Laguna Beach’s Rum Social is a new favorite for locals and tourists with an eye toward design
Good food and good service are among the most important aspects of a successful restaurant, but award-winning designer Ken Ussenko believes ambience matters just as much.
“I think it matters really because it’s always about the first few minutes, even the first few seconds, a person steps into an environment they start to judge it subliminally,” said Ussenko. “They are going to react to it somehow, internally, and you will know right at the beginning how you feel, and that is the first part of your experience.”
Ussenko, of Kenneth Ussenko Designs, is a partner at Rum Social in Laguna Beach, a joint venture with veteran restaurateur John Fisher.
“Even though we design about 10 restaurants a year, this is my first place, and I wanted to have the essence of my history and my travels around the world. There are so many California-style restaurant concepts, why don’t we just take [guests] to another exotic place, another beach somewhere else?” Ussenko said. “I wanted to take [guests] on a tropical escape.”
Since the island hideaway on South Coast Highway opened in March in the old Watermarc space, it has enjoyed buzz among tourists and locals alike, which Ussenko attributes to his consideration for the neighborhood diner.
“I wanted the locals of Laguna Beach to feel like this is a place that is a little different,” Ussenko said. “I tried to get feedback from locals.”
The dining room is full of subtle nods to the tiki culture of 1930s Hollywood in understated ways, with pink velvet booths, for example, and tropical wallpaper that forgoes bright colors for elegant black and white.
The crown jewel of the restaurant is the treehouse bar, which overlooks the courtyard of Peppertree Lane. Rum Social’s beverage program takes inspiration from the Caribbean and Pacific Islands, and Ussenko reflects those environments in the upper level.
“In the restaurant experience before ours, no one really went up upstairs to sit down to eat,” Ussenko said. “I can create a different energy up there. Everyone really likes that whole journey up there.”
Ussenko’s attention to style earned the restaurant a nomination for Restaurant Global Award in the International Hotel and Property Awards 2022.
“Every year I submit one or two projects that we design,” said Ussenko. “Rum Social was nominated in the area of California Restaurants. That was exciting for us, after putting so much time and thought into it.”
With Ussenko handling the ambience, the good food part is left to executive chef Nick Herrera, who recently stepped into the role after being part of Rum Social’s opening team.
“About three weeks ago, I was promoted to be the executive chef. But I was here since day one, when it was still all concrete,” said Herrera. “I developed the very first menu with the original chef.”
Herrera’s new dinner menu features ginger rum-glazed plantains, hamachi tostada with avocado puree and seasonal dishes, like a pumpkin curry soup served in a roasted pumpkin.
“I am very much vegetable forward and seafood focused, and that is the energy we want to bring to Rum Social,” said Herrera. “I really want to make it a tropical escape, introducing a lot louder sauces, more vibrant colors; that was my motive behind the menu we developed here.”
Aside from dinner, Rum Social offers weekend brunch from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. with more island-inspired dishes like French Caribbean toast topped with guava syrup, banana anglaise and fresh berries.
Whether guests come in for brunch, dinner or a cocktail in the treehouse bar, the Rum Social team hopes they feel transported, even just for a little while.
“I would want guests to feel like they went on a different journey, not just with great vibes and visual stimulation but also with the food that they have tasted and the drinks they’ve had,” Ussenko said. “I want them to get all of that from the sight, the sounds, the feel, the taste and the touch.”
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