David Wilhelm is unquestionably Orange County’s most prodigious restaurant operator. Over the past decades, he has created dozens of influential restaurants. After handing off his latest, Jimmy’s Famous American Tavern, he was free to pounce on a killer bayside opportunity, where Tavern House Kitchen + Bar sprang to life in Newport Beach.
Teaming with Gregg Solomon, he swiftly spiffed up 3-Thirty-3, hatching Tavern House in July. Same great view with refreshed digs.
Tavern House menus read like a playlist of Wilhelm’s historic hits with dishes inspired by popular items from prior ventures. No matter, as delicious has no expiration date. I’m told the buttermilk fried chicken is a top seller, and some might recall its predecessor from Sorrento Grille. The bold, deeply satisfying French 75 onion soup recalls the glory of Wilhelm’s Parisian period that also included the evocative Chat Noir. Loaded with flavors and textures, Santa Fe Caesar salad hearkens back to Kachina, but it’s updated with protein add-ons that include ahi poke, a boost unknown here in 1990. Bananarama, a built-for-two-linebackers dessert, is a direct lift from the early Jimmy’s. Is the hearty beef stroganoff a vestige of Diva, Savannah Chop House, or Bistro 201? I feel a good trivia game for longtime O.C. diners coming on.
I call out these items not only because they’re related to bygone venues but because they’re relevant, worthwhile renditions that satisfy today. In keeping with the spirit of renewal, I’ll focus on the menu’s newcomers. There are plenty. Start with the barbecue chipotle bourbon oysters, a broiled recipe built for raw-oyster avoiders. High heat quickly transforms the briny mollusk into a firmer snack with a muted saltwater aroma. They arrive bubbling hot, ready to fork, not slurp. An infusion of chipotle-garlic compound butter melds with pecan wood-smoked bacon morsels, poaching each oyster in pungent land-based flavors. Meanwhile, raw-oyster gulpers can stick with glistening bivalves chilled on ice.
Coconut shrimp aren’t ingenious but they’re exactly what you want from the crunchy commas, goosed with jammy sharp mustard sauce. Sirloin meatballs stacked in a cast-iron skillet are softly textured and glazed with feisty “wing sauce” offset with a puddle of honey ranch. I see truffle fries all about, but won’t endorse stinky truffle oil, not when there are fresh, warm potato chips to be had. I didn’t know Wilhelm spoke Buddha bowl, but he does here quite fluently with seasoned basmati rice beneath a mix of the day’s fresh vegetables, nuggets of Laura Chenel goat cheese, heirloom tomatoes, and, of course, the compulsory avocado. It’s plentiful, and the usual cast of upgrades is optional.
Though fish and chips, grilled glazed salmon, or the day’s fresh catch are reliable, none bests red snapper Veracruzana’s vibrant flavor ballet. A savory pan sauce of petite tomatoes, Castelvetrano olives, garlic, and capers provides a complex match for the mildly sweet snapper. I’m thrilled to report that pork schnitzel, once an Oktoberfest special, is now a steady dinner player. The pounded tenderloin with a crispy crust partners impeccably with mashers and braised cabbage studded with bacon, apples, and a light caper sauce.
Burgers, sandwiches, and sliders appear on various menus. The prime rib dip piled with Gruyère and fried onions served alongside jus and creamy horseradish is particularly lavish, but sliders appeal, too. Burgers abound. There’s even an Impossible burger for those who swim in that lane. What proved to be impossible was eating the massive Nashville hot fried chicken sandwich without it deconstructing in my hands, rendering it a knife-and-fork affair. Next time, I’ll fix that by ordering the slider version.
Happy hour here is a testament to the extreme turnaround of clientele at this address. What was once a group of tipsy clowns is now a reunion of locals happy to have a nifty option. Look for discounts on selected appetizers and libations Monday through Friday, just in time for sunset over the bay. Arrive by boat? There’s a dock just a short walk away. If you can order two hours ahead, check out the boat party menu for shareable portions you can pick up dockside and enjoy while cruising the bay.
Weekend brunch is a compelling enterprise, boasting dishes only seen on Saturday and Sunday. Think outrageous bloodies, loaded tots, and avocado toast Benedicts. Buttermilk fried chicken, malted waffles, and bacon win the brunch popularity contest. But you knew that.
We can only guess why Wilhelm isn’t dripping in accolades. He’s not one to haunt red carpets, though he is an icon. Lucky for us, restaurants are his jam. Lucky for Newport Beach, Tavern House brings him back to town.
333 Bayside Drive
5 BEST DISHES
Barebecue chipotle bourbon oysters
Red snapper Veracruzana
Buttermilk fried chicken
Starters, $4 to $22
Entrees, $12 to $44
Brunch, $2 to $23
Live music Sunday and Thursday