Sometimes, a Laguna Beach restaurant is so surprising in its flavors and flair that even I have a difficult time writing about it. Take for example, K’ya, a restaurant that never, ever has a bad night (and I’m there plenty of nights). What Chef Craig whips up over there is nothing less than brilliant.

And then there’s Cafe Picayo Restaurant, an unassuming little bistro tucked away in Boat Canyon in North Laguna Beach. I’ve driven past the place a thousand times and never imagined it served up one of the most sumptuous menus in all of Orange County. One of my more sophisticated girlfriends on the Picayo jaunt couldn’t have said it better when she noted, “I’m finishing the sauces with my fingers, for heaven’s sake … I can’t possibly attempt to cook again.”

Fair warning – “sumptuous” doesn’t come close to the word “diet” in any dictionary, least of all Cafe Picayo’s. This is complex, imaginative food whose menu first started with French master chef Laurent Brazier 14 years ago, and only got better as it has expanded in the hands of Chef Francois this last year. It’s a phenomenal mix of French recipes with Mediterranean touches.

Case in point – the longstanding breast of duck seared in a peach demi-glace amicably shares menu space with recent newcomers such as grilled lamb chops on a bed of ratatouille, the fragrant French onion soup, or the “Picayo Purse” with grilled prawns, artichoke hearts and mushrooms in a pastry shell. And, I can’t say that I’ve ever had Julia Childs whip up her Boeuf Bourguignon for me personally, but Francois’ rendition of this renowned dish is beyond memorable.

Long rumored as one of Laguna Beach’s expensive French restaurants, Picayo’s owners simply roll their eyes at the suggestion. Picayo offers a sizable lounge menu of full entrees under $7, and the dining menu offers hearty “petite plates” priced between $5 and $11. Happy hour features $5 glasses of wine from an extensive menu.

It’s not just the food at Picayo, though. This place is a whispered favorite among North Laguna locals because its owners, S.K. Paul, Hamid and Francois, treat you as if you’re at the kitchen tables of their own homes. (It took me several minutes to realize that our amiable server was the decorated chef of the place.) The patio and bar fill nightly with local chatter – people become friends here and loners find family in this place.

What Insiders Know About Laguna Beach’s Picayo Restaurant

“Picayo” is a mountain range in Spain that shelters a town renowned for a cooking school that focuses on shellfish and seafood preparations. For most European chefs, it’s a required leg in their schooling.

Picayo is licensed to re-sell wine, and many Laguna Beach locals happily sort through an extensive list (with tastings, of course) to order bottles and cases of unique wines from around the world.

Picayo also offers a $12 “take home” bottle of wine, offering a bounty of unknown and undiscovered gems that you’ll never go wrong on.

Sorry, but one more item of food that must be discussed. When Chef Brazier retired, he agreed to hand over all his recipes except for ONE … his flourless chocolate truffle cake. To this day, he still crafts this sinful treat and delivers it to Picayo (under heavily armored guard, I’m sure). This is something you’ve just got to try.

How to find Café Picayo in Laguna Beach

Picayo is on the north side of Laguna, so from Laguna’s Main Beach at Broadway and PCH, it’s just over a half mile north at Boat Canyon Drive. Picayo shares the complex with (among others) Gina’s Pizza, Pavilion’s grocery store, and a Coldwell Banker office.

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