At some point when I strike up a conversation with someone new (and they learn about my food writing), they ask the question that I dread, “What’s your favorite restaurant?” And I rarely, if ever, give a proper response. Why? It changes all the time. I am always on the search for the shiny, new spot to cover, so to make time to revisit a favorite can be tough.
That being said, over the years there have been a handful of places that I can rely on for consistently solid dining. Many of them have aesthetics that I can ramble on about; all of them have stellar service. You’ll better understand my culinary point-of-view when you read about my dining mainstays. So for all the acquaintances and friends I’ve made over the years, here’s my loaded response.
With day drinking plus brunch served weekends in addition to lunch and dinner, this Italian concept with Japanese influences demonstrates how far Orange County dining has advanced these last few years. Kei Concepts is responsible for this and a number of aggressive forays into multiple Asian cuisines, with Sup Noodle Bar being the very first concept to strike gold. Savvy social media plays up Ini’s gorgeous menu that tastes as good as it appears, while well-trained servers complete the experience. I normally gravitate toward the melon and prosciutto with hazelnuts and mustard vinaigrette to prime my palette. Umami-rich truffle funghi pizza is a go-to, unless I’m in the mood for seafood – then it’s branzino for me.
Also worthy of mention is Gem, Kei’s fine dining destination helmed by Chef Nathan Loudermill. Admittedly, I didn’t realize that Gem’s menu was on constant rotation and hadn’t gone back since opening until a few months ago. But I learned recently that this is changing, with a lineup of greatest hits to be consistently offered alongside a seasonal menu. Bonus: By the time you read this, Irvine will be blessed with dual concepts in the former EMC Seafood: Nep (a Vietnamese brunch concept) in the daytime with Kin Izakaya during evening hours.
A steak entree from Marché Moderne. Photos by Anne Marie Panoringan/Culture OC
I have been loyal to this French restaurant since its original address at South Coast Plaza many years ago. Superb service, an intimate setting and dinner specials that truly are special, in addition to an already impeccable menu, make this one of the very best establishments in Orange County, period. We always begin with the bread service with butter before pursuing its comprehensive menu; I rarely, if ever, order the same entrée twice. Possessing desserts to rival everywhere else means Marché is a place we occasionally visit solely for a sweet finish. It is worth every dollar spent. My hope is that James Beard and/or Michelin realize it as well one day.
While I do my best to work my way around Olea’s menu, most of the time I gravitate back to its chicken schnitzel with herby spätzle (I’m salivating just thinking about this dish) as well as those signature Meyer lemon and honey duck wings. An ample parking situation at the border of Costa Mesa and its Newport Beach address means never stressing about making our reservation on time. Regulars at Olea’s wrap-around bar keep it perpetually busy, and for good reason — one of the county’s most prolific bartenders, Inga Tantisalidchai, can be found pouring her monthly cocktail special.
Olea's duck wings, left, and schnitzel with spaetzle. Photo by Anne Marie Panoringan/Culture OC
The RJB Restaurant Group (named after owner Russ Bendel) in particular has made great strides in the past decade and I’ve enjoyed every single brand Bendel, Chef Jared Cook (one of my very first interviews back in 2011) and the partners have developed. Across the board, service is always pleasant and every dining room/patio offers a cozy, welcoming vibe. Note: For more scenic views and people watching, check out Sapphire, its Laguna Beach outpost.
When I moved to Southern California to finish college and learned about South Coast Plaza for the first time, I knew it would be a place I would frequent. Over the years I’ve enjoyed the affordable menu at Back Bay Rowing, a tucked away Signature Kitchen inside Macy’s Home Store and proper drinks at Pizzeria Ortica’s bar. So it should come as no surprise that one of my preferred is in this shopping mecca.
Populaire might sound a little pretentious, yet that couldn’t be further from the truth. An approachable French bistro painted in the coolest of blues is where I’ve been spending most of my solo SCP dining when famished. Why? The team helmed by Chef Nick Weber shines at modern takes on classic dishes such as duck confit spliff, ratatouille with grilled crostini and anything brunchy. I’m also a fan of the restaurant’s petite chef’s counter (it can accommodate up to four) for a more bespoke experience.
Its easily accessible location makes Popularie ideal for a quick bite or secluded dinner. And unless it’s a major holiday, I never have to wonder about it being closed. As backup, cross the Bridge of Gardens for sister restaurant Terrace by Mix Mix and its unbeatable al fresco seating, serving eclectic bites including pizzas and damn good pork adobo.
When I crave a morning meal and it’s before the 11 a.m. cutoff, you’ll often find me near the intersection of Sand Canyon Avenue and Alton Parkway for a true hidden gem in an office park. S’wich accomplishes a delicious menu from a modest kitchen. Abundant patio seating with shaded trees (plus an indoor option playing eclectic tunes) gives this eatery the personality that attracts not only the folks at Blizzard Entertainment next door but staff from surrounding hospitals. The hustle is real, so call ahead that order if you’re in a rush.
S’wich Bistro's brekkie burrito, left, and sandwich and onion rings. Photos by Anne Marie Panoringan/Culture OC
As for favorite bites, S’wich assembles one of my preferred brekkie (breakfast) burritos utilizing both sausage and its house-glazed bacon. I’m typically a single protein, brekkie burrito kind of gal, but their version caused me to reconsider. After 11 a.m., I may crave a Korean BBQ beef sandwich. The other week I ordered the chicken bistro club and it fed my need for extra protein, but I normally get one of the turkey options. Fact: S’wich also serves up freshly fried potato chips that crunch so loud I accidentally tune out my coworkers while noshing on them. Oh, and the refreshing strawberry hibiscus iced tea has been keeping me company through summer heatwaves.
Anne Marie Panoringan is the food columnist for Culture OC.