by Gretchen Kurz
Some are expected, some may surprise. But each is of Orange County—created just for us, not relentlessly replicated. Age is not significant; some are newbies, some are seasoned performers. Surroundings and hospitality do matter, but cuisine is the trump card. After all, this list is about dining, not lodging, shopping, or clubbing. Some of these places already may be on your short list—spots you can’t wait to revisit or where you take visitors, tough customers, or the folks you like the most. But we hope that others inspire, and that they expand your dining universe, if only temporarily. After all, this list is evanescent. It will certainly look different a year from now. And that’s the fun part.
Pubs were no rarity when Steve Geary and Scott Brandon launched Crow Bar and Kitchen in late 2007, but their gastro pub was a breed apart in this territory. And the locals showed up in fl ocks. Why this spot hasn’t hatched imitators by now is a mystery.
From Day One, this smooth hangout attained altitude way above the usual draft brands and greasy pub grub. Hop heads and foodies come for the eccentrically labeled craft brews and artisan cheeses. Another Blind Pig ale for you? Bermuda Triangle goat cheese, anyone? After years of helming the kitchen at Oysters, chef Brandon wows Crow Bar diners with a fun menu of elevated-but-affordable noshes. From brick-oven flatbreads to debauched duck-fat fries to chicken potpie with roasted mushrooms, this is peasant fare lifted by organic ingredients and premium purveyors, such as Shelton Farms (chicken), Weiser Farms (produce), and Fra’ Mani (salumi). Juicy burgers aren’t frat-boy whoppers, but there’s no denying the huge flavor of fresh, houseground beef. And where else can you order a pot of house-brined pickles?
Boasting cult ales, lagers, pilsners, and all matter of fermentation (yes, wines too), the long bar often is shoulder-to-shoulder with enthusiasts seeking hard-to-find boutique offerings. Weekends that start on Thursday can be an ear-splitting mob scene, but crowds ease up during lunch and afternoons. If you’ve fl own too high the night before, order a mean Bloody Mary and a Hangover Burger during weekend brunch service.