10 honorable mentions
The Cellar: Dark, romantic and subterranean, this venerable Fullerton restaurant feels like a Vegas Rat Pack hangout circa 1967.
The Hobbit: It doesn’t look like much from the street, but once inside this Orange restaurant, you’ll appreciate the Tolkien-esque atmosphere, which is built more to Gandalf than Bilbo scale and feels slightly British pub-ish.
Il Garage: A massive rollup door in this restaurant behind Stanton’s Park Ave Restaurant opens to a huge vegetable garden, where you’re free to stroll around. The expansive grounds are especially pretty after dark.
Mesa: Retractable roof, indoor trees, a big fireplace – there’s a huge coolness quotient to this well-appointed Costa Mesa hipster hangout, particularly around its attractive bar.
Ramos House Cafe: The courtyard is the place to be for brunch on weekends, where it’s leafy and beautiful but not especially quiet – trains roll into the nearby Amtrak station regularly. It’s surrounded by old town San Juan Capistrano, one of O.C.’s most beautiful historic neighborhoods.
Red O: Imagine a Moorish palace designed by Kanye West. This Fashion Island restaurant is over the top, eye-popping and rich with romantic details such as backlit bottles, huge fan palms, slipcovers over chairs and intricately patterned floor tiles.
Sapphire Laguna: Everyone loves the ocean-close patio at this popular PCH hangout, but the bar, with its beautiful wood-slab top, is an attraction unto itself, as are the fascinating lighting fixtures.
Sol Cocina: The bar and the window tables are the best places to be, but anywhere in this stylish, upscale Newport Mexican restaurant with a harbor view feels like it’s part of the action.
South of Nick’s: Natural shades, huge wood beams, large dark-colored banquettes and a few historic touches create a solid, rustic atmosphere, making this San Clemente restaurant a calming place to be even on busy weekends.
Watertable: One of O.C.’s most attractive hotel restaurants is inside the Hyatt Huntington Beach, with a long, inviting bar, plenty of softly lit nooks and crannies to settle into, and lots of outdoor seating that takes advantage of its stunning ocean-adjacent location.
Memorable restaurants excel at many things: great food, an imaginative chef, exemplary service, a friendly atmosphere.
Many of the best have an extra attribute – they’re beautiful to look at. Dining at a thoughtfully designed and aesthetically pleasing restaurant can be a transformative experience, ending your tough workweek on a well-deserved high note or turning a birthday celebration into a timeless memory.
Here are 10 of Orange County’s most beautiful restaurants, as chosen by yours truly, the Register’s architecture critic, with input from our team of food writers, editors and photographers.
AnQi: Everything about this high-end Asian restaurant and bar in South Coast Plaza is urbane and more than a little showy – an impression reinforced by the presence of a fashion runway in the middle of the room. The bar is a magical place where backlighting turns bottles into artwork. Sumptuous fabrics and chic art are everywhere, and the room is subtly subdivided to create private spaces and intimate corners.
Bistro Papillote: Playful filigree dominates in this intimate French restaurant – in the decorative ironwork on the front facade, in the delicate, small chandeliers inside, in the wallpaper depicting Old World architecture. Fronted by a verdant herb garden, it’s a welcome visual respite from the minimalist modernism of the rest of Costa Mesa’s South Coast Collection.
Fig & Olive: This airy Mediterranean restaurant at Fashion Island conveys a sense of Euro-coolness: high ceilings, large exposed wood beams, white walls, tastefully understated decor and strategically displayed indoor plants. Bottles are used decoratively throughout the restaurant, and the bar is huge and inviting.
Habana: Hemingway would have felt right at home in this moody, romantic boite, where cigars (outdoors, of course) have never been taboo. The Cuban-cuisine stalwart in The Lab in Costa Mesa resides in a repurposed, older industrial building, and the structure’s raw-edged roots are still visible, which gives it a rustic and slightly devil-may-care stylishness. The best spot for dinner is the patio – particularly after dark, when the candles are lit and the buzz of pedestrian traffic can be heard but not seen behind the lush landscaping.
Javier’s: You enter this upscale Mexican restaurant in Newport’s Crystal Cove Promenade through a Moorish arch surrounded by a forest of palms and other tropical landscaping, lit magnificently after dark. Inside, a tequila tree displays some of Javier’s huge selection. This is one of the county’s premier Margarita destinations, and everywhere you look there are seductive places to enjoy one: rich, brown leather banquettes indoors; a sexily illuminated, wraparound covered patio that offers spectacular views of the sunset over the Pacific Ocean.
Provenance: Chef Cathy Pavlos didn’t change the essentials when she took over the former Sage Restaurant in Newport’s Eastbluff. Instead, she capitalized on a good thing: this restaurant’s magnificent and secluded patio. It’s now ringed by herb and vegetable gardens, and it’s generously shaded by a handsome pergola. Inside, everything’s light, bright and airy by day, but don’t discount Provenance’s nocturnal charms. The large glass-fronted wine cases on the right-hand wall display some excellent California selections, and the bar is quiet and friendly enough to carry on a conversation with strangers during the dinner hour.
Selanne Steak Tavern: Retired Anaheim Ducks star Teemu Selanne has reimagined the former French 75 in Laguna as a swanky club plucked from somewhere in his native Finland. The look is fresh white and wood, the epitome of Nordic elan. Now that its uncomfortable bar stools have been replaced, the bar is the place to be in this bustling, fashionable night spot – it’s one of the most convivial social scenes on the O.C. coast.
Stonehill Tavern: This dazzling, upscale restaurant-bar epitomizes the laid-back sophistication of coastal Southern California dining. New York-based interior designer Tony Chi has taken full advantage of a prime location in the St. Regis Monarch Beach resort in Dana Point. Floor-to-ceiling glass cases display its generous inventory of wine and spirits. The bar’s green-and-white mosaic floor tiles cast a subtly Mediterranean feel, and when you enter the dining room it will be hard to focus on the menu because the Pacific Ocean vistas are so distracting.
Studio at Montage: This restaurant has a commanding view of the ocean from its blufftop perch in the middle of the massive Montage Laguna Beach. Sited on an east-west axis, the place looks like a Craftsman bungalow from Old Towne Orange that was magically transported to the edge of the Pacific. Rich dark browns and rugged wood beams dominate the room, counterbalanced by shades of cream and sand. The bar, in the middle of the room, is surprisingly casual for such an upscale restaurant – a great place to start your evening.
Little Sparrow: This trendy, downtown Santa Ana spot might not be everyone’s idea of beautiful, but it excels at an essential quality: coziness, especially its small, inviting bar. The room is full of comfortable places to sit; everything feels homey. And when it’s time to honor your reservation, you walk through a long tunnel-like corridor that subtly shifts the occasion from happy hour to dinner.
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