Brrr. It’s possibly the coldest night of the year when I first dine at Selanne Steak Tavern in Laguna Beach. On my way to the front door, I pause next to the restaurant’s semi-covered patio, whose canvas sides are shivering in the wind. I shiver back. The outdoor dining room looks like an abandoned storage shed tonight, with stacks of shrink-wrapped linen heaped haphazardly upon tables in one corner. Most of the other tables are completely bare.
Oddly, in the midst of this cold, windswept scene, I see a young couple bundled in heavy coats and scarves. Who in their right mind would dine in the cold tonight? They look absolutely miserable.
My party and I make our way inside to check in.
“Would you like to sit on our patio?” asks the hostess, rather seriously. “We have a table ready for you outside.”
Bone-in New York strip (photo by Leonard Ortiz, OC Register)
I laugh, thinking she has a dry sense of humor. She holds her ground.
“If you prefer to dine in the tavern, it will be a short wait,” she says.
“What about the dining room?” I ask.
“The patio and tavern are our only dining rooms tonight,” she says, smiling.
“That’s not usually the case, is it?” I ask.
“The steakhouse is being used for a private function tonight,” she finally acknowledges. “The wait shouldn’t be more than 20 minutes.”
“I made this reservation two weeks ago,” I say. “Couldn’t someone have told me this before now?”
“You’re welcome to purchase a drink at the bar while you wait,” she says.
I look toward the bar. It’s packed, standing room only, two or three people deep on all sides. I glance back toward the patio, at the sad-looking couple bundled up and shivering in the wind…
Service the entire night is comically pathetic. On the rare instances when we do encounter a server, they are frantically at their wits’ end. When our food arrives, the table proves absurdly small, and the staff has no idea what to do with all the plates. We stack whatever we can in the windowsill: wine bottle, glasses, water. We forfeit our bread and the burned-out candle. Plates hang precariously over the edge. It’s like a game of Jenga with food…
I return a week later. I brace for the worst.
It’s warmer tonight. We skip past the patio, where the tables are actually set and people are happily dining. We check in with the hostess, who immediately escorts us to a choice table in the upstairs dining room. Plush tablecloths and opulent spacing create a truly civilized din. We can actually whisper at times.
Right off the bat, our server is fantastic. He hears us talking about the charcuterie while we peruse the menus. He interjects: “I couldn’t help but overhearing,” he says. “If you’d like, I can go ahead and order the charcuterie for you, to give you a chance to relax and not be in a rush.”
He never skips a beat. He anticipates every need. He is a gentleman and a trustworthy salesman. An assistant manager hovers in the room tonight, as well, keeping an eye on every detail. She, too, is a charmer, occasionally delegating discrete commands to a busboy who sticks close to her side.
The food is once again very good, perhaps borderline superb. It’s funny how service can affect the taste of things…
This is obviously just a synopsis. Want more? You can read my full review and see the star rating along an extensive slide show by photographer Leonard Ortiz in this week’s OC Register. Subscriptions are required to read Register content in the week that it is originally published. If you don’t want to subscribe, you can simply buy a Day Pass — cheaper than a cup of coffee — for 24-hour access to the entire OC Register archive. Or you can be cheap and lazy and wait for a week, at which point the story will be free online. I also invite you to follow me and join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.