You may have heard me mention it here before a time or two ;), but I am a So Cal girl through and through. I was born and raised in San Diego and then transplanted to south Orange County 20 years ago when I got married and started my own family. I remember the day we moved into our first apartment in Mission Viejo. The lifestyle in OC seemed so overwhelming to me having grown up in a much more relaxed San Diego. We hadn’t spent much time in OC or LA when I was growing up, just a quick trip to Disneyland every once and awhile, and it felt SO urban to me. lol! Well, fast forward a few decades and I am obsessed with the slightly faster paced, perfectly placed coastal living in OC. I can enjoy everything here and be in either San Diego or LA in an hour (depending on traffic of course!) Perfection! So, why has it taken me SO long to write a guide to the best of Orange County? I get asked about these things so often, you think I would have done this sooner, but here we are. And I’m finally getting it done! 😉
Orange County is huge…home to over 3 million people. There is always something to do in between- beautiful beaches and outdoor activities, incredible restaurants, great shopping and entertainment. John and I have always made it a habit to play tourist in our own neighborhood. We love to try everything and experience it all. Here’s a list of what I consider to be the best restaurants in Orange County. I’ll follow this up with the best things to do and experience in Orange County. This list will undoubtedly grow…and I might need to break it down by city since there are so many yummy places. I can’t cover it all, and there are still so many things for me to explore, and SO much food to eat…and frankly several things that I could add here, but opted not to…places that maybe I think have cool build outs, but maybe the food isn’t great in my opinion. Bottom line, when I want to go out or get asked for recommendations, here are what I consider to be my current favorites.
Best Restaurants in Orange County
There are too many amazing restaurants in Orange County to count, and some of our favorites are places like Snooze…a place you can find in many places around the country. But for the purposes of this list, I am limiting it to local favorites and a few that have a small handful of locations (maybe here and one or two other big cities) that you can’t get elsewhere so that you can experience something while you’re here visiting that you can’t get at home…which is one of our rules when we travel.
Best High End Restaurants in Orange County
5 Crowns – On PCH in Corona del Mar, this English cottage style restaurant serves divine prime rib dinners and high end cuisine. At Christmas they dress it up with trees and garlands and carolers…it’s one of our favorite traditions. If you are feeling like something a little more casual, grab a seat at the pub style restaurant attached to 5 Crowns off them main entrance, Side Door. Roaring fireplaces, low ceilings and club style seating serving up hearty and high end favorites like truffle mac and cheese, prime rib french dips with beef fat fries (divine!) and beet salads. It’s first come first served so get there early to grab a table!
The Cannery – Dock your Duffy boat along side the restaurant in the famous Cannery Village and have a GREAT meal. Their Sunday brunch is incredible, and dinner is just as good. When the weather is good (and when isn’t it good in so cal?) ask for a table on the deck over the water. The interior design is gorgeous too, so sitting inside is also a treat.
Nick’s – With a few locations up and down the coast, Nick’s serves features Classic American comfort food and is always a favorite. Again, reservations are definitely required. They are ALWAYS busy.
Hanna’s – Tucked away a bit further inland in Rancho Santa Margarita, Hanna’s is one of my favorite spots. It has a great and very loyal local clientele, and reservations are highly recommended because it is always hopping. Try the OC Burger. Yes it’s $19, but worth every penny. The burrata with brussels is another favorite.
Fig & Olive – This is a place to see and be seen in Newport Beach. The soaring ceilings and huge windows and orchard room (yes, trees inside!) give it an orangery/French Riviera vibe. Make reservations early to make sure you can get a table.
Farmhouse at Roger’s Garden’s – Roger’s Garden’s has always been a favorite place for me to go stroll…especially in the fall when they have their famous Halloween shop. They opened a farm to table restaurant a couple of years ago and it has quickly become a favorite of everyone in town. A gorgeous all al fresco dining set up amongst the gardens and incredible food have me visiting often. Reservations required.
Mastro’s Ocean Club – Mastro’s is my absolute favorite steak house. It has grown, so now you can find locations around the country, but it started here, so I’m including it on my list. What do we love? The atmosphere, the bone in rib-eye, the shrimp cocktail served in a steaming bowl of dry ice, the creamed corn, mac n cheese, chocolate layer cake, pretzel rolls…it is ALL so good.
Best Mid-Range Restaurants in Orange County
Thai Bite – Delicious Chicken Pad Thai and Crying Tiger. A couple of locations around town.
Flamingos – Our go-to family owned Mexican favorite. Real refried beans, my favorite chips and salsa, and amazing carnitas tacos.
Stacks – Another breakfast/brunch favorite. Hawaiian style food like coconut pineapple pancakes with coconut syrup (a must), captain mac nut french toast (another must have), teriyaki chicken and rice with mac salad, all kinds of yummy stuff. Several locations around town now, so you can find one nearby.
Plums Cafe – Long waits are to be expected at this brunch hotspot in Newport Beach. But it’s worth the wait! Try the Dutch Baby, and the Santa Fe Eggs Benedict. And some fresh squeezed juice. SO good!
Haute Cakes – I’m starting to think you might have figured out by now that we love brunch. 🙂 Haute cakes is delish whether you are looking for breakfast or sandwiches…or both! 😉 Try the orange ricotta pancakes and the avocado toast. SO good!
Angelina’s Pizzeria Napoletana – My go-to Italian restaurant in Irvine. Award winning Pizza Napoletana and authentic Italian cuisine in a beautifully designed restaurant. The Caprese salad and classic Margherita are favorites.
R&D Kitchen – Upscale casual restaurant at Fashion Island in Newport Beach. Try the french dip…you will love it! Reservations recommended.
Urth Caffe – Laguna Beach favorite for breakfast and lunch. A long line is to be expected but it moves pretty quickly. Definitely get a pastry to go with whatever savory dish you try.
Bad to the Bone – Delicious BBQ in San Juan Capistrano with live music on the weekends. The mac and cheese and brisket are so good, and I love the tri-tip salad.
Break of Dawn – Oops…another brunch spot. 😉 This one is tucked away in an unassuming strip mall in Laguna Hills…but don’t let that fool you! Chef Dee Ngyuen (former executive sous chef of The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel) will wow your taste buds with awesome Asian fusion combinations.
Sundried Tomato Bistro – Several locations have been popping up all over town, but our favorite, and the original is in the historic part of San Juan Capistrano right by the mission. Specializing in New American cuisine, a cute little restaurant with friendly staff & great food. I prefer to sit on the patio and I LOVE the honey cilantro pesto chicken sandwich.
Ramos House – in the heart of the Los Rios Historical District in San Juan Capistrano. It is the oldest remaining residential street in California – read TONS of character! Decadent Southern-style lunches & brunches, think beignets, biscuits, southern fried chicken…all good comfort food served on the gorgeous shaded patio of an historic house. No reservations (unless for a party of 10 or more) and always busy, so plan to check in and explore the area while you wait for a table.
Great Maple – Maple bacon donuts. That’s all I have to say. 😉 Actually everything is delicious and it’s location at Fashion Island is fun and pretty. But seriously, don’t miss the maple bacon donuts.
Ellie’s Table – Cute little spot for pastries, sandwiches and salads. Located in an historic building in San Juan Capistrano with a darling, modern build out. Everything is divine!
Best Fast Casual Restaurants in Orange County
Board and Brew – Incredible and HUGE sandwiches. A great option to either eat there or grab and take to the beach. My favorites are the Italian and the Turkado. SO good.
Surfin Souvlaki – A local Greek spot with great Gyros. Try the loaded fries with feta and gyro meat too. SO good.
Sanchos Tacos – You’ll see a lot of tacos on this list. 😉 These are divine. The chubby sauce may be the secret…or the lightly fried corn tortillas. John says this is his favorite burrito of all burritos. Locations in Laguna Niguel, San Clemente, Huntington Beach, Newport Beach and Oceanside.
Baja Fish Tacos – I could eat here everyday. Not lying. Their grilled chicken is amazing. Try a chicken taco bravo style and something…anything with their green enchilada sauce. I could drink it. Their chips with pico and guacamole are a must too. Rice and pintos…yes, please!
TK Burger – An awesome local burger joint. The big bargain is our usual, but everything is yummy. Breakfast included! Locations by the beach in several cities and one in Mission Viejo.
Moulin – If you can’t make it to Paris, Moulin is the next best place to grab a cold Jambon Fromage on baguette that will transport you to France in one bite. There are several locations near the beaches so it makes for a perfect grab and go meal.
La Sirena Grill – Two locations in Laguna Beach. Super fresh fish tacos and incredible guacamole.
Mendocino Farms – Gourmet sandwiches and salads made with super fresh, seasonal ingredients. There are so many unique combinations and the menu changes regularly, which makes it fun to go back and try new things.
Pizza Port – A lively spot in San Clemente to grab a pitcher of soda and some large pizzas and hang out after a day at the beach.
Rose Bakery – Pop in for a donut (old fashioned are my favorite) or grab a hearty and delicious breakfast burrito. Sit on the patio and watch the fancy cars drive down PCH through Corona del Mar.
Favorite Restaurant with an Ocean View in Orange County
180 Blu at the Ritz Carlton Laguna Niguel – High top tables and live music on the weekends. This first come, first served restaurant fills up quickly, especially on the weekends and around sunset so get there early! The views can’t be beat and the food is just as good. I like the casual vibe here, it makes you feel like you are on vacation. There are lots of places with great ocean views, but this one is my favorite.
Best Sweets in Orange County
Gelato Paradiso – If the Disneyland style line isn’t a big enough clue, this place is THE place to get a sweet treat in Laguna Beach. And it’s worth the drive to Laguna if you aren’t already there. 😉 The smell of freshly made waffle cones wafts down the cute little alley where this pretty shop is tucked away and spills out onto PCH, drawing you in. Let it. Get lost a little taste of Italy with a giant cone. You won’t regret it.
Sidecar Donuts – Another spot you are sure to find a line, Sidecar donuts is a little shop in a strip mall in Newport Beach selling what have recently been crowned California’s best donuts by Food & Wine magazine. They fry up small batches of scratch made donuts all day filled with fresh made creams and custards and topped with unique delights like fried bacon, basil and toasted marshmallows. You’ll leave with at least a half dozen even if you just went in for one. 😉
Susie Cakes – Yes, you can find a Sprinkles down the street, but if I want a slice of cake or a cupcake, I’m heading to Susie Cakes. Fresh made layer cakes in flavors like red velvet, marble, lemon and tropical coconut sit on pretty pedestals in these cute shops that dot the coast. There are also full cases of cupcakes and cookies and pies, oh my! Order cakes by the slice or get a whole one…because you will want more than just one piece!
I hope that this list of what I consider to be the best restaurants in Orange County is a help when you are looking for something fun to try on the weekend or when you’re in town visiting. Maybe we’ll run in to each other some time! 😉
Here are a few other posts that you might find interesting about Orange County.
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