O.C.’s Best: Date-Night Restaurants

Location is top priority when planning an evening on the town with someone special

What makes for an excellent date spot? Mood lighting, a lively but not boisterous vibe, and of course, delicious food and drink. These seven places in Orange County offer all that plus that intangible something extra for a memorable evening out. Just in time for Valentine’s Day.


1 Habana
The old standby’s allure lies in its pretty patio and Old World tavern-meets-bistro setting lit by dozens of candles and votives, LEFT. The mojitos are perfectly stiff—get them muddled with blackberries if available. There also are two kinds of house sangria: the roja, with red wine, spices, rum, triple sec, red apples, and oranges; and the blanca, with white wine, passion fruit rum, apple liqueur, and fresh fruit with a float of Champagne. The tuna tartare, with fried plaintain chips, is a great appetizer. Then split the El Puerco Primo, slow-roasted pork osso that’s melt-in-your-mouth good. $7 to $36; 2930 Bristol St., Costa Mesa, 714- 556-0176, thelab.com
2Studio at Montage
Dinner here isn’t exactly wallet-friendly, but there’s no better choice to dazzle your dining companion. If the sweeping ocean view or luxe surroundings aren’t seductive or impressive enough, the dishes are as delicious as they are beautiful. Start with decadent Golden Osetra caviar or chilled oysters, and then segue to chef Craig Strong’s exquisite six-course tasting menu of seasonal gems such as diver scallop and pan-roasted John Dory. Expect impeccable service; you’re in for a glamorous, top-notch dining experience. Schedule some time before dinner to take advantage of the resort’s beach for a sunset walk. $175 to $250 for this month’s tasting menus; 30801 S. Coast Highway, Laguna Beach, 949-715-6420, montagehotels.com
3The Cellar
This dark, low-ceilinged cavern looks like a wine cellar, but with fine-dining touches, including chandeliers and plush seating. The bar is cozy, too, and serves terrific craft cocktails. Seating is comfortably spaced, including private booths, and it’s quiet, so you can carry on a conversation. For dinner, you can’t go wrong with the chateaubriand for two, with bearnaise sauce and roasted potatoes. The beef tenderloin is perfectly cooked and carved into supple medallions tableside. Finish on a sweet note with a vanilla souffle with a Key lime anglaise. $9 to $76; 305 N. Harbor Blvd., Fullerton, 714-525-5682, cellardining.com
4 Vine
Dining by candlelight on this bustling bistro’s patio is nothing short of magical. Inside, you’ll find exposed brick walls and filament bulbs in wine bottles for a pleasantly dim glow. The cocktails are excellent here—set the mood with the Love Potion #9, with vodka, orange liqueur, lemon, cucumber, and raspberry. Then try the crispy Meyer lemon-and-honey duck wings; they’re an addictive starter. The pork schnitzel, a thinly pounded pork loin that’s seasoned, breaded, and pan-fried, comes in a hefty portion that easily can be shared by two. It’s served with oyster mushrooms, a butternut squash spaetzle, thyme-roasted apples, and a mustard-and-cider gravy. $6 to $39; 211 N. El Camino Real, San Clemente, 949-361-2079, vinesanclemente.com
5 Eva’s Caribbean Kitchen
This coastal charmer is everything you could want in a date-night destination. It’s intimate, with colorful Caribbean-inspired decor and gracious hospitality from chef-owner Eva Madray, who’ll instantly make you and your date feel like family. Start with any of the potent rum cocktails—we love the Brown Suga, Rum Punch, and the Dark & Stormy. Then dive into a platter of Cajun prawns to set your taste buds on fire. Cool off with the Aubergine Choka, roasted eggplant with garlic and shallots. $11 to $40; 31732 S. Coast Highway, Laguna Beach, 949-499-6311, evascaribbeankitchen.com
6 San Shi Go
It doesn’t get much sexier than sushi. There’s a sense of adventure, the opportunity to try something out of your gastronomic comfort zone—plus you get to sit right next to your date at the bar. Ask for the Torpedo roll: seared albacore and yellowfin tuna rolled around blistered shishito peppers doused with ponzu. The Backflip roll is another signature hit, a spicy tuna cut roll topped with seared pepper-crusted tuna and dotted with Sriracha chili sauce. After dinner, take a romantic stroll through one of Orange County’s most picturesque seaside towns. $6 to $14; 1100 S. Coast Highway, Laguna Beach, 949-494-1551
7 Kettlebar
For a fun culinary date, try the Southern-inspired seafood pan roasts, Cajun gumbos, and jambalaya at this ultrahip restaurant with industrial lighting, copper elements, and rustic wood. Share the house specialty pan roast, chock-full of snow crab, lobster, shrimp, and chicken, cooked right before you in a gleaming stainless-steel steam kettle. A full bar offers 30 craft brews. Reservations recommended: It’s one of the most popular eateries at the Anaheim Packing House and one of the newest at Union Market in Tustin. $4 to $23; 440 S. Anaheim Blvd., Anaheim, 714-408-7378; 2493 Park Ave., Tustin; kettlebar.com

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