Chef Arthur’s awesome menu + a rockin’ live band =  memorable NYE Party at Skyloft this year 

Chef Arthur Ortiz has pulled out all the stops on this year’s New Year’s Eve prix fixe menu with items such as Marsala Duck Medallions, Grilled Steak with a skewer of Cajun Shrimp, a hearty California Smoke Platter, and more.

On New Year’s Eve, Skyloft has two prix fixe menus seatings, with the first from 5 p.m. – 7:30 p.m. for $80, and the second from 8 p.m.- 1 a.m. 

Click on photo for a larger image

Photo by Mike Altishin

Steak filet wrapped in bacon

The second Skyloft NYE seating, priced at just $120, includes the prix fixe menu, your table reserved all evening long, lively music with Venson Quarles & The Just Funk Band, and a midnight bubbly toast. Patrons interested in just the live music party after 9 p.m. (no prix fixe menu) pay a $20 cover.

For more infromation or to  review the New Year’s Eve menu, visit To reserve seating, call (949) 715-1550.

Best Burgers Roundup, 2017: Eat juicy burgers now before making New Year’s resolutions …

Story and most photos by DIANE ARMITAGE
Skyloft photo by Mike Altishin

During the holidays, I suspect you might do as I do, adapting a diet that has nothing to do with the way you live the other 11 months of your year. 

For me, it’s too much eggnog, too many creamy gravies, rich holiday appetizers that I would never eat any other time of the year (who can pass up anything wrapped in phyllo dough?), and one sugary thing after another. 

The Bridge Back to Diet Normalcy

For some reason – and invariably as the holiday season winds down – my rather warped brain begins to crave a good old-fashioned hamburger. I consider it my Bridge Back to Normalcy, a mental coup of sorts against roasted turkey, baked ham and prime rib roast.

Of course, a handful of our great chefs in town think an “old fashioned burger” should be more of a decadent celebration, too. And, for some reason, I don’t argue this … my eggnog-addled brain simply accepts this as a gentler descent across that bridge before I’m faced with detoxifying juices on the other side. 

So, I’m updating my list of Best Hamburgers in Laguna Beach this week just in case you, dear reader, feel the tug of one more culinary venture before the New Year tolls, making sensible eaters of us all.   

An Editorial Note:

Permit a few caveats before we begin this slippery slope of a review: I wasn’t able to try every hamburger in town; the list below is ranked by price, from lowest to highest; Yes, we have a number of great vegetarian and vegan burgers in town that are worthy of their own column; and you might have a favorite burger in one of our fine dining establishments that’s not mentioned here. We welcome your vote and commentary on this terribly serious subject at my FB page, or write to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. with your suggestions (or both…)

Towering Edifices of Wonder

Even as Laguna Beach sports a number of great burger-centric restaurants, the chefs at our finer dining restaurants bow to the burger, too.

These chefs, though…they don’t make normal food, and they certainly don’t make normal hamburgers. I discovered towering edifices of wonder with unique combinations of ingredients and detailed preparation steps that would leave the ordinary backyard grill guy agog. 

Grab your dinner napkins and let’s get started.

Reunion Kitchen Classic Cheeseburger

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Reunion Kitchen Classic Cheeseburger

Probably the highest tower of them all, Scott McIntosh’s Classic Cheeseburger is more like a national monument. Add optional avocado, bacon or fried egg, and you have a replica of The Leaning Tower of Pisa on your hands. 

Creation Date: At his first Reunion Kitchen in Anaheim, Dec. 2013

Sold per week: 75-100

What makes the Reunion Classic Cheeseburger memorable: A half-pound patty of ground chuck serves as the base to sliced tomato, thick house-made pickle slices, crisp lettuce, melted cheese (type of cheese is your option), and crispy fried onion strips with house sauce (a house-made, spicier version of Thousand Island dressing with the restaurant’s own secret pickle relish combo), slathered on both halves of the potato bun. Avocado, fried egg and bacon are optional add-ons (two of the three are pictured in my photo).  

Scott McIntosh’s Secrets: After selling many burgers at many different restaurants over the years, McIntosh learned a “French technique” while working with Restaurateur David Wilhelm at French 75. 

“We served a ‘Butter Burger’ at French 75, which was actually stuffed with about a tablespoon of butter,” says McIntosh. “I carried that idea over with about a half tablespoon in our Reunion burger. It’s just enough that, when the patty hits the grill, the butter bubbles out and over and gives it that rich flavor. 

Price: $13.95

Served with: Seasoned fries

Skyloft’s “The Cheeseburger”

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Skyloft’s “The Cheeseburger”

A devoted fan of In-N- Out in his growing up, formative years, Chef Arthur Ortiz has created an insanely popular burger “that harkens back to that nostalgic taste,” he says. 

“Cheeseburgers are a go-to for a lot of guests,” says Chef Arthur. “Sometimes you just want a classic burger that’s just messy enough but can still be held in your hand without falling apart everywhere. I created it for people who have that ‘classic burger’ heart.”

Aside from weekly sales of 1,000 pounds of smoked ribs, brisket and house-made maple-basted bacon, Chef Arthur’s Cheeseburger is the most popular item on the menu. 

Creation Date: May 2016, when he first came on board at Skyloft.

Sold per week: 300+

What makes the Skyloft Cheeseburger memorable: Two tenderized four-ounce patties hard-seared on the griddle, two “just melty” slices of white American cheese, a rabble of small-diced fresh tomato, red onion and pickles, and crisp iceberg lettuce. It’s finished with a healthy slather of top-secret black peppercorn aioli on a cushy bun. 

Served with: Hand-cut fries with sea salt seasoning and Cajun aioli dipping sauce

Price: $15

Added bonus: Every Monday, The Skyloft Cheeseburger is just $10. And, any day it rains in Laguna Beach, you can order it for $10, too. 

The Lumberyard’s Signature Burger

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The Lumberyard’s Signature Burger

Waddling due east on Forest Avenue from Skyloft, I find my way to the Lumberyard. At my request, Owner Cary Redfearn and Chef Armando Ortega whip up their Signature Burger, a half-pound Angus ground chuck that is probably the prettiest burger I’ve seen. 

Creation date: Day 1, 2008 when the restaurant opened.

Sold per week: 200+

What makes the Lumberyard Signature memorable: Bleu cheese, Swiss cheese, caramelized onions, bacon, mushroom chips, Bibb lettuce and fresh slices of tomato on a lightly toasted, freshly baked wheat bun.

Chef Armando’s Secrets: Chef Armando’s unusual mix of Bleu and Swiss cheeses creates a union happier than any past, present or future détente between France and Switzerland. 

He also flash fries fresh mushrooms into “chips,” which provide an “earthier, mellower balance to the cheeses.” The caramelized onions are Sweet Vidalia, to add yet another nuance of mellow, nutty sweetness to the cheeses. And, the star of the show – Nueske Bacon from Wisconsin – drapes the burger in glory. “There’s nothing like Nueske,” says Redfearn. “It’s double-thick Applewood smoked bacon and it goes with everything. It’s magical stuff.”

Served with: Steak fries. 

Price: $16

Sapphire’s Kobe Beef Cheeseburger

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Sapphire Pantry & Sapphire Restaurant’s Kobe Beef Cheeseburger

This burger began quietly at Sapphire Restaurant’s shop next door, The Pantry. Its popularity exploded to such an extent that Chef Azmin Ghahreman was quick to add it to the restaurant’s lunch menu, too. 

The real love here starts with the beef itself. This is Snake River Farms Kobe beef, where cows are given daily neck massages and guzzle beer. The Japanese culture “invented” Kobe beef on the belief that happy cows made for stellar meat. Having tried this burger, I’m all for happy cows. 

Creation Date: Day 1, 2007 when the restaurant opened.

Sold per week: 200-250

What makes the Kobe Cheeseburger memorable: Havarti cheese, caramelized onion, fresh arugula, Heirloom tomato on a brioche bun.

Chef Azmin’s Secrets: Azmin tops his happy beef with a thick slice of Havarti cheese “because its mild creaminess melds so nicely with the bite of the arugula,” says Azmin.

Azmin is all about contrast. Sweet caramelized onions champion the mild Heirloom tomato slices, while the buttery, sweet Brioche bun is brushed with a house-made Dijon aioli.

Price: $12 at the Pantry, $18.50 on the Lunch menu

Served with: Thin-cut garlic fries

Three Seventy Common Kitchen’s 10-Napkin Burger

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Three Seventy Common Kitchen’s 10-Napkin Burger

If you’ve ever wondered why Three Seventy Common gives you a cloth dinner napkin the size of a dishtowel, it’s because of this burger. Chef Ryan wasn’t kidding when he named this signature dish, as it is heavenly drippiness for all the right reasons. 

The burger itself is an all-natural blend of ground chuck, skirt steak, short ribs and hanger steak. It’s ground fresh daily in the restaurant, and they will never tell you the percentages of meats used, so don’t even ask.  

Creation Date: Shortly after re-opening as Three Seventy Common, Chef Ryan Adams added this burger to the foodie-famous menu as “it was the burger I was always prepping for myself at the end of a shift,” he says. 

Sold per week: 100-150

What makes the 370 10-Napkin Burger memorable: White cheddar, arugula, fried egg, smoked bacon, mushrooms, roasted chile, caramelized onions, and Chef’s secret aioli sauce on a freshly baked potato bun.  

Chef Ryan’s Secrets: For starters, if you’re definitely not a fan of eggs, you can ask to have it omitted. If, however, you haven’t ever tried a fried egg on your hamburger, it’s time to take the leap. 

The chile is an authentic Hatch, New Mexico fire-roasted chile, and this is no dinky chile. Its smoky goodness blends perfectly with the sautéed mushrooms and all-natural Applewood bacon. The two-year-aged white cheddar comes from the Grafton village of Vermont, chosen specifically for its high butterfat and mellow smoothness. 

Price: $19

Served with: Hand-cut fries.

Where’s Your Next Cheeseburger in Paradise?

Any time you venture into a finer dining establishment, I know it can be a struggle to order something as mundane as a hamburger when there’s all that other glory on the menu to be had. Remember, though – if this Chef has foodie talent, you can bet his house burger is a far cry from a snoozer. Really … it’s your New Year’s duty to give these burgers a try. Let me know what you decide to try at:

Diane Armitage is the best-selling author of the book, The Best of Laguna Beach, and offers a cornucopia of restaurant updates, ideas and upcoming events at her blog,

Even the food is festive

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Avocado toast at The Grove looked quite festive this week

Chef Arthur’s awesome menu + a rockin’ live band =  memorable NYE Party at Skyloft this year 

Chef Arthur Ortiz has pulled out all the stops on this year’s New Year’s Eve prix fixe menu with items such as Marsala Duck Medallions, Grilled Steak with a skewer of Cajun Shrimp, a hearty California Smoke Platter, and more.

On New Year’s Eve, Skyloft has two prix fixe menus seatings, with the first from 5 p.m. – 7:30 p.m. for $80, and the second from 8 p.m.- 1 a.m. 

Click on photo for a larger image

Photo by Mike Altishin

Steak filet wrapped in bacon

The second Skyloft NYE seating, priced at just $120, includes the prix fixe menu, your table reserved all evening long, lively music with Venson Quarles & The Just Funk Band, and a midnight bubbly toast. Patrons interested in just the live music party after 9 p.m. (no prix fixe menu) pay a $20 cover.

For more infromation or to  review the New Year’s Eve menu, visit To reserve seating, call (949) 715-1550.

Gu Ramen’s hot broth and chill vibe draw a diverse and enthusiastic clientele

Story and photos by JENNIFER ERICKSON

Gu Ramen Taps and Tapas, located at 907 S. Coast Highway, at the corner of Thalia, began drawing ramen aficionados from as far as Los Angeles as soon as it opened on June 6, 2015. So far the momentum hasn’t slowed, as had been the case with two previous, short-lived tenants in the space. 

Perhaps that’s because Gu Ramen boasts not only bowls of noodles and toppings steaming in their signature tonkotsu broth, but also what some web reviewers call “a chill vibe.” 

Earlier this week I interviewed Kitiphong (“Kiti”) Thongdetsakul, who co-owns the restaurant with Wicha Thossansin, and he seemed to agree. He attributes their success to “good food, good drink, good wine, and good atmosphere.” 

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A bowl of Gu Ramen’s noodles with their signature broth and pork belly

Besides their pork- and chicken-bone broth, double-simmered for 16 to 18 hours, they use high quality ingredients and meat, Kiti said. And he has nothing but praise for their current executive chef Michael Rudolph, who, he said, is working on some surprise menu items for the New Year.

The tasty food can be washed down with selections from a respectable line up of craft beer on tap, bottled beer, reasonably priced wines by the glass and bottle, or an extensive list of sakes. For those eschewing alcohol, there’s a fridge filled with specialty soft drinks, such as Fanta, Mexican Coke and hard-to-find Asian sodas.

While most reviews on Yelp, Google and Facebook are raves, or at least complimentary, the most common complaint among detractors is that the food can be slow to reach them on busy nights. But ramen is generally made to order, and with a small kitchen, the orders can pile up. Asked about that, Kiti assured me that they prefer to have the customer “wait for a better quality of broth and noodle” than to hurry the process and serve sub-par food. “We’re not here to rush the customer, we’re here to satisfy everybody,” he said, such as those who routinely pick up their bowls at the end of the meal to slurp every last bit of broth.

Eclectic playlists and alluring videos add to the chill vibe

Besides the inevitable observations on the merits of the ramen and other items on the menu, many reviewers note the eclectic playlists of mostly 80s and 90s music, usually accompanied by their alluring music videos displayed on the two flat TV screens behind the bar. It’s not an ambiance you’ll find at other ramen places, Kiti proudly noted. He said he relies on whoever is working to orchestrate the music playlists, which they’ll often tweak based on reading the room.

My theory is that most people come to Gu Ramen for the food the first time but keep returning for the aforementioned “chill vibe.” 

The first thing I noticed when I ate there over a year ago was the diversity of the clientele. Single men and women of different ages and walks of life dotted the bar, while the booths along the opposite wall seemed to be crammed with every age group, ethnicity and gender. There were young couples on dates, older couples sharing a meal with friends, young women on a girls’ night out, hipsters, surfers, and business executive-looking types. All were talking, laughing, eating and slurping as those retro tunes rounded out the music of their conversation and the vintage, sometimes racy, videos supplied background eye candy.

Often, walking into a new restaurant or bar for the first time, you have an immediate sense of some degree of belonging, indifference or alienation, depending on the other customers. Maybe you’re older than the crowd, or younger, or more or less affluent, under- or over-dressed, or more of an outsider. 

But the second I entered Gu Ramen I felt the ease of anonymity. I didn’t stick out in any way. My husband and I were just two more people coming in to partake of the food and ambience, assuming we could get a seat on that busy Friday night. Luckily, we did. 

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Tapas like this Senbei Ahi Tartare hit all the right taste notes

A return there on a recent Monday night at around 6:30 p.m. confirmed my initial observations about the vibe and the food. The Senbei Ahi Tartare - poke-like tuna studded with edamame and mounded on crunchy rice crackers, and the Buta Belly Sliders - glazed marinated pork belly and sweet and spicy sauces on a soft pretzel bun, were as mouth-watering as I had remembered. As were the ramen.

For the sake of diversity this time around, my husband ordered the Chashu Yaki Rice Bowl, which was basically hibachi fried rice with pork belly and an egg. This was flavor packed comfort food at its best. It almost made me jealous. Almost. But my chewy noodles bathed in the long-simmered pork and chicken bone tonkotsu broth, and garnished with pork belly, garlic oil, sprouts and other goodies, kept me quite happy. 

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Look no further than the Chashu Yaki Rice Bowl for your next comfort food craving

The playlist also seemed the same, though instead of music videos the flat screens over the bar displayed Monday Night Football with the sound off. No one seemed to mind.

Kiti told me that they try to accommodate the customers, so during football season, they’ll usually have the games on early on Mondays, Thursdays and Sundays. 

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Football replaces the usual music videos on early Monday, Thursday and Sunday nights in season

Though a sparser crowd, as expected for an early Monday night, Gu Ramen’s  clientele was just as diverse as on our inaugural visit. There were couples, singles and groups of varying ages and backgrounds, including a trio of 30-something guys apparently having a “chill” time.

I decided to invade their privacy and find out what brought them there. 

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Local guys enjoy beer and...where did those sliders go?

It’s “pretty much the only place in Laguna you can get ramen,” said one, while the others cited “spicy food and beer” and “really good food” in general. It was not the first time these guys, who turned out to be locals, had been here, but it was the first time they’d ordered the Buta Belly Sliders, which they liked so much they had consumed all evidence, leaving only their beer by the time I took their photo. (They assured me more food was on the way.) When I asked if they were there for the football, they said no, adding that they got a kick out of the music video fare usually on display. See what I mean about the vibe?

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Buta Belly Sliders get devoured quickly

As a foodie, I sadly admit that extensive ramen knowledge is one of my weak points. That said, I have at least read a lot about ramen, such as in the coveted “ramen issue” of Lucky Peach Magazine (a sort of holy grail for some). And I have eaten ramen in two other places – Ivan Ramen in New York City and Kagari, in Tokyo, both of which establishments have cult followings, as so many of these places do.

Based on that experience, I can say that though each place has its own standout dishes, Gu Ramen easily holds its own in the taste department. And as ambience goes, they knock it out of the park. Ivan Ramen in New York has a bustling, diner-like atmosphere where hurried and hungry New Yorkers come in to grab seats and quickly get their ramen fix before being displaced by others. It’s lively, but the atmosphere is more about eating and running than hanging out. 

If anything, Kagari, on the Ginza in Tokyo, is even less about hanging out. After a two-hour wait on line outside in the cold to occupy two of the nine available seats there, once you sat down, it was all about the food. The one similarity to Gu Ramen was the diversity of the customers. There were businessmen, mothers with daughters, and groups of college kids bumping elbows with nattily dressed women and goth-clad teens.

Gu Ramen alone seems to have combined its ramen destination identity with a neighborhood bar atmosphere and diverse customer base. 

Personally, I have to admit that I crave the food and the vibe just about equally…and finding a good IPA on tap doesn’t hurt either.

Call 949-715-0825 for more information.

Chef Craig Strong offers cooking classes at Studio, Montage Laguna Beach 

Acclaimed Executive Chef Craig Strong of Montage Laguna Beach’s signature fine dining restaurant Studio will be giving a series of interactive cooking classes starting Sat, Jan 13. The classes will be held at Studio, located at 30801 Coast Highway, panoramically perched on a bluff overlooking the Pacific, and will include hands-on cooking experiences complete with tips and tricks from Chef Strong, lunch with wine pairing, recipe sharing and a Studio apron.

The series includes: Spanish Cooking 101 on Sat, Jan 13, at 11 a.m. Strong leads the way for participants to learn how to throw a Spanish-themed party, complete with tapas and paella. On the menu: Gambas ajillo, Serrano ham con pan and Tomate, Brandade in Pequillo Sauce, Patatas Bravas and Chicken Paella with Shellfish.

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Submitted Photo

Since 2009, Strong has helmed the kitchen at Studio with its highly acclaimed modern French cuisine with California influences

Another event included is the Sweet Tooth: Pastry Basics on Sat, Feb 17, at 11 a.m. Participants will learn to make decadent desserts just in time for Valentine’s Day – from classic recipes with techniques demystified by the Chef. On the menu: Lemon Tart, Warm Chocolate Cake and Crème Brûlée infused with garden herbs.

Additionally, there will be an Italian Love Affair with Pasta on Sat, March 17, at 11 a.m. Students will make three types of pasta - hand-rolled, dumplings and noodles with a variety of delicious sauces to compliment each. On the menu: Ricotta Cavatelli with Basil Sauce, Fettuccine Alfredo and Trofi with Checca Sauce and Mozzarella.

Cost for each class is $150, plus tax and gratuity. Class size is limited. For reservations, call (949) 715-6420.

Shaena Stabler is the Owner, Publisher & Editor.

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