When we first visited California in the early 1980s we decided to take the coast highway as often as possible on a drive from San Diego to LA, and that was the first time we ever saw Laguna Beach. It was mid-morning and we were ready for a hearty breakfast when we noticed the little sign for the Beach House restaurant. The breakfast was great. But the view was enchanting. We didn’t want to leave, and, due in part to that first experience, we ended up moving to Laguna Beach less than a year later. What does that story have to do with Driftwood Kitchen? Laguna’s newest seafood restaurant occupies a fully renovated structure that was once the Beach House. Much like Selanne’s redo of the iconic French 75 (see earlier review), the Driftwood Kitchen retained much of the basic layout that was the Beach House while adding wonderful design touches that tell you this place is all new and very different.
We arrived early on a Tuesday evening and were directed by a signboard to check-in at the Deck (their outdoor partner restaurant around the corner) from which we were guided through a back route to the Stateroom, which is the Driftwood Kitchen’s bar. We found the roundabout very odd and we never really got a proper explanation except for something about people not being able to find the hostess when they come through the front.
The bar, while nicely designed, is dark and sparsely furnished and has strange, uncomfortable metal barstools. The bartender, Zack, turned out to be one of the service highlights of our visit—friendly, attentive, and willing to answer our questions about the renovations and where the restaurant is headed with their food and style. While in the bar we tried a couple of “small plates” with our martinis – I had the Summer Squash Blossoms ($11) stuffed with ricotta and nestled in a well-made chunky tomato sauce. It was quite tasty and satisfying though perhaps too much before dinner (my bad). My husband had a large Crab Cake ($15), which he said was very good but not extraordinary. He felt the accompanying endive and pear salad was delicious but an odd paring choice.
We then moved to the bright and cheery (even on that overcast evening) dining room (photo, center above). Like the Beach House before it, Driftwood’s dining area is open to the sky. (Zack says they plan to install a retractable cover in the future.) The designers also retained the previous restaurant’s narrow terrace outside the mostly glass front wall for those who want to brave the cool ocean breeze. Our dinner service by Ariana was superb—she was friendly, knowledgeable, and never missed a beat. There were literally dozens of employees, clearly more than were needed, but that no doubt has to do with the restaurant having only been open a couple of weeks. The manager was dashing about the dining room talking to VIPs and other people he knew personally, but he never stopped to talk to us, nor to any of the other “ordinary” patrons.
Zack had already recommended the Colorado Double Lamb Chop & Sirloin ($29) for me (left photo, above, as big as its name) and the Branzino for my husband. Upon seeing that the Branzino ($27) was fried whole (head-on) my husband decided to skip the tedious chore of separating meat from bones and switched to the Maine Lobster ($50. Right photo above.). Both meals were well-prepared, well-seasoned, and delicious. Which brings us to the only real notable negative of the evening—the food arrived lukewarm at best and was cold within minutes. When you go to a fine-dining restaurant, one of the best things you can hear when they bring your food is, “Please be careful, your plate is very hot.” But never is this truer than when you are eating on an outside patio, on the ocean, in the evening. The food needs to come straight from the fire on a plate that will keep it hot for as long as possible. Hopefully someone the chef or the manager respects will bring this to their attention and the problem will be rectified.
The bottom line is that Driftwood Kitchen will always have a captive audience just because it has a great location and beautiful ocean view. While we love to look at the ocean, we appreciated Driftwood’s quality staff (which we hope they will appreciate and keep), good service, and noteworthy food that just needs proper attention to serving temperature. Based on this early first visit, we expect great things from Driftwood Kitchen and we hope it will soon become one of our top recommended Laguna Beach eateries.