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New Hotspots Burnish Laguna’s Dining Reputation

When it comes to dining, the odds are improving that your preferences in food or ambiance can be found on a Laguna Beach street corner thanks to the latest batch of newcomers to open their doors.

“Laguna has a lot of destination restaurants, so we’re very lucky,” said Mayor Toni Iseman, who last week was literally pounding a drum alongside Japanese drummers for the opening of Katsuya by Starck Laguna Beach.

Katsuya, owned by Los Angeles’ SBE Restaurant Group, is among the highest profile destination restaurants to open locally in recent years. Laguna is the fifth hand-picked location for Katsuya, which features the culinary creations of master sushi chef Katsuya Uechi presented in a space designed by renowned architect Philippe Starck. Other locations include Brentwood, Glendale, Hollywood and downtown Los Angeles’ L.A. Live, with additional locations planned for Houston and Miami.

“It is really an honor for the industry and the city” for a group such as SBE to invest in Laguna, said Chris Keller, who opened the House of Big Fish and Ice Cold Beer last year and is co-owner of Hotel La Casa del Camino and its K’ya Bistro and Rooftop Lounge.

“I’m always delighted to see enhancements in the restaurant choices in the community,” said Karyn Philippsen, a self-described food lover and president of the Laguna Beach Visitors & Conference Bureau. The addition of Katsuya and other restaurants to the local food scene, coming on the heels of the first Laguna a La Carte culinary event held this past spring, will help seal Laguna’s growing status as a culinary destination, Philippsen said.

As a restaurateur and president of the city’s Chamber of Commerce, Keller is excited by the new entries to the food scene, including Katsuya, Nancy Wilhelm’s recently opened Starfish and Scott McIntosh’s soon-to-open Asada.

SBE took care to adapt their concept to the community’s vibe, with a space that is “a little bit more relaxed, a little more open air,” according to Matt Erickson, SBE’s vice president of restaurants. The atmosphere, while unmistakably Starck, was executed by local architect Morris Skenderian, who personally supervised the whirlwind four-month conversion. It takes over the completely redesigned space formerly occupied by Hush, which closed abruptly last August.

The menu includes plenty of sushi and sashimi and reflects chef Uechi’s take on Japanese flavors tweaked for the American palate. Because of a perception of Laguna preferences, it will have a special emphasis on robata, a traditional Japanese style of grilling fish, meat and vegetables very simply on a charcoal-fired hearth.

The space alone is worth a trip to the restaurant to appreciate the design, Iseman said. “If you’re a foodie, there’s a lot do celebrate,” she said.

Laguna diners should be sure to mention that they are local when making reservations at Katsuya, 858 S. Coast Highway, which opens for dinner July 8 and begins serving lunch on July 25.

Pacific Edge’s Deck restaurant offers a welcome respite for the sun-parched beach-goers. Photo by Ted Reckas

Some who make the beach their destination have made a new oceanfront discovery at The Deck, another newly opened restaurant on the ocean-side of the Pacific Edge Hotel, 627 Sleepyhollow Lane, owned by San Francisco’s Joie de Vivre Properties.

Where Katsuya offers contemporary formality in an indoor-outdoor space tempered with Laguna nonchalance, the open-air Deck’s beach vibe is tempered by the understated sophistication of an updated, resort-style snack bar.

Open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., hotel guests and the public can step off the beach, walk up a set of stairs once used by old Hollywood character actor Slim Summerville, an early owner of the property, and hit The Deck. They can slake their thirst with a specialty drink like the guava mango margarita or satisfy their hunger pangs with wings or tacos or a full-blown meal of paella or a flat iron steak. They need only stop long enough to slip into flip-flops, said Matt Pike, whose family has operated the adjacent Beach House since 1968. He and his brother Noah run the Beach House, whose kitchen serves The Deck.

Not unexpectedly, The Deck is a favorite at sunset. Locals should see locals-only specials in Indy ads in coming weeks. For more info, visit http://www.deckonlaguna.com or call 949-494-8566.

Diners will still have something to look forward to with the anticipated opening of Asada, 480 S. Coast Highway, former longtime location of Javier’s, which was vacated by Javier’s short-lived successor El Callejon. Asada will be the first solo venture for Scott McIntosh, a restaurant industry veteran who put in 26 years with the Claim Jumper chain, where he was president and chief operating officer. He also worked for another local restaurateur, David Wilhelm, and partnered with Nick Nickoloff in starting up Nick’s, a couple doors north of Asada.

Mr. and Mrs. Fong, the property owners, who also own the import shop between the two restaurants, approached McIntosh about developing his own concept for the space next door after he sold his interest in Nick’s.

“I’m ready to have fun now,” said McIntosh, who projected opening in late July.

McIntosh describes himself as a hands-on owner-operator who prides himself on consistent quality. He envisions not only the good Mexican restaurant he says the town needs, but one that will reprise the energy and following of Javier’s. His concept is for a fun place with prime steaks and fresh seafood, with some comfort and soul food thrown in as well, at a favorable price point. He considers himself fortunate for industry ties that permit him to select experienced people for his staff.

“You are going to feel this restaurant on the sidewalk,” he promised.

His enthusiasm was evident during a tour of the space still under construction, which he has planned to the last detail. It will include substantial booths that will offer views to the ocean; an airy space enhanced by sky lighting, mirrors and special awnings; an intimate bar offering specialty tequilas and margaritas and designed to encourage social interaction; and larger, modern bathrooms.

Such additions are helping to make Laguna Beach “the ultimate dining destination,” said Keller.

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  1. Debbie says:

    That’s awesome! We love trying new Laguna Beach restaurants! Pacific Edge is in a great location right on the water, too – bet the view is amazing!

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