Gordon & Barbara in Paris

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Saturday, February 26, 2011

Harpoon Henry's Restaurant in Dana Point, CA

Harpoon Henry’s by Barbara Richiusa & Gordon Richiusa

Harpoon Henry’s, situated just feet from the water on the dock in Dana Point Harbor is as close as you can get to a maritime meal, without having to board a vessel. This is an establishment with broad appeal, a meal and price for every pocketbook, lots of character along with an “all are welcome” atmosphere.

Opened in 1975 with full lunch and dinner menus seven days a week and a brunch on Sunday. Harpoon Henry’s has become notorious for its happy hour, often with a line out the door and into the parking lot. This popularity is well deserved, since this “hour” takes place Monday through Fridays and lasts from 4pm to 7pm.

This “happy hour” was started in 1993, coincidentally during the last major economic downturn in the U.S., but Harpoon Henry’s has actually seen a slight upturn in their sales for the year, even in the upstairs dining room where the atmosphere is at a premium and the service is a cut above.

Every night of the week, the happy hour packs the lounge, but on certain nights lines are out the door. The reasons for this increased interest might have something to do with their “wine ½ price” by the glass or martinis and mai tais also at half the regular price. Harpoon Henry’s “specialty” martinis are dressed Polynesian style with fresh fruit and juice served in mini-ice-beakers to keep things cool. You can almost feel the cool tropical breeze.

Other Items on the happy hour menu include but are not limited to:

As you are able choose your menu, you can also choose your style of dress. Meals can be enjoyed in very or semi casual wear, or a little more formal with fine, private dining upstairs. All three seating areas have great views of the Dana Point Harbor, from which annual boat parades can be observed. There is literally something for everyone. You can even book a catered wedding and other event in advance, by appointment.

Prices range from low to moderately high, but there is a variety of fare from which to choose. With choices ranging from fish and chips to lobster, everyone can find something they will like on a very full menu with items priced from a few dollars to around $30 for lobster or filet for the beef lover.

Chef Lupe Silva has helmed the kitchen for 32 years and has been assisted by Chris Chavarin for the past 19.

General Manager and co-owner Bob Cosgrove is an old football player who likes to run his restaurant “with a heavy team atmosphere.” We’re really very much like a family here, since two of my partners are old fraternity brothers.”

The catch phrase of this establishment is, “Make people want to come back,” says Bob. “We know there are plenty of places to eat and that we cannot survive for long with poor service or bad food. If people don’t want to come back, again and again, then we wouldn’t have lasted as long as we have.”

In fact, Bob admits that in these tough economic times, the lure of a reasonably priced happy hour coupled with a great location and great service seems to have picked up business a little in recent months. Interestingly, dinner sales are substantially up as well over last year, in the same period. “We seemed to have escaped the downturn for now and are up about 4% for January,” Bob confided.

One theory of Harpoon Henry’s staying power may be ecological in nature. Says Bob, “I think it has also been warmer this January than usual and people are still coming to the beach.”

Besides location and warm southern California sunshine, an attempt to cross over economic lines seems also to have aided Harpoon Henry’s success. For instance, even before entering the restaurant the customer is offered a choice between free (4 hour) or valet parking.

Upon entering you will pass an inviting fireplace and lounge as you are greeted by one of two friendly hostesses. The décor is what one might expect in a dockside dining experience with a name beginning with the word, harpoon and there are plenty of the spears around the walls and other touches of beach atmosphere to keep you in the waterside spirit.

A handsome Cheers-like, well stocked bar and lounge area, offer views of the waterway on the far side of the building through floor-to-ceiling windows. In the lounge several large screen TV’s have sports available, when their headline showman is not onstage. We chose to sit in the lounge, since Phil Shane was about to perform. We asked for full dining menus and were happily obliged by our server.

I selected a calamari steak with garlic-mashed potatoes. For an appetizer we tried the shrimp and crab wontons and a pina colada.

The drinks came first, quickly, and were very generously portioned looking and tasting like delicious desserts topped with both pineapple and cherry and doused with a healthy helping of whipped cream where appropriate. The rum part of the Pina Colada blend was not overdone making it possible to drink more than one during a single dining experience, but letting my wife know (I was the designated driver this night) that it was not just fruit juice in her glass. She wanted only one round (price on a Saturday night, $6.95).

The shrimp and crab wontons (price) were plump and tasty and were presented nicely (not piled ala roadside fish and chips van) with a choice of dipping sauces. A lovely orchid was added to the plate and made a great souvenir.

An abundant appetizer menu contained items ranging from just $3.95 for garlilc bread to 14.95 for Crab Cakes.

Calamari steaks are a personal favorite and I was pleasantly surprised to see that mine were properly prepared in two very large portions that overlapped on the place. Calamari steak is “REMINISCENT OF ABALONE – LIGHTLY BREADED AND SAUTÉED GOLDEN BROWN, SERVED WITH FRESH LEMON & TARTAR SAUCE, 16.95”

They were pounded very thin and fried in a satisfying (not greasy) breading that did not overwhelm. The garlic-mashed potatoes were adequate, though did not seem to enjoy as much care as the steaks had. A simple salad garnish of Spring greens, rounded out the serving, which was average at best.

The dessert menu is limited containing just five items: Fudge Brownie, Mud Pie, New York Cheese cake, Lemon or Raspberry sorbet and Ice cream with Berries all ranging in price from $5.95 to $6.95.

Having value-choices is not to say that service is lacking in any part of the restaurant. On the contrary, staff was abundant and attentive and everyone (employee and customers alike) seemed to be enjoying themselves. When Ashley--the outdoor patio bartender--was questioned about her relationship with management she said, “ I’ve been here for three and a half years and they really make each one of us feel like we are the most special employee of all.” Every patron seemed to feel the same personal investment in the total experience.

Our table was one of several loveseats around the perimeter of the lounge and was being attended by Nicole, a waitress who had been employed for six years. Although very busy, she made several stops at our table to check on our well being. When asked, she was happy to tell us about her favorites from the menu, as well as changes that had recently occurred. At her suggestion, the next time I’m at Harpoon Henry’s I am going to try Henry’s special “TUNA STACK. ” This is fresh ahi tuna, seared rare and served on a crab cake, with steamed rice and red pepper aioli and spicy Asian sauce, topped with fried wontons for $24.95.

As I said, we chose to eat in the lounge because this was the first weekend of the month and that meant to the Harpoon Henry’s regulars the appearance of Phil Shane. Phil is a little bit of Vegas in Orange County His is a great audience participation act of a class one might not expect to find in a California eatery. Between a never ending stream of requests he led an occasional cheer of “Hot Damn!”

Our total bill this evening, including alcoholic beverage, a 20% tip and the no cost-no minimum, Phil Shane performance ended up at slightly less than $40. Hot damn!

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