Old Brea Chop House: North County’s prized surf-and-turf provider is dark and clubby with just enough retro cool. Lolling in a leather booth or schmoozing with a witty bartender didn’t used to be a no-no. It won’t always be this way, but the wait is fatiguing. Taking home cracked crab legs or a ready-to- grill aged ribeye is nice, but it can’t compare to a server delivering your mountain of crustaceans on crushed ice or a hissing hot plate bearing an extravagant Delmonico, medium-rare. Even the basket of dreamy, warm bread will be a sight for hungry eyes. Owners Tony and Dani Fasulo maintain their gracious charm by phone, but we miss seeing them at our table.
LSXO: This is one of Huntington Beach’s hippest canteens, but its teensy dimensions mean long-term distanced dining is an absurd plan. Twenty-eight seats don’t go far when capacity is limited to 25 percent. Paradoxically, the intimate confines that bolster the sultry, exclusive vibe here are also what hold it at bay behind state orders. Chef-founder Tin Vuong’s hyper-vibrant Vietnamese cuisine is crucial to making LSXO a remarkable experience. His crepe with prawns and pork belly was born to play against a West Coast rap soundtrack and ceiling art of M60 machine guns firing pastel butterfly bullets. Add a classy bartender shaking au courant cocktails and understand why LSXO is short for Little Sister Extraordinary.
Napa Rose: Remember the cozy Craftsman-style lounge where you could sip Champagne by the flickering fire? What about the chef’s counter, a front-row seat for the kitchen performance conducted by the engaging Andrew Sutton? The collective ache of missing frequent doses of Disney is a palpable thing. While kids yearn for rides and characters, there’s a sizable contingent of foodies who crave the fine upscale experience of being spoiled rotten in Napa Rose’s character-free dining room with a wine country aesthetic on the plate and in the setting. Here’s hoping we can order that fava bean hummus under diver scallop and grape-leaf-wrapped shrimp while favas are still in season.
Taco María: No one takes Carlos Delgado’s culinary brilliance for granted. He single-handedly elevates the O.C. dining scene. No other kitchen can duplicate his smoked sturgeon tacos, Kurobuta pork pozole verde, or pistachio alfajores. We’re so weary of seeing exquisite social media posts of the Sonoma duck carnitas five-course family meal, only to have it sell out again. Once we return to that intimate dining sanctuary, we’ll cherish multicourse meals direct from the open kitchen that oozes intensity. Laid-back lunch on the sunny patio? We’ll take it.
SideDoor: Not being outdoors is a compelling reason to haunt the windowless little sister of Five Crowns. Overstuffed chairs angled to the fireplace are the supreme place to hang when you’re not at work. Or home. Or working at home. Yes, the backyard is lovely, but it’s no pub. Vintage Beatles tracks, a proper Pimm’s Cup, and a Prime rib sandwich just taste better in chummy environs. Order a plate of artisan cheeses and gab with the expert carving your Stilton? Not gonna happen alfresco.