We hear you—literally. When a cool, new restaurant opens, the buzz is deafening. Then things quiet a bit until the next spot roars onto O.C.’s dining landscape. The past year was particularly noisy with openings, and these are the most notable of a deliciously varied bunch. But brand-spanking-new is just the beginning—we’ve jazzed up the list with well-seasoned influencers that cast long shadows we can’t ignore. Make your reservations, and bon appétit.
Restaurant of the Year- Journeyman’ s Food & Drink
Executive Chef Zachary Geerson’s intricate cuisine isn’t copycat food, but it is inspired by the progressive likes of Michelin-level kitchens such as Chicago’s Alinea, Copenhagen’s Noma, and Vespertine in Los Angeles.
Joining Geerson’s journey means diving into a $75 prix fixe dinner with a choice of dishes in each of four courses. The menu is just a list of key ingredients—you’ll need your knowledgeable server for a true description of all the dishes on offer.
Because the menu reflects Geerson’s 16 micro-seasons, it’s always updating. Last May’s relatively straightforward Spaghetti, Herbs, Spring Vegetables starred a swirl of house-made micro-fettuccine flattered by rainbow carrots, summer squash, and just-sprouted herbs. Savor midsummer’s raspberry and rhubarb crumble graced with brie ice cream, and you’ll relive it for months.
Cocktails and mocktails are madly inventive yet well executed. A bar menu of noshy dishes makes Journeyman’s more accessible but no less enchanting. Despite the freeway-adjacent site at Hotel Fullerton, the sleek 52-seat room is an unexpected haven of calm and delight.
Fleenor’s on 4th
This downtown Santa Ana hang has magical powers: It turns “No” into reasons to return. As in no Instagram vibe. No high prices. No frills. No drama. It makes Fleenor’s a versatile choice for unfussy, welcoming warmth and cooking by executive chef Linh Nguyen. His approachable menus and skilled kitchen target both foodies and feeders. Serving lunch, dinner, weekend brunch, and a happy hour thick with deals, this watering hole is game to please. Get some sweet-salty joy from shrimp fritters with shredded sweet potato. Ahi tuna poke on crispy rice is the happy snack you need with one of the terrific Old-Fashioneds or clever cocktails of the day. This crew is low-key but in sync for a convivial vibe. Servers are obliging, and even the bar squad can be more engaging than required. It’s easy to fall in love with this grump-free zone.
Harley Laguna Beach
Laguna Beach loves its warm, cozy, and vintage restaurants, and Harley snuggles right in to the scene. When Ryan Adams handed over his beloved 370 Common to Greg Daniels, formerly of Haven Gastropub in Orange, Daniels pulled off a spiffy reboot, opening Harley Laguna Beach in November. Refreshed to a comfy sheen, the two-story tavern is unfussy and welcoming, with vintage family photos on the wall, some featuring Daniels’ Grandpa Harley. As ever, Daniels coaxes savoriness from goods he buys from small producers such as GoneStraw Farms in Riverside. A wood grill powers up so many flavors—think wild mushrooms, local spiny lobster, duck breast, or grass-fed steaks. For dessert, how ’bout pecan pie and ice cream made with honey from Orange Park Acres’ own Backyard Bees?
Terrace by Mix Mix
Open since September, Terrace leverages the success of chef Ross Pangilinan’s Mix Mix Kitchen Bar in downtown Santa Ana, where he built a fan base for refined Euro-Filo fare with high character backed by a cozy craft bar. From a sweet site on the top floor of South Coast Plaza overlooking the stylish Bridge of Gardens pedestrian skywalk, Terrace serves a constant flow of lunchers, brunchers, famished shoppers, and dinner patrons. The Mix Mix regard for value lives on here, with a three-course prix fixe lunch and two tiers of prix fixe menus at dinner. Most impressive, all menus are seasonal and include choices that pivot from delicate to earthy to sumptuous.
Malibu farm girl and native Swede Helene Henderson just wanted to prepare healthy food for her family and friends. Word got out, and well- connected admirers suggested she grab the then-vacant Malibu pier restaurant to wow diners on a larger scale. The ocean-air venue was a hit, and five years later, another debuted bayside at Lido Marina Village in September. Committed to fresh, colorful, organic ingredients, Henderson stacks the all-day menu with huge burritos, fruit-covered grain or yogurt bowls, and savory options that include the bestseller, an outstanding fried egg sandwich with great bacon and Havarti on country toast with lemon aioli.
Descanso is this year’s standout for mostly familiar Mexican eats, but the novel twist here is the elevation of the taquero to center stage. Inspired by the sensational street foods of Mexico City, owner Rob Arellano seats us right at the plancha grill to watch the taquero cook in full artisan action. Icy cocktails appear on request via a server who delivers non-taco delights from an inventive menu overseen by chef Sergio Ortega, a Michoacan native and veteran of upscale kitchens that include Raya and AnQi.
Gabbi and Ed Patrick of Gabbi’s Kitchen launched Chaak in August to show off the county’s most sophisticated take on the regional fare of Mexico’s wondrous Yucatan Peninsula, where flavors include wood smoke, charred chile rubs, achiote marinades, sweet limes, and intense Seville oranges. A dazzling retool of an Old Town Tustin office is now a sun-splashed space that begs you to relax while chef de cuisine Vincent Espin-oza and crew perform their scratch-kitchen alchemy.
Ocean at Main
Laguna Beach peeps saw a dream come true when Craig Strong departed Montage to launch his personal restaurant in October in a revered village location. We expected a gorgeous patio and seaside-chic dining room, along with meticulous creations that show off dazzling local goods. What we didn’t foresee was the delight of accessing casual meals not aimed at resort-goers.
Irvine’s dapper new Northern Italian steakhouse (circa October) has a faint aura of nostalgia, with its ocean of bright white tablecloths, roomy seating, and high-polish attention from neatly uniformed servers and staff. This joint recalls those swanky expense-account palaces power diners flocked to when folks still drank booze with lunch and always at dinner—a great bread basket to start, sizzling steaks and huge chops, bulging lobster tails from Maine, and, of course, fine wines poured into glass decanters.
Previously published on Orange Coast.