TAKE a scenic drive down Pacific Coast Highway and pull up to what looks like a cottage in Brittany. Inside, Lalique-style frosted-glass sconces and chandeliers cast a soft light on the room, including the ceiling -- cherubs spraying one another with champagne, the bubbles drifting across the scene.
It’s all part of the Gallic ambience of French 75 in Laguna Beach. The dining room has long earned raves from locals, but so should the bar. On weeknights it’s a romantic hideaway with fin-de-siecle decor reminiscent of Cafe des Artistes in New York. A perfect perch for lovebirds would be the tapestry-covered window seat.
On Saturday nights it’s tough to find a seat at all. At times, patrons stand three deep around the dark wood bar awaiting champagne cocktails, martinis and top-flight bubbly by the glass, including Taittinger La Francaise, Veuve Clicquot Brut and Laurent-Perrier Cuvee Rose Brut. The appetizer list is filled with bistro favorites and twists on the same: foie gras, escargots, French onion soup, moules frites with Basque sausage, and chilled oysters served with warm, spicy beef. Most are rich, flavorful and good for sharing. Or, for a light dinner, mix and match appetizers with soup or salad.
The crowd of 30-ish yuppies and silver foxes comes dressed to kill, but in a California casual way. It’s definitely the place to break in that little black dress with evening sandals that reveal a French pedicure. Jeans on men are a rare sight; cashmere sweaters under sleek leather jackets are more the mood.
The scent of 100 French colognes fills the air. And if that doesn’t set the mood for l’amour, the music will. Soloists play jazz and blues standards: Tuesday it’s Mark Barnes; Wednesday and Thursday it’s Tommy Dodson. But on Saturday, it’s a duo that has listeners doing a double take because it sounds more like a trio. Keyboardist Eddie Ambrose sings while playing piano with his right hand and synthesizer with his left. He and drummer-singer George Griffin work their way through favorites such as “Fly Me to the Moon” and “I Remember You.”
If this piano bar is a holding tank, it’s brimming with lobster.
It’s a find, say Anne and George Schmid, who drove from Palos Verdes to spend their 30th anniversary weekend in Laguna and found French 75 in a restaurant guide. The bar was a nice surprise. “Great music,” said Anne. “And it’s really popping.”
Especially in and around the bar. Three well-dressed thirtysomething women lean in to hear one another better. They’re involved in an intense conversation. Are they deciding how much of their weekly wages to spend on a bottle of really good champagne, or are they sizing up a couple of dark-haired men in leather jackets on the other side of the room? The jackets seem to be gazing in another direction -- are they looking at the blond in the tight black dress with the drawstring bodice, or simply waiting for their dates to arrive?
Meanwhile, a 60-ish man with slicked-back hair, in slacks and a dress shirt, has not moved from his perch at the edge of the bar. The women change -- blond, brunet, tall, short, slim, curvy, flashy, demure -- a whole parade of them having a drink at the chair next to his, and he’s valiantly chatted with them all. When the woman in the chair turns to speak to someone else, he turns the opposite way to greet any female who approaches the bar.
It’s a busy night, all right, with corks and customers popping. The festive sounds of lively jazz standards, ice cubes tinkling in cocktail glasses, laughter and dozens of conversations, mixing in air that smells of garlic and butter, could never drown out the scene. At French 75, the people-watching can be as rich as the escargots and the foie gras.
Piano bar at French 75
Where: 1464 S. Coast Highway, Laguna Beach
When: Soloists Tuesday-Thursday, 7-10 p.m.; piano-percussionist duo Friday and Saturday, 8 p.m.-midnight
Info: (949) 494-8444