Leaving the heavy wooden door cracked at 331 N. Pacific Coast Highway in Laguna Beach is a sure recipe for conversation. Even if it’s just propped open a few inches, for a few minutes, someone is sure to poke their head in from the sidewalk to peek at the darkened scene inside. Most simply want to know what’s going on with all the new construction; others carry a story at their hip, ready to pull at the first opportunity. Absolutely everyone asks the same question, though:
“So, are you really bringing back the Royal Hawaiian?”
It might be difficult for folks outside of certain hardcore communities to understand the appeal of this light green building set just off the shoreline in the suburban heart of Orange County. For locals, the address is a mainstay, the kind of 100-year-old building that has always been something over the years. People have stories about feeding their kids inside or stopping by for a nightcap on some special sunset evening. For the ravenous fans of America’s colorful tiki and cocktail culture, the Royal Hawaiian is a relic in desperate need of a steward. It may have found just that in new owners Boulevard Hospitality Group, the large nightlife and restaurant outfit that oversees spots like the TCL Chinese Theatre and Yamashiro in Hollywood, Kodo in the LA Arts District, and Comedor in Laguna Beach.
First opened in 1947 by the Philippines-born Francis Cabang and Harold “Hal” Hanna, two World War II veterans, the Royal Hawaiian was an important hangout for decades for tiki fanatics and families alike. The earliest menus leaned on roasted meats and Japanese-Pacific Islander flavors, weaving in the boozy, semi-sweet cocktails made famous by names like Trader Vic and Donn Beach along the way. While the Royal Hawaiian has shuffled through various new iterations and restart attempts more recently, the property was seen as a glittering jade jewel in Southern California’s tiki crown in its heyday.
Following the 2022 closure of the last iteration of the Royal Hawaiian (a pared-back modern attempt with spare walls and a more muted menu), the space was turned over to Boulevard Hospitality for a complete transformation. Ownership has since brought on the legendary fabricator Ignacio “Notch” Gonzales, famous for building spaces like Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco and Inside Passage in Seattle, to oversee the new-look Royal Hawaiian, and he’s been busy. Onlookers who manage a peek inside might find Gonzales darkening the thatched roof strands by hand, or burnishing the bamboo corners that frame out several palapas and dining areas. Seemingly every corner of the 10,000-square-foot space now has a story to tell, some of it made anew and lots of it pulled from the original family’s archives. Here the glass blowfish might hang from the ceiling with a flickering light inside, and the antique lamp behind the bar may just wiggle its hula hips when clicked on. There will be totems and masks and other carved ephemera around, with Gonzales and the team trying their best to balance the historical accuracy of the original restaurant with more modern thoughts around cultural erasure and overdue discussions of appropriation.
To round out the new experience, the Royal Hawaiian’s owners have brought on famed barman Dushan Zaric of Employees Only to build a bespoke cocktail menu that riffs, weaves, and rethinks the rum-forward staples of tiki lore. Jae Hee Lee, the Guam-born chef of Hollywood’s Yamashiro, will command an opening menu that includes Korean, Filipino, Japanese, and Chamorro influences. There will be battered and fried shrimp of course, as well as a curry pineapple fried rice and a grilled ribeye. If everything goes according to plan, the Royal Hawaiian should reopen in early summer as a hangout for all, precisely the kind of place where families, tiki obsessives, tourists, and travelers can all coexist — just as they did under Cabang and Hanna’s watch for so many decades.
Hopefully, by early June, customers will be able to stop pulling on the locked front door and simply walk inside the reborn Royal Hawaiian for a night of immersive revelry. It would be a dream re-fulfilled for this historic Laguna Beach address and a promise kept to the original Cabang family, who always hoped that the space could live on as an island-infused home for great hospitality. Plus, if done right under the watchful gaze of Notch Gonzales and Dushan Zaric, there won’t be a more complete, compelling tiki bar for many, many miles.