As restaurants are temporarily shuttering everywhere, it’s such a blessed and optimistic turn to see Sapphire Pantry’s new ownership actually do the opposite. On Wednesday, April 1st, Restaurateur Russ Bendel opened The Pantry, a portion of his new Sapphire operation in The Old Pottery Place.

Operating Partner Chris Hutten, left, and Sapphire & Pantry Owner Russ Bendel, right, have opened “The Pantry” for breakfast and lunch to-go orders.

Bendel and his group own the highly successful Vine Restaurant & Bar (San Clemente), Ironwood, Cellar. Craft. Cook (Laguna Hills) and Olea, Cellar. Craft. Cook (Newport Beach on Westcliff Drive).

He and his business partners announced the purchase of the Sapphire restaurant and pantry from Chef Azmin Ghahreman in early February with plans at that time to open both by April 1st.

“Clearly, were not going to be opening Sapphire, Cellar. Craft. Cook until we can provide the full dine-in experience for our guests,” said Operating Partner Chris Hutten. “But, we’re happy to have the Pantry open, and will continue to build it out over the next few weeks.”

As I stand at the door and peek inside, the first person to greet me is Russ Bendel, Sr., the CEO of Habits Restaurants. It is such a pleasure to see him again. Aside from his phenomenal success with Habits, Bendel, Sr., is a great supporter of another of my clients, Illumination Foundation, which provides resources and temporary and permanent housing to thousands of homeless people in Orange County and L.A.

Russ Bendel, Sr., the CEO of Habits Restaurants, stops in to pick up breakfast burritos at his son’s – Russ Bendel, Jr’s – newest restaurant endeavor, The Pantry.

His son, Russ, Jr. has proven a chip off the “old” block, proving both great restaurant acumen and eagerness to jump in and help Illumination, too, most recently with an Olea table at their renowned OC Chef’s Table. I can’t tell you how pleased I am to have people like this in our Laguna Beach community.

Breakfast and Lunch All Day

Now open daily from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., The Pantry has been refurbished with whitewashed floors, gleaming subway tile and a light quartz counter whose end corner houses a display case of pastries and gluten-free pastries.

The former “salad bar” is gone as is the walk-in cheese cellar, the latter of which will soon be a “grab and go” of packaged, freshly made salads soups,  sandwiches and more from Executive Chef Jared Cook.

The “introductory menu” offers a Breakfast Sandwich and Breakfast Burrito, both of which can also be made vegetarian style. You can also find Scratch-Made pastries, a Jidori Chicken Confit Sandwich, a Sapphire Garden Herb Salad and, in homage to Chef Azmin and the many Laguna locals addicted to his former Sapphire hamburger, an American Wagyu Beef Burger.

“You can order any of these items all day,” Bendel told me. “If you feel like a burger at 7 a.m., we’ve got you handled.”

The coffee is also new, a masterful and mellow blend from Gavina that won the vote of all the operating partners involved. The team will be expanding the menu in the weeks ahead, with the addition of a Beyond (meatless) burger and ready-made craft cocktails soon to debut.

Custom-Crafted Breakfast Options

They load me up with the Breakfast Burrito and the Breakfast Sandwich to take with me. (Awesome, as my refrigerator now looks like a hoarder’s heaven of “to go” boxes). These are giant servings, so I commit to trying just a few bites of each as I’d prefer that my hips emerge from this lockdown on the lighter side of life.

Chef Jared’s breakfast burrito is a fabulous taste sensation of scrambled eggs, chorizo refried beans (yum), applewood bacon and crispy potato chunks with avocado slices, lime crema and charred salsa. It is out of this world … that is, until I try the Breakfast Sandwich.

The sandwich is a Jenga puzzle of fried (cage free) egg, house made sausage, crispy applewood bacon and, of all things, thin-sliced smoked Gouda (so heavenly) with cracked pepper aioli. And, the force de resistance as far as I’m concerned when it comes to breakfast sandwiches … a super soft challah bun.

The Pantry’s Breakfast sandwich

I’m serious here: As a Breakfast Sandwich fanatic who must try one anywhere in the world that I go, this is the best I’ve ever tasted.  

And, Meet Your Soon-To-Be Sapphire Restaurant

Since I’m already here, it only makes sense that we pop next door to take a quick look at the refurbished interior of Sapphire, Cellar. Craft, Cook.

Everything has been lightened, brightened and polished to a sheen. The patio teak tables are newly restored. Expect to see brighter orange umbrellas in play soon – they’re the same tone as the originals, but they will be fresh out of the box.

Operating Partner Chris Hutton Sapphire, Cellar. Craft, Cook

The curved monolith that stood behind the hostess stand is gone, but the original hostess stand remains, as do the tables and chairs, although dining chairs have been reupholstered.

The wine cellar on the far south wall (where endless streams of people would wander, thinking it was the restroom), is now gone. A banquette in rich black will soon run the length of the wall to provide for more seating.

John Barber’s gorgeous glass-blown lighting remains in play everywhere (“It’s the best feature of the entire restaurant,” comments Hutten), but the ceiling and walls have been lightened considerably to spotlight these spotlights, so to speak.

“We’re just opening the restaurant up a bit more, and we’ve lightened it to give it a little more height and airiness,” said Hutton. “But there are some great features here that will always remain … as an example we’re matching the turquoise of the lower bar to paint the far south wall. It’s a great color.

“We know the locals loved this place for many years and paying homage to a restaurant’s original roots has always been a priority for us,” Hutten finished.

When the team is allowed to re-open, you will be seeing familiar faces, too, as more than 80% of the existing staff chose to remain.

“Wine Country Cuisine”

Stay tuned for a peek at the new Sapphire, Cellar. Craft, Cook. menu in my social platforms and at my website, Chef Jared, with Russ Bendel’s team since they first took over the San Clemente Vine restaurant seven years ago, has been trading ideas with Chris Hutten, also an acknowledged chef who joined Bendel’s team after a long stint as Executive Chef at The Capital Grille at South Coast Plaza.

“We’re doing a similar wine country cuisine style here as we do in our other restaurants, but the menu items will be unique to Laguna Beach. I really like my Duck & Pork Meatball, for instance, and you’re only going to find that here,” said Executive Chef Jared Cook.

“We’re adding in more of what we’d call ‘California coastal cuisine’ here, too, so we’re bringing in more seafood and fresh fish. And this will be the only restaurant where we’ll be serving brunch on Saturdays and Sundays. I’m really excited about introducing that menu.”

P.S. Take a Photo, Be Entered to Win a $50 Gift Card (How Easy is That?)

1. Stop at The Pantry, meet our new owner/operators and make a purchase.

2. Snap a photo of whatever you purchased.

3. Load it to your Instagram or Facebook page and TAG @bestoflagunabeach + TAG @thepantrylagunabeach

4. You’ll be entered in a raffle to win a $50 Pantry gift card. The drawing is next Wednesday, April 8th.

Again, The Pantry is at The Old Pottery Place, 1200 S. Coast Highway, Suite 102 (next door to the restaurant). Stop by to wave hello (from a distance of six feet please) to our newest restaurateurs.


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