Top 10 Restaurants of 2012

A year of dramatic debuts, chef shuffles, and invigorating makeovers add up to delicious dining in Orange County—and difficult choices for our annual Top 10.

But here they are, in order of preference, the ones that excite us now, that consistently get it right on food, setting, and hospitality. If these don’t see you through the next 12 months, we’ve included tempting extras to fill your calendar and satisfy your appetite.

1. Charlie Palmer at Bloomingdale’s

Losing your star chef and a world-class GM at the same time would sink lesser ships, but Charlie Palmer at Bloomingdale’s hardly flinched. Top chef-impressario Palmer plays for keeps with a deep and wide bench of major talent. Seakyeong Kim rose to executive chef with aplomb and mad skills—adding his own spin to Palmer’s hearty-but-refined menu.

Dinner is great, but not your only option here. The offhand-chic room makes for a fine business or shopping lunch. You can also hang loose on Sundays with brunch, backed by the most lavish bloody mary bar in town. Pressed for time? Swing around to the back-door annex for a first-rate sandwich-in-a-flash at Palmer’s DG Burger. Oh, and that lounge with a sweet happy hour? It’s always slammin’ and a late-night favorite. We’ve seen Amar Santana noshing at the bar (doesn’t he have his own restaurant now?) and often spot Palmer himself passing through (doesn’t he have a dozen places to juggle?). Is this a restaurant utopia? We’re starting to think so.

Field Notes It’s not on the menu and not always available, but Kim makes amazing beef jerky. If you want a sample, ask.
South Coast Plaza, 714-352-2525, 

2. Andrea
After three years of riding a bumpy economy, luxurious Andrea no longer feels as self-conscious as an overdressed party guest. Busier than ever, the elegant resort room exudes a confidence and buoyancy born of hard-won staying power. Superb cuisine from a knockout kitchen led by chef Luca Cesarini aims for the top, and gets there. From heady foie gras terrine to rustic eggplant parmigiana that flabbergasts with its opulence—every element, from ingredients to preparation, is meticulously considered.

Because they’re a pricey splurge, feasts here are a special occasion for many. It’s common to see the showy megawheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano rolled out for risotto, stirred tableside, a memorable bit of culinary drama bound to impress. If that’s not over-the-top enough, add a bottle of 2007 Gaja Barbaresco, $425.

Field Notes Lovely terrace lunches of house-made pastas make Andrea a sleeper pick for indulgence on a budget (of sorts). Wednesday through Sunday only.
The Resort at Pelican Hill, 22701 Pelican Hill Road S., 949-467-6800, 

3. AnQi by Crustacean
Dripping with Zen-cool style, today’s AnQi is more grounded than the swanky, skittish newcomer that opened in early 2010. The awkward vibe is gone and the Cal-Viet menu is more coherent, better edited. Tuesdays are wildly popular for master chef Helene “Mama” An’s hedonistic roasted crab feasts, but diners can cover newer territory with spicy beef tongue tacos, chicken rillettes-stuffed bao buns, or all-out prix fixe dinners of molecular gastronomy intended to bust convention.

Taking your first look? Try Fashionably Late Fridays, a relaxed happy hour from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. Or, pop in after shopping to grab a seat at the noodle bar.

Field Notes Fashionistas, track AnQi’s event calendar for Couture + Cuisine, a monthly fashion show on the catwalk, and dining within arm’s reach of the superchic action.
South Coast Plaza, 714-557-5679,

4. Pizzeria Mozza
Yes, Pizzeria Mozza is printing money—but that doesn’t mean its Italian fare doesn’t deserve all the attention. Just mention the name to cuisine fiends and get instant feedback, feeding a buzz that makes Mozza one of the toughest tables in town. Tough because waits often are dismally long. Tough because parking is pricey and that’s not the way O.C. rolls. And tough because tabs can soar, and it’s just pizza.

The newest addition to the L.A.-based Mozza brand created by industry stars Mario Batali, Nancy Silverton, and Joe Bastianich, this baby was born holding a silver pizza peel. Does the food live up to its Melrose Avenue sibling’s? Absolutely, under the meticulous hand of chef de cuisine Emily Corliss.

Field Notes Indifferent to pizza? Go straight to some of Mozza’s best oven dishes, hiding on the back of the menu under Piatto del Giorno. Thursday’s ribs al forno, with apple cider vinegar, fennel, and honey, is killer.
800 W. Coast Highway, Newport Beach, 949-612-9579,

5. Red Table
Only four players on this list are new to the O.C. dining scene, but Red Table’s precocious ascent certainly is linked to veteran chef Louie Jocson. Coming off seven years as culinary director for San Diego-based Karl Strauss Brewing, Jocson applies his brewpub know-how to his version of a neighborhood gastropub. The long and oft-changing American menu brims with carby snacks, savory share plates, and craveable sandwiches and entrées.

Look for modern comfort food plus lots of daily and weekly specials touted on chatty chalkboards. Specials might include creamy cauliflower soup, seafood rice, or turkey osso buco. Of course there are menu mainstays—salt-and-pepper fries and meatball sliders, for example. A happy hodgepodge of eclectic textures, funky lighting, and a cool zinc bar give the space a casual, hospitable vibe. Friendly prices pump up repeat business.

Field Notes That big red table is more than a gimmick—it’s a perfect place to host a big party and feast on Jocson’s Trust Me tasting menu.
16821 Algonquin St., Huntington Beach, 714-846-4700,

6. The Loft
Though set in the precious (read: spendy) coastal enclave of the Montage resort, The Loft is not as lavish as its big brother, Studio. Here’s where you find that sweeping Pacific view, complete with ocean breezes and comparatively nonchalant prices. But it’s the light touch and confident flavor pairings of chef de cuisine Casey Overton that boost the value behind the seasonal New American offerings.

Lunch might be a luscious lamb loin sandwich, and dinner might be wood oven-roasted black cod, but breakfast is tops and pastry chef Lee Smith’s desserts are marvelous. Weekly wine tastings are thoughtful options, too. The Loft gives diners plenty of ways to enjoy its insouciant charm.

Field Notes The dazzling Cheese Gallery is a curd junkie’s dream. More than 100 cultured gems, each paired with sweet or savory house-made condiments, make up the impressive rotation.
Montage Laguna Beach 30801 S. Coast Highway, Laguna Beach, 949-715-6420, 

7. SideDoor
Last year’s pick for Restaurant of the Year proves that a warm welcome from an old friend never goes out of style. Yes, it’s a gastropub, but never newfangled. In fact, it hews to a British model that’s almost timeless: no windows, crackling fireplaces, comfy seats, and nimble service. We’re still smitten by the manned charcuterie station’s trove of meats and cheeses. And its menu of soups, share plates, prime rib creations, and desserts switches up often enough to keep us engaged. We also love that chef Ryan O’Melveny Wilson isn’t running out of ideas for fine beers and luscious cocktails. The decades-spanning Brit-rock soundtrack is great fun, too.

Field Notes This spot seems perpetually packed and doesn’t take reservations. Best odds for seating include opening time at 4:30, or near the end of Sunday brunch, served 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
3801 E. Coast Highway, Corona del Mar, 949-717-4322,

8. A Restaurant 
This storied site is hallowed ground to generations of Newport Beach fans of old-school dining and drinking. But while The Arches lives no more, plenty of its vintage charms remain, many for the better. Chef Jon Blackford’s arrival this year is a recent upgrade. Applying technique that values precision over gusto, his style meshes splendidly with A’s menu of steaks and classic American fare.

Dark and clubby with acres of leather, the booths and the bar stay busy, full of grownups out for a good time. A Market next door slings a mean sandwich, but it can’t outshine the lounge for executive lunching. It’s no secret that for weekday happy hour, it’s the No. 1 choice for creative drinks and bar chow at steep discounts.

Field Notes That nondescript bungalow out back hides a hooked-up lounge complete with flat screen and snappy audio. Book it for that sweet party for your entourage of 25.
3334 W. Coast Highway, Newport Beach, 949-650-6505,

9. Park Ave
Our very first Restaurant of the Year winner back in 2010 is still firing on all cylinders, single-handedly nurturing an oasis of dining in Stanton. Chef-partner David Slay is a dynamo, always thinking up new dishes, prix fixe menus, and lavish wine dinners to keep this inviting venue on diners’ short lists. Last year, he launched Il Garage as an alfresco annex overlooking his vegetable garden, with its own hours and Italy-centric menu. Park Ave’s menu of contemporary American fare is hardly vast, but somehow appeals to both macho and demure appetites. We’re in love with desserts by sisters Alice and Daisy Castro—warm fruit crumbles, bread puddings, and exceptional house-churned ice creams. Never a crowd follower, Slay eschews those ubiquitous third-party digital discount coupons in favor of his own fun and frequent e-deals, so be sure to get on his list.

Field Notes Tomato lovers, book a table come summer, when a rainbow of garden-ripe fruit and fragrant fresh herbs appears on your plate mere hours after picking.
11200 Beach Blvd., Stanton, 714-901-4400,

10. Broadway by Amar Santana
Once word that chef Amar Santana and GM Ahmed Labbate were departing Charlie Palmer to launch their own shop, Santana’s fans (and they are legion) cranked the buzz to a fever pitch until this Laguna Beach rookie shop’s vaunted premiere last fall. A slick reboot of the erstwhile home of Five Feet claims the site with imagination and intention, attracting a full house on most nights.

Santana is a vibrant guy, and Broadway’s food and mood reflect that verve. His open kitchen crackles with energy, sending out vivid, modern fare he dubs “cuisine of the Americas,” but that label is fairly elastic for a menu that changes nightly. There’s a lot of border crossing here. One meal can move from Japanese hamachi to scallops with urchin risotto to bourbon-spiked panna cotta. While the packed 88-seat space roars with happy chatter, Labbate lithely navigates the tight quarters, making gracious contact with the audience that considers Amar a star.

Field Notes Don’t get your hopes up—there are no plans for lunch service. But a midday buyout can be arranged for private dining.
328 Glenneyre St., Laguna Beach, 949-715-8234,


Lunch Like It Matters
When dining midday calls for some place memorable, these spots deliver

Bayside Ladies who lunch and coastal execs can be one and the same at this stylish stalwart for first-rate contemporary fare and snappy service. We’re stuck on the smoked Scottish salmon with capers and warm blini. Choose the sunny veranda or the classy dining room; you’ll feel spoiled in either setting. Value alert: The prix fixe is reliably delicious. 900 Bayside Drive, 949-721-1222,

Break of Dawn Other than once-a-month evening events, lunch is your best bet at this shopping center daytime café that’s a favorite of chefs who work at dinner houses. Casual digs and patchy service don’t diminish ably prepared choices from a fascinating menu of East-meets-West dishes such as lamb sausage scrambled with eggs, spinach, peanuts, and fresh mint over black sticky rice. 24351 Avenida de la Carlota, Laguna Hills, 949-587-9418,

Café Chiarini Avoid the rush—go early or late to this garden spot that’s a new favorite of the courthouse crowd. Sparkling fresh salads and dazzling sandwiches on dreamy house-baked bread must be ordered at the counter, but from there, you retreat to a leafy patio with sail shades and a gurgling marble fountain. Don’t miss the petite art gallery inside. 1002 W. Third St., Santa Ana, 714-277-4495,

The Capital Grille Old-school hospitality attracts the power crowd for business lunches and shopping intermissions at South Coast Plaza’s newest posh steak player. This means the salads are deluxe, the burger is tops, and the booze flows in broad daylight. We’re hooked on the lobster-crab cake in a toasted brioche bun. South Coast Plaza, 714-432-1140,

Marché Moderne South Coast Plaza is ground zero for big-digit shopping, and this is the bistro that fuels those midday retail adventures. But Francophiles and stylish execs also make the scene for the day’s prix fixe menu—a mind-blowing value at $20 weekdays, $25 on Saturday. Genteel service is Euro-esque, so your table is crumbed before your exquisite dessert arrives. South Coast Plaza, 714-434-7900,

Palm Terrace Lunch is a perfect gateway for sampling the refined cuisine of new executive chef David Man, one of O.C.’s top talents. Fashion Island’s resort refuge, the Island Hotel doesn’t scrimp on luxury, and the atrium setting boosts the tranquility quotient. Consider poolside in the summer. 690 Newport Center Drive, 949-760-4920,

Chefs from left to right
Jon Blackford, A Restaurant • Luca Cesarini, Andrea • Helene “Mama” An, AnQi by Crustacean • Amar Santana, Broadway by
Amar Santana • Louie Jocson, Red Table • Casey Overton, The Loft • Emily Corliss, Pizzeria Mozza • Ryan O’Melveny Wilson, SideDoor • Seakyeong Kim, Charlie Palmer at Bloomingdale’s • David Slay, Park Ave
Photograph by Carly Hebert 

Chef Talk
We asked our winning chefs about the O.C. dining scene, then let them riff. Here’s what they had to say on restaurant trends, critics, foodies, and more.

Dining trends
Jocson: More animal parts on the plate.

Kim: People want to wear jeans, have a glass of wine, have small plates to share. They want to try different flavors, not just one big dish.

Wilson: They have a short attention span and only a finite amount of time. A friend just opened a place in San Francisco. He makes small plates and sends them out on a cart like dim sum. You have a glass of wine, three courses off the cart, and you’re out in 15 minutes

Corliss: People want to know Is this organic? Where was it raised? What was it eating?

Underrated O.C. restaurants
Santana: Sushi Wasabi in Tustin. At first I was skeptical, but the guy’s, like, a sushi master. No California rolls. You sit down, he tells you what you’re going to have, and it’s expensive.

Overton: A little place by my house call Pho Vina [in Anaheim]. They have the most amazing broth.

Blackford: Brix Brews and NY Deli in Huntington Beach. Their craft beer selection is incredible. And they have pretty good pastrami.

Favorite comfort food
Santana: Chicken wings. Or Kraft Easy Cheese out of a can.

Jocson: Rotisserie chicken, any kind, even from the supermarket.

Corliss: Anything I don’t have to cook.

Overton: I love to slow-cook meat. Just sit around all day and watch it, have a couple of beers. That’s almost more satisfying than eating it. I love taking the time to focus on making one thing well, because in a restaurant you focus on a million things at once and there’s a hundred people asking you questions.

Cesarini: Barbecue. I prefer to do it in Italy because it’s easier to find the quality I’m looking for. We do things a little bit different. Wrap pork in leaves and dig a hole in the ground.

Overton: You can make an Alfredo sauce out of Kraft Parmesan if you whip it hard enough.

Santana: What does that mean? I have no idea

Overton: It means you can give them anything and they’ll think it’s amazing, because they trust you.

An: They always ask me how to make things.

Overton: Yeah, but when you get someone asking how to make red wine sauce, then it’s like, do you have three days?

Professional critics
Jocson: I like when they compare your food to other places’. At least you have a range and know where they’ve been. But just saying bad or good isn’t enough.

Santana: I think you should tell me what you think while you’re in the restaurant. Then I can fix it.

An: I don’t take it personally. If a critic gives a bad review, you can’t say anything.

Jocson: We don’t wake up in the morning and think, “Today I’m going to serve undercooked food, turn the music up too high, turn the lights too low.” Stuff happens. The dishwasher breaks.

Corliss: Hit or miss. Everyone’s an expert.

Blackford: I often can’t stand it, but I don’t mind criticism if it’s constructive.

Jocson: You don’t know if it’s coming from a disgruntled competitor.

Santana: I know restaurants where they have the entire staff—girlfriends, moms, aunts—writing five-star reviews for them. Even the chef is writing his own reviews!

Farmers Markets
Slay: You go today and you can actually see some of the vendors unloading boxes of commercial lettuce. I saw it in Santa Monica and it was disturbing to me. And  I think it’s mostly just in Southern California. I go to farmers markets elsewhere and I don’t see it.

Kim: I spend time with friends in New York, and I don’t see this happening there either.

Wilson: When I was in New York, I always heard about California restaurant produce being so fresh and straight from the farmer, but when I got here and went looking for it, I couldn’t find the things I wanted. Here, they plant just what sells the most, so it’s hard to find the unusual varieties of fruits and vegetables you can find elsewhere.

Slay: They know a good chef will take the little bit that they do grow, so they don’t have to sell at the market anymore.


Top 10 Restaurants Event 

Agave Underground Tequila joined Orange Coast Magazine’s Top 10 Restaurants event at Fixtures Living to taste some amazing food, meet some amazing people (including our new friends at Red Table) and share some Agave Underground cocktails using Ritual Wellness juices! Click play on the video.

Fixtures Living – Orange Coast Magazine Party

This article originally appeared in the April 2012 issue of Orange Coast magazine.

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