The Royal Hawaiian Grand Dame in Laguna Beach is back in all her tiki glory. The restaurant just reopened last weekend (June 10th) with fervent hopes that you’ll love her like you used to.
Here’s the Odd and Strangely Unique History About Laguna’s Royal Hawaiian …
Most Laguna Beach residents qualify their neighbors as “true” residents based on their ability to recite the date of their first visit to The Royal Hawaiian. (Don’t even raise your eyebrows at me. You know this is true.) This Grand Dame, after all, was one of the storied original Laguna restaurant establishments, having staked her claim in 1947. For the record, when the Royal Hawaiian came along, there really were just a handful of restaurants in this town, including The White House, which started it all in 1918, followed by the The Orange Inn (1931), The Cottage (1938) and the Penguin Cafe (late 1940s).
Locals still aren’t sure that I qualify as a resident because I only arrived here in the year 2000 during Royal Hawaiian’s waning years under Francis Cabang, bless his amazing soul. It closed in 2006 and I attended one of the last dinner services/wakes before the place shuttered.
Then, Lyndon Cole took over the property and altered the interior dramatically, eventually closing in 2012 with issues he claimed that included unhappy neighbors who insisted he rein in his live music hours. In that timeframe, I ate at the Royal Hawaiian exactly once.
The Grand Dame was returned to her royal tiki-ness with Hasty Honarkar shortly thereafter, and I was there for the soft open parties. Despite its tiki glory (and amazing collection of tiki totems), the brand struggled and the Honarkars eventually turned the property over to Maro Molteni, the local beloved chef of what had once been Maro’s Wood Grill. Chef Maro did a change up on the tiki theme and did an even bigger change up on the menu, which, despite its awesomeness at Chef Maro’s hand, had fans of the Royal Hawaiian ages crying foul. They missed the original Royal Hawaiian food tradition. Although he eventually managed to win the love of many with his significant wood grill skills, the Chef chose to go in a new direction last year, citing irreconcilable differences with the property landlords.
Last fall, the successful Los Angeles-based Boulevard Hospitality Group took on Laguna Beach’s most daunting task: The Royal Hawaiian. This group more recently took over Casa del Camino’s Rooftop and also re-engineered the ground floor restaurant to Comedor, which replaced the once-magnificent K’ya Bistro under former Chef Craig Connole’s tutelage.
The Grand Dame Dresses in Tiki Once Again
I visited the new (5th) iteration of Royal Hawaiian twice before its formal opening on June 10th and I will say, for the record, that this group spared no cost in returning the Royal Hawaiian to her original tiki bridal fare as a blushing bride in 1947. The team brought in the best of the best of tiki designers, nationally renowned Tiki-aficionado Ignacio “Notch” Gonzales, who took every measure and down-to-the-smallest detail to return the Royal Hawaiian to her original state in 1947.
Of course, the old original bar that formerly sat on the south side of the restaurant isn’t there because the architectural footprint inside the restaurant has changed. But the team has made every effort to re-invent the bar’s look and feel, too, with tiki thatch, the suspended Royal Hawaiian canoe and a veritable solid wall of rums.
Speakeasy-styled booths have been built back into the spaces in both the front bar and the larger restaurant space with intricate wood carving dividers that are laced with beautiful jade. Many of the tiki artifacts from the historical Hanna origination are posted throughout, almost like a treasure hunt … I’m still looking for the original blowfish, a peachy-pale bloke who’s been rumored to have been the first to find his way to the Royal Hawaiian in 1949.
Tiki Cocktails Large and in Charge
The team has not only done their best to replicate the most memorable menu items but replicate the menu look and feel, too. During the pre-opening parties, our menus were printed with the original prices of food and drink circa 1940 (quite the culture shock: Coconut Shrimp platter for $1.80 and the original Lapu Lapu for just $2.25!).
Many of the timeless favorites adorn the menu on both the cocktail side and the flip side of appetizers and main dishes. The team offered me both Lapu Lapus (like I needed two; I can hardly make my way through one), the Cabang original Lapu Lapu and the revised version, which arrives flambé style. For the record, the Cabang is heavier on the rum; the modernized version is lighter with more of a palate of fruit juices. Though I didn’t try it, the Bali Bali drink has returned, the renowned and veritable punch bowl built for two with two rums, gin, cognac and Pierre Ferrand. Wow.
On my second visit, I asked for a Paloma Brava from the “modern drinks menu” and was pleased with the usual concoction lifted with a float of Aperol and celery bitters. Nice touch!
The appetizers really say “Game on!” with callbacks to Popcorn Chicken, Coconut Shrimp, the Lumpia Pork Egg Roll (with braised pork) and Spam Musubi. Even the French Fries are done “the Royal Hawaiian way” with a fried egg crowning the basket and plenty of brown gravy for drizzling.
Salads include the famed Hawaiian Mac Salad and the Aloha Wedge with the touted original Royal Hawaiian salad dressing that so many locals literally mourned for … for years.
Entreés range from good old fashioned Curry Pineapple Rice with Portuguese sausage, The Loco Moco beef patty smothered in mushroom gravy and fried egg, and grill items that include the old crowd-favorite Galbi – Korean Styled Grilled Short Ribs and the Marinated Baby Backs in Royal BBQ Sauce. I tried them both, and would recommend the Baby Backs – they’re basted and
finished with plenty of tangy, sweet sauce.
Going for the Trifecta
Since the original Royal Hawaiian of all our memories closed in 2006, the poor girl has been haunted with issues from serious Tiki aficionados who expressed dismay (even outrage) with the re-imagined decor and tiki cocktails. Longtime residents and perennial visitors were of the same emotional ilk as they missed the old school Hawaiian food. But here’s the thing: Even in her 60 years with the original family and the Cabangs, the Royal Hawaiian accommodated various decor and menu changes, all of which seemed to have been welcomed and/or forgiven. The girl just had an aura about her that made it all OK.
Having seen the five change-ups since 2006, this version is clearly the closest rendition to what I remember as the “original,” but will it prove the same for residents who ate there, met friends there and had their first dates there in the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s?
In the end, I think, it’s that triefecta of strong, tropical cocktails, homey Hawaiian food and the friendly, watering hole aura you just can’t quite put your finger on. Perhaps this is the time the Royal Hawaiian will bring back to the city what seems to have been missing for 17 years.