This industrial stretch of Pomona Avenue is the shadowy backside of Costa Mesa’s bustling retail core. No slick signage lights the way to Boathouse Collective’s massive parking lot, pitted and bumpy, with paint lines faded to mere suggestions. A hodgepodge of recycled building materials and potted succulents lines the entry, funneling folks to an open-air reception station where friendly hostesses lead the way to your choice of seating.
Sit outside at weathered wood high-tops or low communal tables on the heated, 60-seat patio with herb garden walls and strings of festival lights, or choose indoors to be near the stage, bar, and kitchen. Both zones exude an indie vibe that tops even The Lab or La Cave on the quirk-o-meter. Every visit, I see something new at this post-and-beam structure, a pastiche of shipping containers with art on the walls and surfboards on the ceiling. Open to the public since October, Boathouse Collective is a private-event venue, the invention of Clayton Peterson. A local artist and musician, Peterson jumped into the restaurant fray after watching alcohol and catering take the lion’s share of event profits.
Huntington Beach native Mathieu Royer is executive chef. A veteran of Pizzeria
Ortica, Anqi, and Hinoki and the Bird in Century City, Royer’s eclectic menu is supercompact and ever-changing. Dishes that hopscotch around multiple cuisines somehow taste in sync at this oddball operation. Dinner offers the largest menu, but still has fewer than 20 items, spanning small plates, salads, sides, and entrees. Lunch, brunch, and happy-hour menus shrink to fewer than eight choices. Frequent changes keep the lineup fresh, with support from a few reliable utility players such as grilled salmon kale salad, a grilled burrata-brie-Gruyere sandwich, and a super-savory $12 burger. Common practice says this potato bun burger should cost a few bucks more and include a pile of potatoes or side salad, but this savory stack of roasted tomato, Gruyere, aioli, pickled onions, and a half-pound patty of Angus beef grilled to order is seriously delicious on its own. For extra carbs, add a pint of draft Firestone blonde ale.
Chicken katsu with a side of incendiary mustard is a yummy appetizer one night, crunchy-crusted with panko crumbs and juicy-hot inside. Another night it’s gone, replaced by grilled chicken breast glazed with Asian barbecue sauce, sliced thick and partnered with a tangle of shaved carrots and pickled shallots. Also missing of late are the worthy fish tacos. Instead, there’s a seared ahi sandwich with pickled beets, garlic aioli, and mint-basil-tasting shiso leaf. Royer’s Asian roots—his mother is Japanese and he made childhood visits to Japan—appear in dishes spiked with dashi, miso, and yuzu. Before I can tire of those flavor profiles, he throws in classic French touches such as clam beurre blanc with grilled scallops, or lardons and soft egg in vegetable chop salad. Burrata salad with plum gastrique has been a menu regular so far, with rotating produce accompaniments pegged to the season, from roasted fennel to melon to blackberries. And always, a small punch of something pickled. It came with toasted caraway rye bread slices last time, a minor mystery.
Entrees, few as they are, seem a bit less robust now than on earlier visits. For example, the hearty swordfish in coconut curry with yummy potatoes now is served with a slab of daikon radish in place of the more complex potatoes. Hanger steak, handsomely executed with red-wine reduction and soulful roasted root vegetables, now comes without vegetables and gets a chimichurri treatment that lacks oomph. Meanwhile, prices stay the same, chipping away at perceived value. These days I’m a fan of Contento Hour, in effect all night Tuesday and Wednesday. It’s a stripped-down bar menu with reduced pricing on food (that hamburger!) and selected booze. For Vinyl Night on Wednesdays, Peterson selects a deejay with a noteworthy record collection to spin tunes from the stage.
Music is important here. Live acts are frequent, if sometimes last-minute, and the sound system is better than
expected in such funky surroundings. A cover charge is rare and typically waived with dinner purchase. Expect the crowd to vary with the music acts, which range from jazz to folk to bluegrass. Peterson likes to say he welcomes “ages 5 to 75,” and while I can’t attest to the 75, I did see a 5-year-old girl skipping around one evening, working the crowd like a mayor.
Cocktails are essential to this unique beast of a backyard clubhouse. Curated with a chef’s palate, the signature craft cocktails are worth every penny of their $12 price. Do ask about the nightly special. I’m still thinking about The Acquitted, a lesson in booze alchemy with jalapeno bitters, white rum, and pineapple shrub by mixologist Emily Delicce. Wines are a spotty lot; beers are slightly better, but why aren’t there more local brews?
Cheerful, tuned-in service is a welcome strength. Staffers seem to enjoy working here, which helps diners happily kick back, making this a hangout hybrid that’s about more than just eating. Think of it as a neighborhood haunt in the least likely of neighborhoods. If restaurants were movies, Boathouse Collective surely would win an Independent Spirit Award.
BEST DISHES Burrata salad, hamburger, chop salad, coconut curry swordfish, grilled cheese, chicken katsu, shiitake rice, signature cocktails.
PRICE RANGE Lunch and brunch, $12 to $17; dinner, $12 to $24; Contento Hour, $6 to $10 bar menu items; kids, $3 to $8.
FAVORITE FIND Look for the ’70s era Teac reel-to-reel recorder sure to tickle the memories of boomer music lovers.
1640 Pomona Ave.