Expert Tips


Explore Orange County's Best Restaurants One Bite at a Time

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.  



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.

Recommended for Best Restaurants because: No other restaurant in Orange County has the same location on the sand like The Beachcomber Cafe.

Local Expert tip: The restaurant is extremely busy on weekends with two to three hour wait times; consider dining during the week for a more relaxing experience.

Read more about Beachcomber Cafe - 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.

Recommended for Best Restaurants because: It's reasonably priced, authentic Mexican in an upscale location with great views and people watching.

Local Expert tip: The portions are large and easily enough for two people or two meals.

Read more about Javier's Crystal Cove →

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.

Recommended for Best Restaurants because: Sapphire Laguna combines cozy cottage with good food and ocean views; it's a comfortable restaurant for lunch or dinner.

Local Expert tip: On a nice day, the patio is the place to be. There's some traffic noise from the highway but the view is worth it.

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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.

Recommended for Best Restaurants because: Gabbi's proves that there really is gourmet Mexican food. Try the ceviche for something different.

Local Expert tip: There are so many creative dishes eat tapas-style so you can try a few things.

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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.

Recommended for Best Restaurants because: Studio is a special occasion restaurant with impeccable service and the freshest ingredients.

Local Expert tip: Take time to stroll the Montage Laguna Beach grounds which are especially beautiful at sunset.

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San Clemente
9 Style Sushi
Photo courtesy of Kristi Marcelle

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.

Recommended for Best Restaurants because: 9 Style Sushi consistently has fresh fish and attentive service. Both hard core sushi lovers and people that only like rolls are regulars.

Local Expert tip: Try one of the interesting sushi roll combinations listed on the wall.

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Costa Mesa

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.

Recommended for Best Restaurants because: The food is consistently fresh and tasty and the prix fixe dinner themes are unique and fun to try especially when paired with wine.

Local Expert tip: For the full experience, try a prix fixe meal with wine pairing.

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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.

Recommended for Best Restaurants because: Marché Moderne is an authentic taste of France in the OC.

Local Expert tip: The prix fixe lunch menu is a great value and ends with something sweet.

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Meet 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...  More About Kristi