If your shopping at and around South Coast Plaza:
3333 Bristol St., 714-557-5679, houseofan.com
Tight focus on the fare makes dining at this South Coast Plaza hot spot better than ever. Executive chef Ron Lee makes delicious harmony with matriarch master chef Helene An’s spicy beef tacos and roasted New Zealand lamb rack, as well as her fabled roast crab (Tuesday only). Zen chic decor turns heads. Drinks at the dramatic bar dazzle the cocktail crowd, but try Sunday brunch for a more kick-back experience, or snag a padded stool at the adjacent noodle bar.
Antonello Ristorante ★★★
3800 South Plaza Drive, 714-751-7153, antonello.com
Closed Sunday. Italian. $$$
For more than three decades South Coast Plaza’s Italian grand diva has reigned for ultrafine feasting on authentic, traditional dishes backed by a savvy wine selection deep with Italian stars. House-made pastas, breads, and desserts. The restaurant’s aura of privilege is underscored by pampering service for VIPs. A full service wine bar is the latest update.
3800 South Plaza Drive, 714-557-6600, daryasouthcoastplaza.com
Don’t let the chandeliers and acres of marble deceive—this convivial Persian dining room isn’t staid or formal. It’s de facto party central for the county’s Persian ex-pats, their kin, and others who enjoy superb renditions of Middle Eastern kebobs, rice dishes, and classics such as fesenjon, a savory meat entree. Efficient service and huge portions make this a good choice for groups.
3333 Bear St., 714-850-0880, hamamorisushibar.com
Sushi artist James Hamamori (previously of Wasa) applies his name and eloquent talents to this penthouse dazzler. Sure, he features his famous “sushi gems,” but this white-on-white venue also shows off urbane upscale dishes such as shiitake mushroom frites, and miso-marinated lamb chops. Prix fixe menus are a best buy, but happy hour has some steals, too. Top wines and elite sakes.
Leatherby’s Cafe Rouge ★★★
615 Town Center Drive, 714-429-7640, patinagroup.com/leatherbys-cafe-rouge
No corkage. New American. $$$
Rarified and lovely, this sleeper choice for fine dining awakens only when the stages nearby come alive. The cafe is in the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, and executive chef Ross Pangilinan themes his pre-theater menus to match the current production. Dazzling a la carte choices are seasonal, and can include a colorful lobster salad with mango, papaya salad with spicy vinegar, house-made pastas, and an excellent rack of lamb.
Marché Moderne ★★★★
3333 Bristol St., 714-434-7900, marchemoderne.net
Florent Marneau’s easy, chic bistro serves French favorites with a contemporary twist, including artisan-made cheese and charcuterie plates, along with moules frites, steak frites l’echalote, cold foie gras torchon, and oysters du jour. Glorious desserts by wife Amelia are the finest in Orange County—fresh-fruit gateaux, satiny ice creams, and dense, super-dark chocolate creations. The three-course lunch prix fixe is a stellar deal, packing the room daily.
Pizzeria Ortica ★★★
650 Anton Blvd., 714-445-4900, pizzeriaortica.com
Chef de cuisine Justin Miller oversees this “It” pizzeria from L.A. star chef David Myers, turning a previously hapless site near the Segerstom Center for the Arts into a reliable source for creative antipasti, refined fresh pastas, and authentic pies from a wood-burning oven. Don’t miss the braised pork cheek with white raddichio. Save room for a pick from the short dessert list
Royal Khyber ★★★
1621 W. Sunflower Ave., 714-436-1010, royalkhyber.com
Sunday brunch. Indian. $$
Arun Puri, the creator behind Orange County’s first Indian restaurant, is still buying the spices and manning the tandoor oven in the skilled kitchen at this upscale choice for first-rate renditions of classics such as Butter Chicken, Tikka Masala, and the signature Khyber’s Nectar, a dish of slow-cooked lamb shanks said to be an aphrodisiac.
695 Town Center Drive, 714-463-6060, vacarestaurant.com
Spanish tapas and steaks. $$$
Top chef Amar Santana and ace partner Ahmed Labbate return to Costa Mesa with an exuberant, singular ode to Spain. Santana sidesteps the “eat local” crusade, offering peerless Jamon Iberico, creamy Finca Pascualete cheese, lush bomba rice for paellas, and verdant Mahon gin for cocktails. Dozens of authentic tapas beg to be tried, but do consider excellent wood-grilled steaks, dry-aged in-house. Dinner tables at prime times are scarce, so plan, wait, or aim for lunch
If you are shopping at and around Fashion Island:
900 Bayside Drive, 949-721-1222, baysiderestaurant.com
Bayside’s makeover injects its harbor-side location with fresh energy. Veteran Paul Gstrien remains top chef, but look for expanded Prime beef offerings. Long-favored by the coastal set for jazzy brunches, insiders stop in Friday night for a fine jazz session in the bar. Prix fixe menus are a draw.
545 Newport Center Drive, 949-640-0900, ilfornaio.com
From the cognoscenti of Il Fornaio, this is the perfect SoCal vision of an upscale Italian trattoria. The big draws are the fresh-baked breads, pizzas, pastas, and risotto dishes. Don’t miss the bigoli alla Padovana with big strands of perciatelli and the bold flavors of house-made sausage mingled with porcini mushrooms.
Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar ★★★ ½
455 Newport Center Drive, 949-720-9633, flemingssteakhouse.com
Sunday brunch. $$$
Wet-aged at least 21 days, Fleming’s Prime steaks are broiled and seasoned with nothing but salt and pepper, from bone-in filet mignon to ribeyes. Added attraction: a stellar wine list with more than 100 choices by the glass.
850 Avocado Ave., 949-718-0188, hillstone.com
No corkage. Seafood. $$$
Heavenly biscuits, baked to order, and pristine oysters, shucked to order (in season), are two reasons to visit this popular bar and restaurant. The sand-floor patio with glowing fire pit attracts singles, while the ocean-fresh fare draws foodies. If freshly caught seafood doesn’t appeal, there’s always terrestrial dishes such as braised short ribs.
Oak Grill ★★★
Island Hotel, 690 Newport Center Drive, 949-760-4920, oakgrillnb.com
A glorious patio under majestic ficus trees is but one impressive result of an extreme makeover of The Island Hotel’s dining venue, now branded as a relaxed-but-upscale destination for modern American seasonal fare. The thoughtful menu from executive chef Marc Johnson is equally instrumental in recasting the space. Johnson slips in some polished Southern cooking alongside modern mainstays such as Maine lobster chopped salad. Don’t skip dessert—pastry chef Andy de la Cruz is exceptional.
453 Newport Center Drive, 949-640-7697, roysrestaurant.com
Hawaiian fusion. $$$
Diners look forward to local Hawaiian-Asian favorites such as grilled rack of lamb with Korean-spice vinaigrette, Okinawa potato puree, stylish sushi, misoyaki butterfish, and the ever-popular melting-hot chocolate souffle. The seasonal three-course prix fixe meal is a value at $37. Note: Star rating reflects a former chef.
Sushi Roku ★★★
327 Newport Center Drive, 949-706-3622, innovativedining.com
Modern Japanese. $$$
The sixth location of this L.A.-based Cal-Japanese concept makes a huge impression with striking decor and vibrant cuisine. If the dining room’s busier than the sushi bar, blame the thoughtfully designed and executed menu, notably dishes such as fluke kumquat sashimi, blue crab tartare, Prime ribeye Japonais, and the deconstructed s’mores. The creative sushi deserves a night all its own, and the bar and patio offer their own vibes. Look for scores of noodles, salads, and bento boxes at lunch, and sakes.
Wasa Sushi ★★★
1346 Bison Ave., 949-760-1511, wasasushi.com
Wine and beer. Japanese. $$
James Hamamori cemented his stardom here, but now Satoru Takashima is the chef at this striking shopping-center spot brimming with devotees of modern spins on sushi. Renowned for such fare as smoked salmon with ginger sauce and fresh orange. Exceptional selection of salads, appetizers, and entrees as well. Note: Star rating reflects a former chef.
21123 Newport Coast Drive, 949-760-9687, zovs.com
This attractive shopping center offshoot of the popular original Zov’s in Tustin is a go-to cafe that lures locals with creative choices for breakfast, lunch, light dinners, and meals to go. Desserts are a standout and so is the delightful patio.
If you are shopping at and around The Shops at Mission Viejo:
Dublin 4 Gastropub ★★★
26342 Oso Parkway, 949-582-0026
Publicans Darren and Jean Coyle welcome a varied crowd to this chipper modern pub, designed to rival Dublin’s finest. Executive chef David Shofner applies fine-dining cred and scratch cooking to a menu of new and old-school fare that sparkles. Don’t-miss items include premium cottage pies, a killer lamb burger, and anything with house-cured meats. Upscale pricing and dapper surroundings prove this is not your frat brother’s Irish pub.
Wineworks for Everyone ★★★
26342 Oso Parkway, 949-582-0026, wineworksforeveryone.com
Wine and beer.
Dinner only. Closed Monday. California. $$$
This near-hidden pocket bistro is a top choice for wine-centric cuisine in South County. A retooled menu by chef David Shofner, who also helms the kitchen at Dublin 4 next door, brims with seasonal California fare that flatters a wine list of West Coast and international bottles. Must-haves include daily flatbread, gourmet sliders, and a killer cheese plate