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The Drake: NY Vibes in Laguna Beach

Few restaurants have a more interesting backstory than The Drake Restaurant in Laguna Beach. The restaurant has its devotees who no doubt know the history, but it’s worth repeating for the uninitiated.

You could say it’s a tale of two cities that starts in New York at The Drake Hotel.

Native New Yorker Alec Glasser, founder of the restaurant, became passionate about music while attending public school programs in Queens. He learned to play the saxophone, clarinet and flute and even played gigs with teen bands at upscale resorts.

Glasser also spent summers working at The Drake Hotel on Park Avenue as an elevator operator and bellman. The Drake management agreed to let Glasser stay at the hotel provided he was on call if needed.

The Drake Hotel was reportedly host to numerous bands and celebrities of the day, including Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Led Zeppelin, Muhammad Ali, Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr.

As he became friendly with these and other stars, Glasser was allowed to run after hours parties in unoccupied hotel suites with the food and beverage provided by the Drake.

After three summers at The Drake, Glasser had earned enough to pay for law school in California, after which he launched a successful career as a commercial real estate developer.

The Drake Hotel was demolished in 2008, but Glasser took his memories and poured them into a new business venture by opening Orange County’s Drake in 2019.

Linking Past & Present

According to The Drake website, “the art deco-style decor of The Drake is inspired by its iconic hotel namesake and offers the same unique New York City supper club-style experiences. Subtle signs from decades past add to the overall aesthetics, from the elevator dial that rests above the front door to the image of the Manhattan skyline clandestinely placed inside a skylight behind the restaurant’s dining room. Even the curved gilded lines embossed above the lounge’s bar are recollections from Glasser’s days spent behind the doors of the Drake Hotel, linking the past to the present.”

The music side of The Drake Hotel has also been recreated at The Drake Restaurant, where diners can enjoy live jazz nightly.

And then there’s the incredible cuisine courtesy of Executive Chef and Partner Paul Gstrein, who trained in Austria before coming to the U.S to work at renowned restaurants such as Spago in Beverly Hills, Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago, and Campanile in Los Angeles.

He came to Orange County more than two decades ago to open Bistango in Irvine, followed by the sister concept, Bayside, in Newport Beach.

Gstrein was lured away to open The Drake with his son and sous-chef Nick Gstrein.

The OCBJ Review

On a recent visit to The Drake with Business Journal Publisher Richard Reisman, we dined at the chef’s counter so we could watch the action in the kitchen while enjoying the jazz music in the dining room.

Executive Chef and Partner Paul Gstrein created a tasting menu for us comprised of menu highlights and signature dishes.

We began our culinary experience with tuna tartare: Ahi tuna, cucumber, chili oil, ginger, wasabi emulsion, tomato, and ground seaweed with sesame seed, topped with a wonton chip. It was a lovely beginning, with the wonton chip adding a nice crunch to the dish.

Next came tiger shrimp with garlic chili sauce, black garlic toast, parsley and petite greens, followed by chili lime crusted steelhead salmon with jasmine rice, mango salsa and kaffir lime leaf emulsion.

“The salmon really represents my cooking,” Gstrein said. “It has its own unique flavor, nothing I have tasted that’s similar. That’s why I like this dish.”

Next was tender pork with a sweet and spicy barbecue and Mexican slaw with green onions, cilantro, and pepitas. Gstrein follows this with a lamb lollipop with spiked hummus and tzatziki.

We ended our culinary journey with medium-rare venison atop potatoes whipped with goat cheese. “The sauce is made with scraps and bones of the venison, and the berries are lingonberries,” Gstrein said.

This was truly a feast for the senses, with each dish revealing perfect blends of flavors and textures—and as Gstrein pointed out, succinctly showcased his menu.

Efficient Kitchen

Following our dinner, Gstrein gave us a tour of the kitchen, which was a marvel of efficiency given the constraints of the space.

“Things just barely fit—everything here is inches,” Gstrein said. “If we put something on the menu, we have to take something off. I built special storage racks. We don’t have a lot of room for refrigerated food, but everything turns over every 36 hours. We have 500 people dine here every weekend.”

Between the spectacular cuisine, the music, and the supper club ambiance, it’s no wonder patrons have been packing the place night after night.

The Drake offers two seatings: 5:45 p.m. and 8:15 p.m. There is usually a cover charge on weekends for the later seating.

The Drake: 2894 Pacific Coast Highway, Laguna Beach, (949) 376-1000, thedrakelaguna.com

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