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Hidden Treasure in Dana Point

* Away from the water in a tiny strip mall you can find primo Italian food, a store- load of toys and all the crystal you could ask for.


Dana Point is a place people go when they have free time. Its usually sunny harbor attracts tourists, boat enthusiasts, surfers and beachgoers. But there's so much more to see besides the water.

Incorporated in 1989, the city is named after author Richard Henry Dana, who included loving passages about the area in his 1840s classic, "Two Years Before the Mast." Dana didn't appreciate the area's lack of seasons, but he couldn't deny its beauty. He wrote that he "experienced a glow of pleasure at finding what poetry and romance I ever had in me."

Before you land at Dana Point Harbor, stop at nearby Monarch Bay Plaza on Pacific Coast Highway. The tiny strip mall may look ordinary, but there are treasures to be found.

If you're hungry, try DeMario's Cafe & Pizzeria (17 Monarch Bay Plaza; [949] 240-9436). The tiny eatery at the edge of the plaza has a simple decor, but the food shines.

Owner Bob DeMario left the printing business in Brooklyn to move to Dana Point and open the restaurant 10 years ago. He credits chef Warren Heard, formerly of the Santa Ana Country Club, with infusing his cuisine with new flavor.

DeMario's most popular dishes are the spaghetti and meatballs ($9.95) and the Italian meatloaf with garlic mashed potatoes ($12.95). But every dish Heard prepares is a "work of art," DeMario said.

There are 15 pizzas, including traditional pepperoni and sausage ($8.75-$14.50) and Melanzane with eggplant, red onions, ricotta and mozzarella cheese, spinach and Roma tomatoes ($8.75-$15.75).

Enjoy a martini or a glass of wine at the bar and your meal in the dining room or--weather permitting--on the ocean-view patio.

For an appetizer, you can't go wrong with the generous portion of fried calamari ($8.95). Not only are you given a lot of it, but the size of the squid itself may frighten you.

Calling the clam chowder a soup may be an understatement. It's more like a hearty stew. A cup ($2.25) along with the complimentary, cheesy focaccia and garlic bread could be a meal.

DeMario's is open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 4 to 9 p.m. Sunday. Happy hour is 4 to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday. Rex Thompson plays smooth piano music from 7 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

More in Store

Feel free to take a look around the rest of the plaza.

A special child in your life may appreciate a surprise gift from Laguna Toys (13 Monarch Bay Plaza; [949] 240-1712). Kaz Shiba has owned the store for seven years, moving it from Laguna Beach to the plaza two years ago.

Thomas the Tank Engine and scooters are in high demand, Shiba said. You'll also find plenty of Lego toys. There's even a "Star Wars"-themed set.

Laguna Toys is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday.

If you need to buy for someone older than 10, turn to the Crystal Inn (12 Monarch Bay Plaza; [949] 493-1800). You'll find plenty of crystal, such as Lalique, Baccarat and Orrefors. Vases, votive-candle holders and animal figurines from France, Sweden, Ireland, Austria and Poland are on display, manager Greg Tajchman said.

The Crystal Inn is open 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday.


GETTING THERE: Take Interstate 5 south and exit at Crown Valley Parkway. Head south about six miles, turn left on Pacific Coast Highway. Monarch Bay Plaza is on the left-hand side.

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