Local dining patrons eager to experience fresh restaurant concepts may soon have a trio of new Laguna Beach venues to visit, though all in familiar destinations.
The Coast Highway property formerly occupied by the restaurant Hush will soon become Katsuya Japanese cuisine. Nancy Wilhelm, managing partner of top-rated Tabu Grill, will open Asian-influenced Starfish Laguna in the Albertson’s shopping center, filling a corner where a Chinese restaurant faltered. McDonald’s spin-off Chipotle Mexican grill intends to expand its franchise near Main Beach, occupying the since-closed Crab Zone.
The Asian interests both aim to open by June before the peak tourist season, while Chipotle is still pursuing permits that were initially rejected and has yet to begin remodeling.
Starfish is the creation of Nancy Wilhelm, who with her former husband David Wilhelm opened defunct Cucina and Sorrento Grille. On her own, Wilhelm’s Tabu Grill received Zagat’s top rating in the county for two consecutive years.
By contrast, Chipotle has 1,000 locations, but an apparent recipe for success as its stock price doubled in the last year. It was spun off in 2006.
Operators of the popular Mexican food chain declined to comment on the status of their permit, which city records show was rejected, citing various deficiencies, including that local policy discourages formula-based businesses. Neither has the operation yet obtained a permit from the state Department of Alcohol and Beverage Control. Chipotle faces other hurdles in a food court intended to serve beach traffic that suffers from low visibility, lack of parking and a little noticed sign.
Even so, the chain has signed a lease with the owner of the property at 217 Broadway, according to Sodhi Ram, who manages Food Village, the cluster of fast-food restaurants and the gas station.
The storefront leased by Chipotle has seen multiple tenants prior to Crab Zone, including Mario’s Pizza, none of them long-staying, recalled Pooka Martinez, at Coast Hardware, across the street.
Chipotle spokesman Chris Arnold declined to discuss prospective locations that are not leased and under construction.
Starfish Laguna, on the other hand is near complete, with kitchen installation finished this week and doors open by June, Wilhelm said. The restaurant will seat 90 for dinner, and offer lunch and takeout service later.
“I’m taking flavors from all the different coastlines in Asia: China, Thailand, Vietnam, India. It will be a lower price point, similar to PF Chang’s. We will have a great bar with very different, interesting drinks with muddled herbs and spices,” she said.
“I really want to offer another alternative for working moms and something to eat that’s different than what we have in Laguna right now,” said Wilhelm.
Behzad Souferian, vice president of real estate at SBE, parent of Katsuya, said Laguna was chosen after extensive market research. “The goal was to enhance what’s already known as one of the most culturally engaging communities on the West Coast,” he said.
According to promotional material, “The concept is meant to create an alluring ambiance that represents a chic and casual celebration of food and drink.”
Allan Simon, the owner of Firebrand Media and the Laguna Beach Indy, owns the property. Hush abruptly closed its doors last August.
In addition to discouraging formula-based businesses under the city’s Downtown Specific Plan, other issues cited in Chipotle’s rejected permit include resistance by police for an alcohol permit, lack of a coastal development permit to increase seating capacity, repainting a historic building, and three existing unapproved developments at the space by the landlord.
Police spokeswoman Sgt. Louise Callus said no one at the department had any knowledge of Chipotle’s application.