A great diner doesn’t have to have countertop seating, an old cash register that noisily cha-chings! after each sale, or a rotating dessert case with slabs of pie and mile-high chocolate cake—although it helps. At its core, a diner is about simplicity: classic, no-frills comfort foods. Orange County has a lot of great diners, so we looked for places that have both an intrinsic role in their neighborhoods and also serve terrific food.
Don’t be surprised to find a crowd waiting for tables at 2 a.m. at this Orange County staple, which serves burgers, breakfast, and banana splits to hungry diners who need a bite after the bars close. Stop by for some Chicken Stir Fry or a slice of berry pie with a dollop of ice cream, and a cuppa joe. Open 24 hours. 16341 Pacific Coast Highway, Sunset Beach, 562-592-5404; 34157 Pacific Coast Highway, Dana Point, 949-496-9270; harborhousecafe.com.
2. The Snooty Fox
A popular spot since its 1979 opening in South County, The Snooty Fox cooks up home-style fare in an unpretentious environment. Dig in to golden pancakes served with a side of the diner’s specialty hash browns, endearingly called Those Potatoes. Stop by for lunch and order a Bleu Reuben on Rye. Kid menu. Open until 3 p.m. 23028 Lake Forest Drive, Laguna Hills, 949-770-7761.
3. Magnolia Café
This place has a warm and friendly shopping center locale that draws a bustling breakfast crowd seven days a week. Try the Californian Omelet, the Smokehouse Skillet, or the popular Waffle Combo. If you want a tasty dinner, stop by on Tuesday for “$7.69 Fried Chicken Night.” Comes with soup or salad, potatoes, veggies, and bread. Open until 9 p.m. 8988 Warner Ave., Fountain Valley, 714-842-2844.
4. Greeter’s Corner
A sprawling outdoor patio practically places you right on the sand, ideal for people-watching and taking in Laguna’s beach culture. The versatile menu offers classics such as omelets and oversized pancakes. For lunch, try the fish and chips. Because Greeter’s Corner is a tourist hotbed, be prepared to pay a bit more than at comparable diners. Open till 6 p.m. 329 S. Coast Highway, Laguna Beach, 949-494-0361.
5. The Chicken Coop
This kitschy place is not a traditional-looking diner, what with its large collection of porcelain chickens and a dining floor covered in sawdust. But don’t be deterred by the shabby country décor. The Coop serves classic diner favorites, including prime rib, chicken-fried steak, and hearty—and cheap—breakfast combos. It also serves alcohol and has an oyster bar. Pair the lobster omelet with a spicy bloody mary. Open until 10 p.m. Cash or debit only. 414 Old Newport Blvd., Newport Beach, 949-645-6086.
6. The Galley Café
This waterfront restaurant is tucked in a residential cul-de-sac alongside million-dollar homes. It’s an Americana diner, with Formica counter- and tabletops, cushioned booths, and a reputation as one of John Wayne’s favorites. The daily specials include biscuits and gravy, and the must-have chili-cheese omelet is to die for. Stop by an ATM first; this classic is cash only. Open till 7 p.m. 829 Harbor Island Drive, Newport Beach, 949-673-4110.
7. Woody’s Diner
The 1950s retro experience still is very much alive at this small Orange County chain that celebrates vintage surf culture. A large sampling of omelets, breakfast burritos, short stacks, and house specialties make this a great stop for a pre-beach breakfast. For lunch, try loaded nachos, one of Woody’s burgers, and a little something from the soda fountain. Bring quarters for the jukebox. Open until 9:30 p.m., and 10:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. 7871 Warner Ave., Huntington Beach, 714-848-9936. Other locations in Laguna Hills, Newport Beach, Seal Beach, and Sunset Beach; woodysdiners.com.
Deconstructing the Diner Mystique
This article originally appeared in the January 2010 issue.