Share this story

Yard Bar

Yard Bar waiter

Click on photo for a larger image

Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Ready for Happy Hour!

Share this story

The Best of Laguna Beach Banner2

Yard Bar patio restaurant debuts to happy acclaim

By Diane Armitage

On Wednesday afternoon, a new patio restaurant was born in the heart of downtown. Aptly named Yard Bar, this patio is more of a little brother to the Lumberyard restaurant on Forest. 

A concept dreamed up by the ever-innovative restaurateurs Cary and Suzanne Redfearn, the Yard Bar is tucked into the outdoor courtyard that used to cater to The Grove on Forest’s coffee crowd.

Yard Bar seating

Click on photo for a larger image

Photo by Diane Armitage

The Yard Bar, a Lumberyard “open-air solution,” opened Wednesday on Forest

“James [Taylor] closed his coffee shop right as COVID-19 hit in March and that whole, beautiful courtyard just sat there looking so forlorn,” said Cary Redfearn. 

“So, as it became apparent that outdoor seating would probably be the most comfortable bridge for many of our dine-in patrons, I started thinking about how we could convert the patio into an extension for the Lumberyard,” he explained.

With ABC (Alcoholic Beverage Control) and Laguna’s City Council working to help area restaurants survive the shutdown and continue to thrive, Redfearn says his idea was met with great support.

“Councilwoman Sue Kempf has been particularly awesome in helping us bring this to fruition. It really came together quickly,” said Redfearn.

“The Yard Bar is a perfect, creative example of how restaurants can expand their dining options during a very difficult time,” said Councilwoman Kempf. “I think it’ going to be a big hit.”

The Yard Bar is open from 4 - 8 p.m. weeknights, and until 9 p.m. (or later, depending) on weekends. This Friday begins live music from 6 - 9 p.m. with Lumberyard returning favorite Bob Hawkins. 

A little bit o’ love goes a long way

“Everything in the Yard Bar is sort of a miniaturized version of the Lumberyard,” said Redfearn. 

Yard Bar servers

Click on photo for a larger image

Photo by Diane Armitage

The Yard Bar offers a “patio” menu of new and popular appetizers with bartenders at the ready

Redfearn ordered a custom-built seven-foot bar to be shipped from the other side of the country. Somehow, it’s in Texas right now, so Redfearn scrambled earlier this week to find a rental bar that would at least allow for the planned Wednesday opening.

The bar anchors the east side of the patio while tables and chairs are scattered throughout. Two large chalkboards announce the day’s mini menu specials in food, specialty cocktails, wine, and beer. The nearby kegerator serves up an ever-changing option of three craft beers, too. 

In addition to some of Lumberyard’s most popular appetizers (i.e. the Panko Fried Zucchini, Grilled Artichoke, and Sweet Potato Fries), the Yard Bar is introducing new summery items such as Olive & Almond plates, Red Crab-stuffed Arancini (flash-fried balls stuffed with crab and risotto), and a larger Mediterranean Platter of roasted garlic hummus, manchego cheese, olives, and more. 

Yard Bar food

Click on photo for a larger image

Courtesy of Lisa Anderson for the Yard Bar

Food items at the Yard Bar include shareable appetizers, salads, and more

Patrons simply step up to the bar, order and pay, and then seek out a free table. With its string lights and greenery all around, it has an energetic and inviting vibe all its own.

Lumberyard retail neighbor George Nelson of Fawn Memories was the first to take a seat at Yard Bar’s Wednesday opening.

“I think this is a fabulous idea,” he said. 

“The Promenade on Lower Forest is certainly bringing in larger crowds there, and it’s great that our ‘anchor restaurant’ here on this end of Forest is able to create a similar feel. It’s charming here. I think it will prove a great draw.” 

Patios are poppin’ everywhere

Meanwhile, restaurants throughout Laguna Beach have been given the green light to innovate workable, expanded patio space with the ability to simply sketch their plans to submit for City approval. Subsequent approved patios and expanded seating areas are popping up everywhere in town, many of them quite creative renditions. 

“As a restaurant in this town, when you have to open at 50 percent occupancy, I don’t know how you’re going to make it,” said Councilwoman Kempf. 

“We had some restaurants fail pre-COVID, and others were feeling very shaky. I just wanted the City to do what we could to help these restaurant owners hang on through this unprecedented time.”

When the lockdown happened in March, Kempf was invited to the Laguna Beach Restaurant Association’s weekly calls.

“I just wanted to find out what they were doing and what their plans were so that I could start thinking of ways the City could help,” said Kempf. 

“Once we realized that outdoor dining space would be a commodity, I started working with the City to expedite temporary use permits (TUPs) for expanded outdoor dining. But the real creativity lies in these restaurant owners and their ideas. They have a sort of sense of humor about it; their energy and camaraderie have been great.”

This week’s City Council meeting also loosened restrictions for retailers. 

“Some of these decisions are temporary measures and some are more permanent,” said Kempf.

“Who knows? Some of the temporary solutions may become longer-term. We’re doing what we feel we can do, and we’re seeing how it all evolves,” she said. 

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).

Share this story

Chef Pirozzi’s dream come true

Chef Pirozzi's dream

Click on photo for a larger image

Submitted photo

Chef Pirozzi of Alessa beside his fully seated Forest Ave patio. “The Pirozzi team is thrilled with this new establishment, and we can’t wait to seat our loyal Laguna Beach locals and all those who come from afar,” says Pirozzi.

Share this story

The Best of Laguna Beach Banner2

The W’s Have It: Wild Taco and Wine Gallery make their re-entry

By Diane Armitage

Bear Flag’s popular taqueria concept, Wild Taco, has reopened for both limited dine-in and takeout in downtown Laguna Beach, and fans immediately began flocking.

“It’s awesome to be back and see so many locals dropping in,” said General Manager Chad Abell. “We felt like we were just getting to know everyone and then everything shut down on us.”

The restaurant redo in the old Johnny Rockets space took months longer than expected. While the Bear Flag folks hoped to open in May of 2019, they finally dragged their bedraggled selves over the finish line eight months later on January 16, 2020. 

Wild Taco exterior

Click on photo for a larger image

Courtesy of Wild Taco

Wild Taco in downtown Laguna Beach has reopened with a happy sigh

Just two months later, the stay-at-home order rolled into play. While the eatery initially tried to stay open with takeout service, orders were slim. The team decided to temporarily close on April 8th.

It was yet another two months before Wild Taco reopened its doors, choosing to wait until they could also offer a limited amount of dine-in options. 

Wild Taco’s specials & local love

During the time off, Abell and his team brainstormed inventive solutions.

For starters, the entire menu has been added to Yelp’s online ordering platform. Wild Taco is also using DoorDash as a delivery vehicle, but the menu is available for pick-up as well.

The team has also negotiated a smaller menu with Marine Room’s Owner Chris Keller so that he, too, can open his bar with food options. 

“It primarily consists of appetizers, small bites, and a few of our larger items,” said Abell. “We can simply expedite down to the Marine Room; it’s super easy for us.”

Wild Taco skillet

Click on photo for a larger image

Photo by Diane Armitage

A best-seller at Wild Taco, the cast iron skillets offer steak, chicken, or the wild fish of the day, pictured above

Taking advantage of the “cocktails to go” scenario, Wild Taco is also selling closed container margarita pitchers to go, which serve up four to six margaritas for just $25. 

Breakfast items have also been added into the mix seven days a week, served 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on weekdays, and from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on weekends. Add in bottomless mimosas for just $15 per person.

“Our team is back, masked, gloved, and making it happen,” said Abell. “Our Executive Chef Alfredo Rosette keeps the whole team upbeat,” added Abell. “He’s the best hire I think I’ve made in my life.”

Another local favorite, Wine Gallery, opens Thursday

While many fellow restaurateurs jumped back in the fray as soon as dine-in was allowed, co-owners Chris Olsen and Paul Spiegelman of Wine Gallery Laguna Beach decided to take their time with their reopening.

Wild Taco Wine Gallery

Click on photo for a larger image

Courtesy of Wine Gallery

Wine Gallery re-opens this Thursday, June 18th

“We wanted to be completely prepared for both our guests and our employees,” said Olsen. “We’ve worked too hard to build a family here in Laguna, and we want it to be completely comfortable and safe for everyone.”

Spiegelman and Olsen reopen on Thursday, June 18th, almost three months to the day they closed. Initially, Olsen delivered more than his fair share of wine bottles to avid buyers in that timeframe, and a few weeks ago, the team re-opened for takeout with Chef Josh back in the kitchen.

Now, with new upgrades, added outdoor seating and a spic-and-span restaurant, the local favorite will no doubt be up to its eyeballs in well-wishers on Thursday.

Wild Taco wings

Click on photo for a larger image

Courtesy of Wine Gallery

Wine Gallery Chef Josh says he’s spent three months working out new wings recipes

“We’re still providing our takeout menu with retail wine bottles for anyone who’s not ready to venture out,” said Olsen. “Hey, we didn’t feel comfortable opening three weeks ago until we felt we were really ready; everyone is entitled to do what they feel is best for them.”

Stay tuned for daily announcements and specials at my Instagram page, noted below. 

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).

Share this story

The Hive is happening 

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

The Hive umbrellas

Click on photo for a larger image

Umbrellas are up and ready 

The Hive couple

Click on photo for a larger image

Jeff Redeker and Susan Shea enjoy some fun 

The Hive music

Click on photo for a larger image

Music to help the mood

The Hive wine

Click on photo for a larger image

Wine on a lovely day

Share this story

Nirvana Grille adapts its innovative co-op and expands takeout as doors open for dine-in


It’s been three months since the stay-at-home order, when everything ground to a thudding halt, grocery store shelves emptied, and we experienced a strange uneasiness with regard to food shopping. 

However, it didn’t take long for Lindsay Smith-Rosales, Nirvana Grille’s owner (along with her husband Luis) and executive chef, to start those gears back up again and in a most innovative way. Practically overnight, her co-op and takeout service took shape and have been life-savers for many residents. Fortunately, it’s evolving and expanding.

Nirvana Grille Lindsay

Click on photo for a larger image

Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Nirvana Grille Owner and Executive Chef Lindsay Smith-Rosales

With restaurant restrictions lifted, Nirvana Grille opened for dine-in both inside and out on the patio on May 28, with safety restrictions in place. Smith-Rosales has minimized the dining seating and placed distance between tables, added exterior patio dining, and is having guests access the menu through a QR code that can be changed at a moment’s notice. 

Smith-Rosales says, “It has been amazing to add and delete as needed – based on availability. We also have staff using iPads for the orders and a chip reader to pay so that the guest only touches their credit card with no need for pens, checkbooks, etc. This eliminated so much of the sanitation challenges we were looking at! 

Nirvana Grille scanner

Click on photo for a larger image

Photo by Mary Hurlbut

QR scanners are used to access menu

“Dine-in has been great on the weekends. We are really enjoying being back to it and it is so great to have that revenue back!” Smith-Rosales adds. “We see that while adding lessor priced options, we can adapt to the more casual and fine dining model seamlessly and have a larger demographic audience because of it and not just be reliant on the festival and playgoers any longer as the bread and butter of business.” 

In previous articles I’ve sung the praises of Nirvana’s dine-in cuisine. It’s unbelievably creative and fresh – the tomato burrata salad, salmon, mushroom ravioli, tofu – pretty much everything I’ve ordered (or sampled from a friend’s plate) is extraordinary.

As good as the restaurant already is, Smith-Rosales is constantly updating the menu. “I did not do a rollout like past years but have not ruled it out. We are working on the upstairs with adding two new wooden gazebos and when that is done, maybe we will do a cool night of dinner to release with a tasting. Not sure. The nice thing is we get an R&D restaurant that people want to support while we find a model that works and they get a much-needed chance to get out!” 

Nirvana Grille co op

Click on photo for a larger image

Photo by Mary Hurlbut


As for the co-op, Smith-Rosales says, “We are doing all we can to offer as much variety and make sure that the best products can be made available. Since our menus only are an example of the quality we can get, our customers are the direct benefactors of this access. It has been great to be able to share with them this service and convenience.”

Now I will sing the praises of the co-op and takeout, which remains a convenient, fast way to grab from a variety of produce, meat, seafood, pasta, sauces, and household items. We’ve ordered takeout twice, the first time stocking up on staples from the co-op, olive oil, etc., and ordering a couple of hot entrees – the vegetable risotto (my fav), the salmon, the mushroom ravioli, and a baguette. They all traveled well and were up to the same standards as dine-in. 

Nirvana Grille swordfish

Click on photo for a larger image

Photo by Dianne Russell

Frozen Australian Wild Swordfish from Nirvana Grille’s co-op – all cooked up

However, the new and surprising discovery was the frozen fish. We ordered a pound of Wild Australian Swordfish and stuck it in the freezer, unaware of what a fantastic treat it would be. A week later, we decided to defrost it (it comes in one piece, and once sliced, serves two with ample portions and some leftovers), pan-seared it, and then popped it into the oven for five minutes. Top it with a sauce of melted better, chives, garlic, and lemon juice. Beyond description. It’s so flavorful, it doesn’t need any accompaniment except for the light sauce – hold the tartar sauce! 

So enamored were we that we ordered five more pounds over the weekend to keep in the freezer.

Smith-Rosales has more creative ideas in the works for co-op and takeout. “We will do it until we feel the need no longer exists. Although it has decreased, we are thinking of ways to adapt and change to find out what people are looking for to continue to order.”

Nirvana Grille tables

Click on photo for a larger image

Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Tables distanced for safety

“We are expanding with more family kits soon and entertaining size meals to-go and pulling a bit back on the grocery variety to be mainly the produce, dairy, meats, and seafood we carry plus in-house made options. We’re trying to focus on easy-to-make and bake options or hot pick-up ready-to-serve items to allow people entertain with ease at home for groups.”

How Smith-Rosales fits anything else into her schedule is a mystery, but she says, “I started doing catering in-home again too! We will be adding Zoom cooking demos twice month – on Wednesdays – starting next week, too, with delivery of groceries from us for class as an option.

“We will have guest chefs who are local and others who are colleagues cooking alongside. A nice way to get out of our restaurant, visit, chat, and let people be entertained. I may end up doing the demos every week if popular enough! We will be also providing all the items we will be cooking through the market side, so all is portioned and ready. We unpack and start cooking together and then dinner is ready by around 7 p.m. to eat. We have done a few and they were a blast.”

Nirvana Grille exterior

Click on photo for a larger image

Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Nirvana Grille 

“We still will do all the to-go as well daily from 3 to 9 p.m., excluding Mondays.”

For those who don’t want to cook on Father’s Day, here is your answer.

Smith-Rosales says, “We are back open starting this Sunday for to-go for Father’s Day. We will see as Sawdust does its pop-up if we continue to do dine-in service or add to-go service on Sundays but will close in-house dining on Wednesdays and only do to-go for now.”

There are all kinds of options to enjoy the fare at Nirvana Grille – dining in, cooking at home with a meal kit, picking up a ready-to-eat meal, or buying fixings from the co-op; in any case, you’ll be delighted.

Ordering couldn’t be easier – input it online, and then pick it up curbside.

Nirvana Grille is located at 303 Broadway, #101. 

For more information or to order for pick-up, go to or call (949) 497-0027.

Share this story

The Best of Laguna Beach Banner2

New Sapphire, Cellar. Craft. Cook lives up to its name 

By Diane Armitage

Nothing gives me greater pleasure than seeing a talented restaurateur choose Laguna Beach. 

In Sapphire, Cellar. Craft. Cook’s case, Restaurateur Russ Bendel has stacked the deck with additional talent that plays at a very big culinary level. 

For daily operations, Russ chose Operating Partner Chris Hutten, a supremely talented and longtime Executive Chef plucked from South Coast Plaza’s Capital Grille. 

Then, he brought in his Executive Chef Jared Cook to design a Laguna-specific menu. 

And, he pulled the popular Mastro’s Ocean Club General Manager Xavier Quintanilla to help with front-of-house operations. 

New Sapphire chefs

Click on photo for a larger image

Photo by Diane Armitage

Restaurateur Russ Bendel (right) and Operating Partner Chris Hutten have opened the new Sapphire, Cellar. Craft. Cook

End result? A smoothly running, well-oiled machine of friendly hospitality, significant food, and polished professionalism. 

An airier look for a local favorite

“We were planning to open in early April but the year 2020 had different plans for us,” said Hutten. 

“It gave us time, though, to create new solutions that handle the temporary situation for social distancing along with a long-term solution for seating in our restaurant that we hadn’t been considering at first.”

While the restaurant has repurposed most of the furniture and chairs from the former Sapphire, the space looks significantly different with a lighter palette, modernized bench seating, and an airier feel all around. 

“We wanted everyone in the dining room to be able to see out to the ocean,” said Bendel. “After all, that’s why everyone is here!” 

New Sapphire interior

Click on photo for a larger image

Photo by Diane Armitage

The new Sapphire, Cellar. Craft. Cook has opened with a fresh look

Amuse bouche set the tone for the evening 

While COVID-19 stalled the opening of the dine-in restaurant, the new Sapphire ownership hustled to open its Sapphire Pantry by the end of March. (See my website for April 3rd’s review of the Sapphire Pantry.)

Next door to the larger restaurant, the Pantry served as a great tease for menu items that would be debuting on the dine-in restaurant’s menu. 

Everything I tried through the Sapphire Pantry proved quite satisfying, but it only got better on Tuesday evening when I was seated on the open-air patio for my first “dining in” experience. 

Let’s start with the starter “amuse bouche,” which is a complimentary bite of food that a chef may or may not choose to serve at the very beginning of the dining experience. This hors d’oeuvre’s appearance can often depend on how busy the kitchen is, so the amuse bouche is not something I’d say is etched in stone. If it shows up at your table, it’s always a lovely surprise. 

New Sapphire amuse bouche

Click on photo for a larger image

Photo by Diane Armitage

The Sapphire, Cellar. Craft. Cook “amuse bouche”

This proved the case when Executive Chef Jared delivered a “bite” of food that turned out to be about 10 bites of food. I finished it all, knowing that I had already ordered two appetizers and planned on eating an entrée, too. (Thankfully, my dining buddy, Ali North, Chef Concierge of Surf & Sand Resort, pledged to help me through the remaining courses.)

This particular evening’s amuse bouche was a hearty slice of focaccia bread with the tiniest bit of grill on its edges. It was heaped with a mix of fresh crab meat, beets and capers, with a darling crown of watermelon radish. 

I could have left the Sapphire patio at that point and been completely pleased with my dining experience. It was that good. 

But then the house-made Duck & Berkshire Pork Meatballs showed up. 

Hearty, delightful appetizers

Three sizable meatballs arrived, nestled in a “forest mushroom” sugo (essentially a thick mushroom sauce) with freshly spun rosemary cavatelli pasta, bits of mushroom, and fresh chunks of truffle goat cheese. 

New Sapphire meatballs

Click on photo for a larger image

Photo by Diane Armitage

The Sapphire, Cellar. Craft. Cook Duck & Pork Meatballs in forest mushroom sugo

The pasta was heavy, more like a gnocchi, a perfect choice to hold up beautifully to its partnered sauce. The meatballs were light in texture but dense in flavor. Duck meatballs can often become too “ducky” in flavor, in my opinion, but the mix of pork in Chef Jared’s creation created something truly sublime.

When the Brussels sprouts made their way to the table, we knew we were in trouble. Typically, a Brussels sprouts dish is made up of…well…Brussels sprouts. You might have bits of bacon or small chunks of pork belly, but the main feature is usually all about the sprouts. 

New Sapphire Brussels

Click on photo for a larger image

Photo by Diane Armitage

The Sapphire, Cellar. Craft. Cook Brussels sprouts

In this case, not a chance. Arriving in a still-sizzling cast iron skillet, the Brussels sprouts were jumbled with slightly charred cauliflower, a surprising sprinkle of pomegranate seeds, and Ricotta Salata crumbles (sheep’s milk cheese that is cured for at least 90 days – it’s heavenly creaminess with just the right amount if salt.) 

It took a moment to find all of this, however, because the dish arrived with two gorgeous pork belly planks crisscrossing the mound of veggies underneath. The Brussels sprouts mix would have been delightful enough, and I’m sure people who don’t prefer pork belly can ask for just the vegetables, but the addition of these perfectly grilled pork belly portions was simply sheer bliss. 

If you still have room for an entrée…

At this point, my dining buddy and I decided we would split an entrée. 

The entrées on the menu cover the gamut, from Prime Beef Cheek Stroganoff to Lemon Verbena Poached Salmon, a giant Bone-in Ribeye Steak, their already-popular Wagyu Beef Burger, Crispy Pork Schnitzel (Chris Hutten claims it’s his favorite dish on the menu), and more. 

On our waiter’s recommendation, we chose the Wild Caught Alaskan Halibut. 

New Sapphire halibut

Click on photo for a larger image

Photo by Diane Armitage

The Sapphire, Cellar. Craft. Cook Wild Caught Halibut

Once again, you can choose to eat the vegetables that accompany this large portion because they’re a feature in and of themselves. The flaky halibut arrived atop a mix of cherry tomatoes, English pea tendrils, fava beans, and barely salted banana fingerling potatoes. Tossed lightly in a coriander gastrique, the vegetable combination was another perfectly finessed ally to what is probably one of the best halibut filets I’ve had in years. 

Always room for dessert

At this point, my friend, you might as well just give up the fight and order dessert. And, order this dessert, good glory. 

Titled “Dark Chocolate Chunk & Fromage Blanc Cookies,” it doesn’t seem to be an intimidating dessert, right? What appears, however, fulfills your heavenly ice cream sandwich dream. 

Chewy, freshly baked chocolate cookies do their best to bookend house-made peanut butter cup gelato. The gelato, itself, has chunks of dark chocolate imbedded, unbelievable. The entirety is topped with freshly made butter brickle with just the right toss of micro-chopped hazelnut. 

New Sapphire cookie

Click on photo for a larger image

Photo by Diane Armitage

The Sapphire, Cellar. Craft. Cook Dark Chocolate Chunk & Fromage Blanc Cookies

If I invent a “Best of Laguna Beach™” Top 5 Dessert List” for Laguna Beach, this goes right to the top. No questions, no apologies, and certainly never any leftovers. 

One of the finest dining experiences in Laguna Beach

When globally-renowned Chef Azmin Ghahreman chose to sell his Sapphire restaurant several months ago, we all knew we were losing a unique talent to Laguna Beach. It is so refreshing to see this new ownership take up the mantle, producing what could easily be called “culinary decadence” at the new Sapphire, Cellar. Craft. Cook. I couldn’t be more pleased that Russ Bendel chose our town. 

Sapphire, Cellar. Craft. Cook. is open at 4 p.m. daily on the patio and in the dining room. The Pantry is open from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily and continues to provide a hearty menu of takeout items as well as grab-and-go, fresh-baked treats, and coffee. The restaurant will be opening for lunch in the weeks ahead, with weekend brunch following suit. Stay tuned to my social platforms (see below) for those announcements. 

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).

Share this story

The Best of Laguna Beach Banner2

Popular Chef Craig Connole moves to Ristorante Rumari

By Diane Armitage

After 15 years of creating renowned success as the Corporate Chef of La Casa del Camino’s K’ya Bistro and The Rooftop, Chef Craig Connole has moved four blocks south to Ristorante Rumari

“I was planning to leave Casa at the end of March and take off the month of April before starting up at Rumari,” said Connole. “But the stay-at-home order happened the third week of March, and I sort of got April and May off, instead,” he said.

Popular Craig

Click on photo for a larger image

Photo by Diane Armitage

Popular Chef Craig Connole has taken over the kitchen at Ristorante Rumari 

Rumari reopens this Wednesday, 7 days a week

Chef Craig quietly reopened Ristorante Rumari last Friday evening, inviting a handful of friends and family in to test the wheels of the machine. On Saturday and Sunday, the restaurant began taking very limited reservations. 

For the time being, Chef Craig is offering a limited menu of Rumari bestsellers and a few new innovations of his own. 

“It’s me and two cooks I brought with me from K’ya,” said Chef Craig. “That’s my entire staff in the kitchen right now. Clearly, I need to ramp up my staff.”

Fabled business partners Chris Keller and Chef Connole reunite

Chef Craig joins former business partner Chris Keller, who purchased Ristorante Rumari in 2019 from the original Crivello family ownership. 

Chris and Craig initially began working together on the restaurant side of La Casa del Camino hotel in 2005. As the years wore on, they each stepped into varying degrees of ownership, with Keller taking on more of the hotel operations. 

“When Chris first started looking at buying Rumari, he asked me to come over and walk through the kitchen to, you know, look for possible issues. At that point, we just couldn’t stop talking about taking over the whole operation. It just took us several months to actually get there.”

Aside from a “serious update” in the kitchen, Chef Craig and Chris have devoted the last several weeks to modernizing the interior and doing structural repairs. The partners are also adding a back patio to the eatery, which should be completed this coming weekend. 

Popular Rumari

Click on photo for a larger image

Photo by Diane Armitage

Ristorante Rumari reopens this Wednesday with new look, new chef

Lucian, Martin, and Sammy also back in play

Front of house is still under the management of Lucian Stefonik, who returned to work for Keller at the end of last year. 

Stefonik first met and worked with Chris and Chef Craig at K’ya in 2005. He worked his way up to manager of K’\’ya before taking on the management position at House of Big Fish + Cold Beer, which also began under Chris and Craig’s operating partnership.

“It’s like a little reunion,” said Connole. “The three of us just work well together. We have a lot of fun plans for the future.”

Chef Craig assures me that both Martin, the long-standing head waiter, and Bartender Sammy have returned to Rumari as well.

Back in the Sauce

“I haven’t worked in a fully Italian restaurant since I opened Zeppa in Fashion Island in 1989,” Connole told me. “It’s been fun getting back into this kind of menu. There are a million things I want to do, but I’ve still got to sort it out in this limited kitchen space. The key is to keep it super fresh with that old-style feel still woven in.”

I’ll be writing a larger “review” (hopefully from the new Rumari back patio) next week. Stay tuned! 

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).

Share this story

The Best of Laguna Beach Banner2

Harley restaurant reopens for summery takeout

By Diane Armitage

It’s been nearly three months since Chef Greg Daniels temporarily closed his doors at his popular Harley Laguna Beach restaurant. Today (Friday, June 5), he reopens for takeout with family meal options that will certainly brighten any backyard or beachy picnic. For me, it’s a happy relief to see one of our Laguna greats return to his kitchen. 

This Friday and Saturday night, you simply can’t lose with Chef’s famous Crispy Fried Chicken and Sticky Dr Pepper Baby Back Ribs. 

These entrées were first introduced last August when Chef came up with a “Grill & Get Together” menu for Sunday evenings. In an ode to his grandmother’s family-style meals, this family meal includes both of the proteins along with a choice of two sides from options of slow-baked beans, potato salad, street corn, macaroni salad, and coleslaw. 

Harley restaurant chicken and ribs

Click on photo for a larger image

Courtesy of Harley Laguna Beach

Harley returns with summery takeout options

“We’ll have our chocolate chip cookies and mac and cheese back in play soon, probably as we move into next week,” Chef Greg assured me.

This weekend, beer and wine will also be available with Harley’s famed craft cocktails joining the takeout options in about a week. 

“For us, dine-in doesn’t make sense yet”

While other restaurants have busied themselves with opening for limited dine-in options, Chef Greg has continued to hold back until he can “absolutely ensure” the safety of his patrons and employees. The long rectangle of a restaurant is less conducive to socially distanced tables. Further, and for the time being, patrons cannot be seated at the popular bar that fronts the open kitchen, which eliminates several more seats. 

“Our priority is to do this right for the patrons who trust us, not to do it as quickly as possible,” said Chef Greg. “Our restaurant has an open kitchen, narrow dining room, and no patio. We don’t even have the room to expand if the City were to allow it. It just isn’t the right time for us yet.”

Fortunately, Chef will be expanding his takeout menu over these next few days for eager fans who have missed the hospitable Harley love.

“It’s great to be back, but it sure is a different world,” said Chef Greg. “Right now we have just five of us working here, and we’re doing everything including delivery. It’s a good way to get the engines rolling again and, hopefully, we can start hiring on more of our great people soon.” 

More news to come on these restaurants

As I reported in my social platforms on Tuesday, South of Nick’s reopened for dine-in with a “refreshed look” that plays to its ocean view seating.

Harley restaurant Nicks

Click on photo for a larger image

Courtesy of South of Nick’s

South of Nick’s reopened Tuesday with a fresh, new look

 Despite the construction fracas near its front door, Wild Taco has reopened this week for continued takeout and limited dine-in seating. I’ll have more news on this and their latest new menu items early next week.

Beginning Saturday (June 6th), Selanne Steak Tavern will open for dine-in lunch, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., on its outside terrace. The former hockey star is hosting a “visiting team” with fan favorites from his Garden Grove restaurant, Penalty Box. It features gourmet casual with entertaining hockey-related titles for each food item, and reservations are recommended due to limited seating. 

In a sort of dueling fried chicken kind of way, Chef Amar, Harley’s closest neighbor (and the good friend who talked Chef Greg into moving his culinary talents to Laguna), will be serving his fried chicken dinner for takeout on one last night – tonight (Friday). Broadway by Amar Santana will close for the remainder of the weekend to complete preparations for the restaurant’s reopening on Monday, June 8th. Chef Amar has chosen to introduce a new menu with two nightly seating options. Reservations are required; walk-ins cannot be accommodated.   

Harley restaurant Broadway

Click on photo for a larger image

Courtesy of Broadway by Amar Santana

Chef Amar’s fried chicken is available for takeout one night only – tonight!

Remember, too, that Chef Rainer Schwarz reopens Driftwood Kitchen on the same evening, Monday, June 8th. 

Casa del Camino reopens its hotel on Saturday, June 13th, but the jury is still out on whether the restaurants K’ya and Rooftop Lounge will reopen on the same weekend. As of publication date, hotel management is of the mind to reopen for in-house, registered guests only, and later broaden the invitation to the public, once the staff is comfortable with new protocols. Just one kitchen services the entire Casa del Camino hotel (including room service). Stay tuned to my social platforms for latest news and announcements. 

Lastly, I’ve been sworn to secrecy on a longtime local favorite “softly reopening” tonight (Friday). All I can tell you...keep your eyes peeled as you drive south through town. On Saturday, I’m hoping to be allowed to actually mention the restaurant’s name (and their new chef). Keep that ear to the rails, my friends! 

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).

Share this story

The Best of Laguna Beach Banner2

At Least 36 Dine-In Restaurants Are Back in Play in Laguna

By Diane Armitage

After receiving news on Saturday, May 23rd that they could begin the reopening process, several Laguna Beach restaurants immediately hopped into motion. By Memorial Weekend’s end, at least 12 restaurants were either offering patio seating or the full dine-in experience with social distancing. 

In the week that followed, restaurant doors were banging open everywhere, from North Laguna’s farthest reaches to South Laguna’s last kid on the block, AhbA. It had to have been the happiest reunion week ever as delighted locals trooped back out to see their restaurant friends and enjoy their favorite food on real plates. 

At least Starfish

Click on photo for a larger image

Photo by Diane Armitage

Starfish in SoLag reopened last Friday with local favorite bartender Neil Skewes back at the helm

“It’s so great to be back,” said Starfish longtime bartender Neil Skewes. “I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it’s just been a great, mellow return of a lot of happy people…me included!”

The Deck, Splashes & Harvest join the throng

Yesterday (Monday, June 1st), Chef Rainer Schwarz reopened The Deck on Laguna while two of our resorts opened their popular local hangouts as well. The Ranch at Laguna Beach’s Executive Chef Kyle St. John opened his sizable restaurant, Harvest, to the public, while Executive Chef Ron Fougeray at Surf & Sand Resort’s magnificent Splashes opened the dining room (only) to the public as well.

At least Harvest

Click on photo for a larger image

Courtesy of The Ranch Laguna Beach

Popular locals’ favorite Harvest restaurant at The Ranch has reopened to the public. Reservations are required (no walk-ins).

Because of the unique special distancing requirements, you can’t just drop into most Laguna restaurants, especially at the resorts where they’re sharing the establishment with in-house guests.

Harvest recommends breakfast and lunch reservations and requires dinner reservations (see their hours below). 

Splashes requires online reservations for all seatings, whether breakfast, lunch, weekend brunch, or dinner (see their hours at the end of this article, too). No walk-ins can be accommodated at either resort location. 

At least Splashes

Click on photo for a larger image

Photo by Diane Armitage

Never a bad seat in the house, Splashes restaurant at Surf & Sand has reopened to the public. Reservations are required (no walk-ins).

Imaginative COVID-era seating reconfigurations 

As noted by Driftwood Kitchen and Deck on Laguna Chef Rainer Schwarz, “Setting up your dining room for social distancing takes so much more planning than you would imagine. You would think we would all just remove a few tables and chairs and be done with it, but this is all about the safe movement of many people in the restaurant at once, even when you’re operating at a less-than-usual capacity. 

“We can’t just open the doors and let everyone in.”

Bars in all restaurants continue to remain closed, including Harvest’s giant horseshoe bar and the detached Splashes bar on the sand. 

Meanwhile, Chef Rainer of the popular The Deck on Laguna found a way to increase “sand-side seating” despite his closed bar. 

“We opened up our Bungalows for additional dining seating,” he said. “We were able to add another 40 seats with that extension. We’ve definitely lost seating overall, but it was a great space to be able to access.”

The Deck on Laguna team also worked on a way to route people safely in and out of the restaurant, narrowing down multiple entrance options.

“People used to come through Driftwood to our Deck host stand, or they’d drop down from Driftwood into the actual Deck restaurant, or they’d come up from the beach, or they’d come in from the parking lot. That all had to stop. Now it’s one body in, one body out, and only one funnel entrance.

“We don’t want to be the restaurant guys who let people in without masks or don’t provide enough space per the regulations,” he continued. “This is a very serious matter. You have to follow the rules. We have to be safe, not only for our own sake and for our patrons, but especially for our employees’ sake.”

Protests and riots have returning restaurants on edge 

As we’ve all watched footage of looting and fires around us these last few days, Laguna restaurateurs are certainly on edge and watchful. 

“It’s a very uncertain time,” said Chef Rainer. “Of course, we’re alert to any changes but one way or the other, we have to go back to business. We thought of delaying another week, but we’ve taken the time to train our people the right way and everyone is ready to go. 

“We have at least 40 or 50 employees starting back with us this week at The Deck. By next week, we’ll have at least 170 people re-employed and that is so important to us to be there for them.

“Of course, we’ll close down on a moment’s notice if anything changes,” he added. 

Potential rioting quashes Chef Amar Santana plans

Chef Amar Santana was planning to reopen his 8,000-square-foot Costa Mesa eatery The Hall Global Eatery on Monday, June 1st. The great unknown of whether riots and looting will move further south into Orange County, however, shut the doors on their plan. 

“We’re going on a day-by-day basis according to what South Coast Plaza advises,” CEO Ahmed Labbate told me. 

“We have gone through weeks of rehiring and reconfiguration and training and now this. But there’s just too much at risk if the riots and looting move in this direction.”

At least Broadway

Click on photo for a larger image

Courtesy of Broadway by Amar Santana

Business partners Executive Chef Amar Santana and CEO Ahmed Labbate will be reopening Broadway by Amar Santana for two reserved seatings nightly

On a lighter note, the team plans to reopen Broadway by Amar Santana next Monday, June 8th. 

“We’re opening with a brand new menu, so between that and all the sanitation protocols, we’ve been immersed in training,” said Labbate. 

Because of social distancing requirements, Broadway is only able to reopen with about 32 seats. The team was hopeful to expand into an additional patio setting at the next door Dawson Cole Sculpture Garden, a place where longtime fans of Chef Amar will remember earlier wine dinners being served.

This time, however, the price tag was too high for Broadway, so the team settled back to its 32-seat option. 

As a result, Broadway will be taking two seatings each evening, both of which need to be reserved in advance online. (Their online reservation system will be back in play sometime later this week. Stay tuned for the announcement on my Instagram @BestofLagunaBeach.)

“We’re doing a 5 p.m. seating, which needs to clear by 7 p.m. so that we can re-sanitize everything. And then we’ll do a second, 7:30 p.m. seating,” said Labbate.

“It’s going to be so great to be back in business at Broadway and see all our old friends,” he said. “But this Friday (June 5th), just for old times’ sake, we’re doing our fried chicken dinner for pickup or delivery,” added Labbate. “It turns out people in this town love their fried chicken during quarantine. Who knew?”

 Harvest at The Ranch is open seven days a week. Reservations are highly recommended for breakfast, 7 a.m. to 11 a.m., and for lunch, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Reservations are required for dinner, 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. Please, no walk-ins are allowed. 

Splashes at Surf & Sand Resort is open seven days a week. Reservations are required; no walk-ins are allowed. Breakfast is 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. Lunch is Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Brunch is Saturday and Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. And dinner is 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., again, seven days a week.   

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).

Shaena Stabler, President & CEO -

Lana Johnson, Editor -

Tom Johnson, Publisher -

Dianne Russell is our Associate Editor.

Michael Sterling is our Webmaster & Designer.

Mary Hurlbut and Scott Brashier are our photographers.

Alexis Amaradio, Dennis McTighe, Marrie Stone, Sara Hall, Suzie Harrison and Theresa Keegan are our writers and/or columnists.

In Memoriam - Stu Saffer and Barbara Diamond.

Email: with news releases, letters, etc.


Email: for questions about advertising


*The content and ads in this publication do not necessarily reflect the opinions or views of the publisher.

© 2023 2S Publishing, LLC - All Rights Reserved.