Story by SAMANTHA WASHER
Photos by Mary Hurlbut
“When you have vision and commitment, a path unfolds.” So says Diane Armitage, author of “The Best of Laguna Beach: The best places to dine, drink and play”. Upon meeting Armitage it becomes apparent very quickly that she has an abundance of both.
Her “path” looks more like a bustling highway of projects, but these day she’s motoring full steam towards her book launch, a complete update on her 2013 Laguna Beach’s Best.
Expanded from 170 to 380 pages, Armitage lists her favorites of just about everything Laguna has to offer: Best margaritas? Check. Best breakfast burritos? Check. Best of what to do, when? Check. But her favorite of favorites is highlighting “the culinary mecca”, as she calls it, of Laguna Beach.
To say Armitage is passionate about the artistry and commitment of some of our local chefs is an understatement. “It’s an insane job. It’s a marriage to their craft. They never stop!” Armitage is talking about the chefs she has gotten to know and admire, but she could just as easily be describing herself and her commitment to finding the best of Laguna.
(First row from left, Lindsay Smith-Rosales of Nirvana Grille, Michael and Christine Avila of Avila›s El Ranchito, Jim Tolbert and Kurt Bjorkman of The Ranch, David Fune of Splashes and Surf & Sand Resort, Neil Skewes of Starfish Asian Cuisine, Camron Woods of The Ranch, George Poulos of Mozambique Steakhouse, Josh Severson of Selanne Steak Tavern, Debra Sims of Maro Wood Grill, Thomas Crijns of Brussels Bistro. Top row from left, John Nye of Driftwood Kitchen and The Deck, Chis Keller and Amy Amaradio of Juice & Shakes, K›ya, Rooftop and Marine Room, Demetri Catsouras of The White House, Armando Ortega of Lumberyard, Jonathan Pflueger of Sourced Cuisine, Cary Redfearn of Lumberyard, John Bodrero of Orange Inn, Maro Molteni of Maro Wood Grill, Rainer Schwarz of Driftwood Kitchen & The Deck)
Making it happen
In 2000 Armitage took a job in Carlsbad, despite having her own successful marketing agency, Armitage, Inc., in Colorado. “I was early in the whole Internet marketing thing. They signed me to a three-year contract. It was a very corporate structure. After eight months, I said, ‘It’s fixed, new marketing strategy in place, it’s selling and I gotta get back to running my own company.’ So I called Bob Proctor (a client, mentor and friend) and said, ‘I’m done.’ He said, ‘Where do you want to be?’ I said, ‘Italy!’ He recommended I go some place where I knew they had Internet service,” she says laughing. “So I said, ‘I loveLaguna Beach, but it’s too expensive.’ And you just don’t say that kind of stuff to Bob. He told me ‘Drive up there right now and get a PO box. Make it happen.’ So I did. A week and a half later I got a random email about a rental. I moved in three weeks later.”
And she has enthusiastically called Laguna Beach “home” ever since.
Stepping boldly forward
Securing a P.O. Box without first securing a place to live is not the way most people do things. However, for Armitage, her philosophy of “boldly stepping forward” is a textbook case for creating one’s opportunities. Another “bold step” was when Armitage decided to purchase paint, rugs and patio furniture for an apartment that wasn’t going to be available for two years.
“I told the manager that I wanted to be the first name on the waiting list when that apartment became available. She told me the couple who lived there had just moved in, signed a two-year lease and were extremely happy. I said, ‘That’s great. Put my name on the list.’”
Armitage went about selecting items for the apartment and putting them in a storage unit. Five months later, the couple moved out, deciding to buy a house in Dana Point. “I just went to my storage unit and unloaded all my stuff I’d bought and moved in. It was hysterical.” Armitage lived there for seven years.
Creating a “spotlight” on Laguna Beach
As Armitage’s marketing agency continued to grow, her niche expanded to include high-end restaurants and resorts. In 2008, she had an epiphany. “I realized as I was running my team all over the world to these amazing resorts, that I lived in an amazing resort. And there was no spotlight on the culinary world in Laguna Beach. That’s when I started my blog, “Laguna Beach’s Best.”
With Armitage, Inc. clients that include Michelin-star restaurants in Las Vegas, Armitage had developed a true appreciation for the passion and dedication of great chefs. Getting to know the ones closer to home motivated her to create “a spotlight” on them. “Laguna has this crazy personality. Everyone who is here has chosen to be here. Restaurateurs choose to be here. This is a magical place where they want to create their magic,” she says.
It all starts with Mom
The blog had one very dedicated reader when it was in its infancy.
“My only reader was my mother. Just like that book, Julie and Julia,” Armitage says, laughing. “But I kept going at a good pace. I know what to do to get blogs visible, so I kept working at it and the audience grew. Then I got busy and stepped away from it for a few months. When I checked back in someone had posted, ‘This blog sucks! Everything is old!’ So that got me fired up, and I jumped back into it. Now that I think of it, the person who posted that was probably my mother,” says Armitage, with a knowing smile. “She knows how to get me going.”
Now with an audience of 20,000 subscribers, Armitage no longer needs her mother’s motivation.
Widget-izing a labor of love
With her blog such a success, turning it into a book seemed a natural progression. “I talked about it for three years,” says Armitage. “I work with businesses all the time on this kind of thing, but I haven’t necessarily applied what I know to myself. The thing I tell them is, ‘We’ve got to widgetize’. Meaning, they need to create a repeatable something. Well, I needed to create my own widget! The book was it. It was a lot harder than I expected, partly because my best friend, Lisa, said it had to have color photos,” says Armitage with mock exasperation.
With her first edition a hit, Armitage decided to produce an updated version. “So much has changed. I needed to update it. Now, just about every entry is in the book,” she says with pride.
And while she has written about every nook and cranny of Laguna Beach, it all comes back to her interest in the culinary scene. “The chefs I know are so passionate and so amazing,” she says.
And that is why she works so hard to highlight their work. Her blog and her book are true labors of love. No one pays her to promote them; if you’re in her book or blog it is because she is truly excited about what you’re doing. This honest enthusiasm has helped her to become a culinary resource. Where it will lead to next remains to be seen, but Armitage isn’t lacking for ideas or people willing to follow her lead.
Bringing chefs together, literally and figuratively
The day before we met she had organized a photo shoot with 22 local chefs. “A lot of them didn’t know each other. They don’t collaborate. Not because they’re competitors – they aren’t. They’re just too busy,” explains Armitage. And if she has her way, they’ll be even busier. Food truck wars, progressive dinners, beer tastings, and, the thing that is near and dear to her heart, a big dinner benefitting the Pacific Marine Mammal Center (PMMC). “They don’t know about that one yet,” she says slyly. However, I’m sure she will be able to convince them to support her cause.
She overflows with gratitude when she talks about the PMMC event that local restaurants, The Deck, and Driftwood Kitchen, put on last year. As she recounted their generosity, she literally got tears in her eyes. “It was such an amazing event! What they did and how they did it…it was fabulous. They inspired other chefs to get involved.”
Those sea lions eat a lot of fish
Armitage’s friend, Ruben Flores, got her involved in the PMMC. “I don’t even know how I got to be friends with him!” she says about Flores, laughing. “He is the most amazing person.” She began working on the PMMC events and helping them with their visibility. Now, she’s on the Board.
“I’m drawn to people with passion and commitment,” she says when talking about the people she works with there. “The cost to run that place is insane!” That’s why a portion of the proceeds from her book, Laguna Beach’s Best will go to the PMMC. “The amount of fish that get eaten every day is extraordinary!” she says. “Argh…not more tears,” she says smiling. “I get emotional when I talk about that place.”
A full plate of clients, books, blogs and, of course, StuNews
However, there is nothing – not even sick sea lions – that ignites Armitage’s passion like exploring her adopted home town, especially the food scene here. She has embraced Laguna as only one who took a risk to live here can.
While running a 20-person strong marketing agency, writing a blog that requires a lot of research (hey, finding the best margarita might be fun, but it’s still research!), writing and compiling a 380 page book, volunteering for the PMMC, and writing the “Laguna Dining” column for StuNews, she still has enough energy to plan for and dream of “what’s next.” So it’s almost laughable when Armitage comments, “I guess I’m never not busy.” Uh…I guess not!
Book signing celebration at Laguna Beach Books
Next up is her book signing at Laguna Beach Books on Sunday, April 26 at 4 p.m., “I want to have a lot of people there! It’s a celebration of Laguna Beach.”
Spend five minutes with Diane Armitage and you will see there is so much to celebrate. Whether you’re here for a weekend or you’ve lived here your whole life, Laguna Beach’s Best will undoubtedly inspire you to explore the best of what our town has to offer.
Of course you can always check in to see what’s the latest on Diane’s plate at her website, www.LagunaBeachBest.com and in Stu News Laguna – for all her best.