Orange County’s food scene has transformed in recent years from a sleepy Los Angeles extension to a distinct locale with an array of flavors all its own. These days, eating and drinking options abound in the OC from morning to night, from brisket taco bites to a tasting menu with worldwide acclaim. Thankfully, the region’s many older mainstays and family-owned restaurants remain popular as well, further highlighting the scene’s diversity across Anaheim’s Little Arabia, Westminster’s Little Saigon, and beyond. Here’s how to spend a perfect day of dining and driving around beautiful Orange County.
9 a.m. Kickstart at the Beachcomber at Crystal Cove
A coastal breeze and the scent of the ocean create just the right atmosphere for a Big Bad Bloody Mary at the Beachcomber, an OC staple. The stiff cocktail is essentially a mini seafood tower shoved into a Ball jar, and makes for a heck of a morning wake-up call that also happens to be served inside Crystal Cove State Park, complete with views of the historic beach cottages. For an alcohol-free breakfast alternative, opt for the coconut macadamia-nut pancakes with lemon zest and warm coconut syrup — and don’t forget the coffee. 15 Crystal Cove, Newport Beach, CA.
10 a.m. A classic treat at Sugar ‘n Spice
The chocolate-dipped banana is an old-school Orange County sweet treat. Located on oceanside Balboa Island, the Sugar ‘n Spice stand began serving frozen bananas dipped to order in 1945. The classic version is engulfed in chocolate and rolled in peanuts but don’t sleep on the roasted almonds, toasted coconut, and nostalgic childhood favorites such as Fruity Pebbles. 310 Marine Avenue, Balboa Island, CA.
11 a.m. A meaty pre-lunch pit stop
The not-so-secret trick to beat the lines at Heritage Barbecue in San Juan Capistrano is to arrive 10 to 15 minutes before they open. Everyone is there for the brisket (as one should be), served alongside housemade pickles and red pickled onions. The slabs of beef are seasoned with generous amounts of black pepper, which has been rubbed on the meat’s exterior bark and can even be served inside of a tortilla as an easy snack. 31721 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, CA.
For a different meaty experience that comes with a shorter drive, consider the pastrami sandwich from Mario’s Butcher Shop in Newport Beach. This Bristol Street shopping mall spot is making some of Orange County’s best sandwiches. Owner Mario Llamas swears by wagyu beef for his house-cured pastrami, shaved thin and served on locally baked rye with yellow mustard, coleslaw, Swiss cheese, and pickles. 1000 Bristol Street North, Newport Beach, CA.
1 p.m. Decadent lunch at Knife Pleat
South Coast Plaza is a shopping jewel box that also houses some of the region’s best food. At Knife Pleat, the decadent lobster caesar salad, with its hard-boiled egg slices and substantial pieces of tender claw meat, sets the tone for a luxurious Michelin-worthy lunch on the Penthouse level next to the Christian Louboutin store and Louis Vuitton atelier. The chef’s tasting menu and the Louis XV with hazelnut crunch and chocolate gianduja glaze also delight in the evenings. 3333 Bristol Street, Suite 3001, Costa Mesa, CA.
3 p.m. Snack stop one at Kareem’s Falafel
Kareem’s Falafel is one of the first restaurants to serve Orange County’s Middle Eastern community, and today the family-run restaurant still uses its original recipes to turn out countless falafel. Wraps come loaded with fresh herbs and wrapped in warm pita, then drizzled with chipotle tahini sauce and a smattering of lettuce and tomatoes. It’s a perfect afternoon snack showing the versatility and flavor of Little Arabia. 1208 S. Brookhurst Street, Anaheim, CA.
4 p.m. Nem nuong cuon grilled pork spring rolls at Brodard Restaurant
Orange County boasts one of the largest Vietnamese-American communities in the U.S. Brodard Restaurant, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, prepares grilled pork spring rolls wrapped in rice paper with crunchy lettuce, carrots, daikon, cucumber, fresh cilantro, and mint. They’re easy to pack up and snack on at a nearby park with friends. 16105 Brookhurst Street, Fountain Valley, CA.
7 p.m. Dinner at Taco Maria
Chef Carlos Salgado is a local hero, a nationally renowned chef who honors moles, tortillas, and other Mexican specialities at his iconic restaurant Taco Maria. The prix-fixe menu here has changed how Orange County diners approach a night out, and has helped to lead the modern Mexican movement in America. Dishes change often, so expect to be taken on an enjoyable ride. 3313 Hyland Avenue, Suite C21, Costa Mesa, CA.
Can’t get into Taco Maria? Have a more mellow night at Blinking Owl Distillery, the Santa Ana stop where rye-heavy dough is turned out to make some of the area’s best pizzas. The classic Blinking Paisano Pie is topped with organic tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, garlic oil, shaved pecorino, and basil, and can be served with some of the shop’s own distillations as well. 802 E. Washington Avenue, Santa Ana, CA.
9 p.m. A sweet and boozy nightcap at Bosscat Kitchen & Libations
Wrap the day in Orange County at Bosscat Kitchen & Libations, a local favorite for its playful menu, boozy brunches, and people-watching. Late evenings are best for cocktails and straight whiskey, so swing by for the Nighthawk chocolate espresso martini and puffy New Orleans-style beignets served with peanut butter and jelly sauces. Sure, both items can be found on other menus in other places, but after a whirlwind day of dining, it’s nice to settle into something a bit more familiar — and no less delicious. Plus, the Old Towne Orange location melds the vibe of a quaint college town with a flourishing restaurant scene in a historic Orange County neighborhood, a nice wind-down before heading home. 118 W. Chapman Avenue, Orange, CA.