dining experience unique are further enriched by sunset views, live music, comfortable amenities and a sense of community.

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The patio at Las Brisas | Photo by Las Brisas Laguna Beach

Panoramic ocean visitas are particularly impressive at The Rooftop Lounge on top of La Casa del Camino hotel. Known for its mojitos, The Rooftop also offers items from ceviche to wings, burgers and salads to nosh on while getting lost in endless views of the Pacific. 

Rooftop views can also be found at Skyloft and Mozambique. “[At Skyloft,] you can see the lifeguard tower, which is one of the big landmarks for Laguna Beach, and then at Mozambique, … you get to see a nice view of Catalina,” says Jose Gonzalez, general manager at both of those establishments.

White not quite a rooftop, catch a glimpse of the ocean from the second-level patio at Oak while tucking into a spicy chicken sandwich, pasta, tacos or steak, sipping on a Lagunarita and watching the people pass by below.

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Open-air dining on the roof at Mozambique | Photo by Mozambique

Adding to the ambiance, live music sweeps over various eateries, including afternoon and evening performances daily in the Lobby Lounge at Montage Laguna Beach, which wafts out to the patio; a menu of light bites, desserts, wine and cocktails can be enjoyed from 3-10 p.m. every day in the Lobby Lounge and on the patio. Live music is also presented every night at The Cliff through October (up from six nights a week in the colder months) and Wednesday through Sunday nights at Skyloft (rooftop diners can pop indoors to see the bands playing). Over at Mozambique, guests can be serenaded Thursday through Saturay nights in the Durban Room, but the restaurant will also be testing out some live acoustic music on the new garden patio this spring and summer, creating an experience that delights all of the senses. Once updates are completed in Mozambique’s Shebeen lounge—an indoor space with outdoor views—music will return there as well. At The Promenade on Forest downtown features a stage with live music performances on Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings from March through December. Laguna Beer often presents live music and other events at its tasting room with a full lineup of brews, pizzas, sandwiches and plenty of outdoor tables in Laguna Canyon.

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Mosaic Bar & Grille at Montage Laguna Beach | Photo by Montage Laguna Beach

At the south end of town, Ahba serves up delectable bites with indoor and outdoor seating and a strong sense of community at its cozy cottage cafe—plus its own speakeasy right next door. Enjoy a burger, steak, seafood, roasted cauliflower with tahini, whipped feta with tomato jam, roasted carrots with labneh and more before setting in for some cocktails at Helen’s.

To ensure comfort throughout the day and into the evening, restaurants around town provide patio umbrellas for shade and heaters for warmth on chilly evenings. Fire pits also add a cozy appeal to patios, enticing guests to linger longer under the starlit sky. Amplify the experience further with indulgences like the s’mores package at Montage Laguna Beach—ideal for romantic date nights or family gatherings—for overnight guests; locals can try the s’mores tableside experience at the resort’s outdoor restaurant, Mosaic Bar & Grille, during lunchtime, which extends until 7 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.

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The Ahba Burger with fries | Photo by Kailee Walters

The Ranch at Laguna Beach’s Harvest restaurant features a patio with picturesque scenery of the golf course and surrounding hills—a deer or two may even wander onto the greens at twilight—which can also be viewed from the resort’s outdoor spot, The Porch, complete with fire pits. Share some short rib nachos, duck wings, charcuterie or pizza along with cocktails like The 10th Green with tequila and house-pressed green juice or Campfire Cocoa with house-infused vanilla vodka. The Porch also features live music daily from acoustic pop to country, folk and rock.

There’s something about being outdoors, especially gathered around a fire pit, whether it’s at The Porch or Sapphire.

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Ahba’s patio | Photo by Ashley Ryan

“Guests just love the fresh air and the people watching, and the sunsets that you see are magnificent,” Bendel says. “We’ve got teak tables that look nice … and have a warm feeling, especially at night when the fire is flickering.”

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