Booming downtown Dana Point rivals city’s famous harbor as go-to dining destination

For more than 50 years, the Dana Point Harbor, a slip space/nautical destination popular with locals and tourists alike, has been the coastal enclave’s hotspot. It’s where you take your family, your first date, or out-of-town guests to one of several seafood restaurants, watering holes, and gift shops.

But today, amid vacancies and an ongoing $400 million renovation set to reimagine the mile-long shoreline, the harbor’s allure has started to slightly rust during its period of adjustment. Enter downtown Dana Point, officially known as the Lantern Village. Located roughly one mile up the road from the harbor, it boasts a bevy of new dining options that lean heavily on chef-driven contemporary cuisine — and less on seafaring frippery.

Best of all, many residents won’t even to drive to get there.

Sandwiched between Pacific Coast Highway and Del Prado Avenue, this four-block island has sprung to life since the completion of the Prado West housing complex, which offers apartments (or, as the marketing copy calls them, “retreats”) from $3,900 and up. Anchoring the myriad food options along this stretch is Maison Cafe, which opened in April, after relocating from its former space on Pacific Coast Highway, and its smaller grab-and-go wine and cheese shop, Avec Moi.

The switch to a prime corner locale has made a world of difference for Maison Cafe. The new locale at Del Prado and Amber Lantern features breakfast-lunch and dinner menus. Diners can look forward to poached salmon belly rillettes, duck confit hash with root vegetables and a fried egg, a Dutch baby pancake topped with seasonal berries, and coq au vin. Chef-owner Danielle Kuhn adheres to organic and seasonal ethos with her cooking, so menu items are subject change depending on availability and seasonality.


Ideal grab-and-go spot Avec Moi. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Next door’s Avec Moi, a smaller eatery that doubles as a wine bar and provisions shop, offers to-go baguette sandwiches that change daily (my personal favorites so far have been the ham and butter, a woefully underrated flavor pairing, and the turkey and brie sandwiches) and house-made chocolate chip cookie dough made with brown butter. Patrons can also enjoy bottles of wine, charcuterie, and an array of French and California cheeses (don’t miss out on a hunk of Humboldt Fog).

Another new anchor restaurant is an upscale, two-story pizzeria christened Truly Pizza, the brainchild of Brooklyn-born John Arena and award-winning pizzaiolo Chris Decker, which made its grand debut in June. In addition to hearth-baked pizzas, like its crispy pepperoni pizza with cup-and-char style pepperoni or the sweet and spicy Detroit-style pizza replete with soppressata and Zab’s hot honey (which far surpass the doughy slices found at nearby chains), the restaurant can be found in a bold new construction along Del Prado. The new building, designed by Ted Berner and Dayna Lee of Los Angeles-based Power Strip Studio, features a fauna-strewn exterior anchored by a sweeping white staircase that leads diners to an open-air rooftop deck.

The public’s response to Truly Pizza has been overwhelming. So much so that the owners have done away with reservations. On July 5, roughly one week after opening, the owners posted to Instagram, “The response has been beyond our expectations.”

The eatery’s clearly contemporary structure and menu, free from over-sauced and ultra-drizzled monstrosities, sends a clear message: Dana Point is more than just a destination spot for surfers and sailors. Like its neighbor to the east, San Juan Capistrano, it’s on the precipice of turning into a dining town offering fare thoughtfully created by chefs — not calculated in a business boardroom.


Dana Point Ale House co-founder Christian Goodman serves up one of his 24 California-focused beers. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Other gastronomic spots in the newfangled gourmet strip include Dana Point Ale House, a dog-friendly beer garden that serves 24 craft beers honoring the Golden State with microbrand brews reaching from San Diego to Humboldt. Owned by husband-wife team Christian and Whitney Goodman, Dana Point Ale House also lays claim to the city’s first beer garden.

“Our initial business plan was to open a standalone beer garden in Dana Point, but that fell through due to coastal conditions and EPA reports, so we ended up going for a brick-and-mortar concept,” says Christian. As luck would have it, Raintree Partners, the owners of the Del Prado complex, reached out to the couple and mentioned there was a neighboring public park attached to a vacant venue, asking if they wanted to attach a beer garden to their Ale House. “It was extremely serendipitous,” he says.

In addition to soaking up vitamin D on the exterior space, guests can enjoy Ale House’s tight selection of snacks, like gourmet popcorn for Maw-N-Paw Kettle Corn, small pretzels, and nuts. Adding to the community spirit, the Ale House also offers charcuterie boards on weekends from nearby Maison Cafe.

The new cluster of restaurants, within skipping distance from single-family homes and multi-unit apartment complexes, make the area an ideal option for denizens who want to ditch their vehicles in favor of hoofing by foot.

“Dana Point has never really had the kind of walkability that it has now,” Christian Goodman said.  “What this ‘city center,’ as I like to call it, has created now is a downtown vibe.”


Bear Coast Coffee provides plenty of outdoor seating, creating a makeshift town center. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Bear Coast Coffee, a multi-roaster cafe, opened its second Dana Point location in Lantern Village in October 2022. This seemingly small cafe features a pared down menu. Smart move. Honing in on fewer items allows it to perfect its coffees and fare; its outdoor seating provides a choice space to enjoy this small company’s excellent cold brews, horchata lattes, avocado toast, and more.

The Lantern Village will also host a new night market summer series, Poppi Seed Market, on Saturday, July 22 and Aug. 26 from 3 to 7 p.m., featuring a handful of small business makers selling edible fare, home goods, and apparel.

Next up on the dining roster is Homeslice, located a stone’s throw from Maison Cafe, a pizza joint that, unlike Truly Pizza, will offer a more whimsical menu (think lasagna nachos or parmesan-crusted Italian sausage tacos). It’s expected to open later this summer.

These new spots join a lineup of other semi-recent additions to the area — including Coastal Kitchen, Giana Bakery and Provisions, the Shwack Beach Grill, and JC Beans (inside one of the city’s few A-frame buildings, so don’t forget to look up while waiting for your espresso) — and beloved stalwarts — like Mandarin Szechuan-style Peking Dragon, 24-hour diner Harbor House Cafe (in business since 1939), and Gen Kai Sushi — which also call the Lantern District home.

On the heels of the budding downtown Dana Point area is the anticipated implementation of free Wi-Fi access points along Del Prado. On June 20, the City Council approved an agreement with SmartWave Technologies to install nearly a dozen Wi-Fit access points to provide public Wi-Fi along the popular stretch of street in an effort to boost cell reception — and interest — in the area.

Article courtesy of the Orange County Register - View Original Article


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