Laguna’s Restaurants Season Expectations


With its art festivals and oceanfront, Laguna Beach delights visitors with a taste for visual culture and beach life. Yet, despite numerous restaurants, it lacks a reputation as a culinary destination. Several determined local “foodies” for years have worked to change that. Next week debuts their “Laguna Beach a la Carte: A Food & Wine Experience,” a four-day epicurean celebration involving 20 local restaurants, from March 10 to 13.


Nancy Milby, founder of Laguna Culinary Arts. Photo: Ted Reckas.

“This was a labor of love for over 10 years,” admitted Karyn Philippsen, a self-proclaimed food lover and president of the Laguna Beach Visitors & Conference Bureau, who began tossing around food-event ideas 15 years ago with Hotel Laguna’s epicurean-loving late owner, Claes Andersen, and Karen Warrick and Angie Miller, partners in an event planning company Fun Is First.


Their timing and the scale of their undertaking seem to have risen like the perfect soufflé. Some of the limited-seating events have already sold out, though tickets remain available to others, including the opening kickoff next Thursday at Laguna Culinary Arts, a rooftop cocktail party at La Casa del Camino, and the brunch next Sunday at Tivoli Too. A score of other local restaurants are also participating by offering discounts, specials and alluringly priced prix fixe menus over the four-day period, a complete list of which can be found at the new web site created by the bureau.


For years, though, ideas about a local food experience sprouted like seedlings that never germinated until other local food purveyors got involved. These included Bobby Fader, general manager at Tivoli Terrace and Tivoli Too!; Rob Quest, owner of Sundried Tomato; Victorio Gonzalez, then director of food and beverage at Montage Laguna Beach; Nancy Milby, founding executive director of Laguna Culinary Arts, Lindsay Smith-Rosales chef/owner of Nirvana Grille, and Michael Kang, chef-owner of the now closed Five Feet. Other supporters included Ben Warner and Steve Zapezauer of Firebrand Media, owner of Laguna Beach Magazine and the Indy.


This group met every month or so, in-between investigating food and wine events elsewhere to find out what worked and what didn’t. Momentum picked up, and the Visitors Bureau took the initiative of earmarking part of their budget for the nascent culinary venture and appointed a committee with Philippsen, Fader and Quest to further solidify plans. Two years ago, they sat down with the board to evaluate their options and decided on a four-day event.


Last summer, the team finally decided the timing was right. Foodies are now everywhere. Chefs have become major celebrities. Food-oriented web sites abound. Transition Laguna has recruited 500 to its food group that espouses eating locally and sustainably.


Phillipsen envisioned an event that raised the bar from a common food gathering, to one offering a high quality experience. “We didn’t want people coming here just to get full,” she said. “We wanted them to really understand and be exposed to the lifestyle of Laguna Beach.”


Organizers believed that if they created a timetable, the restaurants would make it happen. They did, after outreach from an in-house Visitors Bureau marketing team led by executive director Judith Bijlani.


Milby signed on for the kick-off event, March 10, where guests paying $50 per person can sample wines made by a score of premium California vintners paired with a cornucopia of small bites created by Laguna Culinary Arts’ executive chef Laurent Brazier, ranging from his signature turkey meatballs with tarragon cream sauce, to mini crab cakes to Kobe beef sliders, among other tasty treats, finished off with dark chocolate and lemon meringue tarts.


In creating “A Taste of California: Wine & Food Tasting,” Milby has invested her reputation and serious funds to attract 20 top wine makers from throughout the state to come to the event. “I’ve just got to give them a good show,” she said.


To have so many “really famous” California wineries in one location is “the dream tasting opportunity,” said Brazier.


As of Wednesday, about 250 advance tickets had been sold, and the limit is 500. The tasting will be held outdoors in front of the café, 845 Laguna Canyon Road, from 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Tickets are available at or 949-494-0745.


Montage Laguna Beach stepped up to host the finale on March 13, a “Culinary Exploration” that sold out the first day their full-page ad appeared in the Indy. A reception with hors d’oeuvres at the Studio, followed by a three-course wine pairing dinner was offered for a ticket price of $100 to 50 guests. A chance to sample executive chef Craig Strong’s much-touted culinary prowess at a discount was not lost on Laguna’s food-savvy population.


Saturday’s anchor event, a “Sunset Social” at the Surf & Sand Resort, has also sold out. This free, but RSVP-required, reception, including hors d’oeuvres prepared by Splash’s new chef Jeff Armstrong, as well as live music, reached its 200-guest limit sooner than expected, said the resort’s director of food and beverage, R.J. Bear. He thinks the quick sell-out is evidence people are buying into the idea of expanding their Laguna gourmet experience.


Hotel La Casa del Camino is hosting the Friday night event, March 11, at the hotel’s Rooftop Lounge, which is limited to 75 people. For $75, the “Rooftop Rendezvous” offers guests cocktails and passed appetizers from K’ya Bistro Bar from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. “We didn’t want to pass up being a part of this great culinary event,” said Chris Keller, co-owner of the hotel, 1289 S. Coast Highway.


Rounding out the anchors is Tivoli Too!, which is joined by the Laguna Board of Realtors in hosting “Champagne and All That Jazz,” a brunch from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Sunday, March 13. A ticket price of $75 per person includes brunch fare, free-flowing champagne from France’s premier Nicolas Feuillatte Winery, and entertainment by guest singer Elena Gilliam and guest host Betty DeGeneres (yes, that’s Ellen’s mom!), who will meet and greet attendees. One third of each ticket will be donated to the Laguna Beach Animal Shelter. To purchase tickets, call the Laguna Board of Realtors at 949-497-2474.


Biljani expects Laguna Beach a la Carte to become an annual event that will grow and expand each year. “We think it holds a lot of promise for Laguna,” she said, echoing hopes shared by the participants.



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