Say what you will about Orange County’s food culture (at least in relation to its undersized presence next to Los Angeles), but the place sure knows how to wring out dollars from wary suburban diners. In fact, it’s a process so refined that Los Angeles could stand to learn a thing or two about what’s going on south of the Orange Curtain.
For starters, the OC has really begun leading the pack on food halls and open-air malls with mixed-in retail, bars, and restaurants. There’s the OC Mix Mart in Costa Mesa of course, home of much-lauded spots like Taco Maria and Portola Coffee Lab. The sprawling shopping complex features tucked-away vendors spread across a walkable compound, with loads of indoor-outdoor seating and plenty of parking (this is Orange County after all).
Consider also the Anaheim Packing House, a bright, multi-story space spread full with seats on the open air dock, and with a tall atrium feel inside. Despite sometimes being referred to as an upscale “food court” the place is in reality a much more workable space than something like Grand Central Market in Downtown Los Angeles, which occupies a single long, mostly flat open space filled with tight corridors that clog easily. Anaheim Packing also activates more of its vertical space than, say, Far East Plaza, where — despite the massive draw of places like Howlin’ Ray’s, LASA, Endorffeine, and Chego — the second floor can sometimes feel like a ghost town where the occasional ramen reboot tumbleweeds in for a bit.
And that’s to say nothing of Huntington Beach’s Pacific City, a more conventional open-air mall (with attached food hall concept called Lot 579) that took years to come to life. Now that it’s here, guests are flocking for the views and the sit-down dinner options. There’s Ways & Means Oyster House for casual seafood on the covered patio, and Bluegold upstairs doing daily hours from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. That space, a beachy modern getaway with surfside views, comes from the Blackhouse Hospitality team behind Little Sister, Abigaile, and a number of other South Bay (as in, LA County) properties. Even Jed Sanford and chef Tin Vuong know there’s money to be made in the more casual corners of Orange County.
Which brings us to Santa Ana, an area of Orange County trying hard to lead the revitalized culinary charge for the entire Southland. Not only has the city made 4th Street rather walkable, with bars and restaurants galore, but the aptly-named 4th Street Market is a hub of culinary activity all to itself. With its compact footprint the market provides low-cost starter options for newcomers looking to test concepts in a fast-paced weekend environment, without the buy in and build out of a dedicated restaurant space somewhere else. Some concepts have worked there, others have not, but it’s at lot easier (and cheaper) to find out at 4th Street Market than somewhere else.
Around the corner is McFadden Public Market, a newcomer to the scene that promises a more late-night vibe filled with cocktails, hearty food, and pinball machines. Mission Control is its new games-and-drinks space, and inside the rest of the building concepts like En Tu Boca, Rooster Republic (fried chicken, of course), and Bone Stock all cater to a young clientele growing up to become obsessed with big, saturated food photos found online at places like Foodbeast. It’s no coincidence, then, that Foodbeast keeps their offices just steps away.
Others in the Orange County fast causal food hall genre include Union Market in Tustin and Mission Viejo. There’s also Trade, a soon-to-open mixed use property in Irvine with the same overclocked consortium of colorful food vendors so common these days. They, along with McFadden, 4th Street, and the other wide array of markets found around Orange County, are offering a promise to diners that Los Angeles has struggled to keep: provide low-cost, quality food in a comfortable, hip environment loaded with choice.
Los Angeles has logistical issues like space and rent that make large-scale food halls a trickier bet here, though there are plenty of places keen on trying nonetheless. The city has also moved away in some sense from dedicated singular shopping spaces (as has the rest of America) in favor of neighborhood development. Hollywood Boulevard in Los Feliz is a prime example, brimming with new restaurants and conjoined spaces like Go Get Em Tiger/McConnell’s Fine Ice Creams. Kismet is a thirty-second walk away, and the newly opened Silver Lake Music Conservatory anchors the far end of the long block.
Others, like the Westfield mall franchise, are looking closely at Orange County’s food hall model as a version of their own future. The revamped Westfield Santa Anita features a slew of big-name dining options in an open space filled with light and casual, open seating. More towards the center of town, chef Michael Mina’s upcoming food hall inside the Beverly Center is meant to rethink the modern mall food court — something Orange County has been ahead of for quite some time. And with the rise of even more names like McFadden and Trade, it’s a genre the county looks to stay in the lead on for quite some time.