Make like a VIP at one of these restaurants’ bespoke dining areas, from chefs’ tables with a view of the kitchen to private party rooms.
By Ryan Ritchie | Photos by Jody Tiongco
Officially, the two-seater nestled against a blue wall at Tabu Grill is called “table seven.” However, unofficially, it is a different story, as owner Nancy Wilhelm refers to the quaint area as “the honeymoon suite” while Thomas Burns, CEO and managing partner, calls it “the throne.” Whatever you call it, you can’t miss it.
Upon walking into Tabu Grill, table seven is one of the first things guests see as it sits directly across from the restaurant’s main entrance. As if the high table and seating weren’t royal enough, this special area is also within earshot of the exposed kitchen area, giving diners a chance to eavesdrop on chefs with a near-front-row view of the culinary action.
With this level of access to the kitchen and the similarity to a king overlooking his kingdom, it’s easy to understand why Thomas refers to this table as the throne, but it’s the fact that couples are forced to sit side by side that makes Nancy call it the “honeymoon suite.” With such close proximity, diners can cross their arms while sampling each other’s glasses of wine or easily feed a partner a bite of filet mignon or Mero sea bass.
“It’s a place where you can see everybody, but they can’t see you,” Nancy says. “[Plus,] if you’re dating and want to snuggle up, it’s more intimate. I call it ‘the honeymoon suite’ as a joke, but it’s a fun place to sit. When I sit there all by myself, I feel like I’m the queen.”
Table seven at Tabu Grill is a just one example of a unique dining trend in Laguna Beach: Several restaurants offer exclusive seating arrangements with myriad options for those looking to experience exquisite local meals in a more secluded setting.
SHOWCASING CULINARY ART
At Maro Wood Grill, the L-shaped chef’s table—located in front of a wood-fire grill—allows groups of up to eight to enjoy an intimate, seasonal prix-fixe menu while engaging directly with Executive Chef Debra Sims. The 40-year-old provides her full attention to the table and says she had “no hesitation” when owner Mariano Molteni suggested the idea about a year ago.
Although Debra has plenty of previous experience working in restaurants, her tenure at Maro Wood Grill is the first time she’s been able to cook for a chef’s table. And, she says, she loves this opportunity to create new dishes and educate her customers on ingredients or different cooking techniques that could inspire nonprofessionals to cook more at home.
“You get caught in making the same thing over and over and people get used to eating the same thing,” Debra says. “So, for me, it’s a chance to break out of that mold. Even though we change the menu every day here, I like the chance to have to pair a soup with a salad with an entree with a dessert with a wine. It’s something that helps me keep the other side of my brain working.”
Mariano describes his chef’s table as a “unique experience,” one that is enhanced during those times when the prix-fixe menu also includes wine pairings and a sommelier. Part of this is due to Debra’s ability to cater to all culinary interests and dietary restrictions as the owner says guests can request everything ranging from fish to Argentinean ribs to vegan meals. Mariano says the other attractive part of the experience is how close diners are to the preparation of their food.
“It definitely creates an intimate circle,” Mariano says. “You are smelling the food right off the wood-fire grill and you take in the components of fresh local ingredients that make up your dish.”
Intimacy is also key at Broadway by Amar Santana, where groups of up to six can sit in front of the kitchen at an area that head chef Amar Santana calls the “chef’s counter.” From Sunday through Thursday, the chef’s counter serves meals from the regular menu, but on Fridays and Saturdays, this portion of the restaurant is where Amar and his team prepare a six-course tasting menu that changes every weekend. In the past, those seated at the chef’s counter have enjoyed everything from Kobe beef cheeks to veal sweetbread, but regardless of what’s on tap, the 32-year-old chef says he and his team look forward to the tasting menus because of the challenge that comes with creating new and exciting dishes on a weekly basis.
“We get to showcase what we can do,” Amar says. “When people do the tasting menu, they’re going to experiment with something new, so we try many different flavors.”
Similar to Maro Wood Grill, one benefit of sitting at Broadway by Amar Santana’s chef’s counter is the ability to not only see all the action, but also to interact with the chefs. For customers, this experience is akin to watching the LA Lakers from Jack Nicholson’s front-row seat or receiving a private guitar lesson from B.B. King. Being able to see the artists at work is one reason why reservations fill quickly.
“Everybody wants to sit at the chef’s counter,” Amar says. “It’s the most popular table in the whole restaurant. Who wouldn’t want to sit in front of the kitchen and see the chefs perform? When you go to a restaurant, you don’t know who’s cooking your food or where it’s coming from because you don’t see anything. With me, being an open kitchen with the chef’s counter right in front, you get to see everything—how it’s prepared [and] who’s preparing it for you. It’s very fun.”
After having a chef’s counter for three years, Amar is confident that this section of his restaurant is a success. He knows this mostly because the chef’s counter is often booked with three reservations a night. In fact, sometimes diners are having such a good time they forget to go home. “People usually take around two hours,” Amar says. “But we have a problem—once people are sitting there, they don’t want to leave.”
A PLACE TO PARTY
The idea of private dining isn’t limited to groups of less than 10, as an array of Laguna Beach restaurants offer secluded rooms that allow larger parties to enjoy specialized meals behind closed doors. One such place is Mozambique, a three-story eatery where the idea of a private lunch or dinner might seem impossible thanks to a busy bar with live music, jampacked dining rooms and a highly popular rooftop deck for enjoying the gorgeous summer weather.
But even with all that commotion, Mozambique can still accommodate guests who want to dine behind closed doors. In fact, Kathy Reck, director of special events, says Mozambique doesn’t have just one private dining area. Instead, nearly every room at the restaurant can be converted into whatever arrangement a customer would like. For example, there’s the Boma Room, which seats 85 or up to 135 when combined with the Garden Patio, which alone holds 48. Also, the Durban Room seats 50 and comes with a private patio with a fire pit. And, Kathy says, those are just the downstairs spaces.
“We have the private dining room on the second level with maximum seating up to 20 guests,” Kathy says. “The Shebeen Bar and Lounge can be privately booked or the guests can book only the outside Shebeen Patio. The Veranda is our rooftop dining, which can be booked privately. Some guests book only the right side or only the left side for semi-private use. The entire Veranda can seat about 70 guests or you can have 125 guests for a cocktail reception.”
Meals in Mozambique’s private areas are often based around preset menus, but buffets or heavy appetizers are also options. “It all depends on the guests’ needs and budget,” Kathy says. “I am very happy to customize menus and am extremely flexible when it comes to meeting their vision.”
Another local restaurant offering a large private dining room is Stonehill Tavern at The St. Regis Monarch Beach, where groups of up to 28 can take over a room, enjoy one of four seasonal meals and even bring in their own music for entertainment. However, Executive Chef Raj Dixit says those looking for a more personal experience, such as a birthday party or a gastronomic experience, should consider a smaller number.
“It makes a lot of sense, around 15 (diners),” Raj says. “When you do a larger size, the rhythm gets a little bit screwed up. If you want to keep the room intimate, keep it low so everyone has plenty of space to spread out and get entertained.”
The goal of the private room, Raj says, is to provide an area where customers can relax and “let loose.” This can mean different things to different diners as some choose to eat with only adults who are looking to get “loud and rowdy” while others incorporate children into the mix. Adding young people to an upscale dining experience might sound counterproductive because children might not want grown-up meals, but Raj describes Stonehill Tavern as “super versatile,” with a menu accommodating guests of all ages. Rather than serving traditional kids’ food such as fried chicken fingers, Raj and his staff have roasted chicken with peas and fresh vegetables available for young guests.
From special tables with a close-up view of the kitchen to secluded party rooms, Laguna restaurants offer plenty of intimate settings to enjoy an unparalleled dining experience with family, friends or a special loved one.