Upscale comfort food in Southern California

25 Tables

Famed San Francisco chef-turned-restaurateur Michael Mina made his Southern California debut with Stonehill Tavern in beautiful Dana Point, just steps away from sun and water.

Tucked inside Monarch Beach Resort, the restaurant is a sleek, intimate spot by acclaimed New York-based interior designer Tony Chi. The comfortable couches, glass-enclosed booths and a large terrace offer a warm, welcoming setting for Mina's twists on American classics. Think whole fried Jidori chicken with truffled mac and cheese and a root beer float for dessert.

Don’t forget the drinks: An impressive wine program focuses on boutique California producers, but also includes a diverse selection from Austria and Burgundy.

Every detail, from the succulent caviar selection and grass-fed American bison to the vast wine offerings and seamless service, make the modern American establishment a must-try dining experience.

The Look

Given Stonehill Tavern’s name, it would be easy to mistake this Southern California restaurant for a tavern, but it is nothing of the sort. Stonehill Tavern, conceptualized by Chi, orchestrates what he calls “invisible design,” the philosophy that a space should move all of your senses. It goes beyond looks; it should evoke a favorable feeling.

The modern American restaurant feels as new as when it opened in 2006. Thrust open its floor-to-ceiling doors and you’ll brush past a glass wall of wines at the entrance, offering a selection of more than 500 foreign and domestic labels.

Below the dimly lit glass fixtures is a dark wooden bar enhanced with a chocolate-brown marble top.

Booths are an inviting choice for those looking for privacy in the contemporary, wood-filled dining room, and uncramped tables are positioned near the windows so you may bask in the view of the golden beach.

The Food

Celebrity chef Mina, whose Mina Group operates nearly 30 restaurants, revolves his cooking around balancing four tastes: spice, sweetness, acidity and richness. The result is refined food that is approachable and delicious.

At the Southern California restaurant, the menu highlights seasonal ingredients provided by local farmers specializing in coastal vegetables and seafood.

One of our favorites is Mina’s signature lobster pot pie. Chefs use a copper pot to bake it, then deconstruct the dish and present it tableside. A steaming two-pound lobster is served with roasted wild mushrooms, orange and yellow baby carrots, cherry tomatoes, corn, fava beans, green beans, asparagus and a rich lobster cream sauce. A touch of truffle oil, fresh chives and salt lend additional flavoring.

Another seafood dish to taste is the Morro Bay black cod, complete with brown rice, a lemongrass dashi and bok choy.

For dessert, the aforementioned root beer float is irresistible with an aromatic sassafras ice cream and warm chocolate chip cookie.

The Service

Servers at the Dana Point restaurant have a fluid professionalism while showcasing an extensive knowledge of cuisine, beverages and wines. Expect good manners, smart appearance and excellent serving etiquette.

They pay scrupulous attention to customers and always seek opportunities to create exceptional experiences. For example, during one of our visits, we couldn’t decide between two appetizers, so our server split the servings so that we could try both. And then at dessert, he gifted us with ice cream sandwiches, insisting they were amazing. He was right.