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The Drake’s Tasting Menu is the rarest of treats

By Diane Armitage

The Drake of Laguna Beach has just sailed past her second anniversary and is only increasing in velocity as she continues her graceful cruise. 

Last Sunday night, I opted for The Drake for a post-birthday dinner with one of my best friends. Aside from ordering a couple of takeout dinners during COVID, it was the first time I’d been back to The Drake since my review of its opening back in 2019. 

During their opening week two years ago, The Drake offered up one of the smoothest running and most stellar food events I’d ever experienced during an opening. (Most restaurants are understandably a little shaky on those first few days as they get all the wheels rolling in the right direction.) Fast forward to last Sunday night and they’ve only enhanced their stellar experience. 

Stepping into another city, another time

As soon as you step foot in The Drake, you absolutely feel transported to another city and time. This place is swank old school elegance, thanks to the unique interior design by Ken Ussenko, who’s also designing the Rum Social restaurant in Laguna’s Restaurant Row. 

The Drake's Tasting interior dining

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Photo by Diane Armitage

The Drake is a sophisticated throwback to the classic jazz supper club

A dream of Founder Alex Glasser, The Drake Laguna Beach experience pays homage to Glasser’s fondest memories of working at The Drake Hotel in New York City as a teenager. While that glamorous edifice has since been demolished, its storied history tells of celebrity across the decades, from Lillian Gish and Judy Garland to Marilyn Monroe, Muhammad Ali, and every major touring musician from Frank Sinatra’s Rat Pack to Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin. 

For years, the hotel’s lobby, restaurant, and nightclub rang with the finest jazz, and it’s this memory, too, that prompted Glasser to create a classic jazz supper club in South Laguna.

The only father-son team in South Orange County

I asked to be seated at the Chef’s Bar, which is always my favorite in any restaurant. Sous Chef Nick Gstrein and Line Cook Christian manned the front while Executive Chef Paul Gstrein moved between stations where needed. This is the first restaurant for the father-son team, though Nick spent plenty of time in restaurants with his father as he was growing up.

The Drake's Tasting hree chefs

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Photo by Diane Armitage

In a light haze of grill smoke, The Drake Chefs from left – Sous Chef Nick Gstrein, Line Cook Christian, and Executive Chef Paul Gstrein 

“I was a single dad, so Nick practically grew up in restaurant kitchens with me,” said Chef Paul when he stopped by for a chat. “Nick was a natural; he was always interested in cooking.

“It surprised me that he wound his way back into cooking as a career, but then it didn’t really surprise me,” he added with a cheeky smile. 

Nick chimed in, “I went to UNLV for a degree in Hospitality Management, Food and Beverage, but I didn’t go to a formal culinary school. I just learned by being in the family business for 400+ years. I guess at some point in gets in your genes.”

A Tasting Menu custom built to the individual diner

Even at our 6 p.m. seating (The Drake has two seatings each night at 5:30 and 8:15), the place was already packed with diners, and the main stage was rocking with Jazz Pianist Ron Kobayashi as plate after plate was prepped and plated for delivery. 

Chef Nick recommended the Tasting Menu, which offers a cornucopia of samplings from the main menu. Each tasting can be anywhere from two or three bites to a miniature dish of an existing entrée on the regular dinner menu. This seemed a perfect solution as just the first five minutes of watching the adept team prep and plate their many dishes made me want all of the dishes. 

The Drake’s Tasting Menu is available on request. “The pricing varies a little, too, because I factor in food restrictions and number of courses,” Chef Nick told me. “No two tastings are the same. I tailor them per guest.”

In my experience as both happy indulger of tasting menus and working with kitchen and front-of-house staff when a Tasting Menu is in play, it’s always best to have your entire table order the Tasting Menu. This is only a recommendation from the restaurant, but it’s a great one to follow. Not only does this help with timing of all the dishes arriving to the table at once, but it puts a stop to that one person at your table eating a single entrée and then staring hungrily at the rest of you trying dish after dish on the Tasting Menu. 

Chef Nick started us with an immaculately plated Tuna Tartare Tasting, a hefty dollop atop wafer-thin cucumber and wasabi emulsion with a companion wonton round for scooping. It was fresh, bright, and just enough to have me feeling quite gleeful about what could possibly be next.

The Drake's Tasting tuna tartare

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Photo by Diane Armitage

The Drake Tuna Tartar tasting 

Moments later, the Sweet Heat Burrata tasting arrived, a hearty serving of the first peach slices I’ve had this summer topped with Speck prosciutto, parmesan, and a careful dash of Calabrian Chili Oil.

The Drake's Tasting burratta

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Photo by Diane Armitage

The Drake Sweet Heat Burrata tasting 

Then, it was on to the most beautiful plating yet, the Smoked Salmon tasting with the star of the show arriving from the Santa Barbara Smokehouse, seated on a lemon blini (a buckwheat pancake that originated in Russia; it’s typically paired with caviar). The crème fraîche was plentiful as it formed artful loops beneath the treat, and it quickly became my favorite of the evening…that is, until more dishes trundled along. 

The Drake's Tasting smoked salmon

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Photo by Diane Armitage

The Drake Smoked Salmon tasting 

Having now sipped our way through flutes of rosé champagne, General Manager Matthew recommended a Sancerre, a crisp, light wine from Loire, France, for our next few tastings.

The Drake's Tasting scallops

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Photo by Diane Armitage

The Drake Maine Diver Scallops tasting 

The wine whisked in just seconds before the Maine Diver Scallops tasting arrived. Yet another plated wonder, the perfectly seared scallops were crowned with a chorizo sliver that added a smoky, savory bite to the delicate scallop. A sweet corn purée underneath paired quite nicely with a grilled corn cobette. 

Then, one of my all-time favorites arrived: a Lamb Lollipop, which is typically served in a larger appetizer offering. This particular lollipop was so hefty that it could have served as an entire meal for me. Expertly grilled to a medium rare, it was ladled on top of “spiked hummus” and surrounded with bright red pickled teardrop peppers.

After assuring Chef Nick that we were pretty close to being stuffed (understatement), he noted that he had just one more dish arriving – the restaurant’s very popular Venison Loin. Served aboard a Lingonberry compote and goat cheese mashed potatoes and topped with a honey port wine reduction, this venison is smooth as butter and mild as they come. This “stuffed” girl ate every bite. 

The Drake's Tasting venison

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Photo by Diane Armitage

The Drake Venison Loin tasting 

Then it was (at last) on to dessert. While I guessed I might receive one of those complimentary desserts typically doled out to all those people claiming a birthday, the gents knew I was celebrating and made a special effort. They chose what would have been my choice, a Three Chocolate Parfait with plenty of fresh strawberries and piped cream. The Gaufrette wafer served as my edible birthday candle. 

The Drake's Tasting birthday

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Photo by Diane Armitage

The Drake’s extra special birthday finale 

It couldn’t have been a more perfect evening. The two-plus hour dining window seemed more than plenty for the restaurant’s diners. Just as everything began to wind down on our “shift,” the 8:15 reservations began to arrive, once again filling the restaurant with laughter and talk as the jazz played on. Their brief respite over, the chefs tirelessly returned to their magic act, as plate after plate of perfection began stirring once again. 

The Drake Laguna Beach is reservations only with live music seven nights a week. Open daily, seatings begin at 5:45 pm and 8:15 p.m. Complimentary delivery and pickup is available daily, and onsite valet parking is available for $7. 

The Drake asks that you either park on Coast Highway or in valet so as not to disturb their residential neighbors. 

Call (949) 376-1000 or go to for online reservations. Tell them I sent you! 

The best-selling author and blogger on The Best of Laguna Beach™, Diane Armitage is on an endless quest for the most imaginative adventures in Laguna’s restaurants, events, and lifestyle. Check out chef interviews, retail and restaurant news, and favorite events at and follow on Instagram @BestofLagunaBeach.


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