Heading to Laguna Beach this summer to take in the arts festivals, Pageant of the Masters, or a musical at Laguna Playhouse? Make dining out part of your itinerary.
Dozens of restaurants are within walking distance of the arts festivals and the theater, including a handful of new ones. One of those is Larsen at Hotel Laguna, a historic building built in the 1930s which had been closed for several years but is beginning to show off renovations by its new local owners, Mo Honarkar’s Laguna Beach Co.
So far, the ground floor has been polished and features the Larsen restaurant, named after Eiler Larsen, the city’s late unofficial “Greeter” whose statue is next to the iconic hotel.
Larsen offers a fresh take on coastal California cuisine courtesy of local Chef Craig Strong, who earned a Michelin star during his time at The Langham Huntington Hotel & Spa in Pasadena before migrating south to become executive chef of Studio at the Montage for a decade. He left to open his own restaurant, Ocean at Main, in late 2018. He closed that restaurant a few weeks before the pandemic hit and is now at the helm of Larsen.
The menu is highlighted by fresh local ingredients and unique chef-driven creations. The interior is lovely, but this summer the patio is the place to dine. The vistas of the beach and ocean are beyond comparison, especially at sunset.
I scored a small patio table with the ocean so close you could hear—and see—the waves crashing on the beach.
It was a Sunday and the menu that day featured brunch dishes with the distinct Chef Strong twist. I was a fan of his chilaquiles at Ocean at Main, so I had to try his Larsen version: toasted corn tortillas with salsa fuerte, queso fresco, over medium eggs, and avocado cream; and of course, shredded chicken. An excellent dish with a spicy kick to it, not overpowering but it definitely shook my taste buds awake.
As far as lunch and dinner dishes, Strong has his signature short rib cigars served in ash trays—and they are delicious. Other popular dishes include charred octopus, the burger, and “Strong” tacos.
Sueños Serves Dreams
I also popped in to Sueños, the Latin cuisine restaurant that took the place of Ocean at Main. Like Larsen, they opened last fall and have been finding their footing amid a crowded coastal dining scene.
Sueños is owned by husband-and-wife restaurateurs Jose Gutierrez and Kay Ayazi. The duo has opened several eateries in Orange County together, including Costa, a contemporary Peruvian kitchen in Costa Mesa. As first-generation Americans who come from families of entrepreneurs, the couple said they aim to show their children just how possible opportunities are for those who pursue their dreams.
“Sueños is Spanish for dreams, and that’s how we came up with the name,” Gutierrez said.
The menu reveals dishes that blend and borrow the ingredients and influences from across Latin American culture, from the coastline of Mexico to the mountainous regions of Peru.
Executive Chef Yen Wu brings a global experience to the kitchen at Sueños. Born and raised in Lima, Peru, Wu previously served as executive chef for Puesto in Irvine. His dinner menu, available Tuesday through Saturday, includes a variety of starters, salads, sandwiches, tacos and entrees that are exotic yet familiar, meaning most diners will appreciate the flavors of this culinary tour of Latin America.
Sueños serves brunch on the weekends, and Wu said they will be offering more live music and taco Tuesday specials throughout the summer.
I’ll be returning to Sueños soon to sample menu items—the pork belly tacos and the pesacado macho (catch of the day, shrimp, calamari and mussels in a house aji panca sauce) are calling my name.
One more Laguna restaurant to recommend: Sapphire, one of the four (and soon to be five) restaurants from 2018 Business Journal Restaurateur of the Year Russ Bendel.
I dined there for lunch recently with two friends and my small dog. The large Sapphire patio is dog friendly, and my pup snoozed on the cool brick-lined patio while we enjoyed lunch.
We shared an order of the cast iron roasted Brussels sprouts with Romanesco cauliflower and pork belly, with white anchovy and garlic emulsion, Riesling raisins and saba reduction. The combination of flavors and textures was perfect.
For entrees, my friends ordered the burger, which is usually my go-to meal at Sapphire, but this time I opted for the crispy chicken sandwich with house-made pickles, garlic dill aioli, sweet and tangy coleslaw on a challah bun with a generous helping of fries.
This is one beauty of a sandwich, with the coleslaw and pickles providing a tasty crunch to the chicken. The French fries are addicting.
Sapphire is indeed a gem. Not quite walking distance to the arts festivals, but the free summertime shuttle that runs on Coast Highway to and from the festivals makes it easy to dine practically anywhere in Laguna Beach.
One more item of note for Laguna diners: longtime local fave Nirvana Grille, which has been closed for a few weeks, reopens this month after a “refresh and reimagining,” according to information posted on Nirvana’s front door.
Larsen at Hotel Laguna: 425 South Coast Highway, Laguna Beach, (949) 494-1151, hotellaguna.com
Sueños: 222 Ocean Ave., Laguna Beach, (949) 715-8155, suenoslagunabeach.com
Sapphire: 1200 South Coast Highway., Laguna Beach, (949) 715-9888, sapphirelagunabeach.com