5 O.C. Restaurants With the Best Innovations

In a year when nonstop change was a challenge, these five players figured out great ways to keep diners safe and happy.
Photograph courtesy of Fable & Spirit

Fable & Spirit
When restaurants shut down last year, it felt like Lido’s rookie darling for drinks and dazzling eats might be in peril. Never bet against the Coyle family and their illustrious hospitality. Sidewalk seating expanded the petite patio westward to Lido Theater, and soon the iconic marquee sported executive chef David Shofner’s name, teasing a special meal staged below. Prix fixe meals started right after Labor Day and featured new themes each week—and all were sellouts. Later, wafting afternoon aromas from the pop-up grill lured the curious for sizzling burgers and yakitori to go. Give this team a challenge, and it will smother it with ingenuity.

When chef-owner Greg Daniels says, “We aren’t the same restaurant,” he’s understating the adjustments made to his village corner grill. After months of mandates, Daniels landed on workable and winning strategies that have wholly replaced Harley’s a la carte menu with three courses of luscious comfort fare: say citrus salad, lasagna Bolognese, and olive oil cake. Fans find irresistible meals that change weekly. Daniels’ limited-time offers of kitchen table classics—tamales, pot pies, carnitas—sell out reliably and keep Harley’s secret weapon, sous chef Jose Hernandez, more than busy. Once posted on Instagram, tantalizing buttermilk biscuits and Grandma Mary’s chocolate chip cookies fly out by the half or full dozen.

Summit House
Fullerton’s favorite hilltop venue for weddings and swanky prime rib dinners lost immeasurable income as large gatherings became taboo. To accommodate diners they could serve on-site, they turned themselves inside out, scattering tables all over the scenic 2.5-acre knoll. Even the popular tavern sprouted an outdoor adaptation, shaking up cocktails at the picturesque gazebo under mature sycamore and pepper trees. After decades of special events, the crew could quickly stage distanced seating with views in three directions. Only the parking lot wasn’t enlisted for dining, but it did supply seamless access to curbside pickups for those weeks when on-premise service was prohibited. Only because of a pandemic did this 30-year-old restaurant offer its elegant fare to go. Expect that skill set to live on.

Tavern House
Takeout food is always a compromise. Nothing tastes as satisfying as it does at the restaurant, served at your table by waitstaff. Takeout fumbles were particularly common last spring, when an order could easily end up a lukewarm jumbled mess in a leaky container. Chef-founder David Wilhelm was not about to let Tavern House be that restaurant. After menu edits, pricey packaging test runs, and a search for frictionless online ordering, Tavern House can assure diners that the beef stroganoff won’t be soggy, and it will include extra sauce on the side to use at home—all packed in a bag that will not fail under a heavy load.

Marché Moderne
Florent and Amelia Marneau didn’t flinch when our lives were upended last year—they immediately segued to curbside service to buoy their team and nourish their customers. In those edgy early months, they doubled down with positive words and a visible commitment to keeping the bar high. With their signature quiet calm and unlimited know-how, they found ways to play by the rules while breaking new ground. Market boxes of luxury groceries kept supply lines open and customers happy. Mother’s Day brunch kits included flowers arranged by Amelia. Summer brought opulent, ready-to-tote pique-nique lunches. Every holiday brought a yet-more-extravagant take-home feast. And throughout, a prix fixe meal-of-the-week that sells out to this day.

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