Since 1940, James Decker and his wife, Lucile, have come to dine once a week at Hotel Laguna and to enjoy the sight of blue-green waves crashing on a sandy beach, sea gulls swooping from an ever-changing sky, boats sailing on the distant horizon and young lovers strolling barefoot, hand-in-hand, at surf's edge.
James Decker, 74, says simply, "We just enjoy the view."
The view is the main attraction at such restaurants as the one at Hotel Laguna and nearly 50 others along Orange County's 37-mile coast. Views of pounding surf, a quiet bay at sunset, a boat running free before the wind and moonlight reflected off the water make these restaurants a special breed among the county's more than 5,500 restaurants.
Tourists flock to Disneyland and Knott's Berry Farm, but when it comes time for dinner many head to the ocean's edge for a million-dollar view of the Pacific. And locals, like the Deckers, may spend nearly 50 years gazing at the same ocean view, week after week.
Waterfront restaurants are more than just places to eat. They serve glamour, romance and the shimmering illusion of the sea along with baked salmon, prime rib and fettuccine.
But don't let the glittery facade fool you. Sure, some charge a king's ransom, but at others you can eat for about the same amount you would spend at Sizzler or Denny's. And it doesn't matter whether you want to dine in your T-shirt and tennis shoes, dress to the hilt, enjoy a romantic dinner for two or bring the whole family. No matter what your tastes in food or dress, no matter how fat or thin your wallet, in Orange County you can find a waterfront restaurant--with a view--to fit your dining needs.
A whirlwind, coastal tour from Seal Beach to San Clemente turns up about 50 waterfront dinner restaurants (not including fast-food places or cafes) in Huntington Beach, Newport Beach, Laguna Beach, Dana Point and San Clemente.
The largest concentration of waterfront restaurants is in Newport Beach and the fewest in San Clemente, which has only one ocean-view dinner restaurant. Seal Beach--with only Ruby's Jewel Cafe on the pier--has no legitimate waterfront dinner restaurants.
Each Orange County beach city has its own distinctive personality and so do its restaurants. In Huntington Beach, upscale Peter's Landing in Huntington Harbour stands in sharp contrast to the surfing and beach shops in downtown Huntington Beach, near Main Street.
In Peter's Landing, which has half a dozen restaurants fronting the water, tables offer views of row-after-row of grand motor yachts. A boardwalk separates the restaurants from the boat docks.
Restaurants include Reuben's and the Red Onion, plus two dinner theaters, Tibbie's Music Hall and the Young American's. Typical of the harbor restaurants is the newest addition, MacArthur Park, a youthful, beach-oriented, noisy affair with a menu that ranges from baby back ribs and chicken to live Maine lobster.
As a lot of beach restaurants do, MacArthur Park welcomes casually dressed diners in shorts and sandals as well as after work businessmen in suits and ties. Kit Prewett, general manager at MacArthur Park, describes the restaurant as "California eclectic. I don't think we have a typical customer," he says. "But mostly we attract locals from Seal Beach and Long Beach to Huntington Beach."
Prices range from $7.95 (for Pacific red snapper, including soup or salad, vegetable and potato) to $16.95 for baked halibut. For $13.95, you can get a combination plate including generous servings of ribs, chicken, sausage, cole slaw, baked beans and French fries.
Reservations are recommended on weekends. "Everybody requests a table by the window with a view," Prewett says. "We'll accommodate the request if we can, but it might be a short wait."
Farther south at the pier in Huntington Beach, you will get a completely different kind of view at Maxwell's by the Sea. Instead of gazing at pricey yachts and a crowded bay, you can look directly at the open sea and watch the waves roll in. The view is best during the day or at sunset. After dark, on a moonless night, there is not much to see, but you can still hear the distant rumble of the Pacific.
From 4 to 6 p.m., the restaurant offers a sunset special that includes a choice of three entrees, vegetables and coffee for only $7.95. A senior citizens menu offers certain selections for as little as $6. Regular prices range from $8.95 for salads to $50 for a 2- to 3-pound live Maine lobster.
Maxwell's has only 10 window tables and 12 tables on the terrace, but virtually every table in the house offers a view of the ocean.
With 25 miles of prime harbor front and six miles of oceanfront land, Newport Beach, home to half the county's waterfront restaurants, has room for more on-the-water eateries than any other place in Orange County.