Chef Craig Strong, whose talents have earned the Montage resort’s Studio restaurant top reviews during his near decade tenure, is striking out on his own as owner of a Laguna Beach restaurant.
Over the last six months, Strong struck a deal to buyout the owners and developers of Taverna, an Italian restaurant that since its 2016 opening has struggled to fill its 126 seats in a historic Ocean Avenue building.
This past Sunday, the restaurant hosted a closing party for loyal patrons. The following day, movers arrived to crate up glassware, tables and chairs, according to Heidi Miller, who owns the boutique Tight Assets near the restaurant and attended the party.
“The hard part is it’s been doing really well lately,” said Robert Clayton, vice president of Lombardi Family Restaurants. The Dallas-based restaurant group that operates nine restaurant concepts will continue to own the property and Strong will own and operate the restaurant with a partner, he said.
Clayton predicted Strong’s presence will elevate Ocean Avenue, better known for three bars than for fine dining. “This is a huge deal,” he said.
Strong did not respond to requests for comment.
The chef intends to make some cosmetic changes and plans to reopen within six or seven weeks, integrating into the menu signature items that were hits at Studio, Clayton said. “He’s so excited. It’s his first outing on his own.” Strong has yet to settle on a name, though three are under consideration, Clayton said.
Strong will make use of Taverna’s pizza oven and offer fresh-made pasta, retaining the restaurant’s family style, he said.
Strong has also offered to re-hire the part-time staff of 15 people, who likely will have little trouble finding temporary summer jobs. “Every restaurant is in need of extra help during summer,” Clayton said.
Taverna emerged from a drawn-out makeover of a former retail store. It revealed an outdoor patio and fountain flanked by tile murals that depict homeownership, a hint of its original use as Laguna Federal Savings.
Tax records show the historic property at 222 Ocean Ave. sold for $3.3 million in 2017 and is owned by 222 Ocean Drive LLC. Taverna’s liquor license is still owned by the same entity, whose principals are identified as William Hutchinson and Alberto Lombardi, liquor license records show.
The property includes a second level apartment that Lombardi also remodeled and hoped to occupy.
“We thank Craig for an incredible nine years leading the culinary team at Studio and wish him all the best in his next chapter,” Anne-Marie Houston, general manager for Montage Laguna Beach, said in a statement.
The resort, a source of pride as well as a major employer and tax-generator for the city, has undergone several property ownership changes since Strong took the helm at Studio. And while ownership of the hotel operating company has remained stable, the general management of the Laguna property, too, has flipped several times in the past decade