We all know location is important for a restaurant’s success. But what happens when a decent location is crippled by protracted freeway construction that blocks easy access? In the case of Public 74, the San Juan Capistrano gastropub that opened in 2014, it prevented a review until the completed widening of Ortega Highway’s bridge over the 5 Freeway. Now that getting to the restaurant is a relative breeze, a visit is worth the trip, especially if you’re up for craft brews, booze, and decidedly eclectic eats in a relaxed setting.
The second of a trio of Public taverns, this is the only O.C. outpost of a nano-chain that extends beyond the Riverside County line to Temecula and Murrieta. Despite Public 74’s Inland Empire connection, executive chef and partner Gerry Kent served years-ago stints in the O.C. kitchens of Antonello and the defunct Sorrento Grille before launching his Public shops.
The all-day menu is a single-page lineup of gloriously caloric fare just right for soaking up all the beer, wine, and cocktail offerings. Drippy, two-handed sandwiches, cheesy risotto, fries loaded several ways, and meatloaf made with pork belly are comfort food made modern with imaginative twists and gutsy flavors. Just when Kent’s tightly edited selection starts to feel too limited, he reworks options to reflect the next season. That Angus New York steak sauced with wild mushrooms in red wine reduction you loved in March? It’s the same tender, natural beef, but now it’s crowned with a trembling poached egg and garnished with funky, intense house-made kimchi. So long savory-sweet butternut squash gnocchi, hello fresh corn risotto with smoky poblanos and pecorino Romano.
Alas, the menu requires time because the all-caps typography is tough to read and the cocktail titles are too pun-laden to recall. It’s far easier to just tell the waiter you’ll have “the mescal drink” than to remember it’s called Drunk in Public, which is listed between Public Preacher and Public Humiliation. This is where the patient, cheerful servers come through with solid knowledge not only about cocktails, but dishes, specials, and even esoteric brews.
These beers mandate a mighty burger, and Kent reinvents the 10-ounce monsters every season by switching out toppings and buns, but never the specific American Kobe beef patty, grilled with a precise touch. Last season’s version topped with smoked pork belly, leeks, and cheddar got a brioche bun, but its summer replacement gets caramelized onions, jalapeno Dijon, and a pretzel bun. If a mega-burger sounds intimidating, consider the spectacular Smokin’ Reuben with hickory-roasted corn beef piled on grilled rye stacked with tangy kraut, Emmentaler cheese, and the house’s secret “2K dressing.” This is a contender for O.C.’s best Reuben. A heap of fresh, skin-on fries nudges it over the top.
Appetizers are an odd lot, mostly resembling veggie sides. Smoked and sizzled wings are one sharable finger food but are best when ordered with the spice rub that fuses the mellow smoke with a flush of sweet heat. Roasted then grilled cauliflower drizzled with punchy chimichurri sauce is tasty, but again, more of a side.
The menu boasts four salads so new they missed our tasting cutoff, but if I were dining there now, I’d order the spinach salad with raspberries, cashews, and citrus-pink peppercorn vinaigrette because it’s more alluring than last season’s kale-heavy choices.
Kids menus don’t usually get coverage in this space, but I can’t resist calling out this one. Yes, there’s a grilled-cheese sandwich, but never have I seen a New York steak for youngsters. Yet there it is, for $7 with fries and a beverage. Kent says he added it after so many requests from his own son. The next time I’m out with a steak fiend under 12, I’ll know where to go.
I don’t expect to see children at a gastropub, but there are a few here with brew-drinking adults. Public 74 radiates a welcoming, inclusive vibe with its faux-ramshackle chic, second-story setting. In a single night you’ll find a raucous group celebrating after work, teens sharing a booth with their parents, and a cozy date-night couple working their way through dinner, with wine brought along in a designer carrier.
The restaurant will be 2 years old in the fall. And now that construction is over, the way is clear for a new audience to discover this unique suburban roadhouse at the edge of the county.
27211 Ortega Highway
San Juan Capistrano