The Best Restaurants in 15 Orange County Cities
There was a time when people who lived in Orange County had to drive up to LA for great food. But all that’s changed over the last five or so years -- thanks to an influx of new and innovative restaurants, the rising profiles of established spots, and a growing sense that the OC’s now a bona-fide culinary destination in itself. Below, check out 35 places well worth the trek down the 405.
Most everything here is cooked on a wood-fire grill and comes away with a distinctive smoky flavor, from the meatballs and quail to the charred bacon (served with quite possibly the OC’s best wedge salad). A well-executed menu of artisanal cocktails (like the Italian Snow Cone made with Aperol, or Hyland Old-Fashioned crafted with black walnut bitters) balances out all the earthy, woodsy flavors.
Don’t be fooled by the name: Taco Maria’s more than a simple taqueria (although it does make a particularly memorable shiitake mushroom taco). While the prix-fixe dinner menu changes regularly, it always features elegant, modern interpretations of Mexican food, like scallops served with a soft Oaxacan cheese and black squid ink crumbs.
Top Chef finalist Amar Santana’s tapas spot is influenced by different regions of Spain, but his flavor-packed dishes -- like chicken cannelloni glazed in foie gras sauce -- will have you thinking you’ve never quite tasted anything like it before. Steaks are the star of the show, though, including the house specialty: a dry-aged ribeye aged for 50 days (or more).
As the name implies, the Southern-leaning food here is meant to be shared -- although you may not want to once the wood-fired lamb lollipops and chicharron-dusted smoked bone marrow arrives at your table. The brunch menu is familiar but refreshingly non-basic, like the pulled pork Benedict doused in Creole mustard hollandaise.
This grill-your-own Japanese BBQ place has drawn looong wait times for years, thanks to top-quality meats -- from the classics (boneless short rib and rib-eye) to the deliciously experimental (salted beef tongue, intestines, and liver). Fair warning: They don’t take reservations.
Pie-Not serves up traditional Australian pies, each taken up a notch with top-quality fillings (sirloin steak, lamb, chicken, vegetari-ugh-an) with a flaky crust and a no-silverware-allowed caveat. The highlight, though, is the Dog's Eye Pie -- a delicious, crusted melange of ground beef and onions.
Since a list of OC’s best restaurants wouldn't be complete without at least TWO restaurants with the word "vine" in their name, may we present this globally inspired bistro? Old Vine Café is blasting out lengua (that’s beef tongue) omelets for brunch, a house-made meatball panino for lunch, and prix-fixe dinner menus that'll nail you with char-grilled lamb chops w/ a blueberry demi-glace.
This small-batch donut shop does it right: Its signature huckleberry 'nut is one of SoCal's best, and its ante can be upped with seasonal variations like passionfruit and guava add-ons. Plus, the donuts are prepared in small batches throughout the day -- so snagging one fresh from the fryer is practically guaranteed.
Orange County has one of the largest Vietnamese communities in the US, so it should come as no surprise that you’ll find incredible Viet eats in Little Saigon. Vua Bun Bo’s menu isn’t as extensive as some other places, but the marrow bone soup is fragrant and worth the trip alone.
You’ll never get bored at Playground, thanks to a globally inspired menu that’s reinvented daily with new dishes and evolved staples, from Singaporean kaya toast to the signature Uncle Lou’s Fried Chicken: a bold, spicy, tangy dish that’s not for the faint of heart. If you’re feeling extra adventurous, book tickets for Playground 2.0, the restaurant’s culinary theater that offers multi-course tasting dinners.
This Filipino spot slings traditional dishes like sinigang, dinuguan, and adobo with fresh-from-the-farmers-market veggies and unexpected ingredients. Highlights include the kare kare, a traditional meat stew that’s transformed with roasted cauliflower here, and a craft cocktail menu featuring classic Pinoy ingredients like calamansi and ube.
Right in Santa Ana’s Arts District, this cozy gastropub is perfect for a first date (or second, or third... ). It’s got an intimate vibe, an outdoor patio, and a menu of highly shareable Spanish bites -- like smoked-chile mussels and chile relleno -- and stiff cocktails.
Juliette serves dense, delicious, gourmet sandwiches (the pork belly with yuzu kosho aioli is a must) to its power-lunch crowd. But those wandering in a little later can enjoy “social hour” -- a menu of cheese, charcuterie, and light-yet-interesting bites -- while evening diners chow down on rustic-inspired entrees. Look for commonplace meats, like hanger steak, with a unique twist (in this case, pickled fresno chilis and a kaffir lime veal reduction).
Yes, Mastro’s is a national chain, but it still ought to be your go-to for flawless, tender steaks in the OC. It also gets bonus points, though, because while plenty of high-end chop houses don’t bother perfecting side dishes, Mastro’s also kills it with mouthwatering lobster mashed potatoes, creamed spinach, and an unapologetically rich butter cake for dessert.
One of the County's modern classics is Google-challenged A Restaurant, home of the former Arches in Newport Beach. The food here is always stellar, and highlights include a wagyu and foie gras carpaccio and a truffle-infused English pea toast. The wine pairings are also available from a top sommelier.
There’s a special temperature-controlled room where pasta’s made on-site at Andrea Ristorante -- a hidden gem tucked inside The Resort at Pelican Hill -- and the attention to detail shows in perfectly chewy, al dente bucatini and cavatelli. Request a patio table, where you’ll get a view of the resort’s landscaped golf course and the Pacific Ocean.
BurntZilla is what happens when two beloved food trucks (Burnt Truck & Dogzilla) join forces. The result is a menu of truly elevated fast food with some well-placed Asian influence -- expect to choose between mini-dogs and sliders, all served on King’s Hawaiian rolls and available in a number of tasty variations. Exhibit A: a spicy pork sausage topped with yakisoba noodles, okonomi sauce, aonori, and red ginger.
Anyone who has sunk their teeth into one of these Golden Foodie Award-winning burgers will tell you that they’re really THAT good. Meat is ground every few hours (ensuring optimum freshness) in this hidden-in-an-office-building, frustrating-to-find beef den, which offers only a handful of options... all of which go great with the crazy-good strawberry/basil lemonade.
The dude behind this low-key shabu bar is originally from Dana Point's swanky St. Regis, and it shows in the quality of the produce he throws down on each plate of beef and seafood. Oh, and everything is sided with the traditional shabu veggie trimmings, and if you're smart, the actually-really-good squid ink porridge.
This cozy, New American restaurant always has long-time favorites on the menu (jidori chicken schnitzel!), but also always has seasonal goodness... which means right now, it's popping out fried green tomatoes w/ fresh burrata.
The Vietnamese food at this speakeasy-within-a-restaurant (secreted in a dimly lit back room inside Bluegold) surpasses even the Pacific Ocean views (which are incredible). It’s the brainchild of the same guy behind Little Sister, so expect strong Southeast Asian flair in dishes like lamb satay noodles and fried sea bass.
Watertable is an expansive spot that looks like a hacienda, but feels like a game of Clue thanks to a library, lounge, and several dining rooms. It's got a separate bar menu with house-baked baguettes and "bar jars" (full of excellence like goat cheese spread w/ Spanish manchego), while the full menu drops awesomeness like a veal porterhouse with a cherry port reduction.
Some of the best seafood in OC can be found at Slapfish, regardless of whether you hit the location in HB, Irvine, or Laguna Beach. The atmosphere is casual, and the food is comprised of a killer lobster roll and chowda' fries -- which, yes, are fries smothered in clam chowder. Read that again.
Chef Ryan Adams is elevating the hell out of your favorite comfort foods (think: meatloaf wrapped in bacon), but you can also indulge in fancier fare, like bone marrow topped with chimichurri. Every last Sunday of the month (twice a month during summer!), you can also order the uber-popular Fried Chicken Dinner which includes a chopped summer salad, garlic mash & gravy, green beans, cole slaw, coconut cake, and, of course, fried chicken.
If you’re a Ducks fan and (still) weeping over Teemu Selänne’s retirement, traipse on down to his Laguna Beach restaurant where you can often call him out to his face... which you'll probably do while slamming back the Lord Stanley -- a 32-ounce Australian wagyu tomahawk.
CCA-trained chef/owner Dee Nguyen’s dishes draw the early crowds to this graffitied-up Laguna Hills strip mall Viet-fusion spot, where brunch is served Wednesday to Sunday. The often hour-long wait on weekends for his version of bacon (pork belly) and eggs (tempura-style), brulee French toast, or house-made cinnamon buns? Totally worth it.
Chef/owner Daniel Godinez calls his cuisine marriage "French Mexique", and that means tomatillo-topped crepes filled with carnitas, and signature chilaquiles bathed in a fragrant, seven-chile sauce that's somehow not spicy. Oh, and skip the smaller original location on Main, and head straight for the patio-equipped brunch/lunch/dinner operation on Chapman.
Sandwiches with waffles instead of bread? YES. PLEASE. This OC chain began here in 2010, and now has seven locations in both California and Nevada (and soon, South Korea!). Whether you’re craving a sweet Liège waffle sandwich or a savory green eggs and ham, Bruxie has you deliciously covered.
Another Golden Foodie Award-winner, Chef/owner Hiro Noguchi personally visits the LA fish markets at least four times a week to procure fish from Japan for his strip mall sushi restaurant, which means each bite of his killer omakase (including the above-pictured uni dish, if you're lucky) is undeniable.
Some Thai restaurants feature a handful of Laotian dishes on their menu, but Vientiane goes hard in the paint when it comes to authenticity. Traditional dishes such as Mok-pa (catfish steamed in banana leaves with herbs and spices) and Nam khao (crispy rice) are favorites, and the papaya salad here is strong and pungent.
Hidden in the middle of Little Saigon, this tiny Mediterranean restaurant from the Kelisian family is making everything by hand, which means a well-worth-the-wait menu of scratch hummus and Adana kebab. No matter what, though, get the specialty "S Cookie" -- it's shaped like a backwards 'S', and will easily be one of the most complex cookies you've ever tasted.
This gastropub (a part of the 5 Doors Group) has its own secret entrance off Poppy St under a big, red key. Once you enter, you'll be transported back to old England (not literally... we think) -- everything's meant for sharing, but the home run is the charcuterie plate, paired with a craft cocktail.
With a dream team in its kitchen (that doesn't include Christian Laettner), The Ranch Restaurant & Saloon is the only spot in Orange County where you can experience fine-dining at its best before heading next door to country line dance at a saloon. Its seasonally driven, farm-to-table menu utilizes organic produce from its farm in the Santa Ana Mountains, for favorites including Petaluma quail and the signature Cowboy rib eye.
Indian street foods are no longer a challenge to find in OC. Hit this spot up (or its Irvine location) for bhel puri, panipuri, and chickpea chaat, all of which can be paired with the craft beers on hand. If you’re a stickler for what you're familiar with, a selection of curries and vegetarian options are also available, with fresh naan to save you the trouble of having to lick your plate.
Michael Mina’s Stonehill Tavern at the Monarch Beach Resort (formerly the St. Regis) offers a five-diamond/star dining experience with a stunning view of the ocean, and with most of the ingredients sourced from within 10 miles of the resort.
Sign up here for our daily LA email and be the first to get all the food/drink/fun Los Angeles has to offer.