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Nirvana Grille helps local save crop at Apple Starr Orchard by selling it through co-op


Apple Starr Orchard in Julian, which is owned by a Laguna Beach resident, was about to lose its entire crop until Lindsay Smith-Rosales, co-owner and chef of Nirvana Grille, stepped in to help sell the 3,500 lbs of pears and apples in Nirvana Grille’s co-op. 

Apple Starr Orchard is a U-Pick farm with approximately 1,000 trees with their numbers balanced between apples and pears. They only use certified organic products and are the only organic apple and pear farm in Julian. 

Nirvana Grille Lindsay and Arnie

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Chef Lindsay Smith-Rosales and Arnie Starr, owner of Apple Starr Orchard

Smith-Rosales says, “I’m working exclusively to salvage an entire organic farm, Apple Starr Orchard in Julian, owned by local Arnie Starr, from losing the harvest this year due to COVID-19. They are not able to do their U-Pick of apples and pears this year, which they have been doing since 1982. We will begin pre-selling by this weekend for pick up next week through October for their entire crop harvest!” 

Nirvana Grille apple

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One variety of apple at Apple Starr Orchard

“Arnie has lived in Laguna for 30 years, and he and his assistant Sandy have been regular customers at Nirvana for ten years. They come twice a week, and I’ve also delivered food to him. I asked him when I could bring the boys up to pick again, and he said because of COVID-19 they were closed, and the fruit for the whole season would be lost, so I went up there last Wednesday.” 

There are four kinds of pears – Bosc, Anjou, Comice, and Bartlett, red and green – and four kinds of apples – Granny Smith, Gala, Jonathan Gold, and Fuji – which will all ripen at different times.

Smith-Rosales was able to select the beneficiaries of the proceeds from the bumper crop: Alzheimer’s Foundation (Arnie was a Professor of Neurology at University of California, Irvine), Sally’s Fund, and Laguna Food Pantry – which have both been so important during COVID-19. And she’s hoping to cover the cost of the labor for picking. 

Nirvana Grille pears

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Pear tree 

“It is a highly perishable product, and we have a short selling window! We will begin to get product picked two times a week and brought to Nirvana directly from the Julian farm with four varieties of organic pears and four varieties of organic apples,” Smith-Rosales says.

A separate page on the Nirvana Grille website, with a code for the apples and pears, will go live today (Friday). 

The apples and pears will be available through the Nirvana Market on Tuesday, and Thursday through Sunday, from 2:30 - 6:30 p.m., and can be combined with any grocery or to-go orders.

To pre-order/order, go to For more information, call (949) 497-0027.

Nirvana Grille is located at 303 Broadway St.

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Royal Hawaiian’s Royal Takeout Treatment

By Diane Armitage

If you’ve been reading my columns this summer, you know that I’ve begun to lean somewhat heavily on our great restaurants in town whenever I have a small dinner party to pull off.

A couple weeks ago, it was a special birthday dinner party for a neighbor. I invited exactly four people. And then I called Chef Maro Molteni at Royal Hawaiian Fire Grill, because this guy knows how to cook in a special way.

Different Location, Same Great Cookin’

Most Laguna residents know Chef Maro for his first restaurant, Maro Wood Grill, which he sold completely – hook, line, and sinker – in June 2017. He trotted off to Argentina with his family, and I thought we’d never see this great chef again. Fortunately, he returned a year later and chose to take over the ownership of Royal Hawaiian in January 2019. He and his brother, Martin, officially opened the Royal Hawaiian Fire Grill three months later. 

Eleven months thereafter, when the pandemic hit in early March this year, Chef Maro was one of the first to voluntarily close out of concerns for his staff and dearly-held patrons. He reopened at the very end of March for takeout operations with daily family dinners at super low cost.

Over the next five months, official decisions were made about reopening for indoor dining, and then moving back to takeout with outdoor dining and, as of last week, opening again for indoor dining to just 25 percent capacity. 

Royal Hawaiiain Chef Maro

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Photo by Diane Armitage

Chef Maro Molteni, Owner of Royal Hawaiian Fire Grill

Throughout, Chef Maro has rolled with the punches. He first added cocktails for on-site and takeout dining, including the famed Lapu Lapu. He then expanded his regular menu significantly, while still continuing his daily family offerings for those of us who still preferred takeout scenarios.

Not Your Normal Chicken Dish

On that family meal note, I chose to order – of all things – chicken for my friend’s birthday dinner. 

As a rule, I don’t think many restaurant columnists order chicken as a priority option. Most people, in fact, will bypass the chicken dish at their favorite restaurant. There is no better chicken in the world, however, than Chef Maro’s Free Range Rocky Sonoma Chicken Breast. Although I can safely say I’ve tried and loved everything on his regular, extensive menu, the chicken dish ranks in my top three. 

On the Royal Hawaiian wood grill, the chicken takes its time, grilling for at least 25 minutes, which is longer than any other cut of meat Chef Maro serves. 

Aside from the tenderest chicken you can imagine, the plating is the game changer. In my takeout pack, the chicken came with its own nursery of care, including pumpkin puree for the base and cobbled bits of wood-grilled bacon, charred onion, and shitake mushrooms for the chicken’s crown. Finally, the lemony herb provençal sauce is drizzled all around or ladled on top, whichever you prefer. 

Royal Hawaiian puree

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Photo by Diane Armitage

Part of the Royal Hawaiian chicken care package, Pumpkin Purée and Herb Provençal sauce

Family-Styled Love

I was greeted at the door by Chef Maro with two giant to-go bags and two bottles of Chef-chosen Malbec wine that I’d also ordered in advance. (Believe me, you want Maro to do the picking when it comes to your Malbec. He has the best selection in Orange County.) 

Unloading the fine fare was quite a party, in and of itself.

While my birthday party attendees munched on Chef Maro’s famed wood-grilled edamame, I popped the chicken breasts in a slow oven and warmed the sauces to a scant warmth. 

Royal Hawaiian to go boxes

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Photo by Diane Armitage

A family-style meal delivered to-go from Royal Hawaiian

The family meal arrived with a giant organic green salad, this time tossed with cherry tomatoes, beets, mango, carrots, pistachios, and who knows what else. I call it Maro’s “Kitchen Sink” salad as it can change on a daily basis. 

There were also three large to-go boxes neatly stacked with grilled vegetables. 

Royal Hawaiian carrots and tomatoes

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Photo by Diane Armitage

One of four grilled vegetable boxes delivered with the family meal

In addition to the shitake mushrooms, we discovered grilled cauliflower (white and cheddar in color), baby carrots with their leafy tops intact, yellow squash, zucchini, and heirloom tomatoes. A sizable serving of oven-baked fingerling potatoes came along for the ride, too, with a brisk shake of salt their only seasoning.

After walking my guests through the veritable art project of plating ahead of us, my friends turned out great photos before devouring everything on their plates. 

Royal Hawaiian plated chicken

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Photo by Diane Armitage

Self-styled plating of Chef Maro’s masterpiece dish

Needless to say, Chef Maro knocked it out of the park once again at this tiny birthday party. 

There is nothing more gratifying than knowing you can rely wholly and completely on a Laguna beach chef whose first priority is you. We’re extremely fortunate to have such inventive, generous chefs in our midst. Be sure to check out Chef Maro’s To-Go Menu and place your order 24 hours in advance of the day. 

Tuesday offers Wood-Grilled 12-ounce Pork Chops, Wednesday features Wood-Grilled Sausage, Thursday offers the Wood-Grilled Chicken Breast, Friday features Chef Maro’s most popular family meal seller, the Wood-Grilled Salmon, Sunday features Wood Grilled 12-ounce Petite Tender Steak and Sunday’s menu offers Herb-Marinated Wood-Grilled Shrimp (1 pound for two diners and 2 pounds for four).

For more information, go to or call direct at (949) 715-1470.       

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 (look for Diane’s smiling face).

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Slice Pizza and Beer unveils new pizza box designed by local artist Lisa Mansour


Slice Pizza and Beer, owned by Suzanne and Cary Redfearn, has just released its third Laguna Beach artist designed box. Suzanne says, “In keeping with the concept of promoting community, we decided when we opened to have local artists design our boxes.” 

Their third pizza box features a mother-daughter collaboration. The art on the face of the box was created by local artist and Sawdust exhibitor Lisa Mansour and the quote on the inside flap was written by her daughter Chloe Mansour: “Without red flag days, there would be no waves of change.”

Blending traditional technique with exuberant expression, Lisa loves exploring the vibrant side of fine art. As an oil painter, she completes detailed studio work as well as paints from life, focusing the fullness of her attention in the moment. 

Slice Pizza Lisa

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Local artist Lisa Mansour with new pizza box design

Classically trained, Lisa received her Post-Baccalaureate Degree from Laguna College of Art + Design (LCAD). Her colorful work can be found year-round at Quorum Gallery in north Laguna’s Gallery Row and during the summer at the Sawdust Art Festival. This year marks Lisa’s 20th year in Laguna where she lives and paints.

“I wanted to create something that captured the essence of our community in the simplest form. The Main Beach lifeguard tower is beloved and iconic,” Lisa says. “I added a figure gazing at the horizon, leaving it to the viewer to wonder what she is contemplating. 

“I used a Japanese art technique called Notan, which basically breaks down an image into dark and light. Using my own source photos – the girl on the pizza box is from a photo I took of my daughter Chloe – I painted the design using a calligraphy brush and ink set.” 

Slice Pizza Chloe

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Chloe Mansour outside Slice Pizza and Beer

“My daughter Chloe has always been a gifted writer. I wanted her to use my art as a starting point for her quote, and to write something that captured this tumultuous moment in time.” 

Twenty-five-year-old Chloe is a graduate of El Morro, Thurston, LBHS, and Boston College. She lives in Boston’s North End and works as a Product Enablement Specialist for HubSpot.

Chloe says, “This has been an incredibly difficult year. From the COVID-19 pandemic to the senseless murders of Black lives, these past six months have certainly tested our limits in unprecedented ways. In surf terms, it’s safe to say this year has been full of red flag days.

“But despite such devastating circumstances, I have been so impressed by the way people have chosen to fight for what is right. Whether wearing a mask or calling for anti-racist resources in our communities, there has been an overwhelming dedication to positive change. Change that may not have been possible had it not been for those red flag days.”

Slice Pizza trio

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Three pizza box artists: (L-R) Sharon Hardy, Lisa Mansour, and Cynthia Fletcher

The inaugural box was designed by local painter and screen printer Cynthia Fletcher. It’s a depiction of two clasped hands and represents kindness and unity. The quote that accompanied the design (printed on the inside lip of the box) was by Mother Teresa: “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”

Ceramicist Sharon Hardy designed the second box. 

Suzanne says, “Sharon used to live on Cerritos Drive and would wake each morning to the golden hills of Laguna and the soaring hawks. Her box quote is: ‘Hold fast to dreams, for if dreams die, life is a broken-winged bird.’ –Langston Hughes.”

For more information about Lisa Mansour, go to and her Instagram @lisamansourart.

For more information about Chloe Mansour, go to her Instagram @chloeemariee.

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Dining al fresco 

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Dining al Hennesseys

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Hennessey’s Tavern – Laguna’s meeting place with Irish hospitality

Dining al Maros

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Maro Wood Grill – inspired by Argentina, appreciate the pure simplicity of the lost art of cooking over an open fire

Dining al aqua blue

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Penguin Café, a local favorite, all spiffed up with new umbrellas, best pie ever

Dining al Harleys

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Harley Laguna Beach – named after Chef Greg Daniels’ grandfather Harley, this restaurant experience is meant to evoke the same hospitality he felt in his grandparents’ home as a child

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August’s “Best of Laguna Beach” food finds

By Diane Armitage

As I was flipping through my phone’s August photos this morning, I realized that if you aren’t following my social media platforms, you’re missing out on most of the food I eat all month long!

So, I’m introducing an end-of-month Diane’s Best of Laguna Beach™ round-up of some of my favorite food finds that are normally only featured in my blog or in my Insta/FB world. 

Aside from one longtime favorite (Gina’s Pizza), these are all new finds that I encourage you to try as well. 

Best appetizers and salads

When I have a few socially distancing neighbors over to my backyard, GG’s Bistro and Lumberyard provide great new Mediterranean-style appetizers. 

GG’s serves up a fabulous Hummus Trio (olive, cilantro-jalapeno, and plain) with veggies, while Lumberyard offers of a mix with Marcona almonds, olives, Manchego cheese, and their best-selling roasted garlic hummus.

August best olives

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Photo by Diane Armitage

Lumberyard’s Mediterranean Plate appetizer

To get the dinner started, Ristorante Rumari, Royal Hawaiian Fire Grill, and GG’s Bistro (again) have become my go-to for beautifully tossed family-style green salads. 

Looking for more decadence? The Drake Laguna Beach burrata takes it down with California peaches, heirloom tomatoes, and duck prosciutto. This is simply the best burrata dish I’ve ever tasted. 

August best burratta

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Photo by Diane Armitage

The Drake Laguna Beach’s decadent burrata salad

When Carbs Don’t Matter

Even food columnists have to watch their carbs. Given that I rarely stock them in my house, I have to seek them out elsewhere:

Yes, I’m well aware that Starfish Laguna offers a number of fabulous dishes; I write about them often. But, when I was a kid, La Choy canned chow mein was a “special treat” meal. (I know, I know.) It ranked right up there with TV dinners whenever Mom and Dad would head out on an adult date. 

When I was enjoying a particularly happy day a couple weeks ago, my childhood roots heard chow mein calling me. Happily, Starfish Laguna’s chow mein is stratospherically better than La Choy and arrived steaming hot. 

August best noodles

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Photo by Diane Armitage

Starfish Laguna’s simply wonderful chow mein

On one of my busier days that extended well into evening hours, it must have been my college finals memories calling as I craved pizza for the first time in a long time. I always enjoy a quick trip to NEApolitan’s Pizzeria in my SoLag neighborhood, but this time I chose another favorite that I probably haven’t ordered in a year or more, Gina’s Pizza.

In about 30 minutes it was at my door, steamy and cheesy with piles of my favorite toppings. Gina’s simply never lets me down, and it’s time to put them back into more frequent rotation. 

August best Ginas

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Photo by Diane Armitage

Laguna favorite Gina’s Pizza always delivers 

        Finally, on a day of working seemingly endless hours in the marketing end of my company, I knew my head was about to explode. Fortunately, when I recognize these moments, I take myself to a stand-by place of peace and friendship. On that day, it was Cary Redfearn’s Lumberyard. I settled into a back table in his breezy, quiet Yard Bar and ordered something I’ve never tried before – the tuna fish sandwich. 

August best tuna

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Photo by Diane Armitage

The Lumberyard tuna fish sandwich

What showed up at my table was a far cry from the bland creation I make at home. This, my friends, is treating tuna with the respect it deserves with plenty of fresh crunch melded with super-fresh fish. And, instead of the usual pita or sandwich bread, this mighty tuna arrived in a super-soft mini-loaf. I had to take half of the sandwich home with me. 

Feeding the gang

I continue to be amazed at the creative family-style menus our Laguna restaurants offer. 

Thanks to Papa’s Tacos, I produced the hit of the Thursday night “Neighborhood Beach Night” last week. A mere half hour away from Beach Night’s start, I dialed up Owner Michael Skerly and asked for his 10-pack “party pack.”

In minutes, his team had dished up a split of 10 carne asada and mahi mahi fish tacos with healthy sides of rice, black beans, chips, and their famous salsa.   

August best tacos

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Photo by Diane Armitage

Papa’s Tacos’ “party packs” of 10 tacos plus sides are a hit

Then, it was time to host one of my best friend’s birthday parties (COVID 2020 “party” being me, her, and her husband). She was celebrating by taking a day’s break from her keto diet, and she had requested lasagne.

Lasagne isn’t necessarily easy to find in this town. Although we have at least 10 restaurants that boast Italian food, as far as I can tell, NEApolitan Pizzeria, Gina’s Pizza, and Ristorante Rumari are the only three that offer daily lasagne on their menus.

I called my good friend Chef Craig, newly transplanted to Ristorante Rumari and asked for a “custom” family meal of lasagne, tossed salad, and his awesome focaccia bread. He asked if I wanted it hot or cold, and I suggested cold. 

As usual, Chef delivered with over-the-top aplomb, even giving me heating instructions when I picked up my giant to-go bag. He had also written the same on the top of the lasagne lid. 

Needless to say, the Rumari lasagne under Chef Craig’s watch is a flawless masterpiece. I’m not sure that he’s added it in as a family meal option, but I would suggest that all of you pester him for this sublime, affordably priced family meal. 

August best lasagne

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Photo by Diane Armitage

Hearty slabs of Rumari lasagne will make anyone’s night

There’s always more where this comes from

Tomorrow night, I’m hosting another small birthday party for five people and will be ordering from Royal Hawaiian Fire Grill. Stay tuned for that next week. 

I’m also beginning “back to school” menu options from our restaurants so restaurateurs and fans of various restaurants are welcome to contact me with their news at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. 

Rest assured, I am always loading new food and drink finds at my social platforms and in my blog. Check in and discover new and easy ways to support our independent restaurants in Laguna Beach!        

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 (look for Diane’s smiling face).

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Restaurant owner Chef Alessandro Pirozzi donates $5,000 to Laguna Food Pantry

This week Chef Alessandro Pirozzi, the owner of Alessa, Salerno, and Pirozzi restaurants, presented Executive Director of Laguna Food Pantry Anne Belyea with a check for $5,000. 

Belyea says, “Especially due to the influx of COVID-19-related food insecurity, the Laguna Food Pantry sends its heartfelt gratitude for the continued support and generosity of Chef Alessandro Pirozzi.

“The number of families reaching out to Laguna Food Pantry in need of food remains high. July was our highest month, with 3,593 shoppers bringing home food to 10,297 in their families. Before the pandemic, in February 2020, we served 2,187 shoppers with 7,639 in their household. We anticipate the demand to continue and are so grateful for Chef Pirozzi’s generous support!”

Restaurant owner check

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Chef Pirozzi (on left) and Alessa staff present check to Anne Belyea (second from right), executive director of Laguna Food Pantry

Chef Pirozzi says, “The difference between important and essential things has been manifested in the Laguna Food Pantry. When people need the real necessity of food like during these times of COVID-19, the Food Pantry is there to be one to provide the essential item. And though we hope not, we know that in times of need, they’re always there for us.

“This donation is the minimum that we can do to support the Laguna Food Pantry. And we want to let them know that starting next month, we will continue to support them and all the other charity organizations that help Laguna’s less fortunate – as fortunate as all of us who have jobs, roofs, and food every day.”

Laguna Food Pantry, a nonprofit, is an almost completely volunteer-run enterprise that provides free, fresh, nutritious groceries to individuals and families in need. The organization collects and distributes 5,000 lbs. of food every weekday and serves 500+ families a week in South Orange County.

Laguna Food Pantry is located at 20652 Laguna Canyon Rd.

For more information, go to

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The Ranch presents Base Camp – a curated treasure trove for all things Laguna Beach

The Ranch at Laguna Beach is excited to debut its latest venue for authentic Laguna retail therapy: Base Camp! Set in the location of the resort’s former Pro Shop, Base Camp is a curated retail concept and one-stop shop for golf rentals and gear, plus handmade goods curated from Laguna Beach artists, brands, and makers. 

Created from the former Pro Shop, Base Camp is a fully renovated space offering socially distanced tables packed with essentials to live like a Laguna local, from beachwear to accessories, beach toys, and the latest top-line golf gear. 

The Ranch store

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Base Camp is stocked full of Laguna Beach goods 

Base Camp is filled to the brim with Laguna goods. Score handmade wood block prints by the late surf legend Pat Tobin, peruse Children’s picture books by local musician and environmentalist Joel Harper, and shop home treasures by Tuvalu. Base Camp is also the only retail store to offer Sea Candy, a handcrafted and upcycled sea glass jewelry line created by local artisan and Ranch team member Josh Sedor. 

Golfers with scheduled tee times at Ben Brown’s will check in at Base Camp. Before or after hitting the green, they can also shop top golf gear, like LinkSoul tees, Straight Down jackets, and Titleist gloves, plus balls by Srixon and Titleist. 

Base Camp is open daily from 6:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Stop by and set out on your own treasure hunt the next time you visit The Ranch at Laguna Beach.

For more information about The Ranch at Laguna Beach, visit

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The Rooftop Lounge partners with Gelato Festival through Friday

The Rooftop Lounge – a Laguna Beach locals’ favorite, which recently underwent a renovation and rebrand to invoke the building’s roots in Hollywood’s golden age – has partnered with the Los Angeles-based artisanal gelateria Gelato Festival for a pop-up gelato event through the end of this week (Friday, Aug 14). 

Gelato Festival, which hosts the most prestigious individual gelato tournament in the world, offers some of “the world’s best” icy desserts, crafted using the finest quality, organic, and fair-trade certified ingredients. 

The Rooftop cart

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The Gelato Festival cart will be parked outside La Casa Del Camino through Friday

Visitors of this collaborative pop-up will find a festive Rooftop Lounge x Gelato Festival cart parked outside La Casa Del Camino, serving up a selection of Gelato Festival’s signature treats each day this week, August 10 - August 14, from 1 to 5 p.m. The event’s menu includes: 

--Popsicles – $6 (Sicilian Blood Orange, Mandarin Mint, and Espresso)

--Gelato Cones – $8 (fresh gelato coated in Dark, Ruby, or White Chocolate)

--Gelato Cookie Sandwiches – $8 (freshly baked chocolate chip cookies, filled with gelato, dipped in chocolate, and topped with sprinkles) 

Following the launch event, the pop-up’s selection will be permanently added to The Rooftop Lounge’s newly reimagined menu crafted by chef Christophe Bonnegrace as part of the restaurant’s recent transformation. 

The Rooftop cart

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Guests can enjoy their treats outdoors 

Gelato Festival’s popsicles, gelato cones, and gelato sandwiches will join a lineup of decadent desserts such as The Rooftop Lounge’s Mango Coconut Tres Leches (Mango and Coconut infused Sponge Cake topped with Fresh Mango Puree) and Cheesecake with Mixed Berries Salsa (Classic NY Style Cheesecake topped with House-Made Fresh Berries Salsa). Other coastal-inspired appetizers, salads, and entrees from the newly revamped menu include Crab Cake with Lemon Pepper Aioli, whole Beach Branzino, Outskirt Beef Steak, as well as an elevated take on the hamburger which is topped with roasted tomato, lettuce, bacon, avocado, pepper Jack cheese, and Del Camino sauce, served on a brioche bun with a side of sweet potato fries and spicy maple syrup. 

The Rooftop Lounge is open 11 a.m. - 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, and 11 a.m. - 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, with lunch and dinner served daily and brunch served from 11 a.m. - 3 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. 

Reservations are available through the restaurant’s website at Additionally, The Rooftop Lounge has implemented safety and sanitization procedures in accordance with all city, county, and state guidelines.

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County program incentivizes restaurants to follow COVID rules

The County of Orange announced the launch of a new SafeDineOC COVID-Safe Restaurant Campaign yesterday to incentivize restaurants to follow California Department of Public Health guidance to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“Our restaurant owners across Orange County need help right now, and we need to take steps wherever possible to stop the spread of COVID-19,” said Orange County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Michelle Steel, Second District. “These grants give financial support to those owners to help cover costs that they are incurring to offer a safe, protected dining experience to their customers and workers.”

Restaurant owners may apply for a $1,000 grant per Orange County restaurant location for taking steps to create a COVID-safe environment for their customers and employees. The grant will reimburse restaurants for purchases of personal protective equipment including face masks, cleaning products, employee training and costs for physical distancing of tables and chairs, as examples.

“Restaurants drive our local economy, create thousands of jobs and generate millions in local tax revenue,” said Vice Chairman Andrew Do, First District. “SafeDineOC is a product of a proposal I brought to the board in mid-July to increase COVID-19 restaurant safety compliance while also supporting small businesses that are keeping their employees and customers safe.”

The SafeDineOC campaign is sponsored by the County of Orange and managed by the Orange County Business Council, which will handle intake and approval of all restaurant applications as well as disbursement of the $1,000 grants to restaurant owners. Through its comprehensive database of restaurants, the OC Health Care Agency will ensure the promotion of the campaign to all restaurant owners in the County.

Restaurants that apply and are approved will be added to a list of COVID-safe eateries organized by city that will be available to consumers on the SafeDineOC website. This online resource will enable the public to see which restaurants offer a safe dining experience in Orange County. 

The application form is in multiple languages and OCBC staff is available to answer questions. More information about the program may be found at

Restaurants that apply for the program must meet all qualifications, which will be verified by the OCBC. Funds will be distributed within 45 days. All restaurants must submit receipts for CARES ACT-qualified purchases for final reimbursement grant payment on purchases made March 1, 2020 to September 30, 2020.

“We all want to visit OC restaurants and feel safe,” said Orange County Business Council President Lucy Dunn. “The Board of Supervisors created a great program to reward restaurants that follow health protocols for today’s outdoor dining as well as preparing for future dine-in service when the time comes. OCBC commends the Board of Supervisors for their response. Innovative ideas and solutions like SafeDineOC ensure Orange County will remain on a path toward both good health and economic recovery.”

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The Drake gets back into the game 

By Diane Armitage

Exactly one year ago, I interviewed the founders of The Drake Laguna Beach who, after three long years, were putting the finishing touches on the city’s new posh jazz supper club. 

They finally opened the last week of September, just when the City of Laguna Beach typically gathers its fruits and nuts and lumbers into its cave for eight months of slumber.   

Six months later, however, even before the rousing process would begin for The Drake’s eagerly anticipated summer, COVID-19 shut the whole game down. 

“I used to play football, and I think that’s the only thing that prepared me for this,” said Sous Chef Nick Gstrein. “It’s a crushing blow, but you’ve got to rally on the next run. You just get the team together and do some fast brainstorming and just run back on the field.”

The Drake chef

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Photo by Diane Armitage

Sous Chef Nick Gstrein at The Drake Laguna Beach

The Drake has proved an admirable contender through the sparest of seasons. This last winter, even during our usual hibernation period, The Drake managed to pack in a solid crowd with nightly live music and an impeccable menu offered up by Nick and his dad, the notable Chef Paul Gstrein, who initially made a name for himself in both Austria and L.A. definitive restaurants

A new COVID-19 game plan

When COVID-19 hit, The Drake personnel counted themselves lucky for befriending the resident locals first.      

“Our residents really came through for us, even the ones who hadn’t yet set foot in our restaurant,” said Bar Manager Tony Prosper. 

“They would call and say, ‘Hey, we’ve been wanting to try your food, but we weren’t able to get reservations when you were actually open, so can we try it now?’ It was refreshing to see that kind of support from Laguna,” said Prosper.

In rapid formation, the Drake team sketched out a new game plan that included more shareables, family-style meals, and holiday prix-fixe menus.

Prosper, a longtime mixologist of renown, began offering his entire signature Drake cocktail menu “to go” along with wine bottle specials at deep discount as an “all in this together” gesture. He still regularly publishes new weekly cocktail specials, all of which are bottled up in Mason jars (just like the Roaring ‘20s). 

The Drake bar manager

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Photo by Diane Armitage

Drake Bar Manager doffs his mask momentarily for a pose with his “Sophisticated Lady” cocktail

The team also kept their valet staff on the “Special Team,” exclusively in play for deliveries around and about town. 

“We didn’t want to hire a third party delivery service, because we wanted our patrons to feel really comfortable with us,” said Prosper. 

“Our valets have a sense of ownership and team with us. It’s been a great way to keep them employed and connecting with our residents through this entire time.”

It starts with a tingle

This week, I decided to try my first Drake meal since writing about the opening last September (because I, too, had not been able to secure a reservation after their opening).

Given that we’re all heading into that lumbering hibernation period (God help us with the pounds we’ve already packed on in the COVID-19 off-season), I thought I’d try a to-go order of what is usually a superbly plated work of art at The Drake. 

As you’ve probably seen in my social media and observed in my article last week, the ability to transfer pretty food from a box, bag, or Mason jar to one’s own plates and glassware is key. I mean, we have to have our decorum, correct?

Meanwhile, I assured Chef Nick that I do not need any more carbs. He, in turn, decided on two salads and their best-selling special, the Wild Mushroom Crusted Halibut.

With the rare permission to trot inside the restaurant to talk with my masked restaurant personnel, I started first with Tony, the Bar Manager. He suggested I try the “Sophisticated Lady” cocktail, one of his perennial best-sellers for to-go cocktails.

The Lady is a lovely mix of Skyy strawberry vodka, fresh lemon juice, and a dash of Cointreau, but her come hither is the honey-dipped Edible Buzz Szechuan Flower. Nicknamed “the Buzz Button,” this is a completely edible flower that makes your mouth comfortably numb (as Pink Floyd would say). 

Chew on the entire tiny flower and your mouth begins to tingle. Take a sip of your drink, and you have an entirely new drink experience. It’s interesting for a Virgo who, even as a writer, doesn’t make much use of the word, “tingle.”

The Drake sophisticated lady

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Photo by Diane Armitage

The Drake’s “Sophisticated Lady” cocktail

Initially bottled in said Mason jar, the Sophisticated Lady makes a fine presentation in my own martini glass. 

Salads that are more like sojourns

Next, it’s The Drake’s humbly named burrata. While I’m not much of a dairy person by choice, Burrata has a tendency to steal around the end. If you’re going to indulge, for heaven’s sake, make it Burrata. 

The Drake burrata

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Photo by Diane Armitage

The Drake’s Burrata appetizer with fresh peaches and duck prosciutto

The Drake’s version is one of the most original I’ve tasted with the salty addition of Duck Prosciutto tucked into the Burrata fluff. Add in seasonal California peaches, heirloom tomato, and hearty leaves of fresh basil, and this scores on all levels. 

The takeout container neatly houses the hearty dish, even with a swath of basil arbequina olive oil at its base. For the reckless hostess out there, it transfers beautifully to your own plating as long as you have a rounded spatula that transfers in one fail swoop. 

The Drake beet salad

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Photo by Diane Armitage

The Drake’s decadent Beet Salad

The Drake Beet Salad might possibly belong in the dessert aisle. Other than the quartered beets and an added dab of fresh lettuce for scooping, there’s nothing in this dish that’s remotely calorie conscious. 

I’m OK with that, folks. 

This is whipped honey goat cheese with beets, strawberries, and glazed walnuts. It should only be shared so that you don’t feel so guilty about inhaling it entirely on your own.

The chef’s line at The Drake does a much more phenomenal job plating this beet salad in its take-out container than I do in the transfer process. (The whipped honey goat cheese is not a fan of relocation.) It doesn’t matter. The dish is so good, you could spoon it out of a paper bag and be quite satisfied.

Monthly entrée specials

Then it’s the monthly signature Drake entrée creation. For the month of August, Chef Paul has re-introduced his Wild Mushroom Crusted Halibut. 

For the record, I know we’re dealing with the weirdest August on record. Our wedding parties are cancelled, our college kids aren’t making us empty nesters any time soon, and we’re all being forced to revisit subject matter such as “new math” and how to get our airline refunds for the vacation we didn’t get to take in August.

The Wild Mushroom Crusted Halibut will make it all better. Trust me on this.

This is a beautiful, flaky, fresh filet dusted in the finest chop of mushroom in a plentiful amount of rub consisting of panko breadcrumbs, dried porcini mushroom, tarragon and other spices.

The Drake halibut

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Photo by Diane Armitage

This month’s Drake entrée special, the Mushroom-Encrusted Halibut

This time, I’m able to extricate the various plating pieces from the take-out container to create something that resembles a distant cousin to the artistic presentation that occurs on the restaurant’s busy outdoor dining patio. 

Grilled green cauliflower and Shitake mushrooms tuck into the hearty helping of potato purée and buttery cream sauce. While they are all lovely additions, the halibut is quite capable of standing on a stage of its own. It is super-fresh, perfectly grilled to temperature, and withstands the trek between restaurant and home. 

Live music returns

Tonight (Friday, Aug 7), The Drake will be re-introducing live music outside on its patio with popular musician Marc LeBrun.

“In the lack of normalcy, we’re just doing what we can to help everyone feel a little more connected,” said Director of Operations Matthew Timmes. 

Although the live music is only available on Fridays and Saturdays (for now), the restaurant has also secured the neighboring architect’s front patio deck for additional needed dining tables on the weekend. It provides quite an unexpected sunset view, adding another 20 seats to The Drake’s inventive patio gameplay with its usual 30 seats.    

Said Sous Chef Nick, “As smarmy as it may sound – as a team – we are committed to getting through this. And that’s not just us here inside the restaurant – that’s ‘us’ as in Laguna Beach. We all pull together now, and we know everything is going to be alright.”   

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 (look for Diane’s smiling face).

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