Age is just a number at Newport Harbor’s venerable Balboa Bay Resort, more evidence that O.C.’s ever-changing dining landscape is deep in renewal mode. Last spring, a lavish rejuvenation erased the courtly First Cabin dining room and legendary Duke’s lounge, and replaced them with the serene Waterline for fine dining and the unfussy A&O Kitchen + Bar for the gastropub set. New are executive chef Vincent Lesage and chef de cuisine Rachel Haggstrom.
Though many diners still assume this 66-year-old waterfront club is for members only, the restaurant and bar always have been open to the public, as are hotel accommodations. There is a private Members Grill, also renovated, but we’ve never laid our commoner eyes on it. So here’s our take on the two retooled spots where everyone is welcome.
Waterline, pricey as it is, earns the higher rating. The spacious room boasts cushy new seating and tasteful decor with subtle nautical nods. Weekend diners are offered first-rate live music: piano and stand-up bass on my visits. The glorious view of imposing yachts, with sliver peeks of the sparkling bay, is most impressive by day, and sets the scene for tranquil lunching on salads and sandwiches, washed down with worthy bloody marys.
Crows Pass Farm Kale Salad with red grapes, creamy garlic dressing, and crunchy grissini has tasty elements, but the accompanying swordfish is overcooked. Better to order the familiar but well-composed hanger steak salad with Point Reyes blue cheese. Crab cake sliders on lemon-thyme brioche buns get tasty oomph from bits of crisp chorizo and rich remoulade. Fried chicken breast earns sandwich points for juicy meat with a crunchy crust, stacked with bright slaw on a buttermilk roll. Desserts here outshine those served next door at A&O (short for Anchors and Oceans), so plan your sweet splurging here. Frozen Chocolate Banana is a misleading name for flavor-dense banana semifreddo adorned with salted caramel and candied nuts. PBJ is a fun take on the childhood classic; this time, it’s fluffy peanut butter cheesecake with concord grape sorbet.
Dinner is a genteel affair, but not at all stuffy. As we settle in at our roomy table, the hefty folders we’re given open up to reveal backlit menus. The magic of LED technology makes reading the two-page carte effortless. Color me impressed, but now I have questions. Our server is definitely up to the task; she’s warm, patient, and menu-savvy.
Seafood rules this menu. We start with cured salmon with flaxseed crisps and dilled creme fraiche, as well as the local yellowtail sashimi. The usual accompaniments overwhelm the ragged, thin cuts of fish. It’s hardly big news that the seared scallops are popular, but we go for coho salmon with a crab crust over sauteed sea beans with—1990s alert—shellfish foam. It’s flavorful and carefully executed. Local halibut, the night’s special, is seared golden and gets a vibrant swoosh of caper-tomato relish. Fish should be cooked perfectly at this price, and it is. Also expertly prepared, the 12-ounce New York from Brandt Farm, marred only by the perplexing stretch of burrata over the entire steak. The cheese is sumptuous, but has no place on a steak. I push it off and eat it with the plate’s chunky vegetable ragout.
It’s hardly surprising that Waterline appeals to the mature upper crust. This is old-school dining with agreeably conceived dishes and gracious hospitality. It also could work for a spendy, romantic date night. Couples under 40 prefer next door at A&O, and I wish I knew why.
Energetic recorded music infuses the 180-seat A&O with an imitation of life, while only pockets of partiers, the occasional family, and random couples generate vitality. Even this activity gets lost in a floor plan that spreads customers thinly throughout a 20-stool bar, 32-table dining area, and deep patio with two fire trough tables at water’s edge. Some weekends, local music acts draw fans, creating a welcome spark of spirit and interaction.
Handsome new furnishings, surfaces, and bold lighting fixtures lend the sunny room a slickness that feels more aloof than inviting. Paper menus that double as place mats soon become waterlogged, requiring diners to peel back the drippy sheet to order. Good luck trying to read through the mess. And what’s with the table’s two salt cellars—one smoked, one not—but no pepper? After my inexplicably weak salty dog cocktail arrives with an unsalted rim, the disconnects continue.
Though the menu classifies all 25-plus items as “social + unique” share plates, some don’t qualify: a respectable Kobe burger, gussied-up hot dogs, Prime rib-eye over mashers, and the pedestrian grilled chicken sandwich. Sharing makes more sense with the commonplace pub grub: shishito peppers, battered fries, bacon-wrapped dates, and beef tartare.
Focusing on items with a fresh, maverick edge yields mixed results. Cheese Balls are lightly breaded, deep-fried orbs of gooey American cheese in a paper cone held by a wooden block. When I ask if the block’s hollow niche should contain the billed “pickle bites,” the answer is no. The minced pickles are mixed into the molten cheese. Pork Belly Steamed Buns are too much bun to showcase the pork and its kimchee slaw. Popcorn & Pig is a bar snack with caramel corn, bacon, and peanuts, simple enough to try at home.
Ham & Egg Savory Cake, a golden muffin hiding a poached egg, with bacon mayo for punch, is one of the better items. Pork ribs do fall off the bone, and the barbecue sauce spiked with bourbon is good, but I find it odd that the ribs are basted only on one side. Desserts are parfaits in mini Mason jars, such as Key lime, or salted caramel with stale pretzel crumbles, but they’re too dreary and oversweet to satisfy.
In fairness, I dined only after Labor Day. Perhaps rhythms are different during high season. But as of now, I recommend saving Waterline for finer dining, perhaps when you’re being treated, and head to A&O for sunset drinks around the fire pit.