Diners haven’t seen such fresh action since the lusty ’90s, making this the perfect time to choose the year’s top 10 from our amazing list of new restaurants.
Fresh fish, new brews, and lots of Italian headline, with the new model for success: uncomplicated settings, rockin’ cocktails, and value-heavy deals. After we distilled our 10 faves, ranked here by preference, Taco Asylum, Chapter One, and Rock’n Fish opened.
Squint into the distance, and you’ll see still another wave headed our way.
Restaurant of the Year
While gastropubs remain a hot concept, and new players arrive like so many draft pulls, none beats SideDoor’s comfort, quality, novelty, and, well, class.
Admittedly, it had a head start—superior breeding, the Brits might say. Created by the veteran team behind Lawry’s (Tam O’Shanter, Lawry’s Prime Rib, Five Crowns, and, of course, those commercial shakers of Seasoned Salt), SideDoor is literally carved anew from some of the private dining rooms in Corona del Mar’s veteran Five Crowns.
Making the new space feel authentic, the Hatch Design Group maneuvered a masterful makeover using vintage beam ceilings, overstuffed chairs, cozy booths, and crackling fireplaces. And like top-notch cosmetic surgery, you can’t see the seams—two discreetly placed flat screens are the only evidence of retooling in this most inviting of spaces. Engaging hospitality helps. From the bartender’s hearty greeting as you cross the Poppy Street threshold, to your server’s polished grasp of the ever-changing menu, the staff radiates care and pride. SideDoor’s solid popularity is sure to buttress the unprecedented temporary closure of Five Crowns as it completes its own remodel this month.
Printed daily, the brown paper menu is packed with clever takes on classic pub grub such as French onion Gruyère panini, chicken potpie, prime rib chili, and beef-fat fries with aioli. A charcuterie chef mans the station where the week’s cheeses and cured meats are sliced to order. Exciting beers and interesting wines sell by the taste, glass, or bottle. And spirits are top-tier only.
Diligence and devotion to quality may be timeworn tactics, but SideDoor wields them like magic, transforming the past into something fresh and a leap ahead of the competition.
3801 E. Coast Highway, Corona del Mar, 949-717-4322, sidedoorcdm.com
Alessandro Pirozzi does it again with his newest trattoria, this one in the heart of Laguna Beach. Like his cucinas in Newport and Huntington Beach, this third Alessá buzzes with good cheer because the narrow space is perpetually packed with happy diners tucking into terrific Italian fare. The big news is the ingenious addition of a mozzarella bar, a special menu of fresh melt-in-your-mouth cheeses complemented by sumptuous artisan salumi, hand-sliced to order. Specialty fresh pastas with lovely fillings (burrata and artichokes) can make ordering difficult. Speedy, jocular waiters keep things under control, though you may have to shout your requests on busy nights, which is almost always. Not surprisingly, this already is one of Laguna’s toughest tables.
Inside Tip Whole-wheat or gluten-free pasta on request for many dishes.
234 Forest Ave., Laguna Beach, 949-497-8222, cucinaalessa.com
In a zone where chain squatters such as Don José and Macaroni Grill claim the best real estate, Canyon is a rose among the palms in Anaheim Hills. Almost a year old, this winning restaurant is chef-partner Rich Mead’s latest take on the modern neighborhood tavern. Like Sage, his Newport Beach flagship, Canyon is chef-driven and mindful of the seasons. Now, on the cusp of spring, Mead uses thyme, lemongrass, mint, and citrus harvested from the garden out back. The mostly American menu offers creative detours and wonderful flexibility—small plates, tasting menus, and variable portion sizes that allow such choices as a juicy burger, a robust lamb rack, a killer beet salad, or a rich mini-’smore—all at one table if your gang is so inclined. Sure, the shopping center site is slightly secluded, but it’s worth it for the best food in 92807.
Inside Tip The bar stocks a premium well; cocktails are five bucks at happy hour 3 to 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday.
5775 E. Santa Ana Canyon, Anaheim Hills, 714-283-1062, canyonrestaurantoc.com
After some less-than-graceful attempts to rejigger its fine-dining venue, the Ritz-Carlton resort made the savvy move of falling in with Richard Sandoval, one of the hottest restaurant operators at elite properties worldwide. His pan-Latin magic brings fresh ideas and exotic flavors to the menu, and a new relaxed ease to the Pacific bluff-top room. Executive chef Greg Howe shifted to our coast from the Sarasota Ritz-Carlton to captain the kitchen while seamlessly promoting sustainable seafood within the Sandoval model. Dazzling ocean vistas and pampering service maintain the luxurious posture, but now it’s a kick to sidestep the white-glove trappings and dig into exuberant fare such as lamb rack with molé verde and salsify braised in kimchi butter, or, giant scallops with char siu (barbecued) pork belly and sushi rice.
Inside Tip Howe offers a nightly chef’s tasting menu of four courses, served family style for parties of two or more, $75 per person.
1 Ritz-Carlton Drive, Dana Point, 949-240-2000, ritzcarlton.com
5. Il Barone Ristorante
Yearling Il Barone is a warm, welcoming hug from Italy just a mere stroll from the runways of John Wayne Airport. Franco and Donatella Barone cook from their roots in the same oddball site that once housed the former Pleasant Peasant. It looks and feels more chic now, but hardly stuffy with the titian-haired Donatella dashing about, chirping “ciao” and “buona sera” in transit. Chef Franco is hitting his stride with dishes we rarely, if ever, tasted during his long run at South Coast Plaza Village’s renowned Antonello. Start with a lemony salad of grilled octopus and celery, follow with housemade pasta shells with imported guanciale (cured pork cheek) in a gutsy peperoncino sauce. Wrap up with a limoncello-infused tiramisu, and when your check arrives, you’ll be impressed yet again—by how such a charming meal can be so reasonably priced.
Inside Tip Chef Franco is perfecting gluten-free pasta and pizza recipes he hopes to launch in early summer.
4251 Martingale Way, Newport Beach, 949-955-2755, ilbaronerestaurant.com
6. True Food Kitchen
Mother’s Market cafés, Veggie Grill, and Native Foods blazed O.C.’s healthful eating trail, but leave it to the big dogs—Fox Restaurant Concepts in this case—to come up with a slick, fully realized holistic food hall in the massive shell of a failed Fashion Island seafooder. Casual, friendly, and just trendy enough, this clever canteen wouldn’t be so busy if the fare weren’t consistently above average. That’s quite a feat considering the checklist “true food” entails: local, organic, sustainable, unrefined, plant-heavy, dairy-light, low-sugar, high-fiber. So along with your bloody good bloody mary and Greek frittata of feta and oregano, you get a free serving of dietary absolution. Need extra self-forgiveness? Try the gluten-free, flourless chocolate cake.
Inside Tip Healthy-living maven Dr. Andrew Weil created the anti-inflammatory food pyramid that inspires the menu here. Ask, and they’ll give you a copy.
451 Newport Center Drive, Newport Beach, 949-644-2400, truefoodkitchen.com
7. Nick’s San Clemente
Southernmost O.C. waited far too long for a trusty geared-for-grownups bar and grill, and this dapper newcomer, a sibling of Nick’s Laguna Beach, quite nicely fills that niche. The NickCo Hospitality Group, an industry vet, transformed a defunct carpet store on quaint Del Mar into an enticing space that’s softly lit and comfortably appointed. Fare from the well-edited, all-day menu of new American classics covers a lot of sweet spots: tempura-fried deviled eggs, short-rib sliders dripping with horseradish cream, blackened halibut sandwich with Thai peanut slaw, buttermilk fried chicken with roasted corn and mashers. Most entrées are well under $20, which may explain the absence of happy hour discounts. Sip a proper cocktail at the roomy bar or dine on the sidewalk patio near the blazing fireplace. Staffers show polish rarely seen in this laid-back beach burg. Sociable servers tempt you to return.
Inside Tip Breakfast is served Saturdays and Sundays from 7:30 to 11:30 a.m.
213 Avenida del Mar, San Clemente, 949-481-2200, thenickco.com
8. House of Big Fish & Ice Cold Beer
Utterly casual and imminently affordable, this Coast Highway fish house feels like a loft party with great catering. Scads of flat screens for game-watching in the bar, and blue-water views from the patio create a laid-back, Laguna-style setting. And the upbeat vibe never ebbs for the hungry—and thirsty—locals who keep this on their short list of beachy hangs. The big surprise is how such a huge menu can have so few missteps. Ceviche to sandwiches to pasta to fresh catches are mostly tasty and consistently fresh. Even the burgers are right-on. And yes, those brews really are chilled to the frosty max. Midday to late night, this 128-seat skybox is packed with fans of fin fare priced right. It’s a sleeper find for brunch, too, providing a big game isn’t on.
Inside Tip Happy hour is now four hours: 2:30 to 6:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, with deep discounts on hot appetizers that change hourly. Example: that crispy shrimp slider with Cajun slaw is $2.30 at 2:30, but $5.30 during the final hour. Plus, beers are $1 off, and well drinks are only $5.
540 S. Coast Highway, Laguna Beach, 949-715-4500, houseofbigfish.com
9. Fish Camp
Cheerful, cheap, and proud of it, this confident newbie is the spawn of Sam King, the impresario behind a dozen King’s Fish House restaurants and the legendary Water Grill in downtown L.A. This crew knows how to procure, cook, and sell fresh fish. As the name implies, the PCH veranda is as unfussy as the cardboard shaker of sea salt on every table. Order at the counter and take a seat at long tables or huge booths inside, or on the patio. More than a dozen daily catches are deftly cooked to your preference: grilled, blackened, crusted, or sizzled in cast iron, campfire style. The no-frills menu includes squeaky fresh oysters, chewy sourdough bread by the half loaf, sweet and creamy clam chowder, fried catfish, and Maine lobster plucked from the tank.
Inside Tip A retail counter sells superfresh, sustainably caught fish to fry at home.
16600 Pacific Coast Highway, Huntington Beach, 562-592-2267, samsfishcamp.com
There’s something primal and seductive about the scent of wood smoke escaping Ecco’s digs at The Camp. Sure, it complements the center’s backcountry vibe, but it also signals food being cooked by the heat of wood fire, including pizzas. Lovely, delicate thin-crust pies of top-notch ingredients ranked sixth in our February pizza issue. Chef-partner and Sage on the Coast alum Kris Kirk keeps the embers glowing at the venue that once housed Aire Global Cuisine, and before that, The Lodge. Low on frills, the spare space suits Kirk’s menu of rustic, mainly southern Italian cuisine made with great care: slow-simmered meat sauce with tender pappardelle and salty pecorino, wood-grilled organic chicken with braised kale, jus, and cannellini beans. It’s all so easy to like. We wish the kitchen were open to better reveal the wood fire’s romance, and the cruel acoustics are a shame, but the carefully composed wine list is a beauty and the staff is obliging. We’ll return often.
Inside Tip Fun days-of-the-week specials such as two-for-one pizza Tuesdays; see Ecco’s Facebook page for updates.
2937 Bristol St., Costa Mesa, 714-444-3226, eccocm.com
Trends we hope will catch on
Everyone serves themselves from dishes in the center of the table. Ideal for simple chow such as pastas, shellfish, stews, and soup.
Tiny or massive, spicy or mellow, on skewers or sandwiches, from trucks or five-star kitchens.
If only because we’re tired of hearing our vegetarian friends whine about ordering salads.
Finally, what every sushi bar and Korean barbecue has known forever: Every vegetable can be a great pickle. Now we can have them on burgers, salumi plates, and in salads.
If the trend continues, every O.C. city will have a homegrown brew. Thank you Patrick Rue (The Bruery), Victor Novak (Taps Fish House & Brewery), Aaron Barkenhagen (Bootlegger’s Brewery), and Jerry Kolbly and Steve Miles (Noble Ale Works).
Fads we wish would end
Visiting the science fair by way of the dinner plate is a lot more fun for the chef than it is for the diner.
Truffle Oil Abuse
A little goes a long way. Too much is over the top. Truffle fries, we’re calling you out.
Enough with empty banter such as “Book us for your holiday event!” Really? Really.
WIth few exceptions (Napa Rose, Old Vine Café) most servers just don’t have the depth of a sommelier’s vast knowledge.
Meals without Wheels
Impossibly small kitchens churn out cheap, craveable street food—and you don’t need a tweet to find them
Chapman University’s former creaky neighbor Dairy Treet has been transformed into a spiffed-up stand serving modern sweets and sammies made with freshly griddled Belgian waffles. They’re perfect for portable noshing on the run, though a handful of outdoor seats allows for on-site munching. Don’t-miss combos: prosciutto and Gruyère with whole-grain mustard; and smoked salmon with cucumbers and herbed cream cheese. Shakes are $5, but they’re ultrarich and dreamy. 292 N. Glassell St., Orange, 888-927-8943, bruxie.com
One Lilliputian grill and Peter Stavros’ outsize talent add up to grub that outshines any nearby diner. Yes, it’s carved into the south end of a Valero station, so if your tank is empty, you can fill it while you wait (and maybe wait some more at peak times) for your terrific mushroom-and-Swiss bacon burger. Greek fries are a must, too—shoestring spuds heaped with curls of gyro meat, feta, onions, and tzatziki. 16851 McFadden Ave., Tustin, 714-599-3866, gourmadegrill.com
The Camp’s most cramped eatery isn’t much more than a blackboard, an order window, and a few alfresco tables, but it dazzles with authentic Viet faves such as proper grilled pork bánh mì baguettes, squeaky fresh spring rolls with fine peanut sauce, and bowls of steaming beef stew to cut the marine-layer chill. To drink? Fizzy lychee soda made fresh, of course. 2937 Bristol St., Costa Mesa, 714-641-5010, east-borough.com
Cheap ’n’ cheerful canteens peddle premium grub just outside these main dining rooms
Main Stage Charlie Palmer
Side Show DG Burger
Fine dining takes a detour at Charlie Palmer’s no-frills burger cave behind his refined, original venue. Here, quality rules on a short menu of freshly ground Black Angus patties tucked into custom buns, with superb fries and lush milkshakes. Want a burger upgrade? Add a fried egg or curry ketchup. 3333 Bristol St., Costa Mesa, 714-361-4264, charliepalmer.com/properties
Main Stage Quiet Woman
Side Show The Little Woman
Not up for an Australian lobster tail dinner or wrangling a Dark and Stormy cocktail at O.C.’s well-known cougar den? Slink next door for sophisticated stuff to go, or gobble down on the teensy patio. Think soufflé salads, handmade burgers, Cuban Reuben Panini, a beach-ready cheese plate, and ceviche by the pint. $5 to $16. 3238 E. Coast Highway, Corona del Mar, 949-640-0551, quietwoman.com
Main Stage AnQi Gourmet Bistro
Side Show Noodle Bar
Seating only 10, this sleek counter wraps around a minikitchen where cooks dish up deep bowls of beef or chicken pho, toasted udon soup, steamed dumplings, and the An family’s famous garlic noodles. It’s comfort food on the run, but ingenious creations from the cocktail bar also can be had. 3333 Bristol St., Costa Mesa, 714-557-5679, anqibistro.com
Executive chef, Ecco
Culinary crush or mentor? “Wolfgang Puck. Spago is where I did my culinary externship and gained a huge amount of discipline and creativity.”
Favorite junk food? TK burgers [various locations throughout Orange County].
Deserted island kit (three seasonings, three utensils): Maldon sea salt, Sicilian olive oil, fresh garlic, sharp knife, Scripto lighter, tongs.
As a small kid, you wanted to be? A Formula One driver.
Treasured cookbooks? “The French Laundry Cookbook,” by Thomas Keller [Artisan, 1999], and “A16: Food and Wine,” by Nate Appleman and Shelley Lindgren [Ten Speed Press, 2008].
Executive chef/partner, Haven Gastropub, Taco Asylum
Favorite hole-in-the-wall? Tsuruhashi, Fountain Valley.
Best cook in your family? “My nephew Caleb. He’s just a kid, but has more passion for food than a lot of the people working in kitchens. He’s also willing to try anything, which can’t be said about many adults.”
What beer would you like a case of right now? “Supplication, Russian River Brewing Co. It’s a brown ale brewed with sour cherries, aged in used pinot noir barrels. Complex, and out of this world!”
What are you reading? “Life,” by Keith Richards [Little, Brown and Co., 2010]. “It’s a truly great read—haven’t read a book this entertaining in a while. I usually spend all of my reading time on food, and this one has been a good break from reality.”
Ryan O’Melveny Wilson
Corporate executive chef, SideDoor
Culinary crush or mentor? “I love the work, passion, and writings of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall of ‘River Cottage,’ a British reality TV series, but my culinary mentors are Ken Frank [La Toque restaurant in Napa Valley], Michael Tusk [Quince in San Francisco], and Dario Cecchini [noted Italian butcher and chef].”
When not in the kitchen, you like to be? “On the road, on my bike; by the stream with my flyrod; on the trail in my boots; on the slopes on my skis; or in a chair with my book.”
Favorite junk food? Nagaraya Cracker Nuts, Hot & Spicy.
One easy change that home cooks should consider? “Bring burgers, steaks, roasts, chops, and chicken breasts to room temperature for at least 30 minutes before cooking. After cooking, let meat rest before slicing and serving.”
The All Stars
They made our top 10 list last year—and still have our attention
Being tagged Restaurant of the Year last April made a good year even better for Stanton’s improbable superstar. Tables may be a bit harder to get, but somehow chef-partner David Slay and his crew find new ways to delight diners. To wit, a “pop-up” alfresco café in the verdant vegetable garden, with a compact menu of Italian classics. And for weary weekday warriors, a Happy Hour in the Park. Which means that Tuesday through Friday, from 4 to 6:30 p.m., drinks and appetizers prepared on the patio promise an effective workday unwind. 11200 Beach Blvd., Stanton, 714-901-4400, parkavedining.com
O.C.’s gem of a French bistro sparkles ever brighter, snagging the No. 1 spot in 2011’s Zagat Survey. A new five-course chef’s menu is a tasty response to customer demand, and all the better to showcase the singular talents of chefs-owners Florent and Amelia Marneau, and their longtime sous chef Arturo Castillo. Also new is sous chef Jeremy Correia and an always evolving roster of special fêtes, such as fall’s Beaujolais Nouveau celebration starring cassoulet with Toulouse sausage made to Florent’s specs. And we eagerly await the return of autumn’s “The Pig from Head to Toe.” 3333 Bristol St., Costa Mesa, 714-434-7900,marchemoderne.net
Chef-proprietress Cathy Pavlos’ ceaseless curiosity and innate fixation on authentic fare expands boundaries for all of us. Her allegiance to domestic salumi producers makes her O.C.’s chartcuterie queen, and her zeal for cheese borders on evangelism. If your soul needs saving, book a seat at one of her $40 Sunday suppers. Or at least partake of her antipasto table, a feast you assemble yourself from an assortment of seasonal nibbles. 6507 Quail Hill Parkway, Irvine, 949-725-1773, luccacafe.net
Newport’s cool Baja kitchen is still red-hot, thanks to chef-partner Deb Schneider’s bottomless ingenuity. After putting a fresh spin on Taco Tuesdays, she’s now turning Thursdays into a tequila-infused chill session offering a special late menu and drinks crafted from Justin Timberlake’s 901 Tequila. The fun begins at 9:01, of course. Sol’s Dock & Dine is a hit with floating harbor parties, and new dishes turn up regularly—maybe a brunch bread pudding, spiked with Patrón Citrónage, sliced and sizzled in butter, or beer-battered mushroom tacos and Yucatan-style seasonal fish pibil for dinner. 251 E. Coast Highway, Newport Beach, 949-675-9800, solcocina.com
Charlie’s single SoCal outpost is a go-to choice for excellence on many levels. A new prix fixe lunch for $20.11 rivals Marché Moderne’s for panache on a pauper’s paycheck. Monthly wine sales allow access to a weighty, well-kept collection at bottle prices rarely seen in this vicinity. Last June’s premiere of the Bloody Mary Bar made Charlie’s the Sunday brunch to beat. And the in-crowd keeps the sexy lounge busy for two happy hours, early and late, offering half-off wines and virtuoso cocktails abetted by a creative menu—we can’t get enough of those inventive small plates. 3333 Bristol St., Costa Mesa. 714-352-2525,charliepalmer.com/bloomingdales
Photographs by Priscilla Iezzi
This article originally appeared in the April 2011 issue.