We’re told Ernest Hemingway preferred standing at a bar to sitting at a table, but with apologies to Papa, we’d rather sit at a bar than wait for a table. Bars aren’t just for drinking. At top restaurants you often can order the same dishes served in the dining room. And because bartenders can keep an eye on all their customers, a patron rarely is ignored. Find a good happy hour, and drinks and eats are bargain-priced. Plus, there’s always someone or something to keep bar diners entertained, which might explain why so many great (and not-so-great) “Lost Generation” writers disappeared in bars.
1. The Ritz Restaurant and Garden
With old-fashioned heavy pours and a setting that feels as relaxing and comfortable as a late 19th century men’s club, the bar at The Ritz, above, is legendary. Order the $16.50 Ritz Egg (See Page 77), or the Wild Mushroom Cappuccino ($9.50), or opt for the hearty steak sandwich ($22) topped with onion rings and served with peanut-studded coleslaw. (We hear The Ritz may be moving, so get there before Dec. 31.) 880 Newport Center Drive, Newport Beach, 949-720-1800, ritzrestaurant.com.
The “5 for $6 ’til 7” offer—a choice of five appetizers, five cocktails, and five wines by the glass, for $6, from opening until 7 p.m.—is an attractive offer. Especially when one considers that the seared ahi (generous slices of the well-spiced fish over a mound of ginger-infused salad) and the Prime Burger are included on the list. And even while handling the happy hour crowd, the bartenders are excellent. 455 Newport Center Drive, Newport Beach, 949-720-9633, flemingssteakhouse.com.
You can’t beat the bar staff at this stunning Mexican cantina. At lunch, a basket of the thin salty chips and smoky salsa arrive shortly after the large menu. Opt for the shrimp ceviche ($15) with plump pieces of sweet shellfish topped with avocado. Drinks are hand-crafted: The Margarita de Granada ($13), topped with pomegranate liqueur, is nearly as much fun to watch being made as it is to drink. 7832 E. Coast Highway, Newport Beach, 949-494-1239; and 45 Fortune Drive, Irvine, 949-872-2101, javiers-cantina.com.
4. True Food Kitchen
Light and breezy describes the setting at this restaurant, which makes healthful food hip, trendy, and oh-so-attractive. Slide onto one of the sunny-yellow bar stools and start with any of the drink options, including nonalcoholic beverages such as a not-too-sweet Andy’s Elixir ($5), and more potent concoctions such as an açai mojito ($9), or a top-drawer skinny margarita ($10). Dr. Andrew Weil is the mastermind behind the food, and it’s just what the doctor ordered, made with ingredients such as kale and grass-fed bison. Try the ahi sliders ($13) and the Mediterranean chopped salad with quinoa, marcona almonds, and feta cheese ($10). 451 Newport Center Drive, Newport Beach, 949-644-2400, truefoodkitchen.com.
5. Napa Rose
It’s the Chef’s Counter in this Disney E-ticket eatery that raises the bar on bar food. Chef Andrew Sutton offers counter diners a choice of the seasonally driven a la carte menu, prix fixe dinners, or a multicourse meal ($90) prepared especially for them. Sit and watch as an army in white prepares dishes—such as seared scallops in vanilla lobster sauce ($22)—under the chef’s firm attention. Seating for this limited space can be reserved three months in advance; call at least three weeks ahead if your heart is set on it. Disney’s Grand Californian, 1600 S. Disneyland Drive, Anaheim, 714-300-7170, disneyland.com.
From 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, pizzas and selected appetizers—including the first-rate Polipo con Patate—are only $5 at this sleek Fashion Island watering hole. No wonder it’s almost impossible to find a spot in the bar. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. Off hours, it offers comfortable seats, good lighting, and efficient, well-trained bartenders without the wait. 545 Newport Center Drive, Newport Beach, 949-640-0900, ilfornaio.com.
7. Seasons 52
The bar is a hybrid of modern healthful food where no dish exceeds 475 calories, and an old-school piano bar with music from 6 nightly. It’s the go-to place for busy shoppers who don’t want to wait for a table with the swelling throngs. The bar is cool and comfortable with an alert staff that gets you what you need when you need it. Delicious bar bites include Portobello Turkey Burger ($11) and fig flatbread ($10). 3333 Bristol St., Costa Mesa, 714- 437-5252, seasons52.com.
Chef-restaurateur Marc Cohen has created a smart, lively bistro and a small, cozy bar with a great vantage point to watch the dining area, while also keeping an eye on the busy bartenders. They create inventive cocktails such as the Positano ($10), a prosecco-based drink mixed with grapefruit juice, and Aperol, a Campari-like aperitif. Inventive dishes include lamb chop salad ($16) and filet mignon potpie ($7). 448 S. Coast Highway, Laguna Beach, 949-376-6272, watermarcrestaurant.com.
photography by Priscilla Iezzi
This article originally appeared in the December 2011 issue of Orange Coast magazine.