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Patio chic in Southern California

June 17, 2010|S. Irene Virbila, Los Angeles Times Restaurant Critic
  • Sip wine by the sea at Studio at Montage Laguna Beach.
Sip wine by the sea at Studio at Montage Laguna Beach. (Christine Cotter / Los Angeles…)

Area restaurants take advantage of the climate to make eating alfresco an event.

Funny, when I think about favorite restaurant meals, a good many of them have involved dining outdoors — dinner at Marie-Claude Gracias' restaurant in southwestern France followed by coffee in the dark beside the river, a long, intricate lunch outside at the French Laundry in Napa Valley, savoring seafood pasta at a trattoria on a hillside overlooking the bay of Naples, lighted by the silvery moon.

For anyone who relishes eating out of doors in summer and any other time, L.A. has some great spots. It could be a tiny sidewalk table with prime people-watching possibilities, a romantic garden perfumed with jasmine and roses, a walled patio furnished like home with vintage finds and table lamps, or a cabana with a view of city skyscrapers.

What is it about eating outside that's so captivating? I think it's the play of the breeze, the lack of formality, the essential pleasure of communing with a patch of nature, however small. Telling stories across a candlelit table has something to do with it too. A meal alfresco at a restaurant is a civilized picnic complete with wineglasses, silverware and server — and chairs.

Here, in no particular order, are some of my favorites.

Gjelina

Only spelling bee champions can remember (or spell) the name. There's no sign on the door or valet out front, yet Gjelina in Venice is enviably packed. But if you want to actually hear what your dining companions are saying, opt for the enclosed patio in back. The wait is worth it for the chance to dine ensconced on low sofas or at vintage garden tables under the Venice night sky. Even without the industrial chic space, people would be lined up to feast on chef Travis Lett's thin-crusted pizza blanketed with Taleggio and wild mushrooms, grilled white prawns in a fiery romesco, flat iron steak smeared with smoked tomato butter or a fetching salad of nectarines with arugula, burrata and speck. The menu offers plenty for vegetarians to love, including wood oven-roasted sunchokes set off with salsa verde or baby artichokes with a perky gremolata. At lunch, umbrellas fend off the sun. And after you've had your fill of Lett's rustic Mediterranean cooking, stroll down Abbot Kinney for a coffee at Intelligentsia.

Gjelina, 1429 Abbott Kinney Blvd., Venice; (310) 450-1429; http://www.gjelina.com.

Studio at Montage Laguna Beach

The setting couldn't be more perfect: a Craftsman-style cottage, albeit a grandly proportioned one, on the edge of a bluff overlooking the Pacific at Laguna Beach. At Studio, the restaurant at Montage Laguna Beach, you can sit inside next to tall French doors thrown open to the view. But why, when you can eat outside on the terrace with a wraparound view of sunset and sea? (Should it get too chilly, blankets are provided.) The food is as extraordinary as the setting and the service at this luxury resort. With quiet confidence, chef Craig Strong turns out a sophisticated, elegant menu of French-California cuisine with a few Catalan touches from his time in Barcelona. He's especially good with seafood. Try his succulent roasted lobster tail with fideo noodles cooked like risotto, or the salmon with rhubarb. Or, for a great bottle of red from the vast wine list, grilled beef with a ragout of short ribs in Bordelaise sauce. Whatever he's cooking (the menu changes often), dinner at Studio can be as restorative as a weekend away. Come early to enjoy the beach beforehand.

Studio at Montage Laguna Beach, 30801 South Coast Highway, Laguna Beach; (949) 715-6420; http://www.studiolagunabeach.com.

The Hungry Cat

When Suzanne Goin and hubby David Lentz expanded their tiny seafood bistro a couple of years ago, the patio in front, which faces the back of Borders at Sunset and Vine, got bigger too. Now there are several tall communal tables outside with a view of the action at the raw bar. The older part of the patio, with its benches and tables packed close together, is still dark enough that nobody will notice if you impulsively lick your fingers while devouring a pound of the peel 'n' eat shrimp steamed in beer or disassembling a softshell crab or two. There are beautiful salads too, oysters and clams on the half shell, lobster rolls and a justly famous Pug burger. The cocktails are deeply delicious, especially the signature "kumquatini." The food is always simple and great. What's not to like? Maybe how hard it is to get a reservation. And now they've got three desserts, not just one, though I'm still voting for that chocolate bread-and-butter pudding.

The Hungry Cat, 1535 N. Vine St., Los Angeles; (323) 462-2155; http://www.thehungrycat.com.

Joan's on Third

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