Artsy, scenic, and hip, the lovely beach town of Laguna Beach is a favorite getaway among LGBT travelers. It sits right along the Pacific Coast Highway between San Diego and LA, and it has a long history as a gay vacation destination. The gay-nightlife scene is less pronounced these days than it used to be, but there's still a very fun gay bar right in Laguna, and a number of gay-friendly mixed hangouts and restaurants in the region. Here's a look at some favorite places to dine and drink in Laguna Beach as well nearby in other parts of coastal Orange County.
For tips on where to stay, check out the Laguna Beach and Coastal Orange County Gay Hotels Guide
For further information on exploring the area, check out the excellent Visit Laguna Beach website.
The trendy restaurant at the gay-friendly Kimpton Shorebreak Hotel, contemporary Zimzala (714-960-5050) earns consistent acclaim as one of coastal Orange County's most reliably delicious dining options. It's just 15 miles from Laguna Beach and well worth a trip for foodies, or for a nibble after shopping in nearby Newport Beach. The kitchen pays tremendous attention to details, preparing flavorful dishes from with coastal California influences. The restaurant also employs a knowledgeable sommelier who does a fine job developing a wine list that matches perfectly with Zimzala's boldly flavored, elegant cuisine. Starters ranging from Hawaiian ahi poke to flatbread topped with arugula, goat cheese, almonds, strawberries, and balsamic glaze are among the favorite starters.
Among the main dishes, consider one of the finest Moroccan chicken tagines (with olives, preserved lemon, and couscous) you'll ever taste in the U.S.; plus spiced braised short rib with cauliflower puree, roasted baby carrots, caramelized pearl onion, and chili "threads." Zimzala also serves breakfast and lunch on weekdays and a notable brunch on weekends, featuring chilaquiles, burgers, and breakfast flatbread topped with egg, tomato, potatoes, and maple-glazed bacon. There's also a happy hour menu, listing a nice range of drink specials and small plates.
With the closure of the famed Boom Boom Room and Coast Inn, which anchored the Laguna Beach gay scene for many years, this arty, liberal seaside town in Orange County has become a bit lower-profile as a gay vacation spot. Still, the town's one cozy bi-level gay nightclub, Main Street (1460 S. Coast Highway, 949-494-0056), fka Bounce, is an enjoyable spot for mingling, cruising, and - especially on weekends - dancing. Early in the week, just the lower basement space is open, and there's karaoke down here. The main-floor has a decent-size dance floor that's open much of the time. Main Street is popular with tourists and weekenders from nearby San Diego and Los Angeles as well as many of the gays and lesbian who reside right in Laguna. The crowd is eclectic - men and women, some straights, and relatively few patrons under 30, in part because this upscale community doesn't have the younger, collegiate population that's more common in other parts of the region. On weekends, you'll encounter more younger revelers as well as a greater number of visitors from other places.
Main Street is across the street from the former Boom Boom Room and right next door to the town's gay-popular Koffee Klatch coffeehouse as well as the romantic restaurant, Selanne Steak Tavern. There are also a handful of gay-friendly accommodations within walking distance.
A casual fish-taco shack that's been a fixture in Laguna for many years, Taco Loco (640 S. Coast Hwy., 949-497-1635) is cheap and simple (you order at the counter and take your meal with you or dine at one of the several sidewalk tables outside). The big draw here is the wide variety of super-fresh fish tacos, as well as a good many vegetarian dishes, from blackened-mushroom-tofu burgers to healthy-size salads. Blackened lobster, shrimp, calamari, swordfish, and mahimahi are among the plentiful seafood taco and quesadilla offerings (best ordered with salsa, gaucamole, and sour cream) - there's also a popular blackened-chicken option, but I'm always so enamored of the seafood that I can't ever seem to try anything else. Taco Loco also serves beer.
Open until 11 on weekdays and midnight on weekends, the cheerfully decorated Koffee Klatch (1440 S. Coast Hwy., 949-376-6867) might as well be considered as one of Laguna Beach's best gay nightlife options - it draws a very mixed LGBT/straight crowd, the staff is fun and helpful, and there's usually a cool crowd in this place. It's also next to the town's gay nightspot, Main Street Bar & Cabaret, and along a stretch of gay-popular businesses. With all this going for it, it's a great spot to meet and chat with locals, and the decadent desserts (brownies, cakes, cookies, pastries) here are completely delicious. Koffee Klatch also serves both the expected and rather creative coffee and espresso drinks, from perfectly brewed lattes to rich white chocolate mochas, as well as fine teas. Grab a seat on one of the cozy sofas and people-watch to your heart's content. Another fun option: take your drinks and snacks across the street and down to the gay-popular Mountain Road Beach.
Splashes (restaurant) - Surf & Sand Resort, Laguna Beach
Perched overlooking a stunning stretch of beachfront and Pacific Ocean, Laguna's elegant Splashes Restaurant (1555 S. Coast Hwy., 949-376-2779) is part of the swanky, gay-friendly Surf and Sun Hotel - it's accessed by taking the elevator to the lower level, and the dining room of tall windows, polished-wood floors, and casually stylish rattan chairs is adjacent to the hotel's breezy pool area. Splashes also has some outdoor dining, sheltered by glass partitions from the crashing surf - this is quite the dramatic setting for a meal.
If you're suspicious of "big-view" restaurants because they so very often serve overpriced food that fails to live up to the larger-than-life setting, fear not - I dined here with some trepidation, based on this very theory, and came away completely impressed with the warm and attentive service as well as the highly sophisticated, seafood-intensive modern American cuisine. With or without the view, this is one of coastal Orange County's best restaurants. There's also a diminutive, attractive bar attached, from which you can admire the same close-up views of the Pacific. There's a second outdoor bar, 15fiftyfive, located off the lobby and up above Splashes, where you can sip cocktails and snack on tapas.
Splashes serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and it's equally popular with guests of the hotel, locals, and visitors staying elsewhere in town, especially for dinner - it's across from Bounce gay bar and draws plenty of same-sex couples of gay singles, too. At lunch you really feel as though you're hidden away at some remote-island beach resort, but dinner is the most romantic time for a meal here, especially if you time it with the sunset.
The menu at Splashes tends toward market-fresh produce and seafood, much of it caught nearby - oysters and mussels from Carlsbad, poached day-boat scallops with cucumber-tofu mousse and watermelon jelly, a mixed greens salad with oven-dried grapes and toasted marcona almonds. Among the entrees, try the grilled king fish with merguez sausage, fingerling potatoes, candied garlic, and citrus-coriander jus. The white-chocolate-kaffir-lime mousse with passion fruit gelee is a phenomenal dessert.