Raising the Bar
WRITTEN BY: JESSICA GOMES | PHOTOGRAPHED BY: JENNA RAE KUHNS
Opening its doors in June 2014, Aqua Lounge, located inside the Island Hotel in Newport Beach, is setting a new standard for lounges and nightclubs alike. Miguel Rodriguez-Vidal, the general manager for Aqua Lounge and its neighboring restaurant, Oak Grill, is creating a new way for people to go out, bringing the first ultra-lounge to Newport Beach. Focusing on tableside mixology, perfecting an upscale lounge atmosphere and utilizing quality ingredients, makes Aqua Lounge an experience rather than a destination.
Miguel Rodriguez-Vidal, a handsome gentleman with a warm smile, has a passion for food, spirits, and wine that has led him to be one of the most well known and accomplished professionals in the industry in Southern California as well as in the world of fine-dining. Starting out as a busser in a restaurant, he has worked his way up the ladder, taking on each position within the restaurant industry, which has allowed him to get to know the environment inside and out, understanding what it takes to run a successful food and beverage business.
Rodriguez-Vidal didn’t intend to have a career in the food and beverage industry initially. His first choice was pursuing a degree in engineering in Arizona. By chance, he found his true passion when he applied as a server at a local Arizona restaurant, which led to a bartending position. It’s there that he found his love for the industry. The position allowed his creativity for mixing spirits to shine and where he discovered his fascination for wine. Once he realized what his true calling was, he switched directions, pursuing and obtaining a degree in Hospitality Management.
With a vision in mind, Rodriguez-Vidal desired to create a new and exciting way to enjoy a cocktail with a group of friends. Aqua Lounge has become the new hotspot and first ultra-lounge in town, so he thought what better way to bring everybody together than tableside mixology, mixing your drink of choice, customized to your standards.
Q: I heard you are originally from Mexico. How did you get your start in the United States?
Miguel Rodriguez-Vidal: Yes, I am originally from Mexico City and moved to Arizona to attend college. I was pursuing a degree in engineering (boring) when I applied for a server position at an Arizona restaurant. I loved meeting new people and working the floor; I was promoted and moved up to a bartender position, which influenced my creativity and fueled my passion to work with different spirits.
Q: How did you pursue this new dream?
MR: After falling in love with this industry, I received my degree in Hospitality Management. After I graduated, I moved to San Diego where I became the manager at a Spanish restaurant called Café Sevilla, which is still there! I visit when I am craving delicious Spanish food. I eventually moved back to Scottsdale, Arizona where I became the wine director, which was followed by a general manager position for the restaurant/lounge Barcelona. I left there to take on a position at Mastro’s as wine director, and then transferred to Mastro’s Ocean Club in Newport Beach to take a general manager position. More recently, I was given the opportunity to help design and open Red O in Newport Beach. That led me to where I am now, currently I am the general manager for Aqua Lounge and Oak Grill.
Q: You mentioned being a wine director at a few places…
MR: I am a certified sommelier, completing my first test in 2007 and becoming certified in 2011. I love wine; it is my favorite alcoholic beverage. It is so complex and diverse. It really tells a story. That is my first love.
Q: What is your favorite part about this industry?
MR: I love visiting the guests throughout the evening, making sure everybody is enjoying themselves and getting to know them, personally, so I can build a relationship that lasts. I love seeing familiar faces; sometimes five years go by before you see that familiar face, but when you do, they recognize you and relate one of their memorable moments to an experience with you.
Q: How did the vision for Aqua Lounge come about?
MR: We wanted to create a place that was nothing like Newport Beach had before and bring a true ultra lounge to South Orange County. If you go to Miami, Las Vegas, or New York, you find these types of places: upscale, classy lounges with quality cocktails and DJs that are entire experiences rather than just a destination to drink. Most bars and nightclubs you go out to, you cannot really carry on a conversation. It is packed wall-to-wall and too loud to enjoy the company of others. We wanted to engage people and created something entirely different.
Q: Did you intend for it to be a tableside mixology venue?
MR: We started out serving punch bowls that we brought to your table—not your high school prom punch bowls—adult punch bowls. We wanted to bring the party to your table so you could do the least amount of work possible and really enjoy your group. Today, you get your own comfortable couch to sit on, table space with mixology setup and your own server to take care of you.
Q: What does the mixology setup include?
MR: You get your own area for you and your friends, a spirit bottle of your choice, fresh ingredients to create your perfect combination and a personal server for your entire evening.
Q: What would you say is the most popular tableside mixology chosen by guests?
MR: We are known for our Moscow Mules; it includes a bottle of Ketel One Vodka, house-made ginger beer served in a siphon, fresh limes and freshly picked mint leaves served tableside in copper mugs. We also have another popular option which is the tableside margarita served with a wide range of choices including fresh berries, fresh lime juice, and agave.
Q: Do you make all of your fresh ingredients in-house?
MR: Yes. We fresh squeeze our juices and make all of our syrups and ginger beer daily. Everything is fresh and locally sourced, including much of our alcohol selection.
Q: Do you create all of the cocktails for Aqua Lounge?
MR: Yes. I create each cocktail and then seek help from the professionals I work with. I love to use different, exciting ingredients. Recently, I infused a local bourbon with bacon. It was gone within a few days, people loved it so much. The drink I created using this spirit included sweet vermouth and Aperol, however people enjoyed it neat as well.
Q: What is your drink of choice?
MR: I love a great old fashioned. Bourbon, a sugar cube, and orange bitters make the perfect drink—the orange bitters are the secret to a perfect old fashioned.
Q: What is one of your favorite bourbons?
MR: I love Duke Bourbon. It is a locally owned whiskey from Kentucky named after John Wayne himself and made from an amazing collaboration between John Wayne’s youngest son, Ethan Wayne, and the renowned vintners of Hundred Acre Wines.
Q: What are the components to creating a perfect cocktail?
MR: The cocktail needs to look as pretty as it tastes. I have an ice program for our restaurant and lounge that we invested a lot of money in, and acquired an ice machine that produces a perfect one-inch by one-inch, crystal clear ice cube. We use this ice for everything from water to cocktails. For those who enjoy their spirit of choice on the rocks, I provide a larger ice cube for their convenience. I think every ingredient you put into a cocktail needs to be fresh and thoughtful.
Q: For the tableside mixology, do you provide food for the guests to enjoy at their tables?
MR: Yes, we provide “Bites & Shareables” created by our executive chef of Oak Grill and Aqua Lounge, Marc Johnson. Marc has received rave reviews for his creativity and artistry. We keep it simple, however flavorful, local and seasonal as well. We also provide an “After-Hours Menu” Thursdays-Saturdays from 11pm – 1:30am for the late-night crowd to enjoy; that is also simple yet extremely enjoyable.
Q: Tell me how an average evening goes for you at Aqua Lounge.
MR: The first thing I do is check emails. I always like to stay current and make sure things are running smoothly. I check in with my staff, have a short meeting to prepare for the day and/or night and make sure we are all on the same page. Next, I meet with the chef to talk about the evening and the rest of the week, checking in on menus, changes, etc. I make sure to keep in touch with the hotel to see what groups/events/people are checking in and possibly joining us at Aqua Lounge and then I check more emails. My favorite part is visiting the tables throughout the night. I love to capture moments and welcome people to our ultra lounge.
Q: Does Aqua Lounge have any specials throughout the week?
MR: We do not have the typical happy hour, however, we do have specials that run depending on the day of the week. For instance, Mondays we create a special wine list that has half off bottles from the designated wine list. A couple of things that are not on the menu: Tuesdays I like to call, “Tequila Tuesdays, ” as tequila is one of my favorite spirits; I choose a tequila or create a cocktail to feature for the evening and Wednesdays are “Whiskey Wednesdays” where I feature a whiskey or a whiskey cocktail I created for the evening. Thursday through Saturday we have well-known, resident DJs play and Sundays we don’t charge a corkage fee or limit the number of bottles of wine you wish to bring in.
Q: What is the best day to come to Aqua Lounge?
MR: Well, Saturdays are our busiest nights, so if you are looking for a lot of energy and to meet new people, Saturdays would be the day. We are becoming the place Monday through Wednesday for business people to stop in after work and have a cocktail or beer to wind down after working all day. It is definitely a great time to come for a business-professional crowd. On the weekends we do like to maintain a little bit of crowd control, so there is a line typically in the evening. You can enjoy dinner or a cocktail from Oak Grill before while you wait to get in. Again, we like to slow down the pace to create an experience.
Q: What kind of crowd typically comes to Aqua Lounge?
MR: We have a steady local crowd and maintain our regulars we have met through working not only here, but also at previous places. We say as long as you want to keep having fun, you are welcome to come and stay.
Native Knowledge: Aqua Lounge is the place to be, so arrive before 9pm on the weekends if you don’t want to wait in line.
Favorite Places to Grab a Bite: When Miguel Rodriguez-Vidal isn’t working, he likes to hit up chef-driven, foodie places like Arc and Haven.
Favorite Places to Grab a Cocktail: Though there are so many places to try locally, if Miguel Rodriguez-Vidal could pick a
couple of his favorite places to enjoy a beverage, it would be Oak Grill and Pelican Grill.