Driving to Los Angeles is no longer required to taste some of the most forward-thinking cuisine and just plain good food. That's because Orange County is fast becoming a foodie's paradise with acclaimed restaurants and chefs pushing boundaries in cities from Costa Mesa to Santa Ana.
While longtime icons remain, such as A Restaurant and Five Crowns in Newport Beach, Orange County is also home to fine dining establishments helmed by celebrity chefs like Rick Bayless (Red O) and Nobu Matsuhisa (Nobu). Five-star resorts also dot the landscape with top tier restaurants, such as Studio and The Loft at The Montage Laguna Beach, and Andrea at The Resort at Pelican Hill in Newport Beach.
Bluegold and LSXO
Bluegold embraces California's bounty with seasonal farm-to-table fare that showcases the golden state's citrus, wine and fresh seafood. Delectable oysters, roasted wild salmon, grilled filet mignon and even truffle pizza are just some of the tasty options here. But, the gem tucked inside Bluegold behind an unmarked door, is LSXO. The 28-seat eatery features dishes with inspiration from both Vietnam (where chef Tin Vuong's family hails) and China. A spinoff of acclaimed Little Sister in Los Angeles and Manhattan Beach, LSXO transports diners to Saigon's District 1 China Town while maintaining a view of the Huntington Beach Pier across the street.
Bosscat Kitchen & Libations
In addition to a private room for tasting whiskey, bourbon and scotch from a curated collection of more than 300 bottles, and whiskey lockers to store your own premium stash, Bosscat Kitchen & Libations serves up Southern comfort food with a contemporary twist. Think shrimp and grits, pulled pork hush puppies, pork belly poutine and a BLT sandwich made with black-eyed pea fritters, jalapeno mayonnaise, lettuce, tomato and onions! Wash it down with a variety of craft cocktails and satisfy your sweet tooth with their bourbon chocolate silk custard or red velvet churros. Don't miss the Sunday brunch featuring Fruity Pebbles French Toast. Opt for endless bloody marys or kick it up a notch with cocktails like the Breakfast in Bed Shot, which mixes maple bourbon, orange juice and, yes, bacon.
Helmed by Judy Fleenor, former co-owner and chef of the popular Cafe Chiarini, which shuttered in 2012, Crave has quite a following, especially among the lunchtime crowd for its wholesome and flavorful soups, salads and sandwiches made using locally grown organic fruits and vegetables, house-made breads and meat that's smoked, roasted or grilled on-site daily. The health-conscious diner might choose the Earth Salad, a bed of baby greens topped with cucumbers, tomatoes carrots, sunflower seeds and mozzarella cheese although the gourmet grilled cheese and Smoked BBQ Pulled Pork sandwiches are sure to temp. And, for breakfast, the Garden Frittatas—baked to order with eggs, cheese and plenty of veggies—are a must-try.
Din Tai Fung
What started as a store selling cooking oil in Taiwan in 1958 grew to become a restaurant in the 1970s, expanding across Asia and the U.S. to eventually include a spot at South Coast Plaza. The gourmet eatery, which earned accolades including a Michelin star for its Hong Kong location, is known for its traditional steamed dumplings with fillings like shrimp or pork, served with a spicy dipping sauce, and noodle dishes as well as sides like shrimp fried rice and string beans sautéed with garlic. These crowd-pleasers pair well with exotic cocktails like a pear and lychee martini or the Black Dragon, which incorporates a Taiwanese oolong tea-infused syrup.
Farmhouse at Roger's Gardens
Corona del Mar
Farmhouse offers alfresco dining with a lineup of fresh, seasonal dishes starring ingredients sourced from farmers markets in the region. Inspired menu items include the chopped grilled vegetable salad; cauliflower steak with chimichurri; and grilled Asian beef short ribs with a green papaya salad. Farmhouse chef Rich Mead, former owner and executive chef of the beloved Sage restaurant, was recently honored as Best Chef of the Year by the local Golden Foodie Awards. The restaurant also snagged the best cocktails honor for inspired drinks like Oaxaca This Way, made with tequila, mezcal, wild honey and finger lime tincture.
Serving authentic Cuban cuisine in a romantic setting for more than two decades, Habana has become an institution in Costa Mesa (there's another location at the Irvine Spectrum Center). While brunch is also extremely popular here, the mouthwatering dinner fare ranges from Cuban classics like ropa vieja to plantain-crusted chicken breast, paella a la Habana, pork croquettas and empanadas in addition to plenty of mojitos, sangria and inventive cocktails like Before Night Falls, made with seven-year reserve rum, ginger beer, house plantain syrup and lime. There's plenty of seating on the patio to savor your meal and linger over a drink with friends beneath strings of softly glowing lights.
Launched in April 2017 by the same team behind Driftwood Kitchen and The Deck on Laguna Beach, Hendrix was envisioned as a neighborhood eatery for locals to gather and enjoy a meal. In only a few short months, it has already developed a loyal following. Rotisserie meats are the focus here, from rosemary-and-lemon chicken to prime rib, Colorado leg of lamb and porchetta pork roll along with a wide range of small plates such as fried Brussels sprouts, roasted bone marrow, grilled oysters and Spanish octopus. Start with a glass of wine, beer or a cocktail like the Hendrix Mai Tai or Rum for Your Life with rum, Carpano, agave and orange bitters. Weekend brunch also entices diners with offerings like lemon ricotta pancakes and the Hendrix Omelet, which brings together rotisserie chicken, goat cheese, bacon, tarragon and potatoes.
400 North Broadway
What started as a pop-up supper club in March 2015 turned into a full-fledged restaurant a little over a year later, when Irenia opened in downtown Santa Ana, earning rave reviews for its traditional Filipino dishes. Chef Ryan Garlitos, who previously worked at Taco Maria and Slapfish, was inspired by his grandmother's cooking and, notably, named the eatery after her. The menu offers a modern take on Filipino staples with seasonal influences. A variety of rice bowls are joined on the lineup with lumpia (Filipino eggrolls) and entrees like kare kare, a common stew updated with roasted cauliflower and peanut "curry" sauce, and arroz caldo, which combines rice porridge with crispy chicken skin, boiled egg, brassica, fried garlic, ginger, scallion and chili oil for an authentic taste of the Philippines.
Crispy Meyer lemon and honey duck wings. Jumbo lump crab and sea salt-roasted heirloom beets. Lemon verbena-poached Faroe Island salmon. Zinfandel-braised Napa lamb shank. A wagyu burger and a giant, house-made meatball. The menu at Ironwood is wide-ranging and all of the dishes are made from scratch daily with the freshest seasonal ingredients, served in a space with views of both the open kitchen and Saddleback Mountain. This wine country-inspired eatery opened in spring 2016 and clinched the Golden Foodies Award for Best New Restaurant that same year. Owner Russ Bendel also operates Vine in San Clemente and Olea, which opened this winter in Newport Beach.
Lido Bottle Works
Inventive dishes expertly paired with beer or wine recommendations is what draws diners to Lido Bottle Works, along with its setting along the dock at Lido Marina Village. Culinary creations like the tuna tartare with chili-flavored Pop Rocks that fizz and pop on your tongue are sure to leave a lasting impression. As will the pineapple upside-down cake with cherry wood-smoked ice cream. The melding of flavors is also divine in the goat cheese fritters with ancho-cajeta sauce and red pepper aioli. And the burrata salad that changes with the season is not to be missed as it switches from peaches in the summer to roasted squash in the fall. Another hit for the cooler months is the savory Iberico secreto pork with carrot-ginger puree. Since opening in May 2017, the head chef has changed from Joel Harrington to Amy Lebrun, who has been at the restaurant since the beginning and previously worked at The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel, and The Resort at Pelican Hill. Despite the transition, most of the menu will remain the same for the time being, aside from seasonal updates, so gather some friends and order several small plates to share.
Nestled in the artists village of downtown Santa Ana, Lola Gaspar has been serving up Spanish tapas in this cozy space since 2008. Choose a seat in the intimate dining room or out on the patio. Small plates run the gamut from bacon-wrapped dates to jerk-spiced fish kabobs, nacho fries, chili relleno, barbacoa taquitos, burgers and St. Louis pork spare ribs. Craft cocktails range from Bikini Season, made with mango-washed pisco, cinnamon, lime and coconut foam, to the Huckleberry, comprising bourbon, salted honey and pressed grapefruit. Those with a sweet tooth can indulge their cravings with the homemade churro served with chocolate sauce.
Following a successful run at South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa, husband-and-wife duo Florent and Amelia Marneau moved their French restaurant, Marche Moderne, to Crystal Cove Shopping Center, bringing along plenty of loyal diners and a few popular dishes in tribute to past restaurants where Florent has worked, like Lamb Couscous Royale from Pinot Provence and mesquite-smoked duck breast from Aubergine. One fun, can't-miss menu item is the Bordier butter tasting with varieties like yuzu citrus, smoked sea salt and Espelette pepper to savor on pieces of baguette. Meanwhile, Amelia is known for her decadent pastries such as the napoleon and giant macarons in flavors like passion fruit, chocolate and caramel latte. The elegant bistro opened in its new spot in September, offering culinary creations that are as much a masterpiece to be enjoyed by the eyes as the palate.
Mesa restaurant and lounge, located in The Camp eco-friendly retail center in Costa Mesa, is only open for dinner and late-night bites with plenty of small plates like bone marrow, deviled eggs, lamb sliders and ahi tuna tacos as well as entrees like wine-braised short rib and Jidori chicken pot pie. Shareable wood-fired pizzas round out the menu with creative options like Bee Sting with honey drizzle and calabrian chili, tomato sauce, mozzarella and salami. Some of the craft cocktails are named after legendary music groups and their songs, from Strawberry Fields to Eleanor Rigby, The Weeknd and The Clash, which brings together vodka infused with tangerine and arbol chili, cilantro, vanilla, lemon and lime. Also popular is the sangria, a mix of fresh fruit, wine and brandy for the red option or gin for the white version—perfect for sipping in this hip spot complete with a living wall and a large tree as focal point below a retractable roof.
Irvine, CA 92612
Fresh fish imported from Japan and premium additions like wagyu beef are making Ootoro Sushi the new go-to place for sushi and "omakase." The Irvine location opened in July 2016, joining a sister restaurant in Walnut and another, called Toros, in Alhambra. Master chefs prepare the sushi and delicacies like live sweet shrimp served over ice. Octopus sashimi is another variety among the innovative options to be paired with fine sake and beer selections. Other dishes include grilled miso black cod, sashimi poke salad, barbecue udon or ramen, grilled king crab leg and Lobster Dynamite.
With an ingredient-driven menu that changes weekly, Playground—a dinner-only spot that traces its roots to The Lime Truck, a participant in Food Network's "The Great Food Truck Race" in 2011—is as innovative as they come, playing with techniques like sous vide and unexpected flavor combinations. Originally founded as a burger and beer joint, the eatery evolved, helping to revitalize Santa Ana's food scene. Plates of new American cuisine are offered on the sometimes snarky menu: roasted beets with spicy chimichurri, griddled sunchoke and smoked date hash, pork belly steam buns and "the one item you can't send back [so] if you don't know what you're getting yourself into, get something else." One note: Chefs here are not willing to entertain special requests or make substitutions, in order to preserve the integrity of their creations, so don't ask. There are also 15 craft beers on draft and 60 by the bottle, wine and cocktails like Calamity Jane and Tainted Love. Next door is the newer Playground 2.0, an 18-seat culinary theater that hosts themed, multicourse tasting dinners (advance tickets required).
Porto's Bakery & Cafe
Porto's Bakery & Cafe, a Cuban bakery that has become an institution over its nearly 50-year existence in Southern California finally opened an Orange County eatery in Buena Park last March. Throughout its time loyal fans trekked from all over the region to locations in Downey, Glendale and Burbank. Now, all kinds of delights await visitors in the chain's largest shop: 99-cent stuffed potato balls, 90-cent chicken or ham croquettes, $1.15 chicken empanadas, Cubano sandwiches, plantain chips, the list goes on and on. Crowds flock to get their favorites, both savory and sweet. All manner of cakes are made here, too, from tres leches to red velvet, in addition to handheld pastries like guava strudel and chocolate croissants to be enjoyed on site or taken home.
Pour Vida Latin Flavor
After helming top L.A.-area restaurants like BOA Steakhouse and 41 Ocean Club, chef Jimmy Martinez has made a splash with his Pour Vida Latin Flavor, which opened in 2015 in Anaheim and blends the flavors of his Puerto Rican and Mexican heritage with handcrafted tacos and seasonal pressed juices at affordable prices. On the taco menu, try elevated options like the Jacuzzi Chicken, which includes sous vide-cooked meat, pickled napa cabbage, queso fresco and secret spices, or the mango pork, which is marinated for a full 24 hours. Lobster or spicy ahi tuna tacos are available on house-made squid ink tortillas. Or, go veggie with a spinach tortilla filled with smashed carrots and potatoes, cheese and spices, or Brussels sprouts, soy ginger glaze and queso fresco.
Tapas bring people together, which is the main goal at Pueblo, which opened in late 2014 in The OC Mix, within Costa Mesa's South Coast Collection shopping center. Gather around a big dish of paella with seafood, meat or vegetables, or a bowl of queso fundido updated with charred goat cheese, black truffle and honey. Cheese and charcuterie boards are another good bet to sample while drinking a sangria spritzer or El Sabio, which mixes elderflower tonic, pear and vermouth. Weekend brunch doesn't disappoint either with house-made chorizo sandwiches, Spanish omelets with grilled skirt steak, or hash browns with pork belly and eggs, plus mimosas, bloody marys or cava, a Spanish sparkling wine, with fruit puree.
This San Diego-based eatery has arrived in Irvine with its modern Mexican fare including award-winning tacos and other dishes in a space designed by famous San Diego artist Paul Basile that's inspired by historic Mesoamerican architecture and contemporary Mexico City with hand-poured concrete tiles, a skylight and plenty of greenery. A patio is situated near an olive tree grove and a black-and-gold stone bar bridges the dining room and outdoor area. Street food like esquite, grilled corn with chili, lime, queso and crema, or Mexican street bowls of tropical fruit seasoned with lime juice and Tajin whet the palate for what's to come: tacos filled with filet mignon, chicken al pastor, carnitas, Maine lobster, shrimp, seasonal mushrooms or zucchini and cactus. Also worth sampling: unique types of guacamole that mix in blue crab or pomegranate arils, mango, chili de arbol and candied walnuts. And there are even flights of tequila, mezcal, cerveza and wines from Mexico's Guadalupe Valley, an up-and-coming wine region. After Puesto opened in early 2017 in Los Olivos Marketplace, a second Irvine location followed almost a year later at Park Place mixed-use business center, 3311 Michelson Drive.
Selanne Steak Tavern
Opened by former Anaheim Ducks hockey player Teemu Selanne and local businessman Kevin Pratt, the Selanne Steak Tavern in Laguna Beach offers an elegant yet comfortable space for fine dining. Steak is obviously the star of the show here, from filet mignon, rib-eye and porterhouse cuts to wagyu options with bordelaise, bearnaise, cognac peppercorn and other sauce options. Classic side dishes like heirloom carrots, creamed spinach, baked potatoes, risotto and mac and cheese provide the perfect complement to these entrees. Seafood is also on the menu, which is to be expected at this seaside locale, with diver scallops and oysters, Maine lobster and salmon available. A curated wine list and specialty cocktails can also be found. Notably, Selanne Steak Tavern won the Golden Foodies Award for Best Service in 2017.
Social Costa Mesa
Since opening in 2014, Social Costa Mesa has been grabbing attention for its ingredient-driven food and drinks. The new American menu includes a fresh take on the toast trend: one topped with three types of mushrooms, ricotta cheese and poached egg on sourdough. Wood-fired lamb lollipops, pork buns and Jidori chicken and waffles are among the other dish options. Meanwhile, the mixologist team crafts inventive cocktails incorporating house-made syrups, bitters and cordials. For example, You've Got Kale blends vodka, basil, lemon, kale syrup, Meyer lemon, pear and Chareau liqueur. The Hoppy Mule mixes hop-infused ginger syrup with lime and vodka. For another kind of drink, Social is also home to the Thunderking Coffee Bar. And, of course, brunch is also extremely popular here with dishes like chilaquiles, a breakfast burger and the Social Benedict with pulled pork, egg and Creole mustard hollandaise on a buttermilk biscuit.
Corona del Mar
Billed as a local grub shack, established in 2015 in the former concession stand at Corona del Mar State Beach, Tackle Box has been making waves with its inventive dishes—the brainchild of former "Top Chef" contestant Brian Huskey. For breakfast, try the avocado tartine with smoked salmon and hard-boiled egg. Popular snacks include the buffalo cauliflower served with blue cheese and celery, showing that vegetables can be just as tasty as meat, and the elote, street corn with spicy crema and cotija cheese. Other favorites include the poke, Maine lobster roll (only available on weekends) and Tackle Box burger with a house-made Angus- blend patty, garlic aioli and spicy ketchup. Back in spring 2016, Tackle Box made headlines when the Ramen Burger team held a pop-up at the shack for a few months.
Like traditional Mexican food, corn is at the heart of chef Carlos Salgado's menu at Taco Maria, which pays tribute to his heritage, but he also makes the dishes contemporary with California influences, local produce and techniques he acquired while working in Michelin-starred restaurants. The James Beard Award semifinalist for Best Chef: West in 2016 and 2017 also spent time working at San Francisco and Oakland establishments, before opening Taco Maria at The OC Mix in Costa Mesa in 2013. The menu offers prix fixe meals with optional wine pairings as well as a la carte options and brunch. Among the tacos, which come on handmade tortillas, there's the jardineros with shiitake mushroom chorizo and crispy potato topped with queso fundido. Or try the mole de pollo with Jidori chicken, ancho-almond mole, onion pickle and queso fresco. The restaurant sources local produce from farmers markets and uses sustainable fish and humanely raised meats.
The Recess Room
Five lifelong friends from Fountain Valley—who met during recess at school—came together to open the aptly named Recess Room in fall 2016 after long dreaming of starting a restaurant together. An on-site garden provides homegrown produce for the restaurant's modern American tapas, offered alongside 24 mostly local craft beers on tap, as well as wine and cocktails. The creative fare includes blue crab beignets, portobello fries, a bone marrow burger, pork belly BLT, veal dumplings, sous vide-cooked Spanish octopus and Loco Moco, bulgogi-braised short ribs topped with a slow-cooked egg, lap cheong (a Chinese sausage) risotto and sauteed bok choy. For dessert, try the cereal milk creme brulee or FlufferNutter, described as chunky peanut butter combined with marshmallow fluff, vanilla ice cream, banana and coconut flake. We may have been taught not to play with our food, but when allowed to color outside the classic culinary lines, this team takes it to a whole new level.
The Royal Hen
Tucked away on quaint Balboa Island, The Royal Hen is an upscale pub that has won rave reviews for comfort food classics like The Royal Hen pot pie and unique dishes like persimmon bruschetta and mussels with red curry-coconut milk broth. It should be noted that the extremely popular eatery is small and does not accept reservations, so diners are seated on a first-come, first-served basis. Founded in late 2016, the establishment was first helmed by chef Tim Goodell, known for his previous efforts with Aubergine, 25 degrees and A Restaurant. He is no longer involved, but John English, formerly of AnQi and Taco Maria, now serves as chef of the restaurant, which is owned by Dr. Dan Chueh. And, in case you were wondering, they've added a couple of poultry options (originally missing from the menu) to match the name: chicken crackling and Jidori chicken with port and fig.
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
"Top Chef" runner-up Amar Santana, who also co-owns Broadway by Amar Santana in Laguna Beach, and his partners established Vaca in late 2015, presenting tapas and family-style dishes that aim to transport diners to Spain. Among the small plates are lamb meatballs with lemon yogurt and cucumbers, smoked chicken cannelloni with foie gras sauce and sherry reduction, creamy chicken fritters, house-cured duck ham, roasted bone marrow and beef cheek toast, and braised pork belly with fermented black garlic and watermelon. Paella of the vegetable, meat and seafood varieties is also available for large groups to share. And, as the restaurant's name may suggest, steak is also on the menu: Kobe beef, filet mignon as well as prime hanger, flat iron and skirt steak are among the options while bison is also offered. Desserts include churros with chocolate, flan and tres leches biscuit. Next for Santana: He will be opening a food hall at South Coast Plaza later this year.
Sharon Stello is a writer based in Orange County.
for more features.