Dig in and bottoms up at Orange County's inventive gastropubs
These six spots are elevating pub fare
Gastropubs aren’t new to the Orange County dining scene, but what is new is the mindset. Gone are the days when grabbing a drink with friends meant nursing a flavorless bottled beer with an apathetically plated appetizer. More than just bars that serve food, today’s gastropubs delight in delicious inventions.
“I don’t typically think of Social as just a gastropub,” says owner Drew Dorsey of his Costa Mesa restaurant. “My elevator speech to people is that we are New American cuisine with a Southern backbone, and amazing craft cocktails.”
Rather than reinforcing I’ll-have-the-usual thinking, the staffs at local gastropubs seek to educate and gently lead us past our comfort zones. In Old Towne Orange, Haven Gastropub’s executive chef Greg Daniels and beverage director/managing partner Wil Dee encourage diners to ask questions. “We don’t want to come off as snobs,” says Dee. But what they do want is to start a conversation. “Rather than offering you a Heineken, we’re going to have you sample a locally brewed beer that has the same notes.” By talking directly with customers and providing them different beers to taste, Dee fosters a sense of trust. “Once someone tries some thing new – and they enjoy it – they’re more likely to trust you in the future,” says chef Daniels. “Then they’ll order a dish more daring than the burger.”
The forward thinking doesn’t end at the bar. Back in the kitchen, chefs like Social’s Jeffrey Boullt try to tempt OC diners out of tired culinary habits. “I am constantly thinking of different food ideas, how I can take risks and execute well-composed dishes,” says Boullt. “Once I find that something works, I immediately push myself harder and go straight into brainstorming.” The trend is for diners to experiment tasting new flavors and, above all, be open-minded. Chef Boullt: “I always tell our guests the menu was built to be a ‘choose your own adventure’ experience.”
works, I immediately push myself harder and go straight into brainstorming.” The trend is for diners to experiment tasting new flavors and, above all, be open-minded. Chef Boullt: “I always tell our guests the menu was built to be a ‘choose your own adventure’ experience.”
A & O Kitchen + Bar at The Balboa Bay Resort
The Name: Keeping with the Balboa Bay Club’s nautical theme, A&O stands for “Anchors & Oceans.”
The Dish: The Club A&O sandwich tops the list as the gastropub’s most popular dish. Another heavy hitter is the Kobe burger slathered with baconaise and topped with a cheddar bacon bun. The gluten-free among us need not miss out – other hit dishes include the bacon-wrapped dates and a refreshing tomato salad.
The Drink: It may seem like an unusual pairing for a club sandwich, but the most popular cocktail served at A&O is the Smokey Rose, with subtle floral notes. Made with Avión silver tequila and Violette liqueur, the cocktail is finished with a delicate spritz of rose essential oil mist.
The Surprise: Not listed on the menu is the Dirty Club AaO. It’s a gluttonous take on the restaurant’s “healthy” club – where lettuce replaces the bun. The chef tweaked this club, gastropub-style, by adding shishito peppers, beer-battered french fries and cheese sauce. Just in case you need a little more queso, it’s served with an extra side of cheese dipping sauce. :: balboabayresort.com
The Name: “My dream was to create a space where people were more interested in dining and mingling with each other than watching a sporting event or texting while at the table,” says owner Drew Dorsey. “I had a long list of names, but I always came back to ‘Social’ because it just seems to spell out everything that we are and want to be – a restaurant that encourages interaction, which is why a majority of our dishes are meant to be shared.”
The Dish: Since Social opened its doors nine months ago in Costa Mesa, it’s made big waves with its tri-tip with rock shrimp succotash, smoked tomatoes and crispy shallots – the restaurant’s best-selling dish to date. It reflects chef Jeffery Boullt’s roots in the South, where he spent many years cooking at award-winning restaurants in Louisiana and Alabama.
The Drink: Signature cocktails rotate often. Since each libation is concocted with house-made syrups, cordials, or sodas and infusions, this makes each drink unique to Social. Currently, the most popular cocktail served is the Gunslinger, which is poured tableside for added flair. The libation consists of rye, bourbon, black tea syrup and a touch of smoke, all brightened with a drizzle of citrus oil. Think: heavily spiked sweet tea.
The Surprise: The half Kurobuta pig head. “I wanted something that would stand out and was interactive for our guests,” says chef Boullt. “I have done a French application for half pig head in the past, so the groundwork and know-how was there. Basically, from there, I had to figure out how to not scare people. I figured tacos would be the best way to roll it out – carnitas style with all the house-made fixings.” It will be on the menu through August. Chef Boullt also pushes the envelope with his nightly blue plate specials. These dishes allow him and his cooks to experiment with off-the-menu ingredients. So far he’s plated some unexpectedly highbrow dishes such as foie gras banh mi sandwiches and smoked sturgeon-loaded baked potatoes with caviar. :: socialgastropub.com
The Blind Pig
The Name: During the Prohibition era, The Blind Pig was another name for speakeasies. Owner Tony Monaco wanted to evoke that hideaway vibe in Rancho Santa Margarita with craft cocktails and high-quality comfort food.
The Dish: The bison burger garnished with arugula, caramelized onions, cheddar cheese, and slathered with a house-made spicy aioli: “It’s a bit adventurous for South County,” says executive chef Karl Pfleider. “Bison isn’t found at many restaurants here. But it is still a delicious classic and very simple.”
The Drink: “We have 12 taps, and we rotate them almost every other day,” Monaco says. While there are a couple of constants, such as the Clown Shoes Clementine white ale beer, which is mixed into one of The Blind Pig’s cocktails, the assortment is hard to pin down. “We like to keep a good selection so there’s something for everyone to enjoy, so when you visit, you’ll always find a lager, an IPA, a wheat beer, etc.” he says. “But chances are, the next time you visit, the selection will be different.”
The Surprise: Sisig is a traditional Filipino dish prepared from offal – usually the leftover parts of the pig’s head and liver. The Southeast Asian flavors are intensified with sour calamansi citrus notes and spicy chili peppers. It’s definitely not a dish normally found at a pub. “I’m Filipino and grew up eating sisig,” says chef Pfleider. “The version on our menu is my take on it and is tailored to our guests’ palate. It’s made with pig cheek and pig ear – we love pig dishes at The Blind Pig!” :: theblindpigoc.com
The Name: Executive chef/partner Greg Daniels and beverage director/partner Wil Dee wanted a place where they could just hang out. That’s the inspiration behind the name “Haven.” The duo created a restaurant in Old Towne Orange where friends, fellow chefs and beer nerds all convene. The gastropub lives up to its name. Daniels controls the menu and the playlist, which features a significant amount of Ryan Adams songs, and Dee selects all the beers. The eatery’s crowd is also a mixed group: Chapman’s Red Hat Society ladies will lunch in the afternoons, local university students imbibe late night, and on weekends a healthy mix of families queue up for brunch. It’s become a haven for regulars.
The Dish: The Haven burger: Like a gateway drug, this burger will expand your mind. “The idea behind it was to create a gourmet burger that was made to satisfy all five tastes – salty (meat and cheese), sweet (roasted red bell peppers), bitter (arugula and garlic aioli), sour (pickled red onions), umami (blue cheese),” says Daniels. “I also took texture into account, and wanted a burger that would have some depth.” Once you taste the juicy Haven creation, you will be tempted to try the more exotic sounding items on the menu.
The Drink: Since the taps at Haven change frequently, Dee recommends you ask your server or the bartender for the best pairing suggestion available that day.
The Surprise: The pig’s ear appetizer at first sounds like a glamorized dog treat, but the thinly sliced strips of pork are glazed with a gochujang-coconut sauce and topped with sesame seeds and green onions. The dish is a surprisingly addictive bar snack. Imagine the sweet and sour flavors of Chinese takeout with the texture of chewy beef jerky. :: havengastropub.com
The Name: Located within Five Crowns in Corona del Mar, SideDoor is its own separate eatery with a different menu and its own vibe. A large red key hangs from the Poppy Street entrance like an arrow pointing the way. “It’s literally a side door,” says chef Steve Kling. “I didn’t come up with the name, but it’s catchy. It does help people find the entrance. It’s a very pragmatic name.”
The Dish: “Even for our more loyal guests, the charcuterie and cheese board is the way to start,” says Kling. The cheeses are listed by milk type – cow, goat, sheep and blue. The charcuterie options include La Quercia prosciutto, bison salami seasoned with garlic and whiskey and the peppery salami Nostrano with hints of nutmeg. The platter is garnished with house-made jams that change with the seasons. For May and June, Kling served blood orange marmalades and strawberry compote with a splash of grappa. For the rest of the summer, Kling has some peachy ideas. “We’ll lean heavy towards the stone fruits,” he says. “Expect jams like peach and bourbon, a pluot compote, maybe a few cherries while they’re still available.”
The Drink: SideDoor’s resident “Mad Bar Scientist” Amber Billiard runs the mixology program by curating the cocktail menu. A refreshing summer drink such as Garden of Eden blends Prairie cucumber vodka, lavender-infused honey syrup, fresh-squeezed lime juice, and for an added touch of mystique: absinthe. For the beer aficionados: five to six times a year, SideDoor invites a craft brewery to do a tap takeover.
The Surprise: Wild boar chops and squash blossoms with basil-jalapeño créme fraîche are unexpected menu items, but the secret dish to order is the chili dog. SideDoor lists prime rib chili and chili cheese fries on the menu, but for diners in the know, order the dog. :: sidedoorcdm.com
The Crow Bar and Kitchen
The Name: Touted as Orange County’s first gastropub, The Crow Bar and Kitchen in Corona del Mar fuses gourmet cuisine with a pub-like atmosphere. The name pays homage to other gastropubs, such as the originator of the trend, The Eagle in London. Playing on the bird theme, owner Steve Geary reportedly named the eatery after the large, black crows that frequent the area.
The Dish: Grilled cheese. At first glance a grilled cheese sandwich sounds blasé. But when you hear that executive chef Grant Lawson changes the fillings each day to include such meaty additions such as short ribs with pickled onions or pulled pork, then this sandwich instantly becomes a bit more exciting.
The Drink: Pliny the Elder beer brewed by Russian River Brewing Company, is a Double India Pale Ale, with citrus and hoppy notes. The beer is a great double IPA,” says Gary McClain, Crow Bar’s general manager. “It’s an exclusive, elite beer that’s hard to find. We have it on tap all year.” It goes well with The Crow Bar and Kitchen’s signature burger made with ground prime rib and topped with unctuous bone marrow butter, but since it’s light and easy to drink, the beer also pairs well with the blistered Brussels sprouts.
The Surprise: The Crow Bar kitchen celebrates seasonal ingredients and supports local farmers. Another surprise is that the restaurant also implemented strict environmentally sustainable practices such as refusing to serve bottled water or use polystyrene. :: thecrowbarcdm.com