Hansen: Pass the gilded peas

Whenever a new restaurant opens in Laguna Beach, the question is not whether it will be good, but whether a family can afford to eat there.

There is little debate that Laguna has some of the best restaurants in Orange County. With Tabu Grill, Cafe Zoolu, Splashes, Watermarc and more than two dozen other high-end restaurants, Laguna has firmly established itself as a mecca for foodies.

But outside of a few fast food restaurants, name one family restaurant in Laguna.

There isn't one.

With the recent closure of KFC — and the false start of Chipotle in downtown — it's become even more clear that something is amiss in Laguna.

Franchises are having issues with landlords. Outside restaurants can't even get started. Everyone points fingers at someone else.

City planners try hard to keep the peace, encouraging all sides to stick to the facts, spelled out in the Downtown Specific Plan for those restaurants vying for the village.

But even the downtown plan gives mixed messages. On the one hand, it recognizes the lack of affordable restaurants, but on the other, it places untenable restrictions on new entrants.

"There are well over a dozen restaurants in the downtown and numerous retail uses have been replaced by food service," the plan states, "yet 59% of respondents to a 1995 Citywide Economic Development Survey indicated they would like to see a moderate, family-style restaurant locate in Laguna Beach."

So if everyone agrees we need more family restaurants, what's the problem?

Like most government documents, you have to read the fine print to understand reality. The plan plainly admits it wants to "discourage formula-based businesses."

By definition, that excludes all chain restaurants from downtown.

Furthermore, if existing non-food businesses close, the city does not want them converted to restaurants, which means there is little chance of new space opening up.

The policy is to "encourage retention of the existing base of retail shops by limiting conversion of retail uses to food service or food-oriented uses."

Why is it then that Tommy Bahama can get fast-track approval but Chipotle cannot?

It's complicated.

First of all, Chipotle withdrew from the old Crab Zone site on its own, allegedly citing issues with the building.

Tommy Bahama worked closely with the city to adhere to the spirit of the downtown plan even though it arguably got a free pass on the "formula-based business" clause.

Let's be honest. The only reason why Laguna lacks affordable restaurants is economics. Downtown rents are too expensive for smaller, non-chain family restaurants.

And so for those families who don't cook at home every night, we are forced to eat at Subway, Jack in the Box, Wahoo's and maybe an occasional El Ranchito or BJ's.

With all due respect to The Stand, there are no healthy alternatives like Native Foods or Veggie Grill.

The issues do not totally revolve around price, although that's a huge part of it. The fact is, it can be more expensive to eat at Johnny Rockets or Ruby's than Nick's or House of Big Fish and Ice Cold Beer.

But we need a more affordable range of food choices — not just exclusive restaurants. Love the special-occasion fancy dinners, but for working Laguna residents who are making ends meet (families, artists, teens, retirees, city workers, surfers, restaurant employees), we need a better menu.

We cannot survive on happy hour appetizers and Taco Bell bean burritos.

We need some reality food, served on a blue plate special.

DAVID HANSEN is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at davidhansen@yahoo.com.

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