Explore Orange County's Best Restaurants One Bite at a Time
By Kristi Marcelle
Orange County Local Expert
The restaurant scene in Orange County is an eclectic mix of small local restaurants beloved by surfers, casual dining with a view and upscale fine dining at area resorts. Many offer nightly happy hour specials and entertainment on weekends. The culinary scene continues to evolve as more restaurants source local produce and ingredients for their seasonal menus.
One thing you should not miss is a meal with a view. There are many restaurants with ocean and harbor views where you’ll often see a sea lion lazily swimming around or a pod of dolphins gliding by. In the Dana Point Harbor diners have front row seats for the show between the sea birds and the fisherman. At the Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel floor to ceiling windows and an outdoor patio take in the sunset over Catalina Island. Or try one of the restaurants on the local piers for a close up look at the surfers and marine life.
And only in Orange County at South Coast Plaza does the dining scene rival the shopping scene. Seasonal ingredients at Seasons 52, date night worthy dinners at Marché Moderne and a monthly fashion show at Anqi are just a few of the dining highlights at the mega upscale shopping center.
10 Beachcomber Cafe - Crystal Cove
The Beachcomber Cafe has a coveted location on the sand in Crystal Cove State on the Newport Coast. There is not a more beautiful spot for a sunset dinner and reservations are made far in advance for that hour. With the sound of the waves crashing in the background, they serve traditional breakfast, lunch and dinner with an emphasis on seafood. Interesting cocktails and vacation drinks round out the menu. If you find yourself waiting for a table check out the fabulous tidepools nearby or take a walk on the beach. (9493766900)
9 Javier's Crystal Cove
Javier's is Mexican food for everyone; kids, adults, couples and singles mingle at the restaurant. It's a Newport Coast hot spot and a place to be seen but it's the authentic Mexican decor and food that keep the masses coming back. It's a terrific place to wind down after a tough day at the office, at the theme park, or at the mall. Watch the sun set over the horizon while you sample the house's famous crab enchiladas, mole poblano, mole verde and specialty margaritas. The social scene and people watching don't get much better than at Javier's especially on Sunday afternoons. (949-494-1239)
8 Sapphire Laguna
Set in a charming, wood-clad cottage, this much-favored restaurant enjoys a creative bent in both food and decor. Inside, local art and pottery, handmade light fixtures, reclaimed wood flooring, and other decorative accents illustrate the tendency, while on the menu, the international theme include selections like Hawaiian Style Steamed Mahi-Mahi, Lebanese Lamb Sirloin and sauteed Barramundi. Great service and a patio with a firepit and ocean views only increase the allure. The Sapphire Pantry next door has an extensive collection of cheeses and gourmet foods. (949-715-9888)
7 Gabbi's Mexican Kitchen
A far cry from the standard Mexican eateries that pepper every city, Gabbi's delivers personalized service and fantastic, well-considered dishes that have the place packed daily. Amid moody lighting, aged brick and beams, and large canvases, diners tuck into fresh guacamole, lobster claw and crab crepes, grilled chicken, fresh fish of the day, and tacos built around everything from pork to steak to mushrooms. Regulars also rave about the margaritas, and dozens of tequilas are also on offer. First-timers: Be aware that the restaurant is not marked by an exterior sign. (714-633-3038)
6 Stonehill Tavern
Tucked away in the St. Regis Monarch beach, glamorous, sophisticated Stonehill Tavern is a far cry from the earthy tavern premise its name asserts. Rather, the Michael Mina enterprise revels in perfectly prepared New American fare, a menu of delicacies which its gorgeous clientele can't seem to deny themselves. Among the treats you'll uncover are miso glazed black cod, wild Chinook salmon and Kurobuta pork short ribs. House-made desserts are decadent creations with a simple root beer float elevated to fine dining. Seasonal tasting menus are innovative and push diners to try new combinations. The wine list is long and the servers are knowledgeable and eager to help you choose the right wine. (949-234-3318)
A lovely, light-filled interior boasts accents of wood and stone within its Craftsman-inspired space and invites diners to enjoy window-scooping views of the ocean as they dine on revered French-Californian cuisine. The kitchen, led by chef Craig Strong, confidently turns out dishes like sauteed New Zealand John Dory, roasted veal ribeye and tea smoked salmon. The more adventurous can experience the six-course Chef's Table seasonal tasting menu. In true farm-to-table style, organic produce from the restaurant's gardens are used in many dishes. An astounding wine selection adds to the pricey-but-worth-it experience. (949-715-6420, 949-715-6000)
4 9 Style Sushi
Unless you are specifically looking for 9 Style Sushi you won't find it. It's tucked away on a side street near downtown San Clemente in a nondescript shopping center with a convenience store on one side and a Mexican restaurant on the other. Step inside and you've arrived in what many locals believe is sushi nirvana. Recently renovated the tiny restaurant seats 12 at the sushi bar and 24 at the tables. The fish is melt-in-your-mouth fresh and regulars rave about the Garlic 9 roll with albacore, red onions and a drizzle of garlic sauce and the tempura crab nugget which is a Japanese mushroom stuffed with crab and wrapped in Japanese greens. Sashimi fans like the chef's choice plate but be prepared to wait. The service is attentive, families are welcome and reservations are recommended on the weekends. (949-366-3669)
3 Three Seventy Common
There is nothing common about Three Seventy Common. It's an eclectic mix of small plates, big plates and everything in between. The restaurant has a beguiling personality and each visit is a new experience; themed dining nights like Sunday Social bring back memories of Sunday dinner at Grandma's house and the Chupacabra drink is what you wished tequila had tasted like in college. This is a good spot to go with a group and share plates. It's an energetic restaurant that also welcomes kids with one of the healthiest kids menus around served on a silver tray reminiscent of a school lunch tray. (949-494-8686)
2 Old Vine Cafe
Located in The Camp, a hipster anti-mall in Costa Mesa, Old Vine Cafe is a cozy cafe that serves fresh, seasonal food in a casual ambiance. The quality of the ingredients shines through in traditional and inventive dishes which is why there is always a line of people waiting to be seated. The restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and dinner and is espeically well known for its prix fixe dinners with wine pairings. Diners always have the option to order a la carte but the course meals are an experience. They request no young children at dinner and there are no accommodations for children's meals at breakfast or lunch; make it a date instead. ((714) 545-1411)
1 Marché Moderne
A gathering place for local power brokers and celebrating couples, this husband-and-wife-owned restaurant benefits from personalized attention and Florent and Amelia Marneau's love of food. The classy space, including a seductive patio, hews to the details, as does the kitchen's flawless cooking. Expect traditional favorites like moules frites, savory tartes, charcuterie plates, and rabbit braised in red wine. Expect, too, to see short ribs, scallops, and lamb, all sumptuously presented. And to top it all off, rich, delicious desserts are a specialty of pastry chef and wife, Amelia. (714-434-7900)
About Kristi Marcelle
Originally from Wisconsin, Kristi Marcelle found her passion for travel after studying and volunteering in Quito, Ecuador for two years. She’s lived in Southern California for over ten years and is continually impressed by the natural beauty and the endless travel opportunities. Orange County’s eclectic mix of beach towns and surfers, cowboys and artists and missions and mansions keeps life in the OC interesting. Kristi’s work has been published on CBS Los Angeles, Huffington Post, FoxNews, MiniTime, Yahoo! Travel and Ciao Bambino.
Read more about Kristi Marcelle here.