Why Dana Point Is the Perfect Southern California Staycation

Find surf-and-turf bliss in Orange County.

Broiled Shellfish Platter from Monarch Beach Resort
Photo: © 2018 Galdones Photography

Sometimes, the way a city’s dining scene has changed announces itself in a spectacular way, like when you’re at the Monarch Beach Resort’s new Bourbon Steak and the waiter arrives at your table with a sizzling broiled shellfish platter that gets steamy when he pours lemongrass tea over the seafood and a bed of rock salt. Sometimes, the changes quietly sneak up on you, like when you’re savoring the meatloaf and greens at Craft Houseand realize that this simply named spot is the kind of neighborhood restaurant that every neighborhood would be lucky to have. Either way, the point we’re making is that the food in Dana Point has gotten a lot better.

Meatloaf from Craft House
Courtesy of Craft House

Orange County’s Dana Point is the perfect Southern California staycation. Less than half an hour from the exceedingly popular South Coast Plaza and Fashion Island malls. Less than an hour from Disney California Adventure. Less than 90 minutes from both Los Angeles and San Diego. (This is Southern California, so we assume you’re not driving during peak rush hour. What kind of staycation would that be?)

Dana Point is a place that’s convenient to everything, but it’s also a place where the beaches and bluffs are so beautiful that you might not care what’s nearby. Plus, Dana Point’s dining scene has gotten some serious heat at the splendid Monarch Beach Resort, which has six ocean-view restaurants headlined by Michael Mina’s Bourbon Steak. That steakhouse, which features tableside delights like hay-smoked Snake River Farms rib eye cap, opened March 1 in the space that was formerly home to Stonehill Tavern. In May, Orange County Register critic Brad A. Johnson named it the best restaurant in Orange County.

Before we get deeper into our experience at Bourbon Steak and mention some of the other restaurants at the Monarch Beach Resort, we have a free idea: If you’re a hipster chef and want to open a restaurant in Dana Point, you should call it Food & Water. We say this because a lot of the restaurant names in Dana Point are pretty basic: The names seem to exist only as a hint that 1) you are at a restaurant and, sometimes, 2) the restaurant is in a waterfront city.

NY Strip Steak from Monarch Beach Resort
© 2018 Galdones Photography

There’s Harbor Grillat the Dana Point marina, where we enjoyed the gumbo and where we recommend using the $29 lunch special to select a cup of New England clam chowder (it’s got corn, but it still works), a Cobb salad topped with a generous portion of Dungeness crab meat, and your choice of dessert, wine, or draft beer. This is an old-school restaurant, which opened in 1984 and is known for mesquite-grilled seafood and friendly service, that’s still a hot spot.

After lunch at Harbor Grill, we had an excellent dinner on the buzzing patio at Craft House (which happens to be across the street from Coastal Kitchen, where the patio was also packed).Craft House, which chef Blake Mellgren opened in 2016, is a gastropub that serves fish specials like grilled local yellowtail and housemade pasta specials like Sicilian fettuccine with sausage, broccoli rabe, chili flakes, and a sunny-side-up egg on top. We thoroughly enjoyed that pasta, and Craft House’s beef/pork/bacon meatloaf was pure comfort. The requisite fried chicken sandwich was pleasantly amped up with some honey sriracha.

Fried Chicken Sandwich from Craft House
Courtesy of Craft House

Eating at Craft House reminded us of our first visits to places like Brooklyn’s Buttermilk Channel, Baltimore’s Woodberry Kitchen, and Miami’s Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink. This is a modern neighborhood restaurant that riffs on American classics but has its own point of view, right down to the gender-neutral/handicapped-friendly bathroom sign that says, “WE DON’T CARE! JUST WASH YOUR HANDS.” There’s no Tabasco sauce here, but Craft House has Mago roasted green Thai hot sauce, a fierce combination with Thai chiles, jalapeños, and habaneros that our waitress happily told us was made nearby in Laguna Beach. The restaurant boasts a deep American whisky list including rare bottles of Pappy Van Winkle. And you probably won’t be surprised to hear that Craft House is popular for its boozy brunches.

We didn’t do brunch when we visited Dana Point last weekend because something about the beachy setting made us want to keep things light. So there we were at the Monarch Beach Resort’s AVEO Table + Bar for breakfast, enjoying the Mediterranean restaurant’s liquid amuse-bouche with pomegranate, carrot, kale, green apple, and red apple. Then a fortifying brown rice/red quinoa oatmeal had us ready for a beach and pool day.

Of course, the beach experience was enhanced by guacamole and a tasty blackened fish sandwich at the resort’s Monarch Bay Club, steps from the sand. And the pool experience benefited from the frozen margarita we got at Sombra, the poolside Mexican restaurant that sells a lot of fish tacos. But the best drink we had while hanging out at the resort was on the patio of the 33°North lobby lounge: The refreshing Dragon Mule, an original creation from bartender Janis Carlson, is a Ketel One Oranje vodka cocktail that features fresh dragon fruit purée (along with ginger beer and a splash of fresh lime juice) and is garnished with a slice of dragon fruit.

Martini Cart at Monarch Beach Resort
© 2018 Galdones Photography

You can also drink well at Bourbon Steak, where so much of the fun happens tableside. There’s a roving martini cart with both vodka and gin. There’s the aforementioned cast-iron-broiled shellfish platter, a showstopping shareable starter with oysters, plump Gulf shrimp, lobster, and, best of all, king crab. (This platter has been such a sensation that it might get rolled out to other Bourbon Steak outposts.) There’s the aforementioned hay-smoked Snake River Farms rib eye cap, which arrives under a glass cover. When the cover gets lifted, you see and smell smoke and hay before the intensely beefy meat is sliced tableside.

Executive chef Bryan Brown, who learned some things about running a high-volume kitchen at downtown L.A.’s Bottega Louie, is deftly overseeing a menu that features some of Mina’s greatest hits (caviar parfait, lobster pot pie, complimentary duck fat fries in lieu of bread service) but also has a lot of new surprises to dazzle you. There are all sorts of ways to create a surf-and-turf adventure here, and maybe the best option is what we saw a happy couple on the patio do: They were locals who were visiting the restaurant for the first time and decided to order both the lobster pot pie and the rib eye cap. These dishes are large enough to be shareable entrees, but this seasoned couple, who looked like empty nesters or maybe even retirees, managed to finish both and then ordered dessert like none of this was any big deal.

We were impressed and a little jealous. Dana Point really showed us something.

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