The qualities I most admire about restaurateur Doug Cavanaugh are his creativity in the food biz — and his dry sense of humor.
The founder of Ruby's Diner, who also has The Beachcomber Cafe and the Shake Shack in Crystal Cove, sent me an email Monday saying, "I'm opening the new Lighthouse Cafe in the new Marina Park on the Balboa Peninsula next week.
"In addition to a beautiful dining room actually inside the lighthouse, we (have) two great patios suitable for Fido! The City did a beautiful job on this park. Would love to give you a sneak preview before it opens. Let me know if you have some time."
When I asked why two doggy patios, Cavanaugh jokingly wrote, "To make Barbara Venezia Happy. We also have a new puppy."
Cavanaugh knows I'm all about dining with my little rescue dog, Stasha, so how could I not take him up on his impromptu invitation?
So off I headed to Marina Park, which is getting ready to open Saturday.
I was looking forward to my sneak peek at the new Lighthouse Café ready to open on Dec. 9.
The restaurant design is pretty cool.
The two-story glass structure, in the shape of a lighthouse, sits right on the walkway by the sand.
The first-floor outdoor patio wraps around the building, as does the upstairs one. Both are ideal for doggy dinning, as Cavanaugh promised they would be.
Sitting inside the circular restaurant offers diners a panoramic view of the bay and beach, which is pretty awesome.
Of course when I was there they weren't open for business, but the place was buzzing as staffers were busily getting ready for the grand opening, invitation-only party on Dec. 4.
I asked Cavanaugh why he opted not to put a Ruby's at this location. He said it was too close to his original restaurant, and went on to explain he wanted something that "blended with the great existing architecture cross bred with a beach house."
Impressed as I was by the layout and décor, I was even more impressed with the restaurant's 25-year-old executive chef, Ryan Sumner.
When he came out of the kitchen to greet me, we both couldn't remember exactly how old he was when his mom, Robin Kramer, co-owner of Irvine Ranch Market, first introduced us in the store.
We both decided he must have been around 11 years old!
All grown up now, Sumner is an accomplished chef who caught the eye of Cavanaugh while working at his other restaurant, the Beachcomber Café.
"Chef Ryan had been one of our all-stars at the Beachcomber for several years," says Cavanaugh.
When Cavanaugh discovered Sumner might be on his way to work with a big-name chef in L.A., he says, "I convinced him the Lighthouse opening would look good on his resume."
Sumner tells me one of the reasons he stayed with Cavanaugh was that he promised to give him creative freedom with the menu for a new restaurant.
And boy did he get creative!
Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, each menu had some unique items that caught my eye.
Like funnel cake with powdered sugar, maple syrup and choice of toppings, $5.95, and beignets with cinnamon sugar, $4.95, on the breakfast menu.
There's also Avocado Toast, $10.95, made with poached egg, avocado mash, frise salad, French radish and lemon.
Pumpkin-and-oats pancakes, and Challah French toast with seasonal berries, powdered sugar and maple syrup, both $10.95, also sounded good to me.
For lunch, salads range from $9.95, for a Kale and Romaine Caesar, to $15.95 for a sesame-crusted tuna Niçoise with white rose potatoes, cherry tomatoes, anchovy filet, caper berries, hard boiled egg, Niçoise olives, Haircot vert and tarragon vinaigrette.
Hearty homemade soups, like New England Clam Chowder, $5.95 cup/$8.95 bowl, loaded with clams, bacon and sprinkled with chive-and-tomato soup, $4.95 cup/$7.95 bowl, with herbed cheese crouton and crème fraiche, also promise to be yummy.
The dinner menu included one of Sumner's favorite creations, California White Sea Bass, $26.95, made with sea beans, white rose potatoes, savory cabbage, tomato concasse and ginger nage.
There's also Bouillabaisse, $28.95, lobster, claims, mussels, shrimp, tomatoes, potatoes, herbs, rustic bread topped with Rouille.
And short rib ragout, $18.95, Bucantini pasta, pickled pearl onions, wild mushrooms, crisp parsnip, and parmesan cheese, which sounded interesting.
Sumner certainly has created a diverse menu.
Cavanaugh hopes folks will "come for the view but stay for the food."
I asked this successful restaurateur if his new Lighthouse Café concept is successful, does he plan on opening others?
"Only if someone decides to build another Lighthouse, he said.