COCKTAILS, PART 3: This is the last installment of a series of stories by our food writers, Anne Valdespino and Anne Marie Panoringan, who took a deep dive into places around Orange County that are great spots to grab a drink with friends.
Anne Valdespino and I talk about food a lot, but we don’t often get to delve deep into the world of cocktails. This series of stories has been our opportunity to imbibe. In part one and part two of our look at cocktails in Orange County, she highlighted long established bars and restaurants that are serving great drinks.
For my column, I’m taking on the newcomers to the block. What did we deem “new” and “newish” in terms of time? Memorable destinations from five years ago to today made the cut. The first five listings are neighborhood favorites while the final handful covers bars that made their mark in the past year – aka my favorite new bars of 2023.
Fable and Spirit
It’s a Coyle family production at this locals dining room in Via Lido Plaza with son Drew overseeing the spirits and sommelier/musician daughter Ali curating a solid wine program. Fable and Spirit’s very new weeknight happy hour includes bourbon-based The Ritual blending sage and maple flavors (and some smoky action) plus a sparkling Beautiful Day beverage featuring gin and elderflower.
Leave your workday behind to secure a seat at Fable’s elegant bar. Chef David Shofner crafted a half-dozen new specials to commemorate the 5-7 p.m. Newport Beach timeframe, artfully plating calamari alongside a gochujang aioli plus avocado crema. An olive and roasted pepper tapenade gives muffuletta vibes to the serrano ham baguette.
3441 Via Lido, Newport Beach, (949) 409-9913
Committed to providing an upscale craft tiki experience, Anaheim’s Strong Water is creative in all aspects; from bar program to food to service to branding and especially ambiance. As a result, on a typical evening availability will be booked up by reservations so it’s suggested to plan ahead.
Rum-based drinks are abundant, making decisions tough to narrow down. Beware the Tradewinds captures cinnamon, apricot and a blend of pineapple and Barbados rum, while Sucking the Monkey pours orange flower, coco puree, and a spiced and coconut rum blend. Saturn, a gin-forward sip made from velvet falernum and orgeat, is a pleasing alternative.
It’s one thing to frequent a solid restaurant with a stellar bar program, but more impressive to encounter a stellar bar that also possesses a solid dining menu. That’s what Strong Water accomplishes with its galley master, Steve Kling. A seasonally changing menu (except for the award-winning loco moco burger) means return visits to try out new grub. The current iteration fires up Hawaiian garlic butter shrimp and a mushroom mapo tofu.
270 S. Clementine St., Anaheim, (714) 829-4060
When Jane first opened it struck us as a little fussy, with drinks served in teacups and servers dressed for the 19th century. Now it’s toned down a bit and running like a top. The bespoke décor such as a vintage French hostess stand, brass lamps and painterly wall coverings clue you in that drinks and food will be well crafted.
Start with a Reckless Engagement. It’s a spicy spin on a Black Manhattan with Don Fulano Reposada tequila standing in for the whiskey, Del Maguey Puebla mezcal, Amaro Averna adding a touch of sweetness, habanero, Nixta corn liqueur and mole bitters. If you’re looking for something lighter, the frothy Goodnight Irene, with Plymouth Gin, Lillet Blanc, blackberry, cardamom, vanilla, pine bitters and lemon, tastes like blackberry cobbler.
Bites include oysters, steak frites and other goodies. Many are shareable like the three bao sliders, whose fillings change regularly. This time they were stuffed with pork surrounded by pineapple bits. Larger plates include three perfectly seared scallops atop a toothsome bed of farro with corn and roasted pasilla chilies.
158 Avenida Del Mar, San Clemente, (949) 388-3051
Whisper the word speakeasy and most of us think dark, dank underground. But Graceland, within HQ Gastropub, has a view of the Pacific in a room flooded with that magical Surf City light during the daytime, the better to show off its cushy ocean-colored lounge furniture and library-style bottle displays. You might feel as if you’re in a rich uncle’s drawing room, complete with murals of fancy ladies and a grand piano. Come for the drinks and stick around for the live music.
The menu has a beachy vibe. It’s a mix of California favorites and surfer grub; the drinks sing of the seashore as well. We loved the signature drink, the Graceland, a robin’s egg blue concoction of Don Q white rum, blue curaçao, pineapple juice, lime juice and coconut poured over crushed ice and garnished with micro flowers and a dehydrated orange wheel clipped to the side of the highball glass. It was fruity but not cloying, and fresh as a sea breeze.
Bites are super satisfying, from beer-battered fish tacos with apple slaw, salsa and more fixings to an enormous tempura spicy tuna roll set on a bed of togarashi miso butter sauce that will have you practically licking the plate. Don’t skip the pot roast sliders. They’re super-savory little meat bombs tucked into mini Hawaiian rolls.
Note that Graceland has different hours from the gastropub. 155 5th St., Huntington Beach, (714) 369-2155
Momoku No Usagi
Hidden behind a San Clemente bookcase and up a flight of stairs lies a sushi bar specializing in whisk(e)y. Japanese for “blind rabbit,” Momoku No Usagi’s dim interior accented by bold lanterns and hovering parasols gives the joint a moody (think Wong Kar Wai’s masterpiece “In the Mood for Love”) arthouse vibe.
Its self-described “janky,” homemade carbonation system serves as a vehicle in which nuanced flavors are extracted from beverages by way of effervescence; an example being the Matcha Highball with Japanese whisky and matcha cordial made in-house. If that’s too high falutin', mezcal sips such as Echo Zulu may be more your style. When in doubt, go the old fashioned route – Momoku has eight styles to choose from. Feeling peckish? It offers a selection of simple yet effective hand rolls.
425 N. El Camino Real, San Clemente, no phone number.
Pioneer 10 (P10neer)
The precursor to a future bar, Pioneer 10 is an intimate nook in the back room of Dick Church’s pouring a solid collection of thoughtful concoctions, with a touch of Space Age history for good measure. And with the team behind creative coffeehouse Hopper & Burr at the helm, it’s a class act. An autumnal, gin-based Army/Navy is a frothy sip with pear eau de vie. Zero-proof, Costa Mesa imbibing is best with the maple kombucha Proper Mountain drink. If you’re wondering whether Pioneer is worth being on the speakeasy’s waitlist, it is.
2698 Newport Blvd., Costa Mesa, no phone number
Truly a local’s spot, patrons of all drinking ages and cultural backgrounds coexist at Club 616’s stylish digs, bringing the bar’s historical background full circle. Rotating pop-up vendors coordinate the cuisine in its super chill rear patio. Inside, 616 design blends feminine and masculine qualities for an eclectic yet cozy layout.
Opting for a beverage from the club’s dedicated temperance (zero-proof) menu is a smart alternative for designated drivers, non-drinkers and those not in the mood to drink. Although if you’re there to have something boozy, request one of the spirited flights to compare and contrast flavor profiles. Expect classics like a refreshing French 75 or go spirit-forward with Hanky Panky’s fernet and sweet vermouth.
616 E. 4th St., Santa Ana, (714) 868-0695
Blossoms and Brass
Japanese-Italian fusion is how this Costa Mesa bar/cafe refers to itself inside Bloomingdale’s Collage Culinary Experience. Adorned in luxe textures, florals and fixtures, Blossoms and Brass is perfectly suited for the plaza’s fashionable clientele. An enclosed patio is private yet spacious enough for small groups to socialize.
Decadent pastas are flavored with shiso and miso accents. Rigatoni al Fungi blends shimeji mushrooms, ponzu and portobello cream for an intensely umami dish, while watermelon tartar includes pickled cucumber and sesame seeds. Boutique cocktails include a Geisha Manhattan styled with yuzu and plum wine flavors. A scotch-based Miso-cilin even incorporates kimchi.
3333 Bristol St., Costa Mesa, (657) 232-0364
Palmilla Cocina y Taquila
A summertime launch of Newport’s Palmilla meant sunset selfies on the coastal Cabo-esque patio that flows seamlessly into its dining room. From seabass ceviches paired with plantain chips to USDA Prime ribeye, the kitchen helmed by Chef Ray Alvarez works to whet appetites.
Managing an aggressive list of Baja-inspired beverages (including over a dozen margarita possibilities), tequila and mezcal enthusiasts will rejoice. Watermelon Cilantro Coolers sneak in jalapeño heat while the majority of sips land on the slightly sweeter side like Dante’s Inferno mixing frangelico with tamarind puree, anejo and mezcal.
3110 Newport Blvd., Newport Beach, (949) 220-1290
The Royal Hawaiian
The current iteration of this iconic beach city watering hole is here to stay, thanks to a revamp that brought in Dushan Zaric, best known for L.A. speakeasy Employees Only to consult on the bar program. Guests are transported to an island paradise designed in meticulous detail with a few authentic nods to the original at The Royal Hawaiian.
Bringing back Royal classics, often with a RH twist, such as the Laguna Beach Chief Lapu Lapu, passion fruit, orange juice and rum are set ablaze for tableside enjoyment. On the modern side check out Triple Happiness, a mezcal and tequila concoction sweetened with pineapple honey. Afternoon imbibers are treated to a daily brunch menu while the main dinner spread has eclectic offerings including jerk wings, clam spaghetti and galbi (Korean short ribs).
331 N. Coast Highway, Laguna Beach, (949) 549-4354
Anne Valdespino contributed to this article.