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A spot of tea – and more, at Harmony Tea Bar

Story and photos by MAGGI HENRIKSON

Don Ho is the very friendly owner of the newest downtown eating and drinking venue – Harmony Tea Bar. Don is amused because he knows that I remember the famous Hawaiian named Don Ho, “But no one under 30 does!” he laughs.

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Don Ho, proprietor of Harmony Tea Bar

The small establishment, located in the same spot that was formerly a fancy shoe store, looks half take-away and half dine-in. There’s a walk-up counter displaying all kinds of drink combinations (examples: sea salt jasmine, and pomegranate green iced teas, coffee and hot teas – sorted as classic, milk, or fruit teas), some lovely pastry selections, avocado toast made with artisanal asiago pancetta bread, and a full tea service which includes a delectable assortment of little sandwiches…and more, as I soon discovered. 

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Lavender Earl Grey tea for two

A Move to Laguna

The tableside section of the room is fronted with a big bow window looking out to all the action on this block of Forest Avenue. The place has barely opened, yet is full of so many customers we have to wait for a table to open up. I’m admiring the different colored pots of tea, and stacked servers dotted with sweet confections and mini sandwiches.

This is the second location for Harmony Tea Bar – the other is in Mission Viejo. Don is very happy to finally have his tea bar open in Laguna Beach. He’s plodded his way through some of the new restaurant blues – “These chairs are not the ones I ordered…I ordered months ago and they still weren’t ready, so I just went out and found these.” 

He says his wife really wanted to buy a house, but first they opened the tea bar in Mission Viejo, and just when they might have been able to get a house, he opens up this second shop. Still, he has assured her, one day they’ll get that house. Such are the joys and setbacks in the life of a restaurateur. 

Don found out about the location becoming available in Laguna Beach by a good customer. That customer, a Laguna local, happens to own the downtown building and thought it would be a perfect fit. They both did. 

Open and ready it is! 

A Four-Course Tea

The highlighted feature of Harmony Tea’s menu might be described as High Tea, but here it is called “Full Tea Service.” No need for white gloves, or pinkies sticking out from delicate cups. This is a modern incarnation. There are pots sufficient for two people accompanied by glass cups. There are no waiters or linen tablecloths. The delicacies – whether savory or sweet – are served on wood planks and stacked wood trays.

We ordered the heavenly fragrant Lavender Earl Grey tea as our starting point.  

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Strawberries with green tea matcha whipped cream

The first food presentation in the full tea service, Berries & Cream, arrives in a clear cup filled with layers of fresh strawberries and matcha green tea whipped cream. It’s really a combo of sweet and savory, as the matcha imparts a slight bitterness to the sweet cream, and, of course, the strawberries are both tart and sweet. 

This would actually be plenty and perfect to accompany a pot of tea – just a little something to keep you on your feet. But we were in for the full deal.

Next up was a real “tell” about a proper tea: scones with clotted cream. I confess I am an Anglophile, and very particular about scones (not dry!) and clotted cream (where can you get anything close to what you’ll find in London?). And it did not disappoint. 

The cranberry, ginger, and orange scone was the best I’ve ever had in this area, and the clotted cream (house-made, with bits of candied ginger) rivals anything on the Queen’s tea cart. Served alongside was a mouth-watering Strawberry-Syrah jam (“Made by jammit jams,” said Don. “I met them at a food conference.”)

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Scone, served with Clotted Cream and Strawberry Syrah Jam

Classics and modern renditions of teacakes and sandwiches were served next, riding aboard a stacked serving tower. On the top were the little sweets: crème brulee cheesecake, matcha macaron, chocolate “fantasy” cake, guava bar, and a chocolate chip tea bread. They may look tiny, but they pack a sweet punch. 

This would have been more than enough for two people, perhaps, but the sweet must be balanced by the savory. Enter the finger sandwiches.

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Sweets on top, and Finger Sandwiches: Caprese Bruschetta, Cucumber Cream Cheese, Curried Chicken, and Egg Salad

I love cucumber sandwiches – this being in the classic style, with cream cheese on crust-less bread and topped with a mint sprig. The caprese sandwich lent a modern approach to the sandwich selections, with sundried tomato bruschetta, mozzarella and basil. The whole really was greater than the sum of its parts, as what looked at first like little tidbits was soon a feast we could barely finish.

The complete tea service would be a delightful afternoon event for fans of all ages… It’s served from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day, $30, and reservations are appreciated. 

Stop by and say hi to Don Ho. He’s looking forward to getting to know the people of our town as well as fellow restaurateurs in the ‘hood.

305 Forest Ave    www.harmonyteabar.com


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. 

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 www.SkyloftOC.com/nye-menu. To reserve seating, call (949) 715-1550.


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.


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 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. 

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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 www.SkyloftOC.com/nye-menu. To reserve seating, call (949) 715-1550.


Even the food is festive

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Avocado toast at The Grove looked quite festive this week


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, www.facebook.com/BestofLagunaBeach 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: www.facebook.com/BestofLagunaBeach.

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, www.LagunaBeachBest.com.


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 www.SkyloftOC.com/nye-menu. To reserve seating, call (949) 715-1550.


What’s new at Tommy Bahama, besides your well-deserved vacation at home? New dining delights!

Story and photos by MAGGI HENRIKSON

Tommy Bahama, where vacation is a way of life, is a-buzzin’ as if it were still summertime here in Laguna-ville. Well, it is touching on 70 degrees in early January, so it may as well be the land of vacation. 

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The Bahia Sangria, made with brandy, red wine, pomegranate, oranges, 

green apples, and lemons

The bar is lively with a good crowd in the afternoon as I stroll in, and straight on to the dining area. The window-side booths are great for discreet sidewalk people watching but my husband, Richard, and I have arrived with a good post-workout appetite to boot. 

The super friendly staff is quick with a welcome, and happy to show off the newest menu. Let’s try some of their most popular menu options and new additions…

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The “World Famous” Coconut Shrimp

Who doesn’t love coconut shrimp? No one! In my perfect world, coconut shrimp is as presented at Tommy Bahama – super-sized shrimp with an extra-crispy coating of sizzling sweet coconut paired with zingy papaya-mango chutney.

A different twist on Poke

I am a die-hard poke fan. I seriously think the one sorely missing restaurant in Laguna Beach is a poke bar. So I am, admittedly, hard to please on this subject. And I’m happy to report that the Tommy Bahama Ahi Poke Bowl is now my Laguna favorite. 

What sets this poke apart is the mix of ingredients tucked into sections of the bowl. First, there’s the fresh ahi, diced into nice, little bites – better for melding with the other flavors than most standard big-size chunks found in poke bowls. 

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Ahi Poke Bowl

Sprinkled amidst is a dose of quinoa, sesame seeds, and faro for a healthy and tasty spin added to the classic. Underneath are baby greens, and around the sides: pickled ginger, crispy wontons, edamame, seaweed, avocado slices, and the Tommy Bahama classic “Island Slaw” – all drizzled with a wasabi aioli. This is what I would call a big salad, but with ahi poke as the main event. It’s a big salad I’d be happy to have any day of the week.

Debuting Barbacoa Tacos

Another top hit from the new menu – beef Barbacoa Tacos. Richard is the Mexican food fan in the family, so this lit his fire. The tacos are described as “Cajun-Seasoned.” I was there to weigh in on the quality component – and, again, happy to report thumbs up. 

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Barbacoa Tacos

I like that the flavorful beef is so tender it’s fall-off-the-bone, and melt-in-your-mouth rich in the seasoning. The barbacoa is nestled in two crispy flour tortillas with a tomato relish, Island Slaw, and lime sour cream. On the side are house-made tortilla chips and fire-roasted salsa.

The finishing touch

 Just when we thought we could not possibly eat another thing, along comes a tempting teaser. The ever-popular Key Lime Pie has been tweaked in the new menu – transformed, in that vacation-casual way, into a popsicle.

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Key Lime Pie Pop

Key Lime Pie (only made with authentic Key limes), that sweet and tart little tramp! Now she’s been dressed up in dark chocolate, turned into a pop, and looks all the better for it. Our server tells us that lots of people pick the whole thing up by the stick and enjoy it bite by bite that way, but since we were splitting, we opted for cutting up bite-sized bits of the luscious chocolate and tangy sweet.

Chef Stephen has plans

Tommy Bahama’s Chef Stephen Nguyen trained in Newport and is now happy to call the Laguna locale home. The Tommy Bahama formula has standard menu basics anchored in their 15 locations around the country, but Chef Stephen has created regional spin-offs for the Laguna Beach home, often featured in their daily specials.

One big event on Chef Stephen’s agenda this week is New Year’s. There’s going to be a “New Celebration” menu created just for New Year’s Eve as well as New Year’s Day. The New Year’s Eve last seating is at 10 p.m. Details not available at press time, but phone for reservations at (949) 376-6886.

This was quite the holiday treat of a lunch. Delicious, and no holds barred! But I’ll return after New Year’s diet resolutions just for that poke bowl. 

Check out the new menu at Tommy Bahama; it’s a treat for their chef’s selections plus you get the added benefit of enjoying this corner of Laguna that hosts a relaxed, vacation vibe.

400 S Coast Hwy   376-6886


Taverna: An unforgettable Italian experience right here in Laguna

Story and photos by DIANNE RUSSELL

The minute I open the door of Taverna, savory fragrances envelop me in haze of memories. I’m immediately taken back to an incredible pasta dish I had in Venice 34 years ago. A long time, I know.

Such odor/memory links are known as the “Proust Phenomenon” in honor of Marcel Proust, the French writer who spoke lyrically about the strength of memories evoked by smell, and never has this sensation been more evident to me. 

But this isn’t Italy, this is Laguna Beach, and my husband Ron and I are in for a treat that exceeds the café in Venice. Our palates just don’t know it yet. 

Steven, the general manager, greets us, and we decide to sit inside. 

Now that the weather is cooling, Taverna, with its comfortable and cozy atmosphere, is the perfect place to dine. The patio is also delightful (and has heaters), but on this visit, we opt for inside and the rustic and warm ambiance. I’ve dined on the patio with friends often before. (As a bonus, they allow dogs on the patio.)

Our server Mike, who has been with Taverna since July of 2017, knows quite a lot about the restaurant. It resides in the restored Laguna Federal Savings and Loan Building, and the three unique murals (from the 1940s) in the patio area were uncovered during the renovation. 

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One of three murals from the 1940s in Taverna’s restored patio

Taverna is part of Lombardi’s Family Concepts, which is headquartered in Dallas, and this is their first restaurant in California (it opened in March of 2016). They have additional locations in Las Vegas, Austin, Houston, and Akumal, MX. Specializing in Northern Italian cuisine, each restaurant creates its own dishes from scratch.

Mike tells us about the specials for the day. For once, I realize I’m not straining to hear what the server is saying. One of my pet peeves is the high noise level in some restaurants, but that is absent here, and Mike points out the many sound absorbers installed on the beamed ceiling. 

One of the dishes he mentions is Scallop Risotto, and since Taverna is known as a “risotteria,” and it appears to be a signature dish, Ron decides on that one. Their expertise in risotto is widespread, they use only Carnaroli grain, which maintains its shape during the slow cooking process that produces enviable risotto. 

And just because I love eggplant, I order the Eggplant Parmigiana. 

Mike brings each of us a glass of wine, Pinot Noir for Ron, and a Sauvignon Blanc for me, and turns out, each is an apt pairing for our selections. 

Because the servings are ample, we decide to split a Burrata Salad, which was exactly the right choice. 

Burrata salad with heirloom tomatoes, arugula, basil and Tuscan olive oil

If I wasn’t aware that Taverna doesn’t have a farm out their back door, I would have guessed the tomatoes, arugula, and basil were directly from backyard farm to table. Rarely have I tasted salad ingredients so fresh and full of taste. And I don’t even know what to say about the Burrata, (obviously, they don’t have a cow anywhere nearby either). Burrata means “butter” in Italian, and this offering was fresh cheese at its best, creamy and rich.

To accompany it, they present a basket of warm rosemary bread and a crock of spread made from garbanzo beans, pesto, pine nuts, garlic and basil.  A delicious and unexpected blend of Greek and Italian. And, of course, the traditional balsamic vinegar and olive oil, but taken up several notches.

But the best was yet to come.

It’s no fluke that Taverna is known as a “risotteria.”  The Scallop Risotto is a dish to die for – or to die after – since this might be a good choice for my last meal (if I knew ahead of time it was to be my last meal). Although I loved my Eggplant Parmigiana, I commandeered a considerable amount of Ron’s dinner.

Scallops Risotto, risotto at its finest

Not only were the scallops cooked to perfection, silky and tender, but the asparagus shavings gave the dish a nice crunch. The risotto, as sublime and skillful as it gets, was smooth and laced with nutty parmesan, just enough to complement the other ingredients. Each bite was a tapestry of flavors.

The Eggplant Parmigiana was the best I’ve tasted, a tower of meaty eggplant slices, layered with, but not overpowered by a superb sauce. It was accompanied by a side of pasta with Pomodoro sauce which was also wonderful. 

Layers of meaty eggplant and heavenly sauce

At this point, anyone else would turn down dessert, but not us.

At Mike’s suggestion, we order the Chocolate Hazelnut Budino, which he describes as a chocolate lava cake, but it’s so much more. It’s topped with a giandula sauce, whipped cream and vanilla gelato. The crispy edges of the cake and its fudgy center, combined with the gelato, is more than any chocolate lover could ever hope for. 

A chocolate lover’s delight

No matter how amazing the food is, the server can either make or break a dining experience, and Mike made the evening an extremely pleasurable one. He was welcoming and gracious, answering all our many questions about the restaurant and the food with patience and expertise. 

To cap off the dinner, Steven brings us a glass of Limoncello, and we all toast the New Year. This night couldn’t have been a better introduction to 2018.

The memory of that long-ago pasta meal in Venice has now been upstaged by the food experience we had at Taverna. And, for us, traveling to Laguna Beach (rather than Italy) doesn’t require planes, trains, or even automobiles. Well, maybe sometimes automobiles.

Ron says as we leave, “That was a magical experience.” 

And I have to agree with my husband. Just this one time.

Taverna is located at 222 Ocean Ave., 949-715-0821. 

For information about brunch, happy hour, and hours of operation, go to www.tavernabylombardi.com

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