There's a bit of history on where Coastal Kitchen now sits. It was the first commercial building in Dana Point, constructed in 1924 and surrounded by empty fields. Old black-and-white pictures of the Blue Lantern Fountain Lunch, as it was then called, a rest stop on the long journey between San Diego and LA, hang on Coastal Kitchen's walls. The city of Dana Point as we now know it literally grew around the building in the past century.
I only knew a little of this history going in, but I think it speaks of how good a job owners Michael and Christina Grant have done in renovating the space that I would've believed it was all brand-new construction if someone hadn't told me otherwise. In fact, the flow of the rooms feels so thought-through and its interior design so modern it's hard to imagine what the original restaurant might have looked like back in the time of Calvin Coolidge.
Coastal Kitchen is separated into four seating areas, which include a bar, a patio and two long dining rooms. One dining room looks out to Pacific Coast Highway. The other has a wide-screen view into a glass-encased kitchen, where the staff sauté and make pies from scratch. Chandeliers made from nautical rope dangle above the booths in each room. And bright-red pepper mills injected into the motif of dark-blue banquettes and stark white walls draw your eye. It's a breezy, classy-looking space, but above all, the restaurant feels as if it has always belonged here.
The food the kitchen staff produces is no-nonsense American. There are the typical salads, sandwiches and steaks, but all of them are made in the precise, cut-to-the-chase style of a Hillstone Group restaurant, which is, by the way, where the owners most recently cut their teeth. There's a wonderfully crunchy, overloaded Cuban sandwich layered thick with moist roasted pork and ham, stacks of pickles, an excess of vinegary onions, and mustard so coarsely ground the seeds resemble buckshot.
Nearly every dish came out exactly as it was described on the menu. There are no superfluous attempts at making anything look fancier than it already is. Nonfunctioning garnishes are nowhere to be seen. And I've not yet seen there a plate smeared with skid marks of sauce.
Perhaps the best example of Coastal Kitchen's back-to-basics style is the rotisserie chicken. Described on the menu as “half rotisserie chicken, house-made rub, fried cauliflower,” what appeared before me was exactly that. There were two pieces. The breast had the wing attached, while the dark-meat had a drumstick that came off cleanly with just a tug. Juice spurted out when I plunged a knife into the plump breast. Most important, the chicken was served so hot steam plumes billowed from the drumstick as I bit into it. I also liked the fried brie and the salad that came with it. When I sliced into the breaded crust on one of the cheese wedges, out oozed a slow-moving white lava. I ate it in concert with the lightly dressed greens, mint leaves, fried garbanzo beans and grapes, realizing what this was: the rare restaurant salad that's actually worth the $17 price tag.
If you consider $28 a bargain for the cioppino, it's probably because of the perfectly seared cylinder of diver scallop sitting atop mounds of shrimp, clams and mussels. But it was only after I started digging into the dish that I realized the real money meat was the chunks of sweet crab interspersed in and soaking up the salty tomato broth. I enjoyed it better than the short rib, which was merely fine and came in two humongous falling-apart hunks enough for at least two meals—but the side dish of roasted Brussels sprouts were soggy. And if there's anything a modern American restaurant such as Coastal Kitchen needs to get right these days, it's how to make Brussels sprouts not taste as though they came from the boil-everything era of America's cooking past.
The best thing you can order at Coastal Kitchen is the pork belly bites. The kitchen staff takes braised pork belly chunks, dips them into a corndog-like batter, then deep-fries them, only to dip them again into a chive aioli. Is it also the unhealthiest thing you can eat? Probably. But just imagine yourself during the carefree Roaring Twenties, before doctors knew about bad cholesterol. You'll be fine.
Coastal Kitchen, 34091 Pacific Coast Hwy., Dana Point, (949) 449-2822; www.coastalkitchendanapoint.com. Open Sun.-Thurs., 11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Dinner for two, $50-$100, food only. Full bar.