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Chef/Owner Lindsay Smith of Nirvana Grille: a balancing act extraordinaire


Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Starting over again after the COVID-19 pandemic is a delicate balance on many fronts – especially for restaurant owners. In addition to not knowing, “What the future will look like,” says Lindsay Smith, owner and executive chef of Nirvana Grille, there are other unknowns as well.

During the past year, Laguna native Smith faced challenges in both her business – and home life. Yet, her response was, “How can I make this work?” This appears to be a mantra that propelled her to where she is today – the only female restaurant owner/chef in Laguna Beach. Smith was just 29 years old when Nirvana, which celebrated its 13th anniversary on March 15, opened.

In September of last year, she and her then husband Luis, co-owner of Nirvana Grille, divorced after 16 years of marriage. They have two sons, 12-year-old Diego and 4-year-old Mateo.

New roles

As a result, Smith bought out her ex-husband’s share in Nirvana Grille, which was their second restaurant, they opened in 2008. She has now taken over as sole owner. Couple this with her new role as a single mother – who puts in countless hours at the restaurant – and it’s a situation riddled with complications.

Compounding the dilemma of, “What will the future look like?” paired with the question, “What do I want to be and do now?”

“Whatever that is,” she says, “I’ll build from there with a positive perspective and deal with things as they come. I have begun learning to let the rest go.”


Somehow Smith is making it work. During the shutdown, the restaurant maintained its co-op and takeout. The co-op market, which is still operating today to many loyal patrons, was Smith’s innovative response to food shortages and “stay-in-place” orders. It was a godsend for many people in the community.

Currently, the restaurant and co-op are both operating Wednesday through Saturday from 5-9 p.m. for indoor and outdoor dining, and in May will additionally open on Tuesdays. During the summer, they will reopen for Sunday dining.

Chef Owner Linday Smith closeup

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Chef/Owner Lindsay Smith

“There’s not enough business yet on Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday to justify opening for us.” says Smith. “We have to bring in a certain amount of money just to open and pay the staff.”

“The one silver lining during the pandemic is that I’m able to be with Diego and Mateo on Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday. It’s taught me to be present – not just physically – but in the moments when I’m with them.”

On the remaining days, she has many close friends that help her juggle the childcare arrangements when they are with her.

For Smith, there is no passing the buck or calling in a backup. “People at the restaurant count on me to show up,” she says.

To be sure, all the moving parts in the restaurant business are unpredictable, as evidenced by a call she got during the interview that one of her back servers went into the hospital for gallbladder surgery. She quickly had to find a replacement.

 As with many restaurants, Smith is dealing with a staff shortage.

“Some of the 20-30-year-old workers have moved back in with their parents,” she explains. “Some have found jobs online offering more consistency and more money, and in other cases, the money for staying at home is more than they’d get paid working with the current and past stimulus checks.”

Smith is currently looking to hire folks who want to get back in the workforce part-time with a more reliable work ethic.

Passion for food

In the midst of all the changes during the past year, one thing is clear – Smith is a curator of food and the food experience.

“It’s an expression of who I am,” she says. “I love the interaction with diners. Through my food, people get to see a side of me that they don’t usually get to see. It impacts my life, and it makes a difference. It’s my way of being seen and heard.”

Chef Owner Lindsay Mateo

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Mateo helping with the chopping, although his mother says he is primarily interested in taking things apart and putting them back together

She also expresses herself through the art that’s on display in the restaurant. Her father Michael Smith, an antiquities dealer in Santa Fe, N.M., and former landscape gardener here in Laguna, additionally introduced her to love plein air paintings. The first piece he gave her hangs in the restaurant. “I appreciate the crisp and accurate interpretation of Southern California, mostly Laguna – it’s such a unique space.”

The rhythm

Smith’s passion for food and food preparation is evident.

For her, it comes down to the cuisine. “It’s all about the food,” she says. “It’s trial and error, playing around with things, so as not to waste the flavors. I’m inspired by how people put things together. I also find ways to use what is in season to shape my menus and make sure that nothing is wasted, and adjust as needed.”

Smith admits she doesn’t follow food trends, mostly for the mere fact that many trends today she was raised on over the last 40 years. “I consider myself – and my palette – the demographic I try to please. I want approachable food, with clean flavors and integrity in my food.”

“The line in the kitchen is like a dance. When it’s not consistent and you have different people working together, it often changes the rhythm. The fluidity to service is a must and the team must be cohesive to make it all flow. On the line, there’s no need to speak, we read each other, and move in sync when the flow is right. I love playing music on the line and just having fun. I like to be in the kitchen these days at least once or twice a week to support them and make sure our quality and consistency is upheld. This also supports my staff to have a consistent rhythm, and I am able to jump in only when needed and focus toward my business needs when I’m not cooking.”

“If you go to a restaurant and the dish tastes different from the last time, it usually means that someone else likely took over one of the positions that night.”

As a curator of the food experience, she likes nothing better than to be out on the floor and help patrons with their selections.

“Now, I can look to begin to make that part of what I do,” Smith says. “If someone is uncertain about what to order, I’ll suggest combining a couple entrées and tailoring it to the diner’s wants. I love guiding people through a meal, pairing a wine with a dish, making it an experience – and they get what they want. Now the challenge is figuring out how to incorporate this desire to be on the floor more, and shape a guest experience, or at the least allow people the opportunity to ask for me when they want help.”

Chef Owner Lindsay Diego cooking

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Smith says Diego loves to cook

Smith goes above and beyond in other service areas as well. She describes a recent evening in which a couple – with three children and a baby – she had helped with a few suggestions through the evening, but then just as their meal came, the baby became fussy. “I took the baby and entertained it while the parents finished eating by going in the kitchen, sitting at my computer, and watching the cars.” At one time or another, she’s also taken older kids back to see the kitchen. She keeps crayons and coloring books on hand, and used to have toys on hand for each age group. “If the kids are happy, the parents will be, and they’ll want to come back. It’s a win-win situation.”

They have a great kids’ menu – based on Diego and Mateo shaping the menu over time to make up the meals.

The road to Nirvana

Smith’s love for cooking started at a young age.

“When I was around 9 years old, I would often visit my grandmother and we’d watch Julia Childs’ cooking show on PBS together.”

Her parents divorced when she was three years old, but she was raised by both parents as well as her stepfather, who gave her and her sisters a lot of guidance and structure. Smith’s father moved permanently to Santa Fe, N.M., when she was 14 years old and shortly thereafter, her mom and stepfather divorced. 

At the young age of 15, she went to work at the Renaissance Café on Forest Avenue, and so began her introduction to the restaurant industry. Her junior year, she went to independent studies, got a second job, and moved into her own place in South Laguna until moving up to live with her aunt and uncle in San Francisco, where she got her GED early, worked, and attended college.

Chef Owner lLndsay kidding around

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Life with a 4-year-old and 12-year-old is never boring

“After living in San Fran, I went to the Ayurvedic Institute in New Mexico for a year and to Kauai, Hawaii, where my mom ran an ayurvedic retreat with a private chef. When she moved back to the mainland, I stayed and worked for my stepfather at his soap and candle shop. Then I got a job in the kitchen at Postcards, a restaurant in Hanalei Bay. I also spent time going to the farmer’s market and cooking with my roommate and my mom’s chef.”

Just after turning 20, Smith came back to the mainland and cooked the holiday dinner with her grandmother once again and was encouraged to see if a culinary career would be a good fit. She decided to start at Orange Coast College in taking an intro cooking class. “I really liked it,” she says. “So I decided to continue for a degree in the culinary program at Orange Coast College and live with my grandmother for a bit until moving back to Laguna Beach about six months later. That first year was great sharing with my grandmother the mutual love of cooking – and what she inspired in me to go for, which was what I love and was good at doing.”

Work, work, work

While still attending classes, Smith worked for (and this list would make anyone’s head spin): Creme De La Creme Catering, 5 Feet Catering, Pascal Olhats’ Catering, Cienega Catering, Fox Studios, and Universal Studios.

“I started with Pascal in the Traditions by Pascal Restaurant because of working catering with him and was referred by his Catering Director Patti, a dear friend. Shortly after, I also started working in the mornings at the Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel. After a year, I decided it was too much, and that for the long-term, I could grow at the Ritz-Carlton.”

Then after a year and a half working in the kitchen at Ritz-Carlton, she suffered an injury to her right hand that required multiple Cortisone injections, surgery, and a year of physical therapy.

“I had to decide ‘do I give it up’ or find another way,” she says.

And again her mantra came into play, “How can I make this work?”

Smith switched to the front of the house and for the next four and a half years, cycled through 19 different departments at the Ritz. “It’s where I learned how the daily service of a restaurant all worked operationally. It was every single tool I needed to open a restaurant,” she says. “The hand injury turned out to be a gift. I learned everything I needed to succeed in what I did not know now 21 years later I’d be sitting in an interview running my very own restaurant.”

Chef Owner Lindsay kissing

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A more peaceful moment 

However, at the time, Smith didn’t know if she’d be able to cook again.

“I wasn’t willing to give up on what I loved to do. I just had to adjust how I was involved in it. During the last year and a half I was at the Ritz, I started my own business as a private chef cooking for clients in Laguna and the outskirt cities. At the same time, Luis and I were starting to date. I would cook and he would serve the meal. We made a great team. He had moved on to the Montage six months prior, and I left the Ritz in order to focus on my catering. After six months on my own, I accepted a position at zpizza as their corporate chef. A year and a half later, I decided to venture out on my own, and we opened our first restaurant in Mission Viejo four months later – in 2006.” 

However, Smith always wanted to have a restaurant in her hometown of Laguna Beach.

Thirteen years ago, that vision came true. “We started here in Laguna after two years in Mission Viejo, and we ran them concurrently for four years until November 2012 when the lease was up there.”

What the future looks like

Regular customers are coming back. “Friends in the community I was raised in are very important to me,” Smith says.

Previous to the pandemic, Nirvana Grille could seat 82 inside diners – now it accommodates 44, including the big booth and outside on the rooftop and downstairs patio could seat 70 diners – now 46. Smith says, “I’m not sure we’ll fully go back to the way it was. I like that the tables are farther apart. It’s easier for servers and more conducive to dining.”

Part of the digital tools that came with the pandemic will stay.

“The digital menus have been great,” Smith says. “The menu can be changed immediately. If we run out of something, we take it off the menu.”

As for other pre-pandemic elements, there’s one that won’t re-emerge.

“We won’t do happy hour anytime soon again, I think. I want customers to visit and stay and relax, and not rush, as if they’re coming into my home.”

For someone who will be a mere 42 years old on May 26, Smith has overcome seemingly impossible odds to get where she is today.

“I believe what you think is what you create, and that it manifests itself into what you want,” she says. “But be clear about what you want – and that it’s not attached to an outcome. Having this mentality in many areas, especially now, has been very important to me and exemplifies keeping a positive outlook in times of adversities.”

Nirvana Grille is located at 303 Broadway St, #101.

For more information, go to or call (949) 497-0027.


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