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 as a late breakfast to tasting menus and speakeasies that go deep into the night. 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.
8 a.m. Start off with the region’s best bagels at Boil and Bake
The bagel sandwiches at Boil and Bake set the tone for a day in Orange County. Pick a bagel flavor of choice and then spring for the house-cured lox, topped with thin slices of Valdivia Farms heirloom tomatoes, sprigs of fresh dill, capers, and cream cheese. Hearty New York-style bagel sandwiches are stuffed with Le Bahn Ranch soft scrambled eggs and Nueske bacon, while the cheesy cacio pepe bagel makes for an ideal grab-and-go snack for the road. 270 E. Bristol Street, Suite 114, Costa Mesa
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 restaurants. 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-starred lunch on the penthouse level of the $2 billion-a-year Orange County behemoth. An inventive non-alcoholic beverage program is available as part of the evening tasting menu service, too — and be sure to save room for the Louis XV dessert with hazelnut crunch and chocolate gianduja glaze. 3333 Bristol Street, Suite 3001, Costa Mesa, CA.
Others might consider a bite closer to Angels Stadium during baseball season. If so, venture over to Anepalco for some hauntingly delicious red sauce chilaquiles. Chef-owner Daniel Godinez’s French Mexican-influenced flavors and plating are a hit with locals and travelers alike. 3737 Chapman Ave., Orange, 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 nướng cuốn grilled pork spring rolls at Brodard Restaurant
Orange County boasts one of the largest Vietnamese American communities in the U.S. Brodard Restaurant, which celebrated its 25th anniversary last year, prepares grilled pork spring rolls (nem nướng) 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 in Costa Mesa
Costa Mesa is the only city in Orange County with Michelin-starred restaurants: Knife Pleat at South Coast Plaza and Hana Re at The LAB. The intimate omakase at Hana Re is orchestrated by chef Atsushi Yokoyama. Hidden in an amalgam of shipping containers, which only adds to the restaurant’s unassuming vibe, Hana Re is a bona fide destination for sushi aficionados. 2930 Bristol Street, Costa Mesa, CA.
Another option is Folks Pizzeria at The Camp (across the street from The LAB). The place is famous for its attention to detail and bubbly, unique dough. White pizzas with mushrooms and roasted garlic or the classic margarita are gateway pies that can pull in anyone, but don’t miss the meatballs with Sunday gravy and grilled sourdough starter as well. Or start with the crisp little gem Caesar salad with 24-month Parmesan and marinated anchovies. 2937 Bristol Street, A102, Costa Mesa, CA.
For a livelier chef’s table experience a bit further away, opt for the 18-seat “culinary theater” at Trust. Mad Hatter-esque chef Justin Werner has continued to attract a local following with his lively chef’s counter meals. A meal here always starts with hot brioche pulled from the oven and tossed directly onto diners’ plates by staff. Werner talks through each dish with tales of his travels, his mom’s lackluster cooking, and his life in the kitchen. Thoughtfully selected wines by laid-back sommelier and industry vet Jason Scarborough come from nearby Santa Ynez Valley and beyond, with a nod towards female-owned vineyards and underappreciated terroirs. 220 E. 4th St., Santa Ana, CA.
9 p.m. Late-night options
Seeking after-dinner cocktails? Reserve a seat at The Blind Rabbit speakeasy hidden inside the historic Packing District (440 S. Anaheim Blvd., #104, Anaheim), with its rustic look and throwback service style that prioritizes getting the details right. Not feeling cocktails? Head over to sample the sizable craft beer selection at Haven Craft Kitchen instead, located in the heart of Old Towne Orange. 190 S. Glassell St., Orange, CA.