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Foodie Block Party

We take a tour of OC's top destination dining zones and centers of culinary cool to see what's new and what's next.

From gently gentrifying downtowns to well-curated centers of shopping and dining, Orange County is home to several concentrations of culinary excellence. Our criteria? Each neighborhood or area must have a critical mass of new and notable restaurants, along with a couple of classics, all within walking distance of each other. And one-stop parking, please: If one place is packed, there must be several others in the 'hood worth checking out. And we define neighborhood a bit broadly: Some of our favorite dining districts are found at shopping centers. Got a problem with that? We didn’t think so!


{ The Why }
With the most urban aesthetic of any OC downtown, complete with vintage architecture, historic locales and a diverse populace, Santa Ana’s arts district achieved critical culinary mass, well, right about now. The early pioneers from a decade or so ago (Memphis at Santora and Gypsy Den) are still going strong, and the second wave (Lola Gaspar and The Crosby, among others) upped the eating and drinking ante, as did Chapter One, a gastropub that anchors a key block in the district.

{ The Wow }
Santa Ana’s true culinary coup came with when Jason Quinn traded in his food truck in for a brick-and-mortar restaurant called Playground DTSA. Few OC dining locales have been more buzzed (or bitched) about since, as the 20-something wunderkind Quinn offers an endlessly eclectic, ever-changing menu that includes his ongoing experiment to make the perfect bowl of pho, as well as an admonition to have it Quinn’s way, or hit the highway. His “no changes” rule rubs some the wrong way, which we get, but he also puts his money where his manifesto is: We’ve seen him quickly comp courses (and even entire dinners) on the rare occasion something isn’t right.

{ The Now }
Though it’s only been open a month or so, Little Sparrow is already the spot we recommend for those who aren’t familiar with the Santa Ana scene. It’s bright and accessible with a fine bar and (so far) amazing food. And it’s open for breakfast, a rarity in the neighborhood. Newer additions include the Grilled Cheese Spot from the Crosby team; the healthier green scenes at Crave and AuNatuRaw; Diego’s, a cool little space with an upscale Mexican menu that just opened near Yost Theater; and Tootsie, a walk-up window serving ice cream (and Persian shave ice) on Third Street that’s been an instant hit.

{ The Next }
There are two pizza concepts coming, a deli and even a development constructed out of shipping containers. We hear the latter may include a second Paninoteco Maggio, the fantastic Italian gourmet sandwich shop across from Westfield MainPlace mall.

{ The Wish List }
There’s been talk of a boutique hotel concept in downtown Santa Ana for a couple of years. Here’s what we’d do: Tear most or all of the parking garage that badly bisects the district at Sycamore Street, and make a deal with owners and a developer to add a modern hotel addition to one of the older buildings on Fourth Street, adding back in public parking spaces as part of the project. But keep the street connected.



Quattro Caffe in South Coast Plaza


{ The Why }
No matter where you are at South Coast Plaza and Segerstrom Center for the Arts, you’re within a stylish stroll of a superb restaurant. From the top of the Penthouse (Marché Moderne) to the edge of the 405 (AnQi and Charlie Palmer), from the lobby of the Concert Hall (Leatherby’s) and Westin Hotel (Pinot Provence), it’s as well-curated a collection of culinary excellence as you’ll find anywhere in California.

{ The Wow }
The creme de la creme of the collection is Marché Moderne, which shouldn’t be a surprise as Florent and Amelia Marneau’s masterpiece is the best dining experience in Orange County.

{ The Now }
The recently refreshed lounge at Antonello’s is a prime new draw across Sunflower to experience the oasis of eateries that includes Morton’s, Darya and Royal Khyber. While shopping, we enjoy the hidden patio at Quattro Caffe. For pre-theater, we prefer Pizzeria Ortica (OC-born chef Jason Miller is doing a great job there), though if we’re just in the mood for a drink and bite, on the other side of Segerstrom Center the bright new bar at Silver Trumpet is edging up to the top of our list. Charlie Palmer’s Next Vintage Wine Shop has Saturday afternoon tastings and cellar sales, and AnQi is one of the chicest spots in OC, with a menu that’s evolved to match the creativity and the beauty of the surroundings.

{ The Next }
Everyone is buzzing about Din Tai Fung bringing its beautiful buns down to South Coast Plaza next year. Said to be addictive, the restaurant’s specialty xiao long bao (a Shanghai-style soup dumplings) will be coming to OC from Taiwan, by way of the San Gabriel Valley. But where oh where in the center will it be? On a hunch we popped into the surprisingly huge fast food spot on the Sears side of things, and confirmed they’re going to be moving to another location. Direct outside access and nearly secret parking? Is it too much to hope for late-night hours, too?

{ The Wish List }
Famima is our favorite convenience store, with a Tokyo-cool collection of food to go that we think would fit perfectly in the South Coast Plaza collection, which is currently a bit short on pre-prepared fast and fresh food to go. On the long-term side of things, we often dream about where we’ll be dining at the luxury hotel that’s approved for placement in South Coast Metro. The menus at Amber and Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, the Mandarin Oriental’s world-class restaurants in Hong Kong and London, fuel our fevered fantasies.



The T.J. street dog at LinX in Old Towne Orange


{ The Why }
What was once heaven for antique hunters is now a haven for foodies. Watson Drug and Felix’s Café used to be the big draw on the Orange Circle, with admirable additions over the decades like Citrus City Grille, Rutabegorz, Byblos Café, and the Filling Station as the area evolved. But none were really big enough draws to pull foodies in from out of town. Then came Gabbi's Mexican Kitchen, the first restaurant that really captured the potential of the place by exposing the brick and ceilings and capturing an urban design look and feel. And the food? Though it had an abundance of authentic and excellent Mexican hole-in-the-wall taquerias and well-performing homegrown chains, before Gabbi’s, OC had been deprived of upscale creative Mexican cooking, while cities like Chicago and NYC added it.

{ The Wow }
After the success of Gabbi’s, the Orange Circle secret was out. No longer just a sweet and sleepy roundabout where you’d meet a favorite aunt for some vintage shopping, it was quickly developing into a dining destination (and drinking: don’t underestimate the District Lounge’s role in helping re-energize the neighborhood). Recent years have seen Francoli Gourmet Restaurant move from Fashion Island and Haven Gastropub introduce an important craft beer and small plates element to the scene. And the seemingly simple concept of a waffle stand replacing the venerable Dairy Treet brought a flurry of recognition to Orange, as Bruxie’s location between the Circle and Chapman U. seemed to somehow both unite and extend the area’s culinary cachet, and the brand has exploded to become OC’s next big thing, with six locations open and more in the works.

{ The Now }
Though the grammarians among us loathe the fast and loose use of the language in their names, Smoqued California BBQ and LinX are worthy additions to the area. LinX offers the finest gourmet hot dogs and sausages in OC courtesy of Scott Brandon, the former and founding chef of Crow Bar in CdM, while sausages are also the way to go at Smoqued, which took the barbecue baton from Beach Pit BBQ. The easily overlooked but best addition to the Old Towne scene is everyone’s favorite local Wahoo’s Fish Taco. Sharing a cool patio with LinX and housed in an 1886 vintage building that was an early Orange hotel, this Wahoo’s is already our favorite.

{ The Next }
Haven took over Provisions Market from the fine folks at Bruery, offering up craft beer, charcuterie, cheese, wine, and sandwiches. And soon everyone’s favorite cup of Joe will be available there as well, as Portola Coffee Lab is opening an outpost of its supremely successful SoCo store. In the longer term, the battle to preserve part of the old school antique cool ambience of Old Towne will go on, though we hear some of the more unique spaces (like the drive-in liquor store) may be in play as possible restaurant locations. Just keep your hands off Mr. C's Rare Records!

{ The Wish List }
Maybe the extra “e” in Old Towne seemed quaint back when OTO needed a gimmick to get people down to the Circle. Those days are gone, and now it just seems outdated. Let's drop it.


The counter at Lemonade, set to debut this month in Fashion Island


{ The Why }
SoCal’s ultimate al fresco shopping destination is experiencing a major culinary makeover, with several somnambulant spots (El Torito Grill, Coco’s and The Daily Grill) already out, and at least the latter two to be replaced by bright new émigrés from LA, SF and NYC. Folks love Great Maple and Canaletto, two fairly recent additions to the Fashion Island fold. Homegrown favorites like Fleming’s, Brasserie Pascal and the brand newish Wahoo’s Fish Taco (complete with bar!) are always buzzing, though the Atrium food court definitely lost something with its most recent redo. Aesthetes appreciate the contemporary interiors and fresh menus at the two “kitchens,” R&D and True Food. And don’t overlook the chic store classics Mariposa at Neiman Marcus and 59th and Lex Café at Bloomingdale’s.

{ The Wow }
With all the culinary choices for lunch and dinner, it’s easy to overlook what a pleasant a.m. place the center is! There are several casually cool places to have breakfast and coffee, including Café Beau Soleil at American Rag Cie, Le Pain Quotidien, Pain du Monde and La Brea Bakery at Macy’s. Our favorite semi-secret spot is the second Starbucks, downstairs by Barnes & Noble. The sunken patio nearby is a fine place to sit and start your day.

{ The Now }
Lemonade and Lark Creek Newport Beach are both set to debut this month, on the Island Cinema side of the center. Blue C, a conveyor belt sushi bar, will join Native Foods upstairs where McDonald's once was. So will Lemonade, offering an upscale buffet of salads and premium braises, as well as artisan salads and sandwiches to grab and go. Hopefully, the opening of Lemonade will inspire an upgrade of the menu at the nearby luxury movie theater, as we anticipate patrons trying to bring in their Lemonade food instead. Lark Creek comes to us from Northern California, and is the first one in SoCal. It takes the place of Daily Grill. We hear raves about the salads, bacon-wrapped meatloaf and other takes on California comfort food.

{ The Next }
There’s a long line of restaurants waiting to debut at Fashion Island in the next months. Most obvious to casual observers are Red O and Fig & Olive, the two coups for Irvine Company set to occupy the new buildings under construction across from Muldoon’s, where Coco’s once was. We’ll have to wait until October and November for them to take a bow, but we’re expecting big things from the modern Mexican cuisine at Red O and the refined Mediterranean menu at Fig & Olive. And though nothing has been announced, we’re also watching the new building going up where El Torito Grill once stood, hoping for an exciting restaurant announcement one of these days.

{ The Wish List }
We wish room could be found for The Ritz, the old-school elegant eatery whose time at its current spot is measured out by a countdown clock above the bar. If it’s anything like its West Hollywood incarnation, we’re confident that Fig & Olive will help fill the special occasion dining gap at Fashion Island that is currently satisfied by The Ritz, as well as David Man, one of our favorite chefs at Island Hotel, and especially Palm Terrace.



Amar Santana


{ The Why }
One of OC’s most walkable downtowns underwent a recessionary reset with six or seven closed restaurant locations that have since been filled, invigorating the city’s culinary scene. Hot spots that opened in the past few years include Alessa, Asada, Carmelita’s, House of Big Fish, and Tommy Bahama, as well as excellent earlier additions like Watermarc, Nick’s, Nirvana Grille, and Sundried Tomato. Mix in modern classics and local favorites, including 230 Forest Ave., 242 Café Fusion, Anastasia, Brussels Bistro, La Sirena Grill, Madison Square and Garden Cafe, Polina’s Salerno, Taco Loco, Zinc Café, and many more, and the result is one of the most diverse and eclectic dining downtowns in Southern California.

{ The Wow }
It’s hard to choose a favorite between downtown’s Broadway and Three Seventy Common. Both feature fine young chef/owners (Amar Santana and Ryan Adams) offering up eclectic menus and craft cocktails, bringing a much-needed injection of culinary cool to downtown dining.

{ The Now }
Since it’s summer, our definition of what’s walkable is way upgraded, thanks to the free trolley system that circles the city. Head south along PCH and you have easy access to Sapphire and Studio at Montage; Mozambique and Tabu Grill; The Rooftop Lounge and The Deck; Eva’s and Ti Amo; and even The Ritz-Carlton’s Raya and EnoSteak, since the last stop of the trolley crosses over into Laguna Niguel, adjacent to the resort.

{ The Next }
The Cottage, a venerable North Laguna landmark, is no more, closing after 48 years (we still see tourists and others who haven’t heard standing forlornly on the stairs by the front door). It will eventually be replaced by LA’s Urth Caffe, but don’t hold your breath. Upgrading, preserving and passing inspections for a historic structure is not a fast and easy process, especially in Laguna Beach. What was fast and furious was how quickly Katsuya crashed and burned. We aren’t privy to plans for the location that was home to Hush, but further down PCH we are anticipating hockey star Teemu Selanne’s new (“don’t call it a steakhouse”) restaurant opening in French 75’s old location this summer.

{ The Wish List }
Can someone please buy the Hotel Laguna and upgrade it into the modern boutique hotel Laguna deserves on Main Beach? We’ve been wishing this for years (with absolutely no disrespect meant for the memory of Claes Andersen, who died three years ago), but in the interim we wish that the owners would turn the restaurant and deck over to a top operator. It has oh so much potential to be one of OC’s very best oceanfront places.



Oysters at Shuck Oyster Bar in SoCo


{ The Why }
The rebranding of South Coast Collection would make for an intriguing MBA case study, as the once terribly under-inspired furniture center has been recreated as OC’s ground zero of culinary cool and contemporary design in just a few short years. Christopher Garrens and his amazing designer cakes and cafe held down the fort as SoCo grew up around him. The little bit of genius that the Mart Mix added brought in Portola Coffee Lab, The Cellar Cheese Shop, Shuck Oyster Bar, We Olive and Wine Bar, Savory Spice Shop, among other gourmet goodies. Waliha Sushi and The Iron Press added greatly to the appeal, but it was the addition of Arc that catapulted the place to a critical mass of culinary cool.

{ The Wow }
We love Arc with a passion nearly as hot as the wood-burning ovens that are its signature feature. There is no other cooking method in the place but fire, which in many ways makes it seriously old school, as in Paleolithic. If you happen to be on that particular diet, you’ll be pleased: It’s all about the meat at Arc. But a word to the wise: The top cuts of steak on the not-so-secret menu come at a price that gives some sticker shock. Not to worry, though, the regular menu is an amazing bargain, and just as delicious. Want to be wowed? Sit at the bar, have a craft cocktail and a steak sandwich. There’s no better bargain around.

{ The Now }
We can browse the aisles of Surfas for hours, imagining all the uses the commercial kitchen equipment and gourmet cooking gadgets could be put to in the proper hands. To complete the fantasy, we never leave without some pre-prepared delicacy to take home, where we can pretend it came from our own kitchen, which of course would come courtesy of Fixtures Living. While we’re at it, can we add in a garden from Rolling Greens?

{ The Next }
Costa Mesa’s 17th Street was on the short list to be included in this story, thanks in part to the buzz created around the opening of Greenleaf Gourmet Chop Shop last year. Its great and green made-to-order sandwiches, salads and wraps have been a huge hit among the fit moms and other health and wellness types, and now its newest OC spot is set to open at SoCo. Expect similar décor and sustainable design elements as on 17th Street (reclaimed wood and the like), as well as a wine, juice and beer bar. Also coming to SoCal is Taco Maria. We don’t claim to be food truck aficionados, preferring to support brick-and-mortar businesses. But our more nomadic foodie friends rave about Taco Maria. Some are sad that the owners are hanging up their keys to offer Mexican menu items like carnitas a la naranja, pork belly tacos and bone marrow quesadillas (along with less carnivorous fare), but we can’t wait for it to open this summer.

{ The Wish List }
We’d love to see more tables set up during the Farmers Market in the parking lot each Saturday, one of the few places you’ll find us eating food truck fare. And it gets awfully hot out there. Can we plant a few trees, please? In fact the entire parking lot could use a green design upgrade, something that connects the bigger box design stores to the Mart Mix experience.



Break of Dawn in Laguna Hills

Best Restaurants in the Worst Locations

We’ve talked a lot here about our favorite concentrations of restaurants, all nestled together in pedestrian-friendly districts. But what about that too-common OC experience, a much-loved restaurant that’s hard to find, far away, in an unappealing strip mall or banal building? Here are 11 of our favorites placed in so-so places.

Anepalco :: Orange :: Great food, odd locations: The first is in an ancient little strip center with horrible parking, while the newer one is in the lobby of an Ayres Hotel.

Black Trumpet Bistro :: Huntington Beach :: A fine spot easily lost in the vast flats of Surf City.

Break of Dawn :: Laguna Hills :: Dee Nguyen’s amazing restaurant is way off the beaten path, where one must brave the ancient drivers of Leisure World.

Juliette :: Newport Beach :: A lovely restaurant in a decidedly uninspiring strip mall by one-way Bristol Street.

Murasaki  :: Santa Ana :: Like many fine sushi restaurants that are hard to find, this one is in a non-descript strip center. Go for the omakase.

Onotrio :: Costa Mesa :: Next to an overpass and a drainage ditch, the gardens and grape vines improve its lot.

Park Ave ::  Stanton ::  It’s in Stanton. Enough said.

The Ranch :: Anaheim :: The owner added it to his own office building, which is beyond the back 40 on Ball Road.

Red Table :: Huntington Beach ::  Hidden behind a Trader Joe’s.

The Ritz :: Newport Beach :: If your landlord wants you gone, it’s a bad location by definition.

Slater's 50/50 :: Anaheim and Lake Forest :: The first was in an odd little center, and the 5 freeway frontage location is worse. Great burgers mean both are always packed, though.

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