As summer segues into fall, Laguna Beach’s vibrant food scene undergoes its own seasonal change as well with new restaurants poised to open and some old favorites kicking things up a notch.
New chefs will wield their knives at three eateries in well-established restaurant spots where the previous tenants all served their last meals in 2012.
First up, Okura Robata Grill and Sushi Bar plans to welcome patrons by the second week of October in the space at 858 S. Coast Highway that Katsuya vacated only seven months earlier, after holding on for less than a year.
National Hockey League darling Teemu Selanne’s eponymous steak house should be opening shortly thereafter at 1564 S. Coast Highway, where French 75 ended a 15-year run last winter.
And finally, the throne formerly occupied by the Royal Hawaiian, a landmark watering hole since 1947 but vacant the past 18 months, may have a pretender in the form of South of Nick’s Mexican Kitchen & Bar, a sister restaurant to Nick’s Laguna Beach that owners hope to open next summer.
Meanwhile, both Mozambique and House of Big Fish have had some work done, getting gussied up to better entice their patrons this fall.
The players in Laguna’s restaurant scene seem to take the stage in recurring roles, much like an acting troupe with a larger repertoire. So it should be no surprise that Okura’s owner Jay Lee cast Laguna restaurant veteran Danny Reyes as general manager in her new restaurant, a role he had won at the very same location for previous restaurant tenants, Hush and Mark’s.
He might have continued the streak with Katsuya, but didn’t see eye to eye with the Los Angeles-based owners. In the interim, he opened a restaurant in Costa Mesa and then put in 18-months as general manager at Laguna’s Nirvana Grille.
When the opportunity came to reprise his role, he jumped. With Okura’s owner, there’s chemistry.
“We are going to be a very strong team,” predicted Lee, who owns a successful restaurant by the same name in La Quinta. Reyes was recommended by a mutual friend, she said.
Reyes believes an emphasis on customer service will yield success at Okura where Katsuya failed, despite the restaurant’s similar fare. It comes down to understanding the locals and catering to their wishes, he said. You need a local bartender and a host “who knows the people in this town, so they don’t feel like strangers when they walk in.”
“I learned that from Mark [DePalma],” he said, referring to the former owner of Mark’s and current owner of ReMark’s, who taught him how to demonstrate hospitality.
Plans to open a steakhouse by an investment group that acquired French 75 last winter have been delayed more than once. But now owner Teemu Selanne, the Finnish-born Stanley Cup winner of the Anaheim Ducks who has partnered with businessman Kevin Pratt and restaurant operator Jim Shumate, hopes to open Selanne Steak House early next month, according to the restaurant’s voicemail message.
Anyone wanting a sneak peek beforehand can attend the Laguna Beach Beautification Council’s plaque dedication ceremony for Harry Lawrence at 2 p.m. on Oct. 1. The plaque will be placed by the Monterey pine in front of the restaurant, and Selanne Steak Tavern will host the festivities.
The Facebook page describes an “upscale neighborhood tavern and wine room” on the first floor, with a “traditional, upscale steakhouse” upstairs. Executive chef Josh Severson will offer comfort food, steaks, burgers and small plates that patrons can wash down with a variety of beers, including 12 on tap, and an extensive wine and cocktail list.
At the other end of town, Brian Harrington, managing partner of NickCo, owners of Nick’s Laguna Beach, confirmed that the group will open a Mexican version of Nick’s in Laguna next summer. The first South of Nick’s Mexican Kitchen & Bar opened in San Clemente last year.
In an e-mail, Harrington declined to reveal the location of the Laguna eatery, based on “a significant amount of renovation to complete.”
However, city planning manager Ann Larson said that South of Nick’s is expected to take over the Royal Hawaiian spot, based on an e-mail exchange with Laguna Beach attorney Joe Gelber, who she believes represented the property owner. Gelber declined to comment.
While locals wait for the newcomers to let them in, they can check out the updates at House of Big Fish and Ice Cold Beer and Mozambique.
House of Big Fish “has a new fresh look” and a revised menu, according to owner Chris Keller, also owner of the hotel La Casa del Camino, K’ya Bistro, the Rooftop Lounge and the Marine Room.
Closed for a few days in May to waterproof the bar area due to some leakage, they took the opportunity to give the restaurant the look and feel of a “more contemporary seafood house,” said Keller. They also tweaked the menu to more closely resemble the small plates model so successful at K’ya, and amped up the emphasis on the freshness of their seafood, such as a daily catch offered nightly bought in limited quantities so that it sells out while it’s still fresh.
The biggest news is that while weekday lunches ended with the summer, as of last week they now serve breakfast on weekends, including what Keller described as “one of the best bloody Mary’s you’ll ever have” garnished with blackened shrimp, skewered vegetables and micro greens.
To the south of town Mozambique now offers lunch, dinner and cocktails on their newly approved rooftop veranda, which opened Labor Day weekend. Currently operating on a temporary permit, the Veranda is open from 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. daily, and folks have been packing the rooftop to enjoy the sunsets every night, according to general manager George Poulos. “Laguna Beach needs more of these,” he said. “Everybody wants to wine and dine al fresco.”
Once they receive their final permit, they’ll hold a grand opening celebration, said Poulos.
“It’s fabulous,” enthused Steve Kawaratani, a local resident and land use consultant who helped owner Ivan Spiers get the permit approved for the rooftop deck. “It’s everything Ivan dreamt of,” he said.