Share this story

The Best of Laguna Beach Banner2

Chef Rainer Schwarz debuts flavor-filled menu at Hendrix

By Diane Armitage

Last Friday, after my second day in a row at Cinepolis in Ocean Ranch to see In the Heights, I gathered fellow movie friends and walked 100 yards to Hendrix, the third restaurant in South OC from Chef Rainer Schwarz and his team. 

You may be more familiar with Chef Schwarz after his significant entry into Laguna Beach with The Deck Laguna Beach (April 2011) and then, Driftwood Kitchen (June 2014). Then, he and his team revamped the former (and rambling) Fred’s Mexican Cafe & Cantina, opening Hendrix in 2017.

Chef Rainer closeup

Click on photo for a larger image

Photo by Diane Armitage

Chef Rainer Schwarz, Chef Operator/Owner of The Deck Laguna Beach, Driftwood Kitchen, and Hendrix

Rotisserie, yes, but vegetarian, too 

As a rule, Hendrix has been all about the meat. The largest rotisserie in the land roosts in the front windows of Hendrix, and Chef loves doling out anything from chicken, duck, and pork to entire prime rib roasts.

His shared meat platters remind me of something at the king’s table in Game of Thrones, piled high with sausages and various meats with an accompanying giant pitchfork of a fork for serving out your own heaping serving.

Chef Rainer hendrix

Click on photo for a larger image

Photo by Diane Armitage

A stone’s throw from his Laguna Beach-based restaurants, Chef Schwarz’s Hendrix is in Ocean Ranch next to the Cinepolis theater 

But Chef Rainer has always been about the balance between hearty and succulent and fresh and spritely. As you may have noticed, those poor folks in Game of Thrones weren’t treated to much in the way of fresh hamachi or brilliantly charred brussels sprouts (much less a beet and goat cheese salad), but Hendrix is famous for completing that side of our nutritional table with ease. 

“I want to make sure we create a balance to the rotisserie, which can be heavy with lots of meat,” he told me. 

“The summer menu offers more balance with lighter items and opens up a new round of options for vegans and vegetarians,” Chef said. 

New summer appetizers hum with flavor 

Last Friday night, this was apparent with Chef’s introduction of many summer menu items that wowed my crowd. 

Dish after dish arrived, perfectly plated samples of what’s in store for our summer. If this doesn’t give you hope for our return to all that is right in the months ahead, nothing will. 

Chef’s team started our table with the Cream of Summer Corn Soup, a smoky, barely spicy mix of smoked bacon folded into corn chutney with a drizzle of chili oil. 

Chef Rainer corn soup

Click on photo for a larger image

Photo by Diane Armitage

Chef Schwarz’s sample of Summer Corn Soup had us begging for more

Before we could weep for more, the Avocado Hummus arrived, a super smooth dippy blend topped with cashews and pumpkin seeds. A side of fried pita chips added that comfort food crunch to everything healthy and good. 

“I’ve always liked the flavor of hummus,” noted Chef. 

“And, with avocado, it takes on a sort of fluffy lightness that’s easy to eat. It’s not overbearing in flavor; it opens up your palate for more.”

Chef Rainer hummus

Click on photo for a larger image

Photo by Diane Armitage

The Summery Hummus at Hendrix is whipped with fluffy avocado

Next were the BBQ Octopus Tacos, with a rack of three oversized street tacos arriving in front of each of us. Now, here’s where the rubber meets the road. You might find someone who can make a delectable corn soup or a better than average hummus dip but…octopus tacos? I haven’t heard of such a thing, and I eat out a lot, all over the world. 

Delicately poached and then ever-so-lightly grilled, the octopus meat was neatly bedded in a hard corn taco shell and topped with pineapple salsa, pickled Fresno chiles, and lemon creme fraiche. The wafer-thin radish slices added a lovely, summery tang to complete the treat.    

Chef Rainer octopus tacos

Click on photo for a larger image

Photo by Diane Armitage

Hendrix Octopus Tacos feature a sublime, fresh mix in a crunchy shell

Entrées and pastas on the light side 

Then, the Ricotta Gnocchi arrived. This dish follows the precepts of creating gnocchi, but instead of the usual potato as the gnocchi base, Chef chose to use ricotta, instead. Even though potato gnocchi can taste and feel fluffy and light, it has a weight to it that I always feel later. 

In contrast, this ricotta gnocchi was breezy and light. Basted in San Marzano tomato sauce, topped with buttons of mozzarella burrata and encircled in basil aioli, this was one of the most imaginative gnocchi dishes I’ve tasted.

Chef Rainer gnocchi

Click on photo for a larger image

Photo by Diane Armitage

Gnocchi made of ricotta makes for a delicious vegetarian entrée 

At this point, were we stuffed? Absolutely, even with the “samplers” Chef was sending out. 

Did more food arrive? Absolutely. 

Pan-Seared Diver Scallops were next with a Far East take to enliven the mellowness of the scallops. Fregola pasta (much like a couscous but pasta, instead) and chopped minestrone vegetables combine with curry and capers to serve as the base for the scallops. The scallops are then basted with a Moroccan salsa that, again, delivers a note of depth and heat.

Chef Rainer scallops

Click on photo for a larger image

Photo by Diane Armitage

With a nod to India and Morocco in a single dish, giant scallops take on a new taste sensation 

Finally, Chef selected one of his (already) best-selling appetizers, Hamachi Crudo. This dish can easily serve as a full entrée as several freshly carved Hamachi planks are sprinkled with lime sauce and topped with avocado and yuzu emulsion. Even as stuffed as we were, it was a fresh and flavorful finish.   

Chef Rainer hamachi

Click on photo for a larger image

Photo by Diane Armitage

The Hendrix popular Hamachi appetizer is a sublime melt-in-your-mouth treat

While the chocolate and cheesecake desserts are steady sellers, Chef Schwarz says he’s now working on the summer dessert menu, which will be launching in a couple weeks. 

“I’ll be adding in some stone fruit items, freshly baked pies, that sort of thing,” he noted. 

Safety is the key to a glorious summer

As crowds are definitely increasing, Chef and his team will continue to offer the expanded outdoor seating as an option well into the future. 

“We’ve fought our way through this last year, and we’re all hoping we’re on the other side. We’ve always done the right thing, and that’s what we’re going to keep doing. It’s important that – especially now – our customers and our own staff members continue to feel safe.” 

“We can all have a great summer ahead, and we’re doing everything we can to make it super memorable and special,” Chef Schwarz said. 

Hendrix, at 32431 Golden Lantern Drive, Laguna Niguel, opens for dining at 4 p.m., seven days a week. Weekend brunch service is Saturday and Sunday, 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., and Happy Hour is offered daily from 4 to 6 p.m.   

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

Taste of Laguna Food & Music Festival returns to town October 2021

After over a year without large events, nonprofit organizations KX FM and the Laguna Beach Chamber of Commerce are excited to announce the return of The Taste of Laguna Food & Music Festival to be held Thursday, Oct 14, 2021. 

General admission and VIP tickets went on sale June 4 at More than 40 local restaurants and award-winning chefs will showcase their most popular menu items, signature recipes, and specialty dishes, and live music will be performed at the Festival of Arts grounds. The event is open to both locals and visitors. It will include a silent auction and a competition between participating restaurants and chefs.

Taste of Cliff

Click on photo for a larger image

Photo by Mary Hurlbut

2019 Taste of Laguna fun with The Cliff 

The 2021 event will be the second time combining the Chamber’s The Taste of Laguna with the annual concert hosted by KX FM. Canceled in 2020 due to the COVID pandemic, the return of The Taste embraces a growing figurative and literal appetite for food, music, and community togetherness that promises not to disappoint. 

KX FM broadcasts from Pacific Coast Highway on 104.7 FM and streams to audiences around the world at or via the KX FM app. KX FM is the home of generational alt-rock, as well as an eclectic mix of music, informative talk, and local entertainment. The Laguna Beach Chamber of Commerce drives economic prosperity and quality of life for the community of Laguna Beach by being the voice of business, promoting collaboration, and helping members grow their business. 

Taste of guests

Click on photo for a larger image

Photo by Mary Hurlbut

(L-R) Nancy Pooley, Dave Csira, Stacia Stabler, and Suzanne Taylor

Both nonprofit organizations boast new female leadership this year with decades of combined event production experience. Chamber President and CEO Sandy Morales previously produced The Taste of Anaheim for 10 years while working for the Anaheim Chamber. “We are excited to bring back The Taste to our community, showcasing our amazing restaurants here in Laguna Beach! Partnering with KX FM has only enhanced this annual event with live music and dancing, and we plan to show everyone a good time,” said Morales.

KX FM General Manager Alyssa Hayek is excited for the uniqueness of 2021’s event. “We have such a diverse community of restaurants here in Laguna Beach that allows The Taste of Laguna Food & Music Festival to be unique each and every year. This year we decided to take a global approach to The Taste of Laguna Food & Music Festival since so many of us have been unable to travel. We are able to showcase the diversity of the restaurants that are in Laguna Beach and pair them with music that compliments the cuisine. This way you can feel transported as you eat delicious food without ever leaving Laguna,” Hayek said.

Taste of wine

Click on photo for a larger image

Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Wine Gallery sharing tasty treats in 2019 

General admission tickets are $85 with entrance at 6 p.m. Limited VIP tickets are available for $150, which includes one-hour early entry (5 p.m.), two drink tickets, a private bar, and lounge area. Food is included in the ticket price. Drink tickets will be available for purchase inside festival grounds, with several bar locations throughout the event.        

More information and tickets can be found at

Share this story

The Best of Laguna Beach Banner2

A week of eating with my visiting friend

By Diane Armitage

Two weeks ago, my best friend from Denver (Diana) was in town. People are always asking me where I would send a tourist if they had just a few days here, and to that I always reply, “It depends on what the tourist wants to experience.”

Diana wanted to experience the “local vibe” as I experience it. So, on the day of her arrival, I started in my own SoLag hood, Coyote Grill. Seriously, folks, you can’t come to Laguna Beach and miss out on some of our neighborhood favorites. 

Steve made us margaritas and trotted out later to catch up on restaurant gossip and offer a shot of new tequila. Meanwhile the kitchen rolled out my favorite, the giant chicken burrito (minus beans and added green sauce to make it “wet”). It was the start to a very good week of eating. 

She ate salads, I tried everything else

On Memorial Day, we joined the throngs downtown, stopping at GG’s Bistro for my favorite sangria in town. Diana also ordered the Arugula Goat Cheese salad, a super-fresh blend with beets, melons, cranberries, and walnuts. 

A week GG's arugula salad

Click on photo for a larger image

Photo by Diane Armitage

GG’s Bistro Arugula Goat Cheese salad is a breezy, summery blend

Tuesday was a visit to Sapphire.Cellar.Craft.Cook for a late lunch. While Diana dug into another lovely salad, I opted for the appetizer, Lemon Thyme Confit Kurobata Pork Ribs. These were luscious, fall-off-the-bone nuggets in saucy bourbon barbecue glaze. It was all I could do to not order another helping.

As we dined, we chatted with Operating Partner (and great chef) Chris Hutten. It turns out the Sapphire team was readying to celebrate the restaurant’s one-year anniversary already. I’m sure the year ahead will prove less tumultuous than the first. 

A week Sapphire ribs

Click on photo for a larger image

Courtesy of Sapphire.Cellar.Craft.Cook

Sapphire’s ribs appetizer is a memorable event

On Wednesday, we moseyed down the sand from the Surf & Sand Hotel to the longtime local favorite Zinc Cafe & Market. Owner John Secretan was actually there (I haven’t seen him in months), so we caught up on his various enterprises as Diana and I enjoyed our vegetarian breakfast items. 

I chose my old favorite, poached eggs on toast, while she opted for the daily quiche offering with a side of fruit salad. Service was quick and friendly, our dishes were delicious, and the patio was its usual people-watching pleasure.

A week Zinc quiche

Click on photo for a larger image

Photo by Diane Armitage

Zinc Café’s daily quiche offering is always a winner

Oliver’s new spring menu

That same evening, all diets were off with a visit to one of my favorites, Oliver’s Osteria in Laguna Canyon next to the Sawdust. While Chef Erik is never one for loading in frothy, empty calories, his dishes are so rich and fabulous in flavor that you simply can’t stop eating. We joined my dear friends, Kaj and Mary Garmshausen, and there were plenty of bites to share. 

Chef Erik has recently debuted his spring menu, and it is alight with lively color and complexities. Even Mary’s simple dish of New Zealand King Salmon was fresh and colorful and cooked to perfection.

A week Oliver's salmon

Click on photo for a larger image

Photo by Diane Armitage 

Oliver’s simple and flawless New Zealand King Salmon

Diana opted for Chef’s new Gnocchi Viola. That’s right – it’s a purple potato gnocchi (something I’ve never enjoyed before) in a creamy smoked scamorza sauce. 

Scamorza is a lesser-known cousin of the mozzarella family, but it’s one I prefer to add into sauces when I can find it. It’s a super creamy, mild cheese with just a hint of caramel smokiness. It added a great new depth to the gnocchi dish without the stickiness that can occur as gnocchi cools in its cheesy sauce. This luxurious dish could easily be shared as an appetizer, too. 

A week Oliver's gnocchi

Click on photo for a larger image

Photo by Diane Armitage 

Oliver’s new Gnocchi Viola is made of purple potatoes in a smoky, rich sauce

Kaj choose the evening pasta special, which also proved a rich, yet light blend of mushrooms and braised pork ragout folded in with freshly made short tube pasta. Topped with paper-thin truffle shavings, it was a rustic, sublime event. 

A week Oliver's mushroom

Click on photo for a larger image

Photo by Diane Armitage 

Oliver’s serves nightly specials, including this mushroom and pork ragout pasta with truffle shavings

Ever a seafood fan, I chose the Spaghetti Chitarra All’ Aragosta. The stately dish features house-made guitar spaghetti with fresh lobster in an arrabbiata sauce, which adds peppery spice to a marina base. It was fresh and bright with plenty of rich lobster pairing companionably with the sauce.   

A week Oliver's lobster

Click on photo for a larger image

Photo by Diane Armitage 

Oliver’s Lobster pasta dish is both memorable in presentation and taste

Leave it to Chef Erik to knock it out of the park once again. The dishes were lovely, and the service even lovelier. This is a must this summer for you as well as your visiting guests. 

Finally, the last lunch 

The following day before her departure to the airport, Diana and I waddled over to another favorite mainstay of mine – Harvest at The Ranch Laguna Beach with Chef Kyle St. John at the helm. 

Of course, Diana chose salad. Neither of us, though, expected the still-steaming salmon slab atop a mound of fresh greens and herbs. It had to be the largest serving of salmon I’ve ever seen on a salad. She noted it was spectacular. 

I, however, was involved in my own spectacular dish, my first try of the Grilled Salmon Sandwich. Chef grills Nordic Blu salmon and tops it with kimchi slaw, miso aioli, sweet soy glaze, and crispy fried onions. Sounds rather simple, I know, but it was simply unbelievable. 

In mere minutes, this rather unassuming sandwich bulldozed its way past any other sandwich contender in Laguna Beach. In my book, it’s taken the crown, the throne, and the singing minstrels, too. This sandwich is a game changer.

A week Harvest salmon

Click on photo for a larger image

Photo by Diane Armitage 

Harvest’s unbelievably amazing Grilled Salmon Sandwich

Since Diana’s departure, I’ve done my best to follow her lead – salads, salads, and more salads. This weekend, though, I stumbled into Chef Rainer Schwarz’s new spring menu at Hendrix, his Ocean Ranch-based restaurant. While it’s not in Laguna Beach as are his first two restaurants (The Deck and Driftwood Kitchen), you deserve to hear about this heady and delicious welcome for spring. It was a perfect stop after seeing In the Heights at Cinepolis. Stay tuned this Friday in Stu News Laguna

Check out my almost daily foodie finds on my social media platforms, below, opt-in for gift card freebies and weekly updates at, and start making your plans to return to the restaurants that never stopped cooking and creating on our behalf. Our Laguna chefs and owners continue to outdo themselves – be sure to let them know! 

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

Jedidiah Coffee: the artistry and ingenuity of craft coffee from the Munsey family to you


Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Yes, there is a word for someone who loves coffee – caféphile. For even the most discerning of caféphiles, Jedidiah Coffee is the ultimate taste experience. Steve and Embry Munsey, the owners of Jedidiah Coffee, are passionate about coffee – so much so that they have developed it into an art form. 

It’s apparent they’re doing what they love – and have been for some time – and our community is the fortunate recipient of that expertise. 

As Steve explains, there truly is a science to roasting, “The coffee industry is behind the craft beer industry. We need to catch up and get the palate adjusted to craft coffee.” 

Jedidiah coffee couple

Click on photo for a larger image

Steve and Embry Munsey

Why craft roasting?

Craft coffee roasting offers the versatility needed to roast a delicious batch of coffee by optimizing sweetness and clarity. By combining passion and ingenuity, craft roasters create original roasts that stand out from the rest as they are able to unlock varied nuances from within the bean.

As described by craft roasting experts, “The act of coffee roasting is nothing short of an art form. Roast masters – much like potters, sculptors, and oil painters – devote countless hours to the honing of their craft until they master it.”

When Embry and Steve met 18 years ago, they hadn’t yet discovered their mutual affection for coffee.

Embry (from Texas) and Steve (who grew up in Mission Viejo) met in Sydney, Australia, at a bible school. They long-distance dated for a while and then on a visit here, Steve picked Embry up at the airport and took her straight to the Orange Inn and then to the beach. Evidently, that cinched the deal. 

In 2005, Steve and Embry married and started their family in North Texas where Embry was born and raised. Steve had been working with Starbucks in Orange County which made for an easy transfer to Grapevine, Texas, when they moved there to be closer to Embry’s family.

Jedidiah coffee roaster

Click on photo for a larger image

The Munseys are planning on buying a larger roaster

Time in Texas

“Once in Texas, I moved up quickly and was promoted to manager within two years,” Steve adds.

“I got pregnant there with our firstborn, Zealan, but we had decided we wanted to raise our kids back here in Laguna,” says Embry. “So when he was four months old in April of 2008, we came back.”

Steve transferred to the Starbucks at Quail Hill and by that time there was talk of him being promoted to District Manager. “I loved the interaction with the community and getting to know the regulars. I would hike and surf with some of the regular customers,” says Steve. “It was that community in Irvine that started to refer to me as ‘the Mayor of Quail Hill’ and started encouraging me to open my own shop.”

By 2010, Steve had been at Starbucks over six years, and they both had warmed up to the idea of having their own cafe. “Embry was 38 weeks pregnant with our second son, Jedidiah, when we got a verbal ‘yes’ from an investor to move forward with a spot,” says Steve. “Just a week later, we lost Jedidiah [at birth], and put the whole coffee dream on hold. We kind of stopped doing everything. 

“We moved from Club Laguna in the Audubon down to Laguna Terrace in South Laguna, and I’d walk down to the beach every day to watch the pelicans. Being at the beach gave us a lot of peace during that time.” 

His fondness for pelicans is reflected in the Jedidiah Coffee logo, which is a uniquely designed abstract pelican in flight combined with the colorful art culture of Laguna Beach. 

Jedidiah coffee cups

Click on photo for a larger image

Jedidiah Coffee cups

“By late 2013, we added another boy to the crew, Gideon – our first ‘rainbow baby,’” says Embry. “Rainbow baby is the term for a child that’s born after a loss. A friend helped us come up with the middle name Malex that was a combination of Zealan and Jedidiah’s middle names. We want to always honor and hold a space for Jedidiah as part of our family and have found so much comfort and healing in sharing his story with people.”

Southern California had been home for the Munseys for over eight years, and they were deep in community at Mariners Church Irvine, where they both worked on staff from 2012 until the time they moved back to Texas in 2016. They were expecting their first (and only) daughter, Liberty, and “although SoCal was home, we were wanting to be back by my family, and possibly have more space for our growing family,” Embry says. 

Launch of coffee catering

“While we were in Texas, I worked for a hunger initiative organization, and we launched our coffee catering as a side business in 2017,” says Steve. “Because of a friend’s suggestion, Jedidiah Coffee was named in our own son’s memory.”

The Munseys stayed three years and did very well with the mobile coffee bar but didn’t feel like Texas was home for their family, so they came back here to Orange County in 2019.

“A year after we had moved back and relaunched in OC, we were starting to get traction with the business. We served regularly to the staff and students at LCAD right here in the Canyon and were finding our way back on preferred vendor lists around town,” says Embry. “We’re so happy to see events picking back up after such a wild year, and grateful to have this facility to house our roasting operations. We love that we have a space for our community to come by for a chat!”

Jedidiah coffee Steve

Click on photo for a larger image

Steve preparing a “pour over” which is used for small events

The majority of Jedidiah Coffee’s business is online. The Munseys offer pre-customizable coffee subscriptions (fulfilled every two weeks) with a 10 percent discount and free delivery for Laguna and Aliso Viejo (or the coffee can be picked up at their location). Subscriptions are a surefire guarantee that you’ll never run out of coffee and have to rush out to get more.

Five 12 oz blends are available – Ethiopia Sidama, Honduras Copan, Guatemala Heu Huetenango, Colombia Jerico, and Decaf Columbia.

In addition to subscriptions, they also offer small packages for hotels, a 10 oz sampler pack, a 40 oz bag, travel cups, hats, and other items.

Of course, although they want the city to know “they are here” and want to succeed, Embry says, “What sets us apart is that we truly want to be here for our community. We have worked hard since 2017 to create a dependable, quality coffee product and catering experience, but what truly drives us is offering whatever we have as a family and business back into our community, and partnering with the other local families, businesses, and organizations that do the same.”

They have already partnered with Hobie Surf Shop, Laguna College of Art and Design, Summer’s Table, Jade Tea, and Amenah and hope to expand their collaborations. 

Mobile coffee bar

Jedidiah Coffee offers next-level, full-service espresso bar service alongside their locally-roasted craft coffee. The mobile coffee bar is perfect for any gathering. Their events cover a wide spectrum – weddings, office parties, birthdays, anniversaries, corporate events, house warmings, employee appreciation, grand openings, and backyard soirées – pretty much any function one could imagine. 

Jedidiah coffee Embrey

Click on photo for a larger image

The mobile coffee bar – perfect for any gathering

Recently, they provided coffee for the teachers and staff at Laguna Beach High School for “Teacher and Staff Appreciation Week.” 

For get-togethers, the Munseys offer expresso drinks from their mobile coffee bar or pour overs for those on a smaller budget.

Their website states, “Since we truly believe every day calls for great coffee, we literally bring the entire (ultra-friendly) cafe vibe to you. So nix the average brew and let us pour our love and professionalism into giving you the absolute best coffee experience around! So what are you waiting for? Let us transform your venue, office, or even your home gathering into a coffee lounge full of excitement, good vibes, and of course, unforgettable coffee!” 

“One of the aspects I especially like is the party planning – we get to be part of people’s special occasions,” says Embry.

Currently, she is working with a friend in South Laguna on personalized cookies to add to the special occasion events.

Environmental responsibility

In running Jedidiah Coffee, environmental impact is uppermost on Steve’s mind. “We use an importer for the beans. In choosing, I look for the quality of production. Because some farms use child labor, the kids skip school. That doesn’t line up with our beliefs and sense of duty. One of our values to the community is that we try to select products that respect the environment – and people – even if we have to spend extra money. Even our cups and packaging are ecologically friendly.”

Jedidiah coffee door

Click on photo for a larger image

The door is always open – the guitar is Steve’s and Embry sings 

“Our initial dream in 2010 was to open a vibrant, welcoming cafe right here in the heart of Laguna Beach, and we are finally seeing that process begin,” says Embry. “We look forward to operating a coffee shop that not only serves incredible coffee beverages but becomes a space that locals and visitors alike come together to enjoy one another, and hopefully, rally to give back to our special town. Our company has always been about gathering people together and setting the tone for genuine, vulnerable conversation and relationship.” 

Invitation to stop by

As the Munseys say, “Coffee cultivates community.”

They want the town to know that, “We are here! Feel free to come by our roasting facility this summer, we just can’t promise it will be a quick chat. We’ll be posting specific hours and days, along with some fun offerings we’ll have available certain days of the week – make sure you’re following us on Instagram to keep up with all the excitement.” 

When not at their facility, the Munseys spend time together as a family, hiking and surfing. Zealan is a student at Thurston, Gideon goes to Top of the World, and Liberty, when she’s old enough, will go there as well.

So stop by and take a look any weekday morning, but best to call ahead and let them know you’ll be coming by – at 2177 Laguna Canyon Rd. Use the driveway between the wine gallery and the classic car shop – take it to the end, go left, and then just follow the wonderful coffee smell to their location.

Caféphiles, don’t miss your chance to give Jedidiah Coffee your own discriminating taste test. You won’t be disappointed.

Stay tuned as their coffee journey goes full circle, marking ten years this summer. 

For more information about Jedidiah Coffee, go to www.jedidiahcoffee.comor call (949) 291-4325.

Share this story

The Best of Laguna Beach Banner2

Rumari expands with neighborhood Italian market

By Diane Armitage

As we inch ever closer to expanded restaurant seating options, Laguna restaurateurs are expanding their options, period. 

Chef Craig Connole (formerly K’ya and Rooftop) has gained traction since taking over Ristorante Rumari’s operation a year ago. With the City’s blessings, the crew created an entire 80-seat patio on its back parking lot (and discovered a lovely ocean view in the process.)

While that patio remains busily popping with Chef’s talented cooking, the interior of the restaurant is making way for a new Famiglia Alimentari with wine bar and bistro seating. 

Rumari expands wine

Click on photo for a larger image

Photo by Diane Armitage

The Alimentari Italian Market has recently opened at Ristorante Rumari

Laguna’s first Italian market

Picture your favorite go-to market when you were last in Florence or a larger city’s “Little Italy,” and you know exactly what’s developing at Rumari over the next 30 days.

An Italian “Alimentari” is typically a family-run market that offers sublime pantry items, fresh-baked breads, daily made sauces and pastas for grab-and-go, wines and beers by the glass or bottle, and even butchery items.

Rumari expands burrata

Click on photo for a larger image

Photo courtesy of Famiglia Alimentari 

The Osteria housed in the market offers many of Chef Craig’s most popular items, including Burrata dishes

The market, which includes an Osteria (“wine bar with simple foods”) will be open from about 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. five or six days a week. Dinner seating for Rumari’s larger menu will continue as usual (once allowed indoors), Wednesdays through Sunday, 5 to 9 p.m.

Keeping it in the family

In keeping with the family-run theme, Chef Craig has brought on his sister, Christi Bell, and niece Keely Bell to help him run the Alimentari operation. Older sister Christi is a familiar face, having been a staple in management in various restaurants operated by Craig and fellow business partner Chris Keller.

Rumari expands family

Click on photo for a larger image

Photo by Diane Armitage

Famiglia Alimentari is a family kind of thing with management between sister Christi Bell (left), Chef Craig Connole, and Christi’s daughter (Craig’s niece), Keely

“We put the plans together for this about a year ago,” said Craig. “But then, you know, everything got crazy, and we’re just now getting around to finally creating what really is meant to be a neighborhood go-to for our Laguna neighborhoods.”

As refrigerators for bottled items and grab-and-go dinners are rolling into play, Famiglia Alimentari already offers plenty of pantry items, and its Osteria remains true to its name, offering a fully stocked wine bar (and bartender!) at the Rumari bar. 

The wine bar and bistro seating will offer a revolving shorter menu of Chef Craig’s famous Meatballs Marinara, Smoked Salmon Carpaccio, Polenta with Ragu Bolognese, and Italian sandwiches with Rumari’s melt-in-your-mouth breads.

“We’ll be opening around 11 a.m. each day, so it’s easy to stop in, grab a great lunch or early dinner, maybe have a glass of wine, and pick up items for your next dinner at home,” said Christi.

Rumari expands chops

Click on photo for a larger image

Photo courtesy of Famiglia Alimentari

Ready-made dinners will include popular favorites including Chef Craig’s fabulous lamb chops

The grab-and-go refrigerators will be stocked with ready-made dinners from the Rumari menu, including best-selling lasagne, eggplant parmigiana, spaghetti & meatballs, and more. Chef Craig is also packaging up his famous sauces, meatballs, salads, and desserts.

Italian beers and popular wines from both sides of the Atlantic will be housed in the miniature wine shop, too.

Customized picnic baskets 

In keeping with that old world, rustic theme, Alimentari is offering picnic baskets of various sizes, too. These can be custom ordered in advance or picked up with packed-to-go options.

“People can pick up a picnic basket for the beach or their backyard. And, we’re hoping hotel guests in the area will be interested, too,” said Craig. 

“A lot of times, you may be checking into a hotel after flying across the country. You know you need to eat but you really don’t feel like heading out again. So, grab your picnic basket and hang out on your deck where you have the best views in town, anyway.”

Rumari expands market

Click on photo for a larger image

Photo by Diane Armitage

Authentic Italian pantry items and foodie gift baskets adorn the shelves at the new Italian market housed in Ristorante Rumari

Ready for parties & catering, too

As the front of house is seeing significant changes, the back storeroom has been cleaned up too.

“We’re just here to be your go-to,” said Chef Craig. “If you want something special…if you need a private chef…if you have a special occasion you don’t know how to plan for…that’s what the Famiglia Alimentari specializes in.”

 It’s that added homey touch in one of the longest running neighborly restaurants in Laguna Beach.   

“In the end, we’re just neighbors helping out neighbors,” said Craig. 

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

La Rue du Chocolat: sweet dreams are made of this


Photos by Mary Hurlbut

“Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.” 

No doubt everyone recognizes that famous line from the movie Forrest Gump. However, contrary to that quote, you always know what you’re going to get at La Rue du Chocolat – fine handmade chocolates, truffles, and fresh chocolate-dipped strawberries. 

La Rue du Chocolat means the street of chocolate – an apt name since the shop is located in Pepper Tree Lane, a historic building constructed in 1934 around a pepper tree. They have been creating handcrafted chocolates since the 1950s. When passing through the arched brick entries of this Laguna landmark, one can leave reality behind and experience the mood of a European holiday. 

La Rue entrance

Click on photo for a larger image

Historic Pepper Tree Lane – built around pepper tree in 1934

Owner Cosima Qiza, who has worked at the shop since she was 19 and eventually took it over, has seen a lot of changes in the narrow walkway that constitutes Pepper Tree Lane. The restaurant across the passageway changed from Partners Bistro to Watermarc, and it will soon be a new establishment, Rum Social Kitchen & Cocktails. A hat shop became Gelato Paradiso, and Sutton Place is now Smitten, which Cosima acquired 18 months ago. 

“Anita, the previous proprietor, wanted to retire after 30 plus years in business,” Cosima says.

La Rue du Chocolat is a traditional chocolate shop in every sense – from the marble cabinets to the glass cases filled with exquisite delights and the glass jars filled with delectable treats such as chocolate-covered almonds. 

Everything about the shop is unique. Even the signage on the window was made years ago – and because the artist passed away, cannot be replicated.

In 2020, the shop earned an Award of Excellence from the Health Department, which is granted to very few establishments. 

La Rue case

Click on photo for a larger image

All chocolates handmade in their certified kitchen 

“We have been using our own certified kitchen for about 10 years,” Cosima says. “The chocolatiers I used slowly went out of business. They either gave me their recipes, or I researched them. Everything is handmade and shipped weekly.”

Some of the favorite chocolates are birthday cake truffles, Grand Marnier Liqueur, and dark chocolate almond clusters. They also have vegan and sugar-free chocolates.

When Cosima says her chocolates are hand-dipped, she means it. There is no machinery involved. “They are authentically hand-dipped, the caramel is mixed over a pot, and the English toffee is spread out on a marble board and cut.”

To add to the shop’s charm, Cosima added a section filled with cards, stuffed animals, and boutique items. 

La Rue store front

Click on photo for a larger image

La Rue du Chocolat carries unique gift items

“We go to shows in Las Vegas and Los Angeles for the merchandise, and I bring some back from my travels,” she says. “We have gifts and a little bit of everything – ornaments, cards, dolls. I love finding cool items.”

Because La Rue du Chocolat was considered essential (since chocolate is food), during the pandemic, they stayed open, filled pickup orders, and delivered. 

The shop celebrates the holidays in a big way – both in the creation of their candies and in designing the store windows.

“We’re very seasonal,” says Cosima. “We decorate the windows for the holidays – Christmas, Halloween, Easter, Valentine’s Day. People come from all over to see our window decorations.”

La Rue window

Click on photo for a larger image

Windows are decorated for seasons 

And they come for the customer service as well. 

Cosima has four employees. Izzy, who has been with the shop for eight years and now works – as needed – in Smitten, says, “It’s super great to work for Cosima. It’s the best job I could ever have. It’s creative, and I get to decorate chocolate.”

“They all have little specialties,” says Cosima. “Izzy does the cellophane for packaging, Jamie does the ‘O crunch,’ Ella does the mint frogs, and Sala decorates. And they do whatever is necessary, such as restocking. There’s always something to do – mop the floor or clean out the refrigerator.”

Sala has been with Cosima for six years, Ella is a student at LBHS, and Jamie will graduate this year from LBHS. For three and a half years, Danica has helped run the business. “She assists with everything,” says Cosima. “And all my staff is good with customer service.”

Started as a teenager

“I started here when I was 19 years old,” says Cosima. 

Since she started at La Rue du Chocolat, the shop has served as a touchstone. She continued to return to it over the years until she took over the business from the landlords 10 plus years ago. “I stayed and never left,” she says. 

While she was working there, she attended University of California at Irvine, earning a degree in Political Science. 

La Rue strawberries

Click on photo for a larger image

Hand-dipped strawberries 

“Then I took a position at Target as manager,” she says, “and worked there less than a year while still at the shop. I started here in sales, then went on to managing and ordering, and held other jobs too – one at Diane’s Swimsuits. For Habitat for Humanity, I traveled to Thailand, Hungary, and Egypt and then came back and again worked at the shop. I always had a key, and I always came back here.”

A fateful meeting

Pepper Tree Lane also houses The Saloon, where Cosima met her husband Erik Hill.

Although both Cosima and Erik are longtime Laguna residents – Cosima went to El Morro, Thurston, and Laguna Beach High School – their paths didn’t cross until that momentous meeting.

Unbeknownst to Erik, he went to LBHS with Cosima’s two older brothers. “When they met, Erik mentioned, ‘I go to school with two brothers from Pakistan,’” Cosima says – and the connection was made.

Their wedding photographs were taken on the stairs just outside her shop.

The couple now has three children (two attend El Morro), ages seven, six, and two. Erik, who comes from a family of teachers, is an instructor in the Santa Ana Unified School District.

La Rue chocolates

Click on photo for a larger image

Chocolate is the “food of the gods” 

How Cosima ended up in Laguna was a long journey. Her parents took the family from Pakistan to Singapore and then eventually settled in Laguna. Her parents and in-laws still live here. 

Anyone who has been in Laguna that long knows the town is all about community. “The locals really support us,” she says. “Some come in once a week. If we don’t have what they want, we’ll make it.”

Called the “food of the gods,” chocolate has been unmatched in history for its taste and importance. Its history goes back to over 4,000 years. 

La Rue du Chocolat is doing its best to keep this tradition alive and well and at your fingertips. If you want a taste of heaven, go to Cosima’s shop. You’ll be dreaming of this “sweet food of the gods” from now on.

The shop is open every day from 12-8 p.m.

La Rue du Chocolat is located at 448 S Coast Hwy.

For more information on the shop, go to or call (949) 494-2372.

Share this story

The Best of Laguna Beach Banner2

Saigon Beach Vietnamese Eats opens at last

By Diane Armitage 

It’s been exactly two years and eleven months since the former Royal Thai went dark, waiting for a new breath of life. 

She finally got her wish when new owners Phong and Lan Vu opened the doors to Saigon Beach Vietnamese Eats last Thursday.

Saigon exterior

Click on photo for a larger image

Photo by Diane Armitage

Saigon Beach Vietnamese Eats has opened next to Mozambique

“As you can probably guess, it’s been a much longer timetable than we first envisioned,” said Phong, “But we’re finally here and we know it’s where we’re supposed to be. 

“On our first day last Thursday, a couple Laguna police stopped in, and they called on the radio to let all their peers know, so we had a busy restaurant right from the start,” said Phong. 

An engineer by trade, Phong says his wife, Lan, has been the driving force behind the restaurant business. Ever and always interested in what she could create in the kitchen, Lan initially started with a yogurt and sandwich shop 17 years ago. 

Saigon owners

Click on photo for a larger image

Photo by Diane Armitage

Saigon Beach husband-and-wife team, Chef Lan (left) and Phong Vu

Chefs just can’t help but expand their repertoire, though. With urging from his successful uncle, who opened the first Vietnamese restaurant in Minneapolis in 1975, the couple opened Saigon Beach in Newport Beach in late 2016. 

With rave reviews on Lan’s unique take on banh mi (the heavenly Vietnamese version of a flaky baguette stuffed with meats or vegetables), Saigon Beach in Newport Beach was an immediate hit, and still ranks consistently as one of the Top 100 Restaurants in the United States. 

Two years later, it was time to expand (because that’s what chefs do). The couple considered Huntington Beach, but felt drawn to Laguna for the local vibe.

Sleek & Chic

If any of you remember the dark wood and ornamentation of the former Royal Thai, you’re in for quite a surprise at Saigon Beach. Simple, chic modern is the name of the game for the dining room, with a brand-new kitchen’s shiny stainless-steel winking from behind.

“We swept everything away and started from the ground up,” said Phong. “We had the opportunity here in Laguna to create a bigger kitchen that would accommodate more of a gourmet menu along with catering fulfillment, and we’ve taken full advantage of all this space,” he added. 

Saigon interior

Click on photo for a larger image

Photo by Diane Armitage

Saigon Beach offers quick counter service in a peaceful, chic setting

This is a sophisticated counter service kind of place with wine and beer options to keep you company as your food is prepared. It is a casual eatery (seating outside, too) with fine food fare. 

Pork Belly Lollipops?

“It seems that the locals have a passion for food here,” Phong explained. “And, as our Chef says, we didn’t come all this way to cook ordinary food.”

While Lan and her fellow chef have transported a few Newport Beach favorites into the new Laguna restaurant, they’ve spent time crafting a new menu specifically for Laguna Beach that leans more toward gourmet Vietnamese.

Chef specials and favorites adorn simple chalkboards, while paper menus with accompanying QR codes for scanning offer an extensive array of Vietnamese food at its finest.

Saigon interior

Click on photo for a larger image

Photo by Diane Armitage

Watch for favorites and specials on the daily chalkboards

Chef Lan says the Pork Belly Lollipops have proven a big hit, while the Golden State Curry offers a rare mix of Vietnamese flair with Indian curry.

Adds husband Phong, “The 420 Green Rice didn’t have a name for the longest time, but many of our customers told us that it was seriously addictive…so, thus the name.”

The All-Day Menu ranges with Banh Mi options, Crispy and Fresh Spring Egg Rolls, 420 Green Rice, Nam Nam Wings, Pho Noodle Soup, and Crazy Rich Bao (perhaps I’ll try this with my Crazy Rich Asians Production Designer buddy Nelson Coates).

The Evening Menu, served from 4 to 9 p.m., adds in small plates and entrées that include Shakey Shakey Beef, Golden State Curry, and Garlic Noods.

Stay tuned for emerging details

Saigon Beach is open in Laguna Beach seven days a week, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. for lunch, and again from 4 to 9 p.m. The parking lot is available to Saigon Beach clientele for both dine-in and pick-up. 

I’ll be trying the food at Saigon Beach in short order, but feel free to send me your comments and photos about our newest restaurant’s fare by DMing me at Instagram or Facebook @BestofLagunaBeach. I’ll be happy to feature your best photography!

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

Avila’s El Ranchito and Laguna Presbyterian team up to provide Waymakers with Taco Tuesdays

The old African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child,” suggests that the caring involvement of an entire community is necessary for its children to grow and prosper in healthy environments.

It is also an especially appropriate description of how generous members of Laguna Presbyterian Church and Avila’s El Ranchito Mexican restaurant are teaming up with Waymakers Youth Shelter Laguna Beach to provide the shelter’s clients with Taco Tuesday meals now through the end of this year. 

“We want to show our clients, who are at-risk youth ages 12-17, that there are individuals in the community that care about their well-being like we do,” explained Chelsea Burch, Volunteer Coordinator at Waymakers. “We leverage community resources in our work to create healthier situations for these youth, which includes sharing meals together. As you can imagine, the COVID-19 crisis has made it much more difficult financially for nonprofits like ours, and so we are especially grateful to El Ranchito and Laguna Presbyterian Church for providing the Taco Tuesday meals. This will make a huge difference for us.” 

Avila's El Ranchito family

Click on photo for a larger image

Courtesy of El Ranchito Facebook

The Avila Family: Michael and Christine and their two children, Benson and Braden

Michael Avila, whose family-owned Mexican restaurants have had a reputation for “treating customers like family” for over 50 years, says, “We’re honored to now be able to extend our hospitality to the clients of Waymakers through these Taco Tuesday meals.” 

Likewise, Camron Hauer, newly appointed Laguna Presbyterian Church Student Director and Laguna Beach High School Water Polo coach, notes, “I have been inspired with the care that Waymakers brings to those who come through their doors. It has been a pleasure to see other organizations and individuals reaching out to them in order to be a part of what they are doing. I urge anyone who wants to help to contact Waymakers in order to see how they can support them. We who are lucky enough to be a part of this community know how special it is. It is my hope that we continue to be a community who loves our neighbors.”

Hauer’s personal connection with Waymakers started with him being an Elder representing the Mission Outreach Committee, which supports Waymakers through Laguna Presbyterian Church.

For more information on Waymakers Youth Shelters, visit

Share this story

Mozambique owner Ivan Spiers keeps live music alive by featuring musicians in outdoor venue


Photos by Mary Hurlbut

At one of the few venues allowed for live music in Laguna, Ivan Spiers, owner of Mozambique, is helping musicians and music stay alive in these difficult times. Since musicians weren’t allowed to perform inside, last year Spiers was granted permits for the large tent installed in his parking lot. During the ensuing months, while navigating through the restaurant’s various openings and closings, he invited musicians to come and play.

“I thank the City for working with us to get the tent,” he says. 

Spiers wanted to bring back the music as soon as possible after COVID, of course, for guest enjoyment, but mostly to help the artists survive. 

Free entertainment 

“A lot of artists haven’t been able to work much in the last 18 months, so we are trying to do our part to support them and help them earn tips,” says Spiers. “We have always supported musicians, and the customers are generous in tipping them.” 

The entertainment is free to patrons. 

Spiers bought the restaurant (formerly Tortilla Flats) 19 years ago and spent three years rebuilding it. During the years, Mozambique has been a place to go for good music (and great food).

Mozambique owner building

Click on photo for a larger image

Large tent in parking lot at Mozambique

On Thursday through Sunday evenings, different rotating bands perform from 6-9 p.m. On Sundays, Mando Cordova plays jazz from 12-3 p.m., and C-Flat plays Reggae from 6-9 p.m.

Spiers has yet another plan to further support musicians by increasing the hours of operation for live music.

Even though Mozambique now stops the music at 9 p.m. due to the neighborhood noise issues, Spiers has a remedy in the works for that. “In the next nine months, we are going to totally soundproof the building and expand.” 

Only the dining room downstairs will be open for that time period.

“There is much better sound technology now, and I’ve had experts working on it,” Spiers says.

The musicians

Cordova has been playing at Mozambique since 2016 and currently entertains during Sunday Brunch. 

“I am blessed to have somewhere that supports live music,” says Cordova. “There’s nothing else like this venue – a place where there is equipment, and you can just step in and play. I’ve played with several of the other musicians who perform here. We all know each other.”

He sings in three languages – English, Spanish, and Portuguese. With those credentials, one would imagine Cordova came from a long career as a musician, however, he had two careers before this one. He spent 21 and a half years in the Marine Corp, and 16 years as a Police Officer in Long Beach. 

“I was dealing with so much violence,” says Cordova. “Music is the balance in my life.”

Following his parents’ lead, Cordova started playing music when he was a kid. His dad played jazz trumpet and his mother is a vocalist. Delving into jazz six years ago, Cordova rediscovered the American songbook and performs songs by legends such as Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra. He hopes the audience experiences the intention behind the songs, “By letting me reach their souls and share feelings.” 

In addition to Mozambique, he plays at The Drake on Friday and Saturday nights.

Mozambique owner smiling

Click on photo for a larger image

Front row: (L-R) Mando Cordova, Mozambique owner Ivan Spiers, Jara Harris; Back row: (L-R) Fully Fullwood, Koko Powell, Rock Deadrick, Bob Hawkins, Andrew Bloom, and Michael Hyde

Bob Hawkins, Rock Deadrick, Fully Fullwood, and Michael Hyde make up the band C-Flat which plays Reggae on Sunday nights from 6-9 p.m. 

“We started playing late last year,” says Hawkins. “It’s a great place to play. Ivan provides such a wonderful situation for musicians. We thank him for that.”

“Ivan does a great job of supporting live music,” adds Hyde, who used to play at the White House and Cliff Restaurant.

Fullwood chimes in, “There is always a positive vibration. It’s great working here – and working with all the other musicians.” He also does studio work. 

“I have worked with Ivan and love the opportunity to play live,” Deadrick says. “I very much appreciate the way he supports the music community.” 

The Andrew Bloom Band, which plays on Saturday nights, is composed of Andrew Bloom, Jara Harris, and KoKo Powell. Andrew Bloom started playing at Mozambique when he was just 17 years old, “This place is a blessing for all of us during this time – to have steady work means so much, especially now.”

When not playing at Mozambique, Bloom tours with his band and performs at weddings and other events.

Spiers understands musicians

“It’s the best job and experience I’ve ever had – with the greatest boss who understands musicians and that music is your living,” says Powell. 

Harris, who is soon going on tour with Donavon Frankenreiter, is also part of a band called Slapeak (a name taken from one of their songs). They’ll be playing at Decades in Anaheim on May 28 and will also perform for four nights (from May 6 through May 9) at the Coach House.

“It’s so nice to have a guy like Ivan who understands how the pandemic affected musicians,” says Harris. “He made it a priority to provide work for musicians.”

“Laguna Beach is all about the arts, and music is one of the arts that needs to be supported through this tough time,” says Spiers.

Live music is alive and well at Mozambique, thanks to Spiers and his fantastic group of musicians.

Mozambique is located at 1740 S Coast Hwy.

For more information, go to or call (949) 715-7777.

Share this story

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


Photos by Mary Hurlbut

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

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

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

New roles

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

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

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


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

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

Chef Owner Linday Smith closeup

Click on photo for a larger image

Chef/Owner Lindsay Smith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Passion for food

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

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

Chef Owner Lindsay Mateo

Click on photo for a larger image

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

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

The rhythm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chef Owner Lindsay Diego cooking

Click on photo for a larger image

Smith says Diego loves to cook

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

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

The road to Nirvana

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

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

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

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

Chef Owner lLndsay kidding around

Click on photo for a larger image

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

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

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

Work, work, work

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chef Owner Lindsay kissing

Click on photo for a larger image

A more peaceful moment 

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

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

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

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

What the future looks like

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.