Locals dish on looking for love in a place where sunny skies and sandy beaches belie a notoriously challenging dating scene.
By Tessa Ghenender | Photos by Allen Bradley
Though it may be difficult to imagine, there was once a time when text messages and Facebook posts were not the dominant means of communication in romantic situations. Just 20 years ago in Laguna Beach, things were much more intimate. Dates were about getting to know one another, spending quality time together and making lasting connections, as opposed to getting obliterated at the Sandpiper weekend after weekend.
The town was filled with gentlemen who’d take their dates somewhere quiet, somewhere with an ambience conducive to conversation. Hot spots like Dizz’s As Is boasted delicious food, fine wines and a warm atmosphere that made getting to know one another an effortless process—perfect places to fall in love, especially for couples like Bob and Stephanie Mister, who grew up in Laguna, met in Laguna and fell in love in Laguna.
The Misters, now married for 27 years, first met in 1984, the year Stephanie was renting a back house near Laguna Beach High School. Her landlord was none other than Bob, and over time, the two became closer and closer.
“Things changed at one point,” Stephanie recalls. “He asked me out to get a glass of Champagne or something, and that’s when he took me to The Ritz-Carlton in Laguna Niguel. … He was just very caring and sweet. … He took me on nice dates—no pressure; he just really wanted to get to know me. … Email and all this stuff wasn’t available back then. It was nice to get a note, or he’d be there with flowers on my doorstep.”
Over the next few years the couple dated, often spending many of their dates, including their first Valentine’s Day together, at Dizz’s. Stephanie says it was the place to go for couples—albeit expensive for the time. “There weren’t a lot of little romantic places then, but Dizz’s was definitely our place for romantic occasions.”
Shortly after that, Bob surprised Stephanie with not only a house that he’d bought for the two of them on Temple Terrace, but also a proposal. In 1986, the two married at Tivoli Terrace, and they’ve since moved to Three Arch Bay.
Stephanie knows their story is unique, especially given how much times have changed. She often accompanies friends who are single or divorced on their dates, and it’s just not the same. “They meet at Sapphire, and then they … go to Mozambique to dance … and it’s always a group thing. … Then they go on their phones, and they text each other. Chivalry, the nice things, the flowers, it’s just [lost now]. … It’s a sign of the times.”
Fast-forward to present-day Laguna. It’s a charming yet small beach town, a tourist magnet yet the kind of place where strangers are few and far between. This is a community with a pervasive “locals only” mentality that’s been woven into the thread of the social fabric for generations. Laguna is a city known for its deeply rooted friendships, sure, but romantically, it struggles; while a fortunate few may praise Laguna’s dating scene, the majority of local singles are filled with frustration.
Going in Circles
Dating typically involves a host of seismic ups and downs in any city, but being young and single in Laguna, where everyone seems to know each other, definitely complicates the undertaking.
“Honestly, the first word that comes to mind is incestuous,” says Laguna local Brendan Hexberg of the city’s dating scene. Though just 25 years old, Brendan can be considered something of an authority on the topic—he grew up in the area, attended Laguna Beach High School and returned to his hometown after a brief stint in Texas for college. With his return, however, came the shocking realization that dating in a small town like Laguna is an entirely different experience than dating in a bigger city.
“You’re always surrounded by the same people you grew up with, and sometimes you just don’t feel like dating them,” he says. Like Brendan, many locals feel like there’s just something about knowing a potential partner’s entire history that kills the inherent mystery associated with a new romance. This sense of familiarity can be blamed for keeping acquaintances trapped in the dreaded “friend zone” and also tends to prevent people from branching out of their existing social circles.
Also part of the problem is the fact that the city boasts very few places where like-minded locals can go to meet one another. Most young singles spend their weekends floating between bars like the Sandpiper or The Saloon, where blaring music makes just hearing one’s own thoughts an uphill battle.
“It’s where dreams go to die,” Brendan says of Laguna’s after-hours bar scene. “We need more casual places like [House of Big Fish and Ice Cold Beer], where it’s not too expensive and people can carry on an interesting conversation.” Though relatively new to Laguna’s dining scene, House of Big Fish has quickly developed a reputation as a popular hangout for young singles and couples alike, perhaps because of its approachability, unpretentiousness and, of course, affordability.
In addition, a large bar area complete with TVs allows locals to catch up on the game while mingling with friends or striking up a conversation with the stranger one seat over.
While places like House of Big Fish are starting points for dipping one’s toes into the dating pool, maybe we should be looking beyond bars and restaurants to meet new prospects. Cultural lore and classic movies depict random, amorous encounters in everyday places—maybe venturing out to Laguna Beach Books or Sound Spectrum on a weekend afternoon could spark a connection between two people with a mutual interest.
Breaking the Mold
It’s an unfortunate reality that a certain stereotype has cursed the young adults of Laguna, and it just may explain why dating in this town is so difficult. Whether it’s accurate or not, the belief that Laguna is populated by beautiful men and women with less-than-stellar personalities has been reinforced by the mainstream media and the personal experiences of many locals.
One of Brendan’s recent experiences only reinforces the stereotype that Laguna women have developed a “heightened sense of entitlement.” On a Friday night, Brendan entered the Sandpiper with his usual set of lowered expectations. While waiting for a drink at the bar, he explains, he began chatting with an attractive woman who also lived nearby. He thought the conversation was flowing smoothly and offered to buy the woman a drink. She politely accepted—and as he handed her the drink, turned around to re-gift it to the boyfriend she’d conveniently forgotten to mention. “She was too hot; I should have known there was a catch,” Brendan adds.
Still, women are hardly the only locals with bad reputations. Shelby Jarvis, a 34-year-old bachelorette, has spent her life in Laguna and finds the limited selection of suitors in the city disappointing.
“Since it’s a relaxed beach town, you get a lot of guys who don’t really have full-time careers and are in vacation mode,” she explains. “The vacation mode is often funded by their parents who [live] just up the street. Lots ofmoney with no real direction can be a scary thing.”
Shelby says that in her experience, Laguna men are active, healthy and maintain generally positive relationships with their families, but these good qualities are often dwarfed by a tendency to be unmotivated and dependent. To avoid this problem she turns to neighboring towns when seeking potential partners, explaining that bigger cities seem to offer men with more of a “go-getter” mentality. When it comes to dating in Laguna, Shelby favors upscale restaurants like the recently opened Selanne Steak Tavern and San Shi Go because these places aren’t too loud and offer unbeatable food. While she admits that no relationships have stuck yet, Shelby is confident that she’ll meet a companion whom she can respect, the kind of person who’ll make her a better person.
A Shared Experience
Dating woes are common themes throughout all of Laguna, especially in the city’s gay community.
“I would hardly consider Laguna as having a gay dating scene,” says Mike S., a 54-year-old Laguna transplant who relocated to the area 22 years ago from New York. Over time, Mike has observed the dramatic evolution of Southern California’s gay social scene. Once home to a number of popular gay bars like the Boom Boom Room and Woody’s at the Beach, Laguna has since turned into an “unaffordable place where most of the gays are already in serious relationships,” according to Mike.
Today, Club Bounce is one of the only places left for single gays to socialize and, although it may be a local favorite, it’s not always ideal for developing relationships. The end result of a night spent at Club Bounce is usually similar to that of an evening spent at the Sandpiper, where the best-case scenario is a one-night fling.
On one occasion, for instance, Mike believed he had met a relationship-worthy man at Club Bounce. “He was smart, sexy and interesting,” Mike says. After a number of successful dates, Mike had been won over and felt prepared to integrate the new guy into his social circle. After looking his love interest up on Facebook, Mike noticed that the man was already involved in a committed relationship with another partner.
Mike adds that in recent years, a sense of promiscuity has become prevalent among all demographics, but seems particularly ubiquitous in the realm of same-sex dating. “It goes hand in hand with the want-it-all mentality, and makes it extremely difficult to build trust and put yourself out there,” he says. For those looking to branch out, he endorses an app called Grindr, which introduces users to other gay men in the vicinity. Still, he notes that while Grindr is a convenient way to meet men, it’s more of a temporary Band-Aid than a long-term solution to the problem. Instead, Mike is an adamant believer that “the art of dating is lost on gay men.”
Although most single locals who are active in the dating scene are vexed by the challenges of finding love in a town like Laguna, others thrive in this community. In particular, older, more mature singles seem to be most satisfied by Laguna’s offerings.
“I wouldn’t change a thing,” says 60-something Dave Ward of his experience dating in the area. Though originally from England, Dave has spent the past 30 years living in Laguna; according to him, the dating scene has changed over the years in the sense that women are now “more aggressive and know what they want.” This aggressiveness, he explains, makes it easier for a potential suitor to sense any mutual interest.
Dave has found the most luck meeting open-minded women at restaurants like Mozambique and Javier’s because these places tend to draw a more sophisticated crowd that consists of divorcees, parents and other individuals versed in the rituals of serious relationships. People in this demographic, he adds, are more interested in finding quality companionship than setting unreachable expectations or searching for the ideal husband or wife. As a result, the dating routine is much more casual and stress-free, which actually increases the possibility of forging a meaningful bond.
“Lower your expectations and try to have fun,” Dave advises younger singles who are discouraged by Laguna’s dating scene. “Don’t take yourself too seriously; life is too short.”
No matter your age, dating in Laguna can be an exciting yet challenging endeavor. The pressure to find the perfect partner can often serve as a blinder, hindering individuals from seeing and feeling the most obvious connections. “You’ve got to be real, and you’ve got to be present,” Stephanie says. “If you’re generous and patient, finding love is very possible, regardless of what city you live in.” LBM