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Great Places for Cocktails in Orange County, Part 1: New Classics

Updated: Dec 13, 2023

COCKTAILS, PART 1: Over the next few weeks, our food writers, Anne Valdespino and Anne Marie Panoringan, are taking a deep dive into places around Orange County that are great spots to grab a drink with friends.

Que Rico has mezcal, allspice, bergamotto, passion fruit and lemon at Farmhouse in Corona del Mar. Photo by Anne Valdespino, Culture OC
 

When the craft cocktail craze first hit, it seemed like we were all stuck in dank speakeasies, knocking back stiffies with nothing to eat but salted peanuts before stumbling off to dinner God knows where.

But when food joined the party, the scene got a lot more interesting. Chefs and mixologists were collaborating, skipping off hand-in-hand in creative new directions. Drinks were suddenly shaken with farm-to-table juices, sporting edible blossoms for garnishes. Then the starters sections of menus grew with an eye toward shareables as drinks became a focus of meeting for dinner.

Fine dining rooms could no longer rely on stellar wine lists: Add snazzy cocktails or risk losing the hippest of the clientele.

In recent years, a fresh crop of stellar cocktail spots has popped up with so much to offer that we think it’s time to name ten new classics - five today and five more on Friday. We’ll also have a follow up report on the best new and newish bars to try in December. 

Read on for a list of outstanding watering holes where the glasses are well chilled and the cuisine is always tasty.

PHOTO 1: The 38 Special ($14), at Bosscat Kitchen & Libations in Orange, is a spin on a Black Manhattan. PHOTO 2: The Old Fashioned ($13) made with Maker’s Mark at Bosscat Kitchen & Libations in Orange, is expertly crafted. PHOTO 3: The Moscow Mule ($8), served at Happy Hour at Bosscat Kitchen & Libations in Orange is refreshing. Photos by Anne Valdespino, Culture OC

Bosscat Kitchen and Libations

We dug that the original Bosscat brought a bit of true grit to Newport Beach when it opened in 2014, but we like the Old Towne Orange location even better with its whiskey library and bottles hung in gilded cages. 

Locals know it as the former Rod’s Liquor, so the remodel had to incorporate some of the features of the old place when it debuted in 2021.

Classic cocktails such as a refreshing Moscow mule ($8 at happy hour) and a textbook old fashioned ($13) made with Maker’s Mark are expertly crafted, but don’t miss the newbies like the 38 Special ($14), a spin on a Black Manhattan with Old Forester bourbon, a slug of dark Amaro Averna providing heft and a bit of aperol to keep it from becoming too heavy. 

The Korean Fried Chicken Sliders ($8 during Happy Hour) at Bosscat Kitchen & Libations in Orange are spicy and sweet. Photo by Anne Valdespino, Culture OC
 

Shareable snacks hit the spot, from crunchy fried dill pickles ($7) to sticky, sweet and spicy Korean fried chicken sliders ($8) and a grilled cheese ($8) stuffed with short rib that’s a perfect pairing with any rye. 

The original Bosscat moved to Irvine in the summer of 2022 so now there are two places to go for the hearty menu and a wealth of bottles to try in a special whiskey room.

Happy hour runs 3-6 p.m. Monday-Friday in Orange. 118 W. Chapman Ave., Orange, 714-716-1599; 18169 Von Karman Ave., Irvine, 949-333-0917

The speakeasy downstairs is an intimate space with a posh lounge and photo booth at CdM in Corona del Mar. Photo courtesy of CdM

CdM

With CdM restaurant, River Jetty Restaurant Group really hit its stride. The chic dining room with velvet banquettes, salvaged ship’s lanterns and Farrow and Ball wallpaper felt posh yet comfy from day one. The menu, a bit of a departure from its sister restaurant, A, really meshes with the drinks list. At CdM it’s a bit more social – all about shareable small plates, pasta and pizza. 

We love the upstairs but we like the intimate downstairs speakeasy even more. Make a reservation and you’ll be dazzled by mixologist Brandon Nelson. It’s like watching an up-close magician as he deftly rolls out cocktails while carrying on an entertaining conversation. Don’t let his lowkey H.B. surfer-dude vibe fool you. Behind the smile there’s a wealth of knowledge about the history of classic drinks and all the spirits, liqueurs and garnishes that go with them.

Start with CdM’s crowd pleaser, the Bikini Salesman ($18) with Golden Eagle vodka, Chareau aloe liqueur, kiwi, coconut water, ginger, pineapple syrup and lime. The tropical flavors make it feel like a day at the beach and the kiwi retains the natural texture of its seeds, making this drink as satisfying as a smoothie.

If you love bourbon, try the Pressure in Manhattan ($18). Nelson will explain how he rapidly ages the Old Grand Dad whiskey and why he adds a bit of Cynar to kick up the bitter component and balance the sweetness of red vermouth and Luxardo Maraschino liqueur. A dash of Bogart’s Bitters is the finishing touch.

Start a conversation about the scarcity of Chartreuse and in less than a minute there’s a classic Bijou ($17) on your table, a pre-Prohibition cocktail of gin, Chartreuse and red vermouth that puts a new spin on the classic negroni.

While you’re on the gin train, ride the Gin & Toast ($17) with Tenjaku gin, Cointreau, orange preserves and lemon. It comes garnished with a tiny piece of grilled bread, which will have you craving brunch and forgetting all about mimosas. Nelson calls it a “breakfast martini.”

PHOTO 1: The speakeasy downstairs at CdM in Corona del Mar serves craft cocktails and a full dinner menu, including a "fancy pizza." PHOTO 2: The spicy yellowfin tuna ($18) is a cross between sushi and a canape at CdM in Corona del Mar. Photos courtesy of CdM

 

He’s also your server and his recommendations are top notch. The spicy yellowfin tuna ($18) is a cross between sushi and a canape, served atop eggplant tempura instead of rice so it melds all the flavors of sriracha aioli, sweet soy, chives and salty pops of emerald green wasabi tobiko. 

It's a nice prelude to the CdM “fancy pizza” ($27) with spicy calabrese salami, creamy pesto, smoked mozzarella and mixed mushrooms. The habanero honey drizzle on top really helps it pair with fruity notes in your cocktails. 

There are also pastas and plenty of sexy starters like cauliflower hummus, charred octopus, duck liver pate, a meat and cheese board and steak tartare. Sides too. FYI: You can get the whole dinner menu downstairs. 

So, we left remembering Hemingway’s words: “Never sit at a table when you can stand at the bar.” A word to the cocktail crowd: Make Brandon Nelson your guide and dinner in the speakeasy will be a night you won’t soon forget.

2325 E. Coast Highway, Corona del Mar, 949- 287-6600

Two cocktails from Farmhouse in Corona del Mar: On left, Summertime's Close is a pretty pink drink with tequila, Falernum, orgeat, lime and Alchermes. Voodoo Child, right, has lime, pineapple, hibiscus and rum with a flower petal garnish. Photo by Anne Valdespino, Culture OC

The Farmhouse at Roger’s Gardens

When Roger’s Gardens opened Farmhouse restaurant in 2016, a produce-driven menu seemed like the perfect fit. Since then, it has blossomed, serving cuisine and cocktails to suit each season. Chef Rich Mead gets his hands on all the tastiest produce, so choose drinks that show off some of that luscious fruit.

Served in a Collins glass, Summertime’s Close ($17) blends tequila, Falernum, orgeat and lime in a beverage full of lively citrusy flavors. A touch of Alchermes is added to bring in spicy notes of cinnamon and clove and turn the drink a pretty pink. 

Or try the Voodoo Child ($17) where lime, pineapple and hibiscus play against rum to make you feel like you’re on a winter vacation in the Caribbean. Its scarlet flower petal garnish adds a touch of the garden. 

Any of these beverages stand up to starters prepared with an outstanding array of veggies. Pickled bay shrimp tostaditos ($18) get a tangy boost from cauliflower “ceviche” and pickled red onions. 

PHOTO 1: Pickled Shrimp Tostaditosare seasonal starters served at Farmhouse at Roger’s Gardens in Corona del Mar. PHOTO 2: Pumpkin Mascarpone Cheesecake is a seasonal dessert served at Farmhouse at Roger’s Gardens in Corona del Mar. Photos by Anne Valdespino, Culture OC

 

In the house-cured salmon pastrami ($20) plate – served with rye crostini, capers and whole grain mustard – pickled red onions, luscious tomatoes, thinly sliced radishes and Persian cucumbers almost steal the show. A shareable pizza of the day ($21) topped with jewel-like figs and bright green arugula is almost too pretty to eat, but dig in and enjoy those fresh fruits and veggies, balanced by salty slices of prosciutto. 

We especially love the open-air setting. It’s like an old-fashioned barn built with reclaimed wood but fitted with fancy chandeliers. This place is popular, so we recommend reservations, even at lunch.

2301 San Joaquin Hills Road, Corona del Mar, 949- 640-1415. farmhouse.rogersgardens.com

PHOTO 1: The Five Crowns Old Fashioned ($16), one of the best of its kind in O.C. is made from Woodford Reserve bourbon and served at the SideDoor in Corona del Mar. PHOTO 2: Hello Georgie! ($17) with George Remus bourbon, St. George Spiced Pear liqueur, apricot, clove and cinnamon honey are shaken up into a seasonal cocktail at SideDoor in Corona del Mar. Photos by Anne Valdespino, Culture OC

SideDoor

The pub at Five Crowns, Orange County’s iteration of Los Angeles prime rib house Lawry’s, has always been a classic for drinks, but the opening of SideDoor gave the place an update that made it a hit with locals all over again. 

The makeover did not ditch the cozy Tudor surroundings with dark wood, stained glass windows and a welcoming fireplace. It did bring in craft cocktails, charcuterie platters and a small bites menu with a merry Olde England spin like the creamed spinach Yorkshire pudding ($10). It's a giant popover, as Americans call them, filled with creamed spinach and topped with tangy parmesan shreds. It seems a behemoth but the pastry is so airy and buttery, you’ll want a repeat if there are more than two or you.


A small bites menu with a Merry Olde England spin at SideDoor in Corona del Mar includes the Creamed Spinach Yorkshire Pudding ($10). Photo by Anne Valdespino, Culture OC
 

The crispy chicken sandwich ($18) is another winner, stacked high with plenty of jalapeño slaw, pickles and sriracha aioli; it’s a spicy two-hander. There are duck wings ($17), truffled fries ($12), lobster mac and cheese ($31) and all the fare Lawry’s is famous for, from fish and chips ($23) to cuts of prime rib ($46-$67). 

Try the cocktail of the day or find a seasonal favorite. We liked the baking spice flavors in the Hello Georgie! ($17) with George Remus bourbon, St. George Spiced Pear Liqueur, apricot, clove and cinnamon honey. The Harvest Honey ($16) makes a nice margarita substitute with El Corazon reposado tequila, Licor 43, Lillet Blanc and honey syrup sporting tiny dried blossoms on top. 

And there’s always the Five Crowns old fashioned ($16), one of the best of its kind in O.C. Made from Woodford Reserve bourbon, it’s in perfect balance, showing off all facets of the whiskey. This is always a laid-back experience because service is Lawry’s signature, from the saucy drink servers to the valets who race to open your car doors.

3801 E. Coast Highway, Corona del Mar, 949-760-0331

PHOTO 1: The Old Fashioned ($15), served in a tall bucket glass, mixes bourbon and rye at Social Costa Mesa. PHOTO 2: Creative cocktails, like the Make it Legal ($16) with CBD infused vodka, are served at Social Costa Mesa. Photos by Anne Valdespino, Culture OC

Social Costa Mesa

Want a no-nonsense craft cocktail joint with good eats? That’s Social Costa Mesa. When this joint opened in 2014 it was one of the hippest in O.C., with killer cocktails and a menu by founding chef Jeffrey Boullt, who combined his expertise in traditional southern cooking with experience at top-flight restaurants in Southern California. After his departure the food isn’t quite the same, but it’s still more than decent and well suited to Social’s focus on drinks.

Even larger plates are shareable, like the two mahi mahi fish tacos ($18) served batter fried or grilled with cabbage, white cheddar, salsa and a simple Spanish rice that tastes like somebody’s abuelita is in the kitchen. Two BBQ pulled pork sliders ($18) on mini Hawaiian rolls come stuffed with shredded meat, pineapple slaw and crispy onion strings. They’re sided with sweet potato fries, ketchup and barbecue sauce.

Some plates are shareable, like the two mahi mahi fish tacos ($18) served batter fried or grilled at Social Costa Mesa. Photo by Anne Valdespino, Culture OC
 

The drinks are as good as ever. The old fashioned ($15), served in a tall bucket glass, mixes bourbon and rye to lighten up the proceedings and give it a bit of complexity amplified with angostura and orange bitters. The Antique Soul ($16) is a take on a Black Manhattan combining Averna Amaro and Carpano Antica vermouth for sweetness along with Yellow Rose rye and orange bitters. 

There are also some really creative cocktails on the list like the Make it Legal ($16) with CBD infused vodka, St-Germain elderflower liqueur, lemon juice and a fresh strawberry lemon garnish. It’s so fresh, citrusy and cheeky, it seems like an ode to the Golden State’s surfy, lifestyle-lovin’ backyard.

The best part about this place is its “come as you are” vibe. You’ll find big screen TVs everywhere and a down-home look with distressed wood surfaces and thrift store seating. It feels like a 1920s warehouse where workers in overalls can kick back after their shifts. 

It’s definitely a working stiff’s haven with fancy cocktails for $15-$16, bottled and draft beers for $6-$8, free chips and salsa and all-night happy hour specials every Wednesday, when there’s also live music.

512 W. 19th St., Costa Mesa, 949-642-2425

 

Anne Marie Panoringan contributed to this story.


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