By Billy Fried
If you’re a foodie like me, one of the great pleasures in life is stuffing your gullet with delectable dishes that make you dewy with delight. And easily one of the best things about living in Southern California is the cornucopia of amazing foods. Due to the melting pot of ethnicities, I’d argue that Los Angeles is currently the culinary capital of the world. And Orange County is residually great, due to our Asian, Middle Eastern, Latino and European populations (thank you, immigration)! Laguna? Not so much.
In the latest Michelin Guide, 21 Orange County restaurants received commendations. Three Costa Mesa restaurants received a coveted star (Hana Re, Knife Pleat, and Taco Maria). But only one Laguna restaurant made the cut, Oliver’s Osteria, receiving an “honorable mention” Bib Gourmand. 1 for 31. But this Italian restaurant sells antipasti and salads in the mid $20 range, and pastas for $30! As Italians would say, “Vie Via!”
And in the 2021 LA Times and OC Register annual lists of best Restaurants in OC, Laguna fails miserably. Why is that? Is it that rents are so high it only attracts chefs playing it safe with predictable dishes that are way too rich, and way too expensive? Is it because our visitors – the great unwashed – wouldn’t recognize foie gras from fromage, or tripe from truffles? Or is it the dearth of patronage among our aging residents, infrequent restaurant goers due to noise, price, receding taste buds, and the hassles of leaving home at night?
The good news is, help is on the way. An abundance of new concepts is on the horizon, but they better hurry up in case Measure Q takes hold. Or they’ll all be 86’d.
You see, the Somnambulists for Q (I mean proponents, of course) hate restaurants. Well, not all. Just the ones in our town. Just like short term rentals, bicycles, skateboarding, cannabis dispensaries, roundabouts, and pedestrian spaces. Leave that to the places they visit. They’ve been upfront about it for decades. How we should not attract tourists because they don’t pay their share for city services. How restaurant patrons have fun and get boisterous and on occasion drink too much. How there’s not enough parking and they clog our streets. How it just harshes our damn mellow.
And now the Merchants of No have found their most effective hammer with Measure Q. Because any conversion of a commercial space to a new concept that would generate an additional 200 car trips a day must be voted on by the public. Regardless of size and parking. They don’t like to talk about it much and hope you don’t notice. So, say a restaurant wants to occupy a decaying retail space and opens for breakfast, lunch and dinner, from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. A 14-hour window. That’s an average of 14 cars an hour, or 1 every 4.3 minutes. Oh my goodness buckle your chinstraps!
So, an excited young chef looking to create culinary magic has to put their concept to a public vote. At their expense. An estimated $100,000. And you, John Q Public, have to sit and read and inform yourself. An average of 7 times a year, according to a staff analysis of applications over the last 5 years.
What are the chances that Play Coffee, Wig Sandwich Shop, South Swell Ice Cream, Slice Pizza, Red Dragon, Ahba, Sea Horse Lounge, the Pottery Shack, Chin Chin, or Laguna Beach Fish Co. are self-flagellating enough to run that gauntlet? Hello, Dana Point or Newport. And so long rooftop restaurants or a permanent Forest Avenue Promenade, something the Q’s definitely have their sights on sabotaging.
The Somnambulists for Q are masters of deception. They claim it’s to stop mega development (you mean Mo Honarker, of course. Just say it), and conveniently avoid acknowledging the uber granular 200 additional car tripwire. This is a group with the audacity to claim they saved Laguna Canyon from development 33 years ago, despite most of them having moved here well after. Worst of all, they have irreparably harmed our town by diving us into two camps with no grey area – pro and anti-development.
It’s an asinine and irresponsible assertion. None of us want massive developments here. We all cherish the small-town atmosphere and quaint, funky beach town vibe. But we also want to live in the present, with new offerings and places to gather to marvel at this great community. Progress and preservation are not mutually exclusive. Just ask Paris, New York, Oslo, Milan, Boulder, Portland and Santa Cruz, who are activating new retail concepts and pedestrian-friendly transportation grids, while keeping their architecture and heritage intact.
Don’t buy into the myth that the town is controlled by ravenous developers, frothing to build monoliths. You know it’s not true.
So vote no on Q. We’ll toast at one of our future Michelin starred restaurants. Bon Appetit!
By Billy Fried. Billy hosts Laguna Talks on Thursday nights on KXFM radio. He’s also the CEO of La Vida Laguna, an E-bike and ocean sports tour company.