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ROOMS WITH A VIEW : Waterfront Restaurants Serve Glamour, Romance and the Sea

Shearlean Duke is a regular contributor to Orange County Life.

Since 1940, James Decker and his wife, Lucile, have come to dine once a week at Hotel Laguna and to enjoy the sight of blue-green waves crashing on a sandy beach, sea gulls swooping from an ever-changing sky, boats sailing on the distant horizon and young lovers strolling barefoot, hand-in-hand, at surf’s edge.

James Decker, 74, says simply, “We just enjoy the view.”

The view is the main attraction at such restaurants as the one at Hotel Laguna and nearly 50 others along Orange County’s 37-mile coast. Views of pounding surf, a quiet bay at sunset, a boat running free before the wind and moonlight reflected off the water make these restaurants a special breed among the county’s more than 5,500 restaurants.

Tourists flock to Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm, but when it comes time for dinner many head to the ocean’s edge for a million-dollar view of the Pacific. And locals, like the Deckers, may spend nearly 50 years gazing at the same ocean view, week after week.

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Waterfront restaurants are more than just places to eat. They serve glamour, romance and the shimmering illusion of the sea along with baked salmon, prime rib and fettuccine.

But don’t let the glittery facade fool you. Sure, some charge a king’s ransom, but at others you can eat for about the same amount you would spend at Sizzler or Denny’s. And it doesn’t matter whether you want to dine in your T-shirt and tennis shoes, dress to the hilt, enjoy a romantic dinner for two or bring the whole family. No matter what your tastes in food or dress, no matter how fat or thin your wallet, in Orange County you can find a waterfront restaurant--with a view--to fit your dining needs.

A whirlwind, coastal tour from Seal Beach to San Clemente turns up about 50 waterfront dinner restaurants (not including fast-food places or cafes) in Huntington Beach, Newport Beach, Laguna Beach, Dana Point and San Clemente.

The largest concentration of waterfront restaurants is in Newport Beach and the fewest in San Clemente, which has only one ocean-view dinner restaurant. Seal Beach--with only Ruby’s Jewel Cafe on the pier--has no legitimate waterfront dinner restaurants.

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HUNTINGTON BEACH

Each Orange County beach city has its own distinctive personality and so do its restaurants. In Huntington Beach, upscale Peter’s Landing in Huntington Harbour stands in sharp contrast to the surfing and beach shops in downtown Huntington Beach, near Main Street.

In Peter’s Landing, which has half a dozen restaurants fronting the water, tables offer views of row-after-row of grand motor yachts. A boardwalk separates the restaurants from the boat docks.

Restaurants include Reuben’s and the Red Onion, plus two dinner theaters, Tibbie’s Music Hall and the Young American’s. Typical of the harbor restaurants is the newest addition, MacArthur Park, a youthful, beach-oriented, noisy affair with a menu that ranges from baby back ribs and chicken to live Maine lobster.

As a lot of beach restaurants do, MacArthur Park welcomes casually dressed diners in shorts and sandals as well as after work businessmen in suits and ties. Kit Prewett, general manager at MacArthur Park, describes the restaurant as “California eclectic. I don’t think we have a typical customer,” he says. “But mostly we attract locals from Seal Beach and Long Beach to Huntington Beach.”

Prices range from $7.95 (for Pacific red snapper, including soup or salad, vegetable and potato) to $16.95 for baked halibut. For $13.95, you can get a combination plate including generous servings of ribs, chicken, sausage, cole slaw, baked beans and French fries.

Reservations are recommended on weekends. “Everybody requests a table by the window with a view,” Prewett says. “We’ll accommodate the request if we can, but it might be a short wait.”

Farther south at the pier in Huntington Beach, you will get a completely different kind of view at Maxwell’s by the Sea. Instead of gazing at pricey yachts and a crowded bay, you can look directly at the open sea and watch the waves roll in. The view is best during the day or at sunset. After dark, on a moonless night, there is not much to see, but you can still hear the distant rumble of the Pacific.

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From 4 to 6 p.m., the restaurant offers a sunset special that includes a choice of three entrees, vegetables and coffee for only $7.95. A senior citizens menu offers certain selections for as little as $6. Regular prices range from $8.95 for salads to $50 for a 2- to 3-pound live Maine lobster.

Maxwell’s has only 10 window tables and 12 tables on the terrace, but virtually every table in the house offers a view of the ocean.

NEWPORT BEACH

With 25 miles of prime harbor front and six miles of oceanfront land, Newport Beach, home to half the county’s waterfront restaurants, has room for more on-the-water eateries than any other place in Orange County.

From Woody’s Wharf and the Red Onion on the Balboa Peninsula, to the Warehouse in Lido Village and the Cannery, near Lido Island, to Zeppa’s and the Rex near the pier to the Reuben E. Lee on Pacific Coast Highway, Newport Beach has something for every palate and pocketbook.

From the old (the Balboa Pavilion, built in 1905) to the new (John Dominis, built in 1987), Newport offers mile after mile of bay and beachfront dining.

Some of the city’s most popular restaurants are located on Pacific Coast Highway, in an area that has become a waterfront restaurant row. There you will find the Charthouse, Ancient Mariner, Rusty Pelican and the landmark Villa Nova, whose movie-set exterior is painted to resemble a seaside Italian villa.

Inside, the Villa Nova is a peculiar blend of real and pseudo-nautical decor, mixed with a bit of stage-set Italy. The atmosphere is low key, casual and friendly.

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Family-owned and operated since 1967, the Villa Nova was founded by the late Allen Dale, a one-time silent film actor and director. The restaurant started out in Hollywood in 1933 and was transplanted to its present location overlooking Newport Bay by Dale and his wife Charlotte, who still runs the restaurant with her son, Jim.

“We get a huge repeat business,” says Jim Dale, who can be found working the restaurant most evenings. “We have third- and fourth-generation customers.”

Villa Nova is one of a handful of bay-front restaurants that still offers a place to park your boat for diners arriving via water. (Most waterfront restaurants find it more lucrative to rent their dock space out as boat slips.) The Villa Nova dock can accommodate six to eight vessels. But reservations are required, for both a table and space at the dock. During the week, Dale, a yachtsman himself, greets boaters and helps tie up vessels in front of the restaurant.

“We are one of the few restaurants that offer valet service for boats,” Dale says. “On Friday and Saturday night we always have someone working the dock as well as the parking lot.”

The menu, featuring seafood, veal, chicken, beef and fish, all done Italian style, runs from $8.95 to around $20.

Just up the street is the Disneyland of waterfront restaurants--John Dominis, a sprawling, two-story, 22,000-square foot structure that can accommodate 500-550 people. Featuring fresh seafood flown in from Hawaii, John Dominis is the newest and most spectacular addition to restaurant row on Pacific Coast Highway.

Everything about the restaurant is done on a grand scale. The main dining room features two large waterfalls, cascading into recirculating salt water ponds filled with live fish and (in season) lobster. Both the dining room and the bar upstairs offer sweeping, unobstructed views of Newport Harbor from virtually every table. The restaurant, with its lush plants, rattan furnishings and floral prints, has the feel of a Hawaiian resort.

General manager George Kookootsedes, formerly with Scandia, says the restaurant is “booked solid” and has been since it opened more than a year ago. “Weekends are sold out about 10 days in advance,” he says. “Reservations are highly recommended.”

All of this opulence does not come cheap. Prices range from $14.95 for seafood kebab to $29.95 for cioppino. The exotic menu includes such Hawaiian fish as opakapaka, ono, mahi mahi, ahi, uku and onaga. What’s more, the chef will prepare it any way you want it--sauteed, poached, broiled, braised, baked in parchment paper or steamed with your choice of sauces.

As for dress, John Dominis tends to be less casual than neighboring restaurants. “We call ourselves casual-dressy,” Kookootsedes says. “But I’d say that 75% of the men wear jackets (which are not required).” No tank tops or shorts are permitted.

If you are on a limited budget, but would like to take advantage of John Dominis’ fabulous view, you can go upstairs to the bar, have a drink, watch the sunset and then walk down the street to Josh Slocum’s, a no-frills, boater’s hangout, for the $8.95 early bird dinner. At Josh Slocum’s you’ll feel at home in shorts, T-shirt and scruffy deck shoes.

Unpretentious and unassuming, Slocum’s is owned by the Minney family of Newport Beach and is run by Joe Minney, a well-known local yachtsman who also runs a ship’s chandlery business.

“It’s a boating restaurant,” Minney says. “Named after Josh Slocum, the first guy to circumnavigate the world by himself. We get very much involved in sailing.” The restaurant even sponsors races and holds a sailing night most Tuesdays, featuring guest speakers or sailing films.

Farther down the road is Cano’s, a palatial, Mediterranean-themed restaurant with a lushly romantic feeling. Formerly a gourmet continental restaurant, Cano’s recently lowered its prices and changed its menu to attract more customers, according to manager Reza Mahallaty.

“Basically, we changed because it was too high-priced and too stuffy,” Mahallaty says.

Thanks to the lower prices, you can now enjoy the famous Cano’s view and “Casablanca” decor, along with dinners ranging from $7 to $18.

LAGUNA BEACH

Laguna Beach has no bay views or protected harbors, but it has blue-green waves rolling in to crash on ragged peaks. Surf thundering toward a rocky headland. Sandy beaches washed clean by a relentless ocean.

From the classy Las Brisas restaurant on the cliff overlooking a long stretch of the Pacific to the Beach House Inn, directly on the sand, Laguna Beach is home to nearly a dozen ocean-view restaurants.

One of the most famous is the Hotel Laguna, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary. For fine dining, the hotel has the relatively new and remodeled Claes Restaurant, named for owner Claes Andersen, who bought the hotel in 1985. For simpler and less expensive fare, there’s the popular outdoor Terrace.

Both have the same sweeping view. On the Terrace, it’s first-come, first-served, and during a busy summer, Andersen says, the restaurant has served as many as 800 persons in a single day. The Terrace is casual (shorts and T-shirt) and prices are reasonable ($5.95 to $10.95) for both lunch and dinner.

Reservations are recommended at Claes, the swanky restaurant inside where prices range from $17.95 to $29.95. On weekends, Andersen, a former chef, serves as host in the dining room, providing a personalized service that borders on the extraordinary.

Recently an elderly couple, celebrating an anniversary, dropped by the restaurant without reservations and wanted to sit at a particular window table because they had sat in the same spot many years ago on their honeymoon. Unfortunately, the table was booked by a pair of young newlyweds. Andersen, ever the romantic, arranged a trade. He offered to buy the young newlyweds a bottle of champagne if they would trade tables. The young couple gladly agreed.

“The elderly man tried to tip me when he left,” Andersen recalls with a wistful smile. “I gave him back his money and explained that I am the owner.”

DANA POINT

A man-made harbor, secure behind a stone jetty, is the main attraction at Dana Point, where steep cliffs and a rocky headland combine to create a dramatic seaport atmosphere. Dana Point Harbor now sports half a dozen on-the-water restaurants, ranging from Delaney’s at one end to Michael’s Supper Club at the opposite end.

But the most spectacular views of the marina are from the towering cliffs above where two restaurants--Cannon’s and the Charthouse--cling to the steep hillside. From the marina below, the Charthouse, which opened in 1979, looks like a partially hidden fortress, peeking out above the mocha-colored cliffs.

“We liken the restaurant to a space ship taking off from the bluff up there,” says Mike Mitchell, regional manager for the Charthouse restaurants, which now number 56 nationwide.

The circular-shaped, futuristic-looking restaurant provides a panoramic view of Dana Point harbor, the breakwater and the ocean beyond. It is perched so high up that you could get a feeling of vertigo gazing out from the restaurant’s glass walls.

Serving steak, seafood and prime rib, the Charthouse does not take reservations. Prices range from $11.95 to $28.95. Dress is casual.

“We don’t want people coming in bikinis,” Mitchell says. “But it is definitely casual. We have people in shorts and golf shirts, alongside people in tuxedoes.”

SAN CLEMENTE

Orange County’s southernmost beach city, exuding a distinctive small-town atmosphere, has only one waterfront restaurant--the Fisherman’s, located at the base of the San Clemente pier.

Open for the past five years, the Fisherman’s is a casual seafood restaurant known for its fixed-price, four-course meals, costing from $12.95 to $21.95.

Appealing primarily to local diners, the Fisherman’s is not well-known outside the San Clemente area. Like Maxwell’s in Huntington Beach, the Fisherman’s offers a close-up view of the Pacific and has been pounded by one or two fierce explosions of wind and surf. “We are proud to say that we have survived the 1983 and the 1988 storms,” says manager Bruce Smith.

Managers of most restaurants with a view over the water admit that the primary attraction is their restaurant’s location. However, all insist that view alone will not suffice.

“There are lots of restaurants on the water up and down the coast,” says Reza Mahallaty of Cano’s. “And not all are successful. You have to have ambiance, service and quality food to survive.”

Jeffrey Ehlers, assistant manager at Zeppa’s, a popular new Italian restaurant near the pier in Newport Beach, says: “Sure, people come for the view, but we are a three-star restaurant and they come for the food too. We have people coming from Los Angeles (and) San Diego as well as Orange County.”

Bill Hamilton, owner of the Cannery restaurant in Newport Beach and director of the Newport Beach Restaurant Assn., says that most waterfront restaurants don’t have to apologize for their culinary efforts. “Dining in Orange County has some up to some remarkably high standards,” he says.


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