Climbing the brick path to the front door of Selanne Steak Tavern’s storybook cottage, I’m thinking this landmark 1934 venue looks identical to the old French 75 it replaces. I tug the wood door open by its iron handle, and bam! Like Dorothy’s exit from her sepia Kansas farmhouse into vivid Munchkinland, the scene before me is a vast new world.
Here, the lively characters aren’t little people, but beautiful people. And the interior—sanded wood floors, pale hues, and open sightlines—is a fine stage for the swell set that can’t resist cult wines, spendy steaks, and a brush with celebrity. After all, Anaheim Ducks star Teemu Selanne is a backer, and he didn’t lend his name to play this game on the down-low.
So yes, along with the beachy locals, this hot spot attracts pro sports mavens and the stiletto-heeled hotties who trail them. Often churning at full capacity, the 24-stool bar offers great people-watching, and the short tavern menu and its splendid cocktails provide some of the venue’s most carefree dining. A classic, flawless old-fashioned is a fine sip while pondering, “Is that a dress or a cheetah-print Ace bandage?” Who cares once the mighty rich burger arrives, a beefy grind of sirloin and short rib on a firm pretzel bun, with “baconaise,” onions, and a side of fryer-hot fries dusted with Parmesan. This primo stack proves a burger can soar sans cheese. Lighter but still indulgent, the beef tartare is a deconstruction of Australian Wagyu boasting the Greg Norman brand. Petite gems of raw meat glisten amid driblets of snappy mustard, alternating with crunchy fingerling chips, fresh arugula, and a sizzled quail egg. Connecting the flavors requires fork agility, but this dish is worth your smoothest moves.
The space’s dazzling redo is a massive update of every square foot in every zone: a chandeliered foyer, a top-floor loft, a sunken wine room, even the curtained stand-alone patio aglow with Moroccan lanterns. It’s no wonder the upscale overhaul went many months (and untold dollars) beyond schedule. Despite the elegant space and champion pedigree, I waited months for this tavern to steady itself after a wobbly November start. Its first 90 days produced overcooked steaks, cold sauces, stale desserts, and bumbling service. Things are better, but certainly not cheaper. The menu has more life, the cooking more consistency. And hospitality improves with every visit, though it’s still unclear why three department store cosmetic counter refugees stand duty at the reception stand.
Executive Chef Joshua Severson’s creds include two years at uberchef Tom Colicchio’s Craftsteak in Las Vegas. He’s accustomed to premium goods and big-money diners. These days, Severson regularly tweaks the once-static main menu, adding items such as Montana bison, venison, and Skuna Bay salmon smoked to order over applewood, a nod to Selanne’s Finnish roots.
Aside from the bar fare, where Severson also is playing with off-menu dishes such as “animal” Kennebec fries and wild boar sloppy joes, the main menu spotlights prime steaks and select cuts from elite sources. If you enter the steak zone, plan to share the hearty portions. Even the menu suggests splitting the signature Lord Stanley 32-ounce rib-eye from Darling Downs, Australia. This tomahawk chop, which easily could feed three nonathletes, arrives sliced on the bone, a necessity for sharing. Melting marrow butter trickles down the decadent slabs. Sauces are an extra $4, but if you’re ordering this $96 steak, you likely won’t pinch pennies on the frills. Should anyone ask, of course you knew it’s named for Lord Stanley of Preston, Canada’s former governor general.
Black Angus filet mignon is exactly what mignon fans crave: tender, finely grained beef with zero visible fat or connective tissue. Choose from three options: 8, 12, or 16 ounces on the bone, all a la carte. After two run-ins with the massive overbaked potato for $8, I say go straight to the silky olive oil mashers. Wild mushroom risotto is a taste-tempting carb option, but beware of the chewy, underhydrated dried mushrooms.
It’s also possible to build a lovely meal around signature nonsteak dishes. Start with fresh oysters, or the Pacific diver scallops, a pair of zaftig beauties with a golden cap of sear. Severson dolls them up with velvety cauliflower puree and faintly pickled chanterelles. The best salad by far is “ravioli” fashioned from thin rounds of slow-roasted scarlet beets layered over snappy goat cheese from local Drake Farms. Hazelnuts add crunch, lamb’s lettuce brings delicate notes of green, and warm vinaigrette enlivens every bite. For the big, rib-sticking course, there’s always the respectable mac-and-cheese made with Italian pasta and a buttery brioche crumb top.
I can’t get excited about the tavern’s gleaming replica Stanley Cup (there’s that Lord Stanley again). What does rally me is that it has my idea of a trophy—a pastry chef. Alas, chef Heather Fisher’s vaunted caramel monkey bread broke my heart with its stale-ish flavor and stiff texture. And why brulee green bananas? But her old-school seasonal fruit crumble with a scoop of vanilla ice cream is pure delight.
Building a classy steak joint, and a one-off at that, is a process, not an event. All you diners who flocked here last winter, the ones who came for the steak and not the celeb sizzle, I feel your pain. If you find your way back, you’ll likely notice improvement. With the high season upon us, and the new outpost of The Winery luring the same crowd, it could be a competitive summer in O.C.’s fine-dining league.
Tavern burger, Wagyu beef tartare, Pacific diver scallops, scarlet beet “ravioli,” seared scallops, Lord Stanley rib-eye, Prime New York strip, olive oil mashed potatoes, fruit crumble, artisan cocktails.
Tavern, $8 to $20; dinner, $8 to $96.
60 Minutes of Happy
24 bar stools fill up fast for the 5-to-6 p.m. happy hour with 20 percent off the six-item tavern menu and $2 off cocktails.
Dinner only; closed Monday.
1464 S. Coast Highway, Laguna Beach, 949-715-9881, selannesteaktavern.com
This article originally appeared in the May 2014 issue.