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Review: Rum Social channels the ghost of Trader Vic’s in Laguna Beach

The upstairs of this old two-story space overlooking Laguna Beach’s Peppertree Lane has always felt magical. And now with its luxury Robinson Crusoe-inspired makeover it feels even more so. It’s called Rum Social now, but a lot of people probably still associate this address with Watermarc, which vacated the premises in the early days of the pandemic. 

It is a beautiful restaurant, a romantic ode to that same tropical wanderlust that put Trader Vic’s on the map in the 1950s but with the updated elegance of, say, Shanghai Tang. There’s even a department-store-like window display filled with vintage suitcases and seaplane-inspired adventure attire (not actually for sale) that harkens back to the original Banana Republic Travel & Safari Clothing Company (pre Gap). It might sound kitsch but it’s really very chic.  

The new owners shuffled some things around. They moved the bar out of the ground-floor dining room and built a new one on the second floor in that charming indoor/outdoor space dominated by the neighborhood’s most majestic old pepper tree. The main dining room is now much bigger, outfitted with pink velvet banquettes. The windows facing PCH are still flung open to capture a constant sea breeze. 

On each of my visits, the dining room has been all but empty. It seems everyone wants to sit upstairs in the bar, which holds only about 25 people packed shoulder to shoulder. One of the reasons for that is the drinks are superb: lots of rum, yes, but also great cocktails involving tequila, mezcal, whisky and more. The fun-to-read cocktail menu is a veritable bingo card filled with words like orgeat, elderflower, guava, kikori, yuzu, egg white, citrus froth, Chinato, lychee, kaffir lime, vanilla, lemongrass, coconut syrup, prickly pear, citrus essence, Mahina. … It makes Trader Vic’s seem so quaint. 

Order the drink called a Pacific Paloma. It’s like a cross between a classic tequila paloma and piña colada, and it is terrific. I’m struggling to pick a favorite drink here. I’m also partial to the Smoking Lil Donkáy, which is made with mezcal and fermented pineapple juice. The only drink I sampled that I wouldn’t order again is The Hemingway. The bartender describes as a daiquiri, which leads me to believe he might be too young to know who Hemingway was. The drink named in his honor here is heavy and cloying — not a terrible cocktail per se, but the farthest thing possible from a proper daiquiri. Meanwhile I’ve never been a fan of rum and Coke, but the Cuba Libre here is a revelation. It’s spiked with coconut cream. (Bingo!)

In line with the restaurant’s overall tropical whimsy concept, the kitchen charts a wild course from the Caribbean to Southeast Asia. Although the menu has already changed several times since the opening in March, the approach remains steadfast in its more-is-more approach. Dishes never succeed based on the purity or integrity of their core ingredients but rather on the occasional brilliance of their elaborate compositions. This is where the imaginary bingo card gets even more fun as you spot things like Haitian-spiced garlic, green apple sorrel, pickled raisins, Jamaican curry, Thai chile soy, duck fat, wagyu fat, masago, candied peanuts, kecap manis, bubu arare, mustard frill, smoked shoyu, tamarind tare, pickled apricot, onion ash, coconut cabbage puree… There’s a lot going on. 

Salmon doesn’t taste of salmon but of dark rum and salted butter and macadamia nuts, all flavors that I enjoy but I usually order salmon because I like the taste of salmon. Similarly, seared tuna tastes intensely of yellow curry, not tuna. The goal, it seems, is to make everything taste like something else. Sometimes that works. 

The best thing on the menu is the Jamaican jerk chicken. I’ve been wanting to write that sentence for a very long time. Unfortunately very few restaurants know how to make real jerk chicken like this. It is spicy, complex and mysterious. It’s delicious, even if the chicken is overcooked and somewhat dry. The accompanying rice and beans might be more froufrou than what most people will appreciate, but the flavors are indeed wonderful. I’m just not sure why it costs $46 (down from $48 originally). It involves merely half a chicken, and a small one at that. 

The beet salad is excellent, the roots braised in rum then tossed with mustard sprouts in a sweet, gingery glaze. Rum-glazed plantains are even better. And there’s a nice green salad, too, embellished with asparagus, grilled radicchio and crushed canchitas (Peruvian-style fried corn). 

Inspired by Mexico, there’s a creative riff on shrimp agua chile. The chile water is made from prickly pear fruit juice, citrus and chile oil. The shrimp are garnished with citrus segments and jalapeño slices crowned with dollops of honey-sweetened avocado puree. It’s a truly beautiful dish but the shrimp are astoundingly chewy, rendered utterly inedible. I know from experience how easy it is to overcook shrimp, but I seriously cannot fathom how to compress shrimp into a texture as firm and unforgiving as this. 

Spiced jumbo prawns — also overcooked but not completely ruined — are nicely flavored. They are painted with Southeast Asian style chile paste and served over a delightful little salad. 

The “prime beef rib” is interesting, slow cooked and tender enough eat with a spoon, topped with contrasting sauces of demi-glace and Wagyu fat aioli, served in a puddle of pureed blue potato along with fried garlic and pickled onions. But is it a rib, really? Or is it actually a shank? The servers can’t answer with any clarity. The bone is definitely from the shank, and it is filled with a decadent amount of marrow. But the menu claims it’s a beef rib wrapped around a marrow bone, which seems like an extraordinary amount of work. If true, that might explain why it costs $76. I wish I could say that’s a good deal. It’s delicious, but honestly it’s no better than dozens of braised short ribs elsewhere that cost half as much. 

For dessert, there’s a classic sticky toffee pudding, although they call it something else, the exact wording of which I’ve forgotten. And if a server tells you his favorite dessert is the lemon tart, order it — if for no other reason than to see what comes. In my case, it’s not a tart at all but rather a parfait. I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or send it back. But then I tasted it and all was forgiven. It’s a really good parfait. 

Rum Social

Rating: ★★

Where: 448 S. Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach

When: Lunch and dinner daily

Cost: Small plates, $7-$24; large plates, $24-$76 

Phone: 949-549-4014


What the stars mean: 

0 = poor, unacceptable 

★ = average, may have some noteworthy qualities 

★★ = very good, above average, a neighborhood gem

★★★ = outstanding, exceptional quality, a regional standout

★★★★ = transcendent, world class in every detail

Ratings are based on multiple visits and reflect the reviewer’s overall reaction to food, service and ambience, taking into account a restaurant’s unique sense of place and point of view.

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