[singlepic id=105 w=320 h=240 mode=watermark float=right]

This weekend, I realized that I’ve become a Big Fish & Ice Cold Beer Restaurant groupie.

Seriously, I think I’ve found myself in Big Fish at least once each week since Chris Keller and Craig Connole opened its doors last spring in Laguna Beach. Brought to you by the guys who made K’ya and the Rooftop Lounge a screaming success, Laguna Beach’s Big Fish & Ice Cold Beer follows a lot of the same precepts:

1. Chef Craig Connole’s ability to create a menu of delectable, original and unique taste treats that keep locals and tourists piling in again and again,

2.  An amazing array of gourmet “small plates” priced under $10 of every fish, shellfish, pasta with fish, fish sandwich and lobster fondue you can imagine,

2. Larger plates – their “Daily Catch” – offering 9 types of fish done grilled or blackened with 6 different sauces to choose from,

3.  “Not Fish” specialty items like rib eye, filet, and hot sausage sandwiches for people who just aren’t into fish

4. More than 50 cold beers to choose from (hey, it  IS in the name, after all) and an impressive array of big Hawaiian-style “fish Bowl” cocktails,

5.  A killer Happy Hour for just ONE hour between 4:30 and 5:30 p.m., Mondays through Fridays. Because you’re getting Big Fish’s already inexpensive food for just $3 during this one, single hour, you’ll see crowds form at the door at about 4:00 ( just as they do at Craig’s Laguna Beach mother ship restaurant, K’ya), for the best tasting, most affordable, and fun happy hours in town.

6. And an altogether somewhat rowdy, happy, energetic kind of vibe that keeps this place packed while other restaurants in town lounge sadly on the same date and time with a handful of diners. (Note: If you’re looking for a quiet romantic kind of time, Big Fish is not your place. It gets loud in here – I mean, it’s a casual, neighborhood fish house – it’s exactly what Craig had planned all along.)

Now, there are a lot of great restaurants in town – I have many favorites – but the only other restaurant in Laguna Beach that matches my own “SIX Finer Points of Restaurant Success” is K’ya, their OTHER restaurant in Laguna Beach. Seriously. The boys, Chris and Craig … they’ve got the Midas touch.

About two years ago when I was hanging out at K’ya, Chef Craig told me he wanted to start a Hawaiian-style “fish cart” . . . “maybe just a small, rumply cottage kind of thing where you know you can get the best fresh fish in town,” he said.

[singlepic id=106 w=320 h=240 mode=watermark float=left]

In a catch-up chat with him a few weeks ago on Big Fish’s indoor deck, he noted that, as more and more patrons came into K’ya asking for crab legs and oysters, he decided SOMEONE had to act. “Seriously, can you name a single fish house in Laguna Beach?” he queried. Good point, Craig.

Rather than add more fish and shellfish items to the K’ya menu, Craig knew he wanted to create a menu and atmosphere all its own. “K’ya’s menu is for the real foodies,” he told me. “You’ve got your steaks and your sauces and your cool soups and stews, but we needed a place in town that gives you that ‘vacation-y’, hanging-at-the-local-crab-shack kind of place.”

While it’s no “rumply small cottage” – Big Fish set up shop in the ginormous former Greek restaurant on the top floor suite above GG’s – it has an enormous bar, and all the wood floors, vintage fish shack signage, framed photos of grinning fishermen, and big stuffed fish you’d expect to see at your favorite neighborhood fish shack.

But what makes this a lasting, top eatery in Laguna (even despite a dreaded CHAIN fish restaurant moving into town shortly, bleh) is Craig’s focus on introducing some of his favorite recipes from his days as a top chef in Hawaii and his infamous Plantation restaurant in Vegas. And, while the food is inexpensive, Craig cuts no corners in carefully choosing, buying “environmentally responsible” fish, and daily flying in the finest, freshest fish from all points of the globe. While many chefs tend to lean toward B or C grade fish and shellfish when they’re selling in such high quantity, Craig refuses to take the low road.

“The residents here in Laguna Beach … they have sophisticated palates,” says Craig. “If you start bringing in the lower grade stuff, a lot of people are going to notice immediately. And, really, when it comes down to it, its the residents here in Laguna Beach who keep us alive by making us a mainstay and bringing in all their visiting relatives and friends. They deserve the best … so, that’s what we’re going to keep giving ’em.”

Say no more, Craig. This is one Laguna Beach resident who’s happy to be your groupie for life.

To find Big Fish & Ice Cold Beer … The address is 540 South Coast Highway, Suite 200 (top floor), Laguna Beach.

I just checked out the Google map and it’s a little strange. So, here’s the deal: Big Fish is about a half mile south of Main Beach (at Broadway) where the big lifeguard tower is. The restaurant sits on the inland side of PCH in a big white building of shops and other, smaller restaurants between Laguna Avenue and Legion Street. So, take PCH, turn on either Laguna or Legion and find the 2-deck red brick parking lot on Glenneyre Street. Park in there if there’s room. Or, find a handy parking meter on a nearby street (make sure you feed that puppy with quarters as our meter maids are VERY driven people). Walk across the small alley and you’ll see the Big Fish signage on the top floor. (And if you don’t see the signage, you can probably follow the dull roar noise.)

Get Laguna's Restaurant Updates!