Laguna Beach may not have the iconic piers, theme parks or surf-world prestige of its popular neighbors Newport Beach and Huntington Beach, but this quaint Orange County town more than makes up for it with blocks upon blocks of artsy atmosphere and fine dining, all nestled between picturesque rolling hills and one of the loveliest shorelines Southern California has to offer.
Due to its unique location trapped between uneven coastline and endless expanses of rolling hills, the relatively remote Laguna Beach is one of Orange County’s greatest spots for outdoor recreation, offering miles of beach access and hiking trails. This small beach town isn’t just a hotspot for nature but for culture as well, thanks to the long line of local art galleries, world-class eateries and boutique shops lining nearly every one of Laguna Beach’s seaside avenues.
The artsy atmosphere and natural wonders of Laguna Beach must attract many of the region’s best chefs, because the small area has become something of a breeding ground for delicious, endlessly creative restaurants, most of them making good use of the bountiful seafood that comes with such prime Pacific Coast real estate.
K’ya Bistro Bar (1287 S Coast Hwy), for example, has surf specialties like their refreshing ahi tuna poke and impossibly rich lobster meatballs, but their lengthy menu doesn’t stop there. This tapas bar with a world-class ocean view (a common occurrence in Laguna) has an extensive menu filled with meaty and meatless Mediterranean-tinged dishes like grilled lamb, seared filet mignon and truffle risotto. Every small plate looks as immaculate as it is delicious.
Boasting one of the city’s most central locations, Carmelita’s (217 Broadway St) serves high-end Mexican food that elevates the cuisine of Orange County’s largest minority group to new heights of culinary bliss. The menu is packed with familiar Mexican classics and specialties prepared with just enough expertise and attention to ingredients to make them newly satisfying, like the wine-roasted seafood enchiladas or skirt steak fajitas. The dark, friendly atmosphere makes Carmelita’s one of Laguna’s best places to eat or simply lounge around.
The name Nick is synonymous with fine dining along this stretch of Pacific coastline, and Nick’s Laguna Beach (440 S Coast Hwy) is just one of four high-end restaurants in the region, all defined by a commitment to innovative, high quality food and drinks. Nick’s serves distinctly southern Californian cuisine, blending American and south-of-the-border flavors, for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Every drink and dish comes simply served with a collection of complimentary, delicious and sometimes unusual ingredients that always add up to a delicious whole.
Though it may be simply named after its own address, Three Seventy Common (370 Glenneyre St) proves far more creative when it comes to their progressive-American meals. Small, large and in between dishes like poutine, parmesan and prosciutto, and the appropriately named 10-napkin burger are all beautifully prepared with fresh-cut herbs adorning them. The chef’s attention to detail shines through the flavor of each distinct seasonal specialty, so much so you may find it difficult to leave without trying a few extra small plates in this wide-open restaurant.
Among all the forward-thinking American restaurants, Central (361 Forest Ave) provides a welcome change of pace with their narrowed focus on coastal Peruvian cuisine. The chefs pride themselves on grass-fed meats and organically sourced foods, losing little in the translation of vibrant South American cuisine to this southern California locale. Relax and converse over one of their rustic wooden tables before partaking of favorites like sea bass ceviche, braised lamb shank and paella with snow crab claws.
Brussels Bistro (222 Forest Ave) tries something different as well, devoting their décor and their cuisine to one of Europe’s unsung culinary champions, Belgium. Their meat-centric menu is filled with the sort of simply-prepared but nonetheless irresistible food one would expect from Belgian cuisine, plus favorites like mussels served with various broths and fries. And of course, this unfussy, welcoming spot couldn’t truly consider itself Belgian without a respectable list of delicious beers on tap.
Night time in Laguna is defined by the city’s surplus of great eateries, most of which stay open late, offer full bars, and often even book acoustic acts for popular nights. But the nightlife doesn’t end there as there are a few walkable hotspots around for drinks, dancing and energetic live music.
Whether you decide to step in to end a big night out or to ease your sorrows after a long day, The Saloon (446 S Coast Hwy) always feels like the sort of welcoming hangout its name suggests. Friendly bartenders and patrons fill this local speakeasy with easygoing atmosphere, which makes up for what it lacks in seating. Don’t leave without trying the Piño—that’s house-infused pineapple vodka with cranberry juice.
The Sandpiper Lounge (1183 S Coast Hwy) has acquired the local nickname of “the Dirty Bird” for its sweaty, prototypical dive bars charms, which tend to turn off some visitors and enchant many others. Red and blue lights adorn the ceilings of this lovably dingy beach bar, where raucous live acts encourage everyone to hit the modest dance floor and let loose for the night. If that’s what you’re looking for, the Sandpiper Lounge is probably the best place to do it.
The Marine Room Tavern (214 Ocean Ave) is undeniably one of the city’s hippest spots, a live music venue that once catered to bikers but now tends to attract younger, livelier crowds. Friendly bartenders, casual atmosphere and an extensive whiskey selection are the constants here, as the large, blue-backlit stage is always hosting a new live act, typically within the genres of rock, folk or Americana.
Laguna Beach is a beach town, but it’s also an art town, a paradise for locals looking to sell their latest sculptures or handmade jewelry or visitors looking to buy. Every commercial avenue is loaded with unique wares worth browsing through around here, but here are a few worthy places to begin.
Thalia Street Surf Shop (915 S Coast Hwy) is, essentially, a vision of the perfect surf shop. Located on the ocean-facing side of Highway 1, the wood-paneled shop is bursting with color, not just from surfboards of all shapes and sizes, but from stylish bathing suits, clothes, shoes, accessories and even media such as albums on vinyl and rare-find surfing DVDs. This modestly-priced sporting goods store simply oozes the kind of culture you’d expect from such an easygoing SoCal beach town.
Buy Hand (670 S Coast Hwy Unit B) specializes in handmade American crafts that are truly one of a kind, carefully selected from merchants and creators all around the nation. The aesthetic of the shop and its goods is sunny and cheerful, with wares like their blue chalcedony rings made from sea glass collected right from the sea shores. Their bright brand of affordable merchandise pays tribute to American creative craftsmanship in Laguna Beach and beyond. http://www.lagunabuyhand.com/
It’s difficult to get a full understanding and appreciation for Laguna Beach’s beloved art gallery scene in just one day, but the Laguna Beach Art Walk that occurs the first Thursday of every month gives visitors the chance to try anyway. For one evening every month, free shuttles bus tourists and locals between more than a dozen participating galleries dotted along the highway. Artsy hotspots like the Laguna Art Museum (307 Cliff Dr) or the ocean-centric Wyland Galleries (509 S Coast Hwy) open their doors for a night of appreciation for the culture and artists who help to make Laguna Beach unique.