Field Notes Passholders, this one’s for you. Or if the $92 park admission rankles, raid your contact list for a “cast member” who can get you a pass.
Wineworks for Everyone
26342 Oso Parkway, Mission Viejo, 949‑582‑0026, wineworksforeveryone.com
Next door to Dublin 4, the classy gastropub that made last year’s list, this dinner-only sibling shares the talents of executive chef David Shofner, though its wine-friendly menu and polished surroundings are distinctly different. Seasonal dishes that spotlight premium goods flatter the astute wine roster, abetted by Shofner’s meticulous creations. The menu is compact, and its gems range from a dazzling crudo, to rich duck breast over fluffy quinoa studded with currants, to a gorgeous cheese platter. And if you hanker for an excellent Irish coffee after dinner, Dublin 4 will happily send one over. Diligent owners Darren and Jean Coyle graciously welcome diners and conduct the evening’s flow. Despite its bantam dimensions, the sleek 50-seat room somehow contains private corners and communal areas. Even on nights when live music plays, diners can converse without bellowing. How novel.
Field Notes Avoid disappointment by making reservations for this pocket bistro, especially Thursday through Saturday nights.
210 W. Birch St., Brea, 714‑257‑1000, brunosbrea.com
North County has its share of red sauce-and-pizza joints, but Brunos in Brea’s Birch Street Promenade stands out for fare that’s varied and authentic. No pizza here, only classic comfort dishes from executive chef-partner Peter Serantoni’s childhood in Venice, Italy, as executed by Christian De La Vara, his skillful chef de cuisine. Expect soulful eats such as creamy arancini with nuggets of sweet ham, skin-on branzino with lemon and capers, and a don’t-miss house-made pappardelle with wine-braised short ribs and mushrooms. The narrow, brick-walled venue is modern, aglow with warm lighting, and a 16-stool bar does a steady trade in first-rate cocktails with strong Italian accents. Good deals on happy-hour eats keep the bar busy from the moment this dinner-only spot opens each evening. Brunos aims for humble pleasures, but delivers laudable Italian cooking, a great beverage program, fair prices, and caring hospitality. It’s the complete package. Let’s call it a gift.
Field Notes Sunday suppers are a three‑course pasta feast for $23.50; kids, $10. It’s an irresistible way to obey every nonna’s plea to “Mangia! Mangia!”
3321 Hyland Ave., Costa Mesa, 949‑500‑5561, arcrestaurant.com
Rustic serveware, a fascination with fire, aromatic stacked logs, and devotion to hand-crafting set a decidedly artisanal tone at Arc. Its boldly singular focus on wood-fired eats makes this restaurant a pioneer, even in the trendy nexus of Costa Mesa’s South Coast Collection. Chef-owner Noah Blom calls his glass-wrapped atelier a “new American roast house.” Almost all of the from-scratch dishes use the almond-wood-fueled oven that works 24 hours a day, reaches 2,000 degrees during peak output, and yields coals that slow-cook select items overnight. The house-butchered steaks, behemoth burger, and colossal wedge salad already are stars, but it’s Arc’s barkeep Koire Rogers who adds energy to the somewhat static food menu. His straightforward drinks with hand-chiseled ice are meticulous concoctions of elite American spirits, European liqueurs, and house-made bitters that change with anticipated regularity.
Field Notes Limited reservations accepted. Skip the wait by dining late, early, or Monday through Wednesday evenings.
3010 Lafayette Road, Newport Beach, 949‑566‑0060, cannerynewport.com
Jumping in as top chef at a cherished dining landmark is not for lightweights, but Nick Weber navigates this kitchen with style to spare. His skill at weaving his nuanced fare through a menu of legacy dishes is beguiling—to die‑hard regulars and curious newcomers alike. Choose his carpaccio of scallops with crunchy peanuts and cool cucumber sorbet, or his daily catch brochette with basil risotto and blood orange vinaigrette, and the waterfront venue feels newly urbane. Or, go nostalgic with crab legs, and wallow in the throwback thrill of indulging in this 92-year-old space. But there’s no call for a retro dessert after you’ve tried the delightful Balboa Sundae 2.0 with pistachio crumble, Ovaltine fudge, and brandy-soaked cherry sauce. Weber proves that being sexy and luscious in your 90s requires no plastic surgery.
Field Notes Upstairs at the Jellyfish Lounge, happy hour endures as a top spot for sushi, and painless prices on drinks and appetizers, 4 to 6:30 p.m. daily.
217 Broadway, Laguna Beach, 949‑715‑7829; 31441 Santa Margarita Parkway, Rancho Santa Margarita, 949‑709‑7600, carmelitaskitchen.com
Just steps from crazy Coast Highway in the heart of Laguna Beach, Carmelita’s Kitchen de Mexico stays packed with locals—diners with plenty of nearby options that include Javier’s, Asada Laguna, and Avila’s El Ranchito. Carmelita’s eats are pure Cal-Mex creations, through the prism of second-generation Californian and third-generation restaurateur Clemente Heredia. Meals reveal a yen for quality, from dazzling fresh juice-agave margaritas, to the pairing of robust skirt steak with an enchilada in lively red sauce, to carnitas of Snake River Farms Prime Kurobuta pork. Plus, chef Jose Colin enhances plates with attractive presentations that don’t feel formulaic. Add stylish surroundings and service that’s both snappy and warm, and you leave here feeling sated and appreciated.
Field Notes Inland fans get their dose of Carmelita’s on the ersatz lake in Rancho Santa Margarita, but Laguna is our preference for its intimate, coastal vibe. Just sayin’.
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Photograph by Priscilla Iezzi
This article originally appeared in the April 2014 issue.