There’s more than meets the eye at Laguna Café. At first glance, this South Hill café is a cheery, bright spot for sipping lattes, complete with board games, magazines and comfortable couches. For breakfast, there’s the usual assortment of baked goods, yogurt and a couple of egg dishes. With Internet access and several lounging chairs, it’s a popular stop for the laptop crowd.
Look a little closer and you’ll notice that the tables with red leather chairs and black bar stools are set with cloth napkins and elegant wine glasses. What looks like a pastry case near the center of the café holds an impressive selection of wines. Soft classical music plays in the background.
What appears at first glance to be a neighborhood coffee shop is actually a full-scale restaurant. I’ve driven by Laguna Café since it opened five years ago not realizing what was behind the doors.
Laguna’s lunch menu offers burgers, panini, salads and appetizers. The Tuscan chicken salad ($8.95) was colorfully presented with cucumber rounds, Kalamata olives, grape tomatoes and warm grilled chicken that melted the shaved Parmesan on top. The tomato basil bisque had a surprisingly spicy kick, in a nod to the flavors of Louisiana, a place owner Dan Barranti once called home.
“We try to bring tastes from around the United States,” said Barranti, who owns Laguna Café with wife Debbie. The café is named after Laguna Beach, Calif., close to where the Barrantis once lived. A red outdoor umbrella inside the café and bright blue walls give Laguna Café a beach-town feel.
To experience all that Laguna Café has to offer, it’s best to go in the evening. The cheese and cracker appetizer plate ($12.95 and also available at lunch) is a great place to start, and half-price appetizers during happy hour make it a bargain. Happy hour is 4 to 6 p.m. every day. With 10 different kinds of cheese (including an unusual chocolate fudge cheese and a fruity champagne cheese), summer sausage and several dips, it was generous enough for four people to share. Paired with a glass of Argentinian malbec ($4 at happy hour), I could have stopped right there.
But I am glad I didn’t. Laguna Café offers more than a dozen entrees at dinner, including nightly specials for $10.95 with a salad. There are several comfort food options, like sliced turkey with mashed potatoes and chicken pot pie. The meatloaf ($13.95) is served with a tangy tomato-apricot glaze, mashed potatoes and perfectly steamed mixed vegetables.
My only complaint about the three-cheese ravioli ($14.95) was the sauce. There wasn’t enough of it. The sweet red pepper Alfredo was delicious, but it was added more as a decorative touch than a flavor element.
At the suggestion of our server, one of my companions ordered the wild salmon ($17.95). We loved everything about this dish, from the smoky, citrusy salmon cooked just right to the fresh mango salsa and rosemary potatoes – grilled and crunchy but soft in the middle.
While the entrees are enticing and I would order the salmon again in a heartbeat, another strategy might be to order the cheese plate and then skip straight to dessert. The Big Chocolate Cake ($6.95) lives up to its name in size and flavor. With icing in between each of the six layers and chocolate ganache on top, the cake was rich and large enough for four people to share.
Laguna Café offers more than 50 wines by the glass and holds monthly wine tastings. For $15 (with the purchase of a dinner entree), the wine tasting includes five wines brought to your table, along with tasting notes. If someone finds a wine they like, they can buy a bottle for $10 off the wine list price, Barranti said.
Part of the charm of Laguna Café is being able to enjoy a high-quality meal in a relaxed, casual environment. On a recent evening visit, our server was professional yet entertaining, as was the live acoustic music.
For a quick dinner, call in your order ahead of time and take advantage of the restaurant’s drive-through. Everything on the menu is available, even the Big Chocolate Cake. That could be dangerous.