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Beachside concessions go gourmet in Orange County

Puny burgers. Deep fried chicken fingers. Syrupy shaved ice. Those confoundingly famous tortilla chips covered in cold shreds of orange cheese.

Orange County’s beachside concessions are notoriously un-gourmet. For decades, the shirtless, shoeless visitors relaxing along our pristine shoreline had no option but to gorge on the usual lineup of quick-and-dirty snack-bar food.

Sure, it’s become part of the nostalgia; part of the (sugary, greasy) charm. But a new era of sand-adjacent grub is upon us.

In 2015, “Top Chef” alum Brian Huskey opened Tackle Box at Corona del Mar State Beach, which serves everything from Peruvian-inspired poke to pork belly banh mis to fresh agua frescas from a walk-up window.

Last summer, the newly revitalized Naugles closed its Fountain Valley test kitchen for a few months in order to serve its craveable tacos and burritos out of a Huntington City Beach shack.

And starting this weekend, all four of Bolsa Chica State Beach’s once-deserted concrete concession stands will open for the season with new, thoughtful concepts, from a wine-bar beach club featuring live music and chair rentals to a surfer’s hangout with Corona beers and breakfast burritos to a California barbecue joint to a small general store stocked with items for the RV campers in mind.

All four eateries are operated by Prjkt Restaurant Group, founded by Alicia Whitney after she started her first two restaurants, Beach Boulevard favorites SeaLegs Wine Bar and the Santa Maria barbecue haven SeaSalt Woodfire Grill.

“I had to see past the old environment that was there and see how we could take advantage of that beautiful space,” Whitney says. “It’s one of the most beautiful beaches in SoCal with the wetlands behind it and the short sand in front. It’s stunning. My goal was to take what’s already at Bolsa and amplify it so people can enjoy what’s out there.”

The most exciting of the four new concession stands is SeaLegs at the Beach, an offshoot of Whitney’s Huntington Beach wine bar reimagined as a dog-friendly, Hamptons-style beach club. A first for Orange County, the sprawling public oasis — accessible just off the bike trail near Warner Avenue — lets you stop in, grab a bite to eat or a glass of wine and post up in one of the many lounge chairs or Adirondacks, some of which surround fire pits and all of which face the beach.

Though SeaLegs at the Beach saw a soft launch last summer, this season will amp up the barefoot-beach-party vibes with a full calendar of live music (check out Reggae Sundays), favorite daily deals pulled from the original SeaLegs (think: Wine Wednesdays) and the introduction of a summer-ready beverage called a “Frozé,” a custom frozen-rosé concoction (made in collaboration with White Girl Wines) that comes served in sports bottle for maximum portability.

“You feel like you’re in Cabo but you’re in Huntington Beach,” Whitney says.

The other three Bolsa Chica concepts also were designed with a specific beach-going market in mind. Located across from a choice break, Pacific Kitchen – which was also open for most of last summer – is the Baja-style surfer stop with tacos, fresh ceviche, beer and cold brew from Costa Mesa’s ThunderKing Brewing.

SeaSalt Beachside Burger is a pared down version of her SeaSalt Woodfire Grill with the same epic Santa Maria-style tri-tip and a beach burger that is anything but puny. And, finally, Beach City Provisions features a boutique convenience store with camping goods as well as gourmet grub for people RVing at Bolsa Chica State Beach.

Whitney developed all four concepts after the California Department of Parks and Recreation, which operates Bolsa Chica, put out a request for proposals to fill the vacant stands. While many hopeful vendors bid on the individual spots, Whitney figured she would increase her chances of developing at least one by submitting ideas for all four locations. All four of Prjkt’s proposals earned the highest points, netting them the exclusive food and beverage license for the entire beach (including the sand!) for 10 years.

“It’s beyond fulfilling,” she says. “To do an actual beach – to be given a beach and be working as a partner with the state of California is a legacy project. Every day I wake up with purpose.”

When asked why she was inspired to bring her vision for quality food and drink to the beach, she was reminded of a comment that a customer made about the beach concessions in Australia.

There, where sun and sand dominates even urban living, there’s no such thing as emerging from the water to dine on greasy chicken fingers or afterthought fast-food fries. Instead, the best of the best are invited to showcase on the beach.

“That’s how it should be,” Whitney says. “For so many years we’ve had the worst of the worst. It’s about time we bring the best of the best to the beach.”

SARAH BENNETT is a freelance journalist covering food, drink, music, culture and more. She is the former food editor at L.A. Weekly and a founding editor of Beer Paper L.A. Follow her on Twitter @thesarahbennett.

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