A couple years ago, the Catsouras family (owners of The White House Restaurant & Nightclub) was on a family vacation to the Greek Islands. As they were having lunch one day, they struck up a conversation with a nearby couple to discover that this twosome had actually met at The White House.
“It happens all the time,” says Demetri, The White House GM, “I can’t tell you how many people tell us that they met at The White House and have gotten married.”
Given that Dad, George, has owned The White House Restaurant since 1981 (34 years) and, given that The White House was essentially Orange County’s first restaurant, established in 1918 (97 years), I guess this shouldn’t seem like a surprising fact. At the least, though, single people looking for love might want to take note.
34 Years of Solid Cookin’
In the very heart of Laguna Beach’s Main Beach bustle, The White House Restaurant was more of a broken down roadhouse when George Catsouras arrived from South Africa with plans to own a restaurant in Laguna Beach. At that time, the dining room had been completely closed down and food wasn’t being served at all – it was just a bar.
Now, 34 years later, The White House Restaurant is still one of the most popular bars for great drinks, friendly bartenders and nightly live music in Laguna Beach, but its food menu has gained as much or more in popularity with Chef Roberto Carrasco-Lopez at the helm (20 years plus).
From 8:00 or 9:00 a.m. to 2:00 a.m., you’ll find people in the restaurant, in the bar and on the porch enjoying one of the larger menus in town. This is very well done “foundational” food (as Demetri labels it) – omelets, steaks, sandwiches, burgers, salads, pastas and even a side of Mexican fare. And, perhaps more importantly, it doles out great local love. Most of the White House staff has clocked in 15 years or more with a bustle of longtime fans around them.
“This is a family business that just grew more family,” says Demetri.
Still family owned and run, Dad George is still involved on a daily basis, with his son, Demetri, here now 16 years. Sister, Zoe, runs the wine program.
“I always wanted to work here,” says Demetri. “I started in the kitchen doing prep cook work and washing dishes when I was 15, and I never wanted to go anywhere else.” Apparently, just about everyone who begins to work here has the same sentiment.
So, Let Me Start With a Mia Culpe First …
I’ve written before about The White House breakfast and brunch on weekends (their Eggs Benedict combos rock). And I’ve written about The White House Taco Tuesday as one of my favorites (recently returned and improved), but I’ve not yet written about the lunch and dinner menus.
Admittedly, when I published my “Best Gourmet Burgers in Laguna Beach” column last July in StuNews, I was pummeled by a raft of White House fans that were aghast at my accidental exclusion of The White House Burger.
On my recent visit, I made it the first on my list to try. And yes, OK, fans … you have a point there. It looks pretty much like a normal burger, but it certainly doesn’t taste that way.
“I’m not sure what it really is either,” says Demetri with a shrug. “It’s just this crazy way the smoked Gouda cheese works with the bacon and the garlic mayo spread we make here. Somehow, that mix takes it from an average burger to something people rave about,” he finishes.
Demetri also points to the “Johnny Burger” as a crowd pleaser. Bartender Johnny Daub, in residence at The White House for, oh, about 22 years or so, has a sneaky way of creating his own dish, publicizing it heartily to his crowd of regulars, and creating a frenzy until the item is added to the menu. (I guess you could call Johnny the “pre-Twitter” tweeter.)
“The Johnny Burger is sort of a Frankenstein of The White House Burger,” says Demetri. “Johnny switched to an onion dill bun, and loaded grilled onions and avocado to the mix … somehow it really works.”
I’m tempted to try the “Frankenstein,” but there’s too much on this menu to try otherwise … like the Laguna Cheese Steak Sandwich, a California knock off (and better for it) of the famed Philly treat. The toasted, buttered bun comes loaded with strips of grilled choice cut top sirloin with sautéed red and green peppers, mushrooms and Grandma-like pickles. Blanketed in melty cheddar cheese, it’s most definitely the best cheese steak in town (even if there is another … is there another?)
Way Above “Bar Food.”
While many menu items are regularly added and replaced on The White House menu, there are diehard items that simply can’t be moved, not even from their printed position on the menu itself … “or people kind of go nuts,” says Demetri.
The Turkey Cranberry Sandwich. The Turkey Avocado Melt. The Salt & Pepper Calamari with Lemon Mango Tequila Sauce and Jalapeno Tartar Sauce. The Chicken Tikka Masala with a tomato based curry sauce. The Rasta Pasta with big chunks of fresh seafood wrapped in spicy coconut milk and jalapeno sauce … In short, if you’ve been thinking the White House serves up standard bar food, it’s time to reshape that paradigm.
If I had a paradigm before, it changed up with The White House’s Jamaican Jerk Chicken Penne Pasta. This is Demetri’s favorite, and there’s good reason with this dish. It’s a giant dish of penne pasta folded in creamy cilantro pesto sauce with mushrooms, roasted corn and roasted bell peppers. Then, big chunks of seared Jamaican spiced chicken portions are added as the crowning touch. This is a memorable meal with some definite sizzle and lingering spice.
Specials Locals Should Know About
“Our locals and regulars make up our family here,” says Demetri. “So, we like to keep our popular specials rolling, especially in off-season months when we can see our locals more regularly.”
I’m guessing few locals know that The White House offers …
- Happy Hour, Monday through Thursday, 4:00 to10:00 p.m., and a 10-item food menu of seriously priced best sellers until 6:00 p.m.
- For the month of January, 50% off on all pasta dishes, Sunday through Thursday (uhmm, did I just mention Jamaican Jerk Chicken Pasta?)
- 50% off all bottles of wine on Wednesday nights (the wine list has grown quite eclectic, thanks to devoted wine collector sister, Zoe)
- The ever-loving White House Prime Rib Special on Friday and Saturday nights ($10.95 with rosemary potatoes, au jus, horseradish and all those fixins’)
- The return of Taco Tuesday in the bar only, with hefty $2.50 tacos that run the range of four different gourmet taco fillings each week.
All in all, The White House provides that feel good feeling all the day long.
“As corny as it sounds, we all feel honored to be here in such a magical community doing what we do every day,” says Demetri. “We just try to share that good feeling vibe with everyone who finds their way here.”
340 South Coast Highway, Laguna Beach. (949) 494-8088