Local bartenders share memorable stories and their favorite drinks to make at watering holes around town.
By Sharael Kolberg and Laguna Beach Magazine Staff
Whether you’re celebrating a special occasion, enjoying a date night, going out for a night on the town with friends or just flying solo, when you pull up a stool to order a drink in Laguna Beach, it’s the bartenders and mixologists that typically make your experience and the atmosphere fun and inviting.
From blending the perfect cocktail or giving advice on what to do around town to educating customers about various spirits or just lending an ear, the guys and gals behind the bar are multitalented and efficient multitaskers.
The bar scene in Laguna ranges from cozy and romantic to loud and lively. Whatever kind of night out you’re seeking, there’s a place that fits the bill—and a bartender that’s happy to have you pull up a seat. Here are a few of our favorite watering holes and the bartenders that bring them to life.
Marine Room Tavern
Walk past the Marine Room Tavern on a weekend night and you’ll hear the live band’s music pouring out into the street. Step inside and you’ll see some serious pool players hunched over the table with cue stick in hand, couples getting cozy by the fire, and a bar filled with all walks of life enjoying conversation and libations. The Marine Room, which first opened its doors almost 90 years ago, boasts the second-oldest liquor license in Orange County.
“It’s been there since 1934,” says bartender Brooke Genter. “When they redid it, I think they did a good job of keeping it beautiful. … They kept the soul. There’s the soul of Laguna Beach in that place.”
On many nights, you’ll find Genter pouring beers, mixing drinks from the almost 300 types of whiskey on hand and striking up conversations with locals and out-of-towners, making sure they’re having a good time while she’s on watch. “The guests are wonderful. We have a really great local crowd,” says Genter, who has worked at Marine Room for about six years.
Although you won’t find a cocktail menu, Genter is adept at making whatever the customer requests. Her favorite drink to make? An Old-Fashioned: a classic cocktail with the main ingredient being whiskey, of course. “It’s such a great drink,” she says. “It’s classic and sexy. I love making it. It takes time and care to build it right.”
The whiskeys she prefers to use are Westland, an American single malt sourced in Washington state with high sustainability standards, and WhistlePig for rye. “It has a depth of flavor that adds to the Old-Fashioned,” she notes.
Notably, Genter weathered the pandemic-related bar shutdowns and came back to Marine Room when it reopened more than a year later, as well as for the brief couple of weeks when it was allowed in summer 2020. She had moved to Kansas to visit her dad during quarantine, but felt compelled to return. “My heart was like, ‘I want to be there. I need to be there when they reopen,’ ” she shares.
Not only did she return, but she now lives in both states, flying back and forth every other week just to keep working at Marine Room. The workers and all the regulars make it feel like family, she says.
One of her most memorable nights at the bar was when Justin Bieber casually strolled in under the radar. “He just played it cool and was relaxing. … [He] sat in the corner and played pool,” she recalls. Another night, when she wasn’t there, Bieber actually got on stage and started singing.
Another favorite memory: “We did a summer kickoff party a couple of years ago with bubble guns, balloons and beach balls and a local band,” she says. “Everyone was bright and happy.”
Mike Alvarez, bartender and assistant beverage director at Sapphire, Cellar-Craft-Cook, says what he loves most about tending bar here is the people.
“I love socializing with guests and the relationships I’ve built with regulars over the years,” Alvarez says. “I’ve known their kids as newborns and have seen them go off to college.”
Sapphire’s terrace with a partial ocean view, outdoor fire pit, cozy bar environment and fresh, seasonal food and drinks makes it a popular place for Lagunans and visitors alike. Known for its selection of wine from around the world, craft beer and signature cocktails, the bar is typically filled with customers seeking Alvarez’s knowledge about what to order.
“I like suggesting our handcrafted cocktails,” he says. “… They’re good [and] fresh.”
One of the most popular cocktails is the lilac-colored Mariposa Effect, made with butterfly tea-infused tequila and garnished with an edible rice paper butterfly. During the COVID-19 quarantine, the Sapphire Pantry next door sold its cocktails to go in Mason jars, which turned out to be a huge hit and they continue to be offered. A seasonal mocktail is also made for those who want to partake without the alcohol.
People also started investing in making their own home bars while local watering holes and restaurants were temporarily closed. Alvarez is ready with advice for these, too.
“I love a good home bar that utilizes great glassware,” he says. “Also, … great bottles of liquor that not only display well, but are amazing to drink.”
At The Saloon, you’ll find straight shooters doing straight shots, locals rubbing elbows with tourists and both a younger crowd and old-timers having a darn good time. The quaint, yet lively bar has been a Laguna Beach landmark for more than 40 years. Bartender Colby Brown can be found slinging drinks for the happy patrons.
“I like the mix of the crowd you get here,” Brown says. “Nobody’s trying to impress each other. I could be serving people for years and not know they are a big deal. I found out that one regular owned a $50 million company. I had no idea. It’s pretty chill that way.”
Brown started bartending while living on Oahu in Hawaii as a way of making money at night so that he could surf during the day. The lifestyle has suited him well ever since and bartending has been a job that allowed him to travel. Having grown up in Laguna, his brother used to work at The Saloon and they needed someone to bartend, so he took the job and has been there for more than 20 years.
You won’t find trendy craft cocktails on the menu. It’s a small, mostly standing-room bar with little storage space and, while The Saloon does stock quite a variety of alcohol, the team focuses on classic drinks rather than making its own herb tinctures or infusing drinks with smoke. However, they do make two “house drinks.” The Popo is named after a well-known bartender that used to work there. It mixes a house-made coffee-infused liqueur and hot coffee. The other one is The Pino, which brings together pineapple-infused vodka, triple sec and cranberry juice. Brown says he doesn’t have a favorite as the two are so different from each other.
When you can’t get to The Saloon, Brown offers this tip for whipping up drinks at home: Use high-quality ice to achieve a taste that’s more reminiscent of cocktails ordered at the bar. In other words, trade those tray cubes made with tap water for a store-bought bag of filtered-water ice.
Oak Laguna Beach
With ocean views, a modern bar and a prime spot in the HIP District, Oak Laguna Beach serves up locally inspired food and beverages. The drink menu includes specialty cocktails, martinis, wines on tap and draft beer.
You’ll often see General Manager and mixologist Cat Robbins with cocktail shaker in hand, whipping up a martini or craft drink while chatting with guests and fulfilling servers’ orders.
“I grew up in the restaurant business,” Robbins says. “It’s in my blood. I love the social aspect, getting to chat with people. … [But,] more importantly, I enjoy creating great cocktails that lead to great experiences.”
While Robbins had aspirations of being a chef, she wanted to be out front with the customers rather than back in the kitchen.
“I approach bartending with a culinary take,” she says. “I create flavor profiles for our cocktails.”
She loves making the Lavender and Meringue martini with EG rosemary and lavender vodka, lemon juice and a liqueur called Licor 43, then finished off with a lemon-infused egg white foam that is torched, plus lemon zest and lavender for garnish.
To make cocktails at home, Robbins suggests keeping it simple.
“Don’t overthink it,” she says. “Use fresh fruit and herbs. Try things out of your comfort zone.”
The Bar at Hotel Laguna
The recently renovated ground floor of Hotel Laguna, which reopened in October following the building’s closure since 2017, has brought a new bar and two restaurants—Larsen and Fin—to town as a result of this highly anticipated project. The bar, situated between the two eateries, offers expansive ocean views, making it a popular spot for special moments with family and friends. Bar manager Neil Matchko makes sure that the cocktails not only taste good but look good, too. His Instagram-worthy concoctions, which are derived from classic drinks, are crafted with knowledge and artistry.
“I look for depth of flavor as well as balance,” Matchko says. “Something that is not too aggressive on the palette.”
Matchko has been with the Bar at Hotel Laguna for just over six months, but he’s been in the bar industry for almost 20 years. “I love people,” he says. “As a bartender, I can change someone’s day for the better—take someone from the lowest point to the highest point. It’s about the experience.”
From the impressive seasonal cocktail list, Matchko’s favorite drink to make is the Smoking With Angels, incorporating Angel’s Envy bourbon, Angostura orange bitters and dark simple syrup made with turbinado sugar, served in a glass with a clear-cut single ice cube with a Hotel Laguna stamp on it. The drink is also infused with cherry wood smoke, which is done tableside (along with adding the garnishes) if ordered in the restaurant rather than at the bar.
“I’m a mixologist, but [a] bartender first,” Matchko says. “I try to listen to people and what they want. I like to make something new, fun [and] different for our guests. People get stuck drinking the same ol’, same ol’. Don’t fear change, embrace it. Trust your bartender.”
Matchko’s tips for making drinks at home include using fresh ingredients and experimentation. “Don’t be afraid to fail,” he says. “Trust your instincts. Don’t overcomplicate things.”
He is also working on an upcoming mocktail menu that will be out in the spring. “Mocktails are a huge trend,” Matchko says. “People want to drink something without the alcohol effect, to feel a part of that social gathering, that acceptance, without being judged. I like making it. It’s my craft.”
The Sandpiper Lounge
Nicknamed the Dirty Bird, The Sandpiper Lounge opened back in 1942 and has been owned by the same family throughout the years. It’s known as a late-night party spot with a lively crowd and popular local bands playing rock and reggae covers.
The clientele is a no-frills crowd. There is a beer menu, but no cocktail menu. “We keep our cocktails simple,” says bartender and service manager Grant Harrell, the son of owner Chuck Harrell. The two most-requested mixed drinks are vodka and soda or tequila and soda. “We don’t really make many ‘craft cocktails’ just because … [they] can be time-consuming when we can be pouring other drinks,” Grant Harrell says.
But his favorite cocktail to prepare is also entertaining to watch being assembled. “Long Island Iced Teas are fun to make because I can grab two bottles in each hand at once and pour the drink,” he says. “Some people think it’s kinda cool. That’s about as much flair as we do behind the bar. For me, it saves time.”
Grant Harrell has worked at The Sandpiper for about 16 years including the last decade behind the bar. “I like bartending here,” he says. “… I’m following in my dad’s footsteps, which are big shoes to fill, I get to meet all kinds of people and it’s fun working at The Sandpiper. Because of its legacy, people want to come here.”
A corner of the bar is devoted to the armed forces with patches from many generations in tribute to a time when The Sandpiper was frequented by off-duty officers from the now-closed Marine Corps base in El Toro.
Grant Harrell says people visiting from across the country and even Europe tell him the bar “reminds them of their favorite dive bar or pub back home.” And there have been many memorable moments including sports stars from Charles Barkley to Dennis Rodman, Shaun White and Quinton “Rampage” Jackson” that have dropped by.
“I’ve been pretty lucky over the years, getting to meet a few celebrities that come in looking for a quiet place to hang out, have a drink or two and listen to some music,” Grant Harrell says. “… Rodman is fun because he used to come in all the time when he spent a year with the Lakers and was on a first-name basis with my dad.”
1 1/2 ounces whiskey
½ ounce simple syrup
2 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
Orange peel, for garnish
Luxardo cherry, for garnish
Stir all ingredients and strain into a glass over a large ice cube. Garnish with an orange peel and Luxardo cherry if desired.
Recipe courtesy of Marine Room Tavern