A Holiday Jaunt Down Laguna Way: Fine Dining and a Show That Shows



Oliver Stone’s 2012 thriller Savages opens with gorgeous coastline images accompanied by O or Ophelia’s (Blake Lively) voiceover saying: “It started here in paradise, Laguna Beach, where they say God parked himself on the seventh day…” In addition to its stunning scenery, languid Laguna has much to lure Angelenos away from the big city’s daily grind to this SoCal oceanic enclave located about 50 miles south on the 5 Freeway from Downtown L.A.


Of course, this Orange County seaside village is widely known for its art galleries - and it’s no wonder, given the splendor of its natural surroundings that would make any dauber’s palette burst with color. But there are also eateries there to make gourmet’s palates drool, so I decided to combine one of my regular excursions as a theater reviewer south to the Laguna Playhouse with a feast.


Drifting Down to Driftwood Kitchen: Caramel-By-the-Sea


I arrived on a hilly stretch of Pacific Coast Highway at the storybook-named Sleepy Hollow Lane just as the sun started slowly setting in the West, bidding the paradise of Laguna Beach a fond farewell. A bit early, your erstwhile Ichabod Crane lollygagged, enjoying the vistas stretching from the palms and sand out into the vast Pacific. As there was no Headless Horseman pursuing me, I sauntered uphill a bit to take a gander at the canvases hanging in the ateliers perched cliffside.


After enjoying some picturesque artwork, as the trekking hungered me I drifted downhill to the Driftwood Kitchen, where a waitress festooned with beautiful tattoos named Sara (how apropos for an art colony - Sara was literally a walking, talking work of art) sat me just indoors from the balcony, beside a picture window where I could continue to watch the sun make its celestial odyssey towards the cerulean sea. Framed by umbrellas on the verandah the sunset was so exquisite that it would take a Washington Irving (born the year America won its Revolution, the patriotically-named wordsmith was the new nation’s first professional, bestselling fiction writer) to do a literary description of it justice.


The dining room had the ambience of a ship’s cabin, enhanced of course by the fact that we were just above the waves. Opposite from the lanai is the well-stocked Stateroom Bar with so much grog it would leave a sailor agog. There, like a captain at the helm, a bartender conjures up handcrafted artisanal libations such as a berry-licious tequila with a kick of spice or the South Seas-sounding Black Pearl Tequila, with Milagro Silver Tequila, agave lime sour, barrel aged bitters, sage leaves and the eponymous blackberries. Advised by Sara, I imbibed a mouth-tingling, refreshing strawberry and mint mocktail.


Emblazoned with inky prayers, parachutes and much more, Sara proved to be a knowledgeable, friendly server from nearby Newport Beach. Following the menu-enlightened Sara’s recommendations like a Zen acolyte might a guru, for my starters I selected Dungeness crab cake with endive, Asian pear salad and dill lebni. Hefty as a hamburger, the delicious dish was, in the best sense, quite crabby - the tastiest crustacean I’d devoured since a 2016 trip to Charleston, where chefs also know a thing or two about seafood.


Hungered by my hillside hike I ordered another appetizer - delectable carmelized butternut squash gnocchi with sage brown butter and ricotta, which Sara sagely suggested. It was simply stellar, and although Driftwood Kitchen does serve steaks, I decided to stick with the nautical theme. Biting down on ahi tuna was an “aha moment!”, providing a culinary satori. Atop mashed potatoes puree, with wasabi, cucumber and radish salad and Santa Barbara uni ponzu sauce, the pink, soft, seared raw tuna awakened this succulent seer’s taste buds. Another savory treat plucked from Neptune’s treasure is lobster spaghetti carbonara “rustichella d’abrazzo” topped by a sunny side up egg with guanciale grated pecorino romano and tarragon.


The coup de grace was a sticky toffee cake with warm toffee sauce and Chantilly cream atop a sponge cake with raspberries that melted in my mouth with a caramel flavor, tinged by black sea salt. After devouring this tasty, filling repast, it was nearly show time so I drove to nearby 606 Laguna Canyon Road to make the 7:30 curtain.


The Playhouse’s the Thing


I’ve reviewed many of the year-round productions mounted on the Moulton Stage of the midsized, 1920-founded Laguna Playhouse, including, most recently, the superbly rendered hard-hitting drama Twelve Angry Men, as well as numerous musicals and bio-plays highlighting Janis Joplin, Roger Miller and Buddy Holly. But The Skivvies: Sleigh My Name was a horse of another color - although appropriately so, as this lighthearted romp was in keeping with the holiday season vibe.


That musical about strippers, Gypsy, features a song about how striptease artists “gotta have a gimmick” in order to stand out from the other bump-and-grinders. Children’s theater veterans Lauren Molina and Nick Cearley have apparently taken this advice to heart and perform their shtick and music (including cello, ukulele, glockenspiel, melodica, etc.), stripped down to their underwear. Their act is like children’s theater for adults and is to the stage what the Harlem Globetrotters are to basketball.


The revue’s loopy, merry melodic mash-ups are backed by a likewise clad (or, rather, unclad) all-male trio. The mirthful medleys included “Silver Bells”/“My Ding-A-Ling” (Chuck Berry’s 1950s’ tune to get around the censors); the Go-Go’s “We Got the Beat”/”The Little Drummer Boy”; Modern English’s “I Melt with You”/”Frosty the Snowman,” one zanier than the other.


The Skivvies also performed originals, such as “It’s Fucking Hanukkah,” which once again proved that while Jews excel in the arts and sciences, with a multitude of Nobel Prize winners wildly out of proportion to their percentage in the population, when it comes to holiday songs, Christians - and not Jews - are the chosen people. Molina also regaled the nearly sold out Playhouse with “The Text Message Song,” which she drolly composed on the spot by singing out text messages from the cell phone of a cooperative if soon-to-be embarrassed audience member.


According to press notes, the voluptuous Lauren Molina is a Tony Award-nominee who has appeared in Rock of Ages, Sweeney Todd, Candide and Marry Me A Little. The slim Nick Cearley’s credits include Pageant, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and All Shook Up. Performing in their underwear has given these gimmicky underdogs top billing as the Skivvies tour the country almost au naturel.


Along the way they are joined onstage by co-stars who, at Laguna, included special guest Jason Feddy, a musician and personality heard on Laguna’s only FM radio station, KX93.5. Among other things, the veddy, veddy British Feddy presents the Sunday morning “Full English Breakfast” show and is known for singing not texts or even tweets but the police blotter on the air, making him a good fit for the Skivvies - especially when the portly presenter was adorned in his lingerie.

Promoted as “A Special, Outrageous Holiday Event!” The Skivvies: Sleigh My Name lived up to its billing during its two-night run, and a good time was had by most. However, towards the end of the opening night, the two-act show took a serious turn with Feddy leading a genuinely moving, heartfelt rendition of John Lennon’s peerless “Happy Xmas (War is Over)”, which is only second to the ex-Beatle’s “Give Peace a Chance” as Lennon’s top antiwar song. Even minus the boys’ choir Lennon mustered for his original, the KX93.5 radio host’s version was poignant and a perfect piece for celebrating the birth of the Prince of Peace. Truly well-done, amidst all of the wacky antics of the rest of the Skivvies’ holiday extravaganza. (Feddy is, so to speak, the Sgt. Pepper for the Beatles tribute band Beatroots.)


The Skivvies’ show was performed amidst the Arabian nights fantasy sets for Laguna Playhouse’s production of Aladdin and His Winter Wish, which runs through noon, Dec. 31. At 7:00 p.m. on New Year’s Eve comedienne Rita Rudner rings in 2018 with an early show accompanied by a comp glass of bubbly.


But the play that will bring this L.A.-based theater hopper back way down yonder Laguna way is the theatrical adaptation of The Graduate starring Melanie Griffith as Mrs. Robinson, the role immortalized onscreen by Anne Bancroft in 1967. It’s hard to believe that a half century has passed since Mike Nichols directed this ode to youthful rebellion! Be that as it may, as Simon and Garfunkel sang: “Laugh about it, shout about it, when you’ve got to choose” - from Feb. 21 to March 18, this is the play to see! I can’t wait - and to dine beforehand at another of Laguna Beach’s outpost of repasts.




Fine Dining:




The third edition of the movie history L.A.-based reviewer/film historian Ed Rampell co-authored, The Hawaii Movie and Television Book, drops in March 2018.





As the sun sets slowly in the West the Driftwood Kitchen offers idyllic views. Driftwood Kitchen's appetizers include Dungeness crabcake and carmelized butternut squash gnocchi. Fine dining and fine views at the Driftwood Kitchen. Seared ahi tuna at Driftwood Kitchen. Photos by Ed Rampell