The Loft(Courtesy of

The Loft

The Loft, Laguna Beach, Calif.
Casual gourmet perfectly describes The Loft, which occupies the fourth floor of Laguna Beach's hippest and perhaps most beautiful hotel, Montage Laguna Beach. This highbrow California wine country bistro serves up breakfast, lunch and dinner, along with a spectacular resort and ocean view. As for seating, choose from the tiny outdoor patio, the casual main dining room or the very private booths. Brian Black, a sous chef star from Studio, took over the kitchens when chef John Cuevas departed to open The Montage Beverly Hills. Black brings his own finesse at making light-tasting dishes packed with well-balanced flavors of savory, tart, sweet and sour. Soups include the baked clam chowder with puff pastry. Sea bass with wild mushroom risotto is a selection from the Sea section of the menu, while a Land option is the Brandt Farms natural beef rib-eye with oven-dried tomatoes, kaffir lime polenta and lemon-oil hollandaise. A meal at The Loft is also about the wine and cheese. If you like, the dining room's sommelier can guide you through choosing any wine by the glass or bottle, or pair each course with pours from all over the world. The Loft also has its own cheesemonger who is passionate about serving up a cheese course from the pantry of 150 artisanal cheeses, 60 of the world's hard-to-find honeys and other accoutrements. Pastry chef Louise Chien adds more skill to the final course with her German chocolate cake. See more details.

Spiaggia(Courtesy of


Spiaggia, Chicago
Chef Tony Mantuano was the original architect of this super-luxe Italian restaurant (1984). He went out on his own for a time, but came back to command the kitchen once again. The food, Italian with a contemporary spin, is splendid. Expensive, yes, but when you are making most everything from scratch (pasta included) the difference is noted and notable from other Italian restaurants. Seafood dishes are especially memorable, as are the pasta selections, especially the delicate hand-rolled gnocchi with ricotta and black truffle sauces. Do not, however, expect the huge portions that lesser quality Italian restaurants serve. Still, we wish that Spiaggia would be just a bit more generous with its dishes. It is difficult to digest a tab that easily soars to $100 per person and go away hungry. Nevertheless, when you indulge in a multi-course tasting menu (starting at $150 per person, without wine), you'll be wowed by dishes like creamy risotto with Barolo wine, seared foie gras and Parmigiano-Reggiano. The wine list is as expensive as the rest of the menu, and it offers some interesting Italian wines that are rare in this country. The net of all this is that Spiaggia is a restaurant for that special occasion or to impress a client. The view from the tiered dining room, most seats offering a view of Oak Street Beach and the lake, is impressive. See more details.

T. Cook's(Courtesy of

T. Cook's

T. Cook's, Phoenix
Housed in the historic, classy Royal Palms Resort & Spa, the restaurant's surroundings, grounds and décor are elegantly old-world and rather romantic. High-vaulted ceilings, fireplaces, live palm trees and intimate dining nooks have made this longtime establishment a favorite for locals celebrating special occasions. Start off with one of the signature appetizers such as the lobster and fennel bisque or Burgundian escargot with red onion, roasted garlic and pancetta. Executive chef Lee Hillson's seasonally changing cuisine takes diners on a tour of the Mediterranean with dishes like paella, pan seared monkfish with Moroccan style shrimp stew, and osso buco with apple gnocchi, rapini and whole grain mustard reduction. Guests can also design their own three-course prix-fixe menu on Sunday through Thursday evenings or opt for the Farm to Table three-course tasting menu that focuses on locally grown and organic ingredients. Save room for top-flight desserts or the chef's impressive cheese plate with house made accompaniments. The notable wine list includes selections of verticals from wineries such as Beaulieu Vineyard in Napa Valley. See more details.