As my move back to the East Coast got closer and closer, I recognized that I had spent a lot of time traveling around California but I started to wonder if I had taken enough advantage of where I lived in Orange County. The beautiful place that we saw on TV shows like Laguna Beach and The O.C. (loved that theme song). I admit that even I was drawn to this place by those shows. And it really is beautiful. So I wanted to show my appreciation by creating my own travel guide to Orange County. As I started to write the list I realized that I had taken advantage of a lot in the OC in the four years that I lived there. Below is a list of my favorite restaurants, beaches, things to do, etc. If you are visiting or if you are moving there, I hope this list comes in handy. I lived in Costa Mesa but I included things from many different towns. Enjoy!
(Sorry for the length of the post; it was hard to narrow down)
The Wedge (Newport Beach): Located at the very end of Balboa Peninsula this spot is known for its giant waves and bodysurfing, as well as boat watching. You can read more here.
Corona del Mar and Little Corona (Newport Beach): Little Corona is one of my favorite beaches in Orange County; it’s separated from the main Corona del Mar beach by a small bit of rocky coastline. Little Corona is in a cove set at the bottom of a very big hill (with only access by foot). The main beach is also down the hill (but with driving access) with volleyball nets, bonfire pits, a long jetty and sometimes seals and dolphins in the harbor. Although I always parked for free along Ocean Avenue at the top and walked down. This street is like a West Coast version of Commonwealth Avenue in the Back Bay of Boston.
Thousand Steps (Laguna Beach): Also a favorite of mine, Thousand Steps isn’t quite one thousand steps down. But I have heard that it is 250 steps down and 250 steps to the water, with a round trip being one thousand steps. People use the stairs for exercise; I have done this once, making it up and down about 4 times before needing to stop (I’m surprised I made it this many times).
Crystal Cove (Newport Beach): Crystal Cove State Park is made up of 3 miles of coastline along the Pacific Coast Highway, but the most popular spot is next to the Beachcomber, a beachside restaurant with trolley access and located next to lots of little beach rentals. You can often see dolphins in the distance and whales if it’s the right time of year.
Salt Creek (Dana Point): Also located at the bottom of a very big hill (I don’t know what that’s about in Orange County), this beach is situated directly next to the Ritz-Carlton and is dotted with blue chairs and umbrellas (and hotel employees dragging loads of chairs back up the hill, ah to be wealthy). This beach is known for its surfing and with a large grassy hill up top (dog friendly) it’s a great place for a picnic or barbecue.
Memphis (Costa Mesa): By far my favorite place in Orange County, this restaurant was walkable from my apartment when I lived in Costa Mesa. They have a killer happy hour menu with discounted food and drinks. Mostly serving Southern-style food, some of their best meals are their fried chicken, meatloaf, and gumbo. There is a chocolate cake baked every day and lots of cocktails with ginger beer. Try the End of Story (my favorite gin drink there).
Fisherman’s (San Clemente): Fisherman’s is a staple in Orange County located on the San Clemente pier next to the train tracks. If the restaurant is busy, the bar next door always has space. The clam chowder in a sourdough bowl is great (and that’s coming from a New Englander).
Eat Chow (Newport Beach/Costa Mesa): This is a close second to Memphis in my book. American style food with a twist, and the BEST truffle mac and cheese. My other favorite is the warm goat cheese salad with a glass of their sangria. They also always have good home style desserts like peach cobbler.
25 Degrees (Huntington Beach): This is the only restaurant that I frequented in Huntington Beach and is known for its burgers but I always went back for their spiked shakes. Examples are the Beach Side S’mores made with a stout, Thin Mint Cookie with amaro and Godiva chocolate liqueur, and Salty Caramel made with bourbon. Sooo indulgent but hard to resist.
Crow Bar (Newport Beach): A Newport Beach staple, Crow Bar has fancy American style food with a NB flair (as in, they have a dress code). I also like their less ritzy Crow Burger on the Balboa Peninsula.
Ruby’s Diner (multiple locations along the coast): Ruby’s is an Orange County classic, with typical diner food and shakes. Their food is nothing “special” but is more of a must see, especially the original one on the end of the Balboa pier. Fun fact: the owner is a native Californian but spent time running a restaurant on Nantucket before opening Ruby’s 35 years ago.
The Galley (Newport Beach): The Galley is a family-run diner situated right next to the water across from Balboa Island. You would only find The Galley if you knew of it as it is very much off the beaten path down a residential street. It is always busy and for good reason, filled with new people and local regulars alike. Without fail, there is a line out the door. While this is just another diner I love their take on diner food. Their most notable dish is the chile cheese omelet, but I’m partial to their root beer shake (it tastes like the ice cream at the end of a root beer float :)). My friend and I would go there often and end the meal splitting a shake.
Brussels (Laguna Beach): Brussels is a Belgian restaurant in downtown Laguna, with authentic French and Belgian waiters (unless they are fake accents). I always loved their mussels, with lots of different options for sauces, and fries. But the best part is when you go there on your birthday, they bring you a cup of chocolate mousse with a giant firecracker in it. The lights are turned low and they play “Happy Birthday” over the loudspeakers. The whole restaurant joins in. So much fun!
Avila’s (multiple locations): El Ranchito started by Mama Avila in 1986 has multiple locations in Orange County and has some of the best Mexican food in the area (which isn’t too difficult to find in the OC). Their Avila soup is a homey chicken/rice soup with cilantro and avocado but it is always fun to get a pitcher of their margaritas.
Chapter One (Santa Ana): While their dinner food is great, Chapter One is known for their Sunday Elvis brunch, complete with bottomless mimosas (with purchase of food) and a singing rabbi (no, I’m not kidding). He sings a lot of Elvis classics but will also sing “Billie Jean” if you ask him to. And they are really not skimpy with their champagne. I am not ashamed to admit that I have spent a long Sunday morning there and left more than a little buzzed. Definitely make a reservation as there is very limited bar space and it is always full.
Las Brisas (Laguna Beach): While Las Brisas is fantastically overpriced (although they do have great seafood), you cannot beat their views from the top of the hill overlooking Main Street Laguna Beach. There is always room on their patio to get a margarita. I most recently tried one with George Clooney’s Casamigos tequila. So good!
In n’ Out (anywhere): I don’t know if I need to say much about In n’ Out. A West Coast classic, it is hard to go to California and not stop at one. They are always easy to find and always have a line. There is just something about that sauce.
Blackmarket Bakery (Costa Mesa): Located in The Camp, Blackmarket is a good place to get coffee, breads, sandwiches, and lots of pastries. I always loved their root beer floats and the Snick at Nite, a take on a Snickers bar made of vanilla ice cream topped with caramel and chocolate sauce and peanuts all on a warm snickerdoodle cookie.
Yogurtland (multiple locations): I’m partial to Yogurtland for self-serve frozen yogurt, only being charged for weight as opposed to per topping (boo Pinkberry). There used to be locations in the Boston area but aren’t anymore. 😦
Special Interest/Things to Do
Besides going to the beach…
Walk down the main street on Balboa Island filled with lots of one-of-a-kind shops and Italian restaurants (don’t forget to get a Balboa bar or frozen banana) and take the ferry across to the peninsula; stroll along Main Street in Huntington Beach, especially during street fairs and walk the pier to check out all of the surfers below;
take a nature walk through Bolsa Chica Wetlands, an ecological reserve in northern Huntington Beach with lots of bird and wildlife watching; rent a Duffy boat in Newport Harbor;
go kayaking or paddle boarding in Balboa peninsula;
walk/bike/run the Back Bay;
go for a hike: El Moro Canyon, Saddleback Mountain, Top of the World, Peter’s Canyon, Holy Jim trail, etc; Fashion Island and South Coast Plaza for some of the best shopping in the country;
catch a play or show at the Segerstrom;
watch the sunset from up high (Corona del Mar, Moulton Meadows Park, etc); walk through any one of the many art galleries in Laguna Beach; go vintage shopping in downtown Orange;
go to Disneyland (of course);
try your hand at surfing if that’s your thing (San Onofre, Huntington Beach, Salt Creek, Bolsa Chica, etc);
go to Irvine Park Zoo for kids but also for adults (I love this zoo). It is only $3 to enter the park and $2 for the zoo; Irvine Park also has a farmer’s market once a week, walking and hiking trails, a train, and more;
set a bonfire on the beach to cook hot dogs and roast s’mores;
go to an Angels game, especially when the Red Sox are in town (and stay for the fireworks after Friday night games);
check out the San Juan Capistrano Mission;
or one of my favorite things to do, “sneak into” the Surf and Sand resort in Laguna Beach and sit by the pool with a drink to watch the sunset (I say “sneak in” lightly as it is well known that lots of locals go here to hang out by the pool; they don’t care as long as you’re buying drinks!)
Anywhere in Los Angeles (Getty Center, LACMA, Getty Villa, MOCA, Huntington Library and Gardens, Universal Studios, Hollywood Bowl, The Broad and Grand Central Market, Santa Monica Pier, Venice Beach, etc) or Pasadena;
Temecula for wine tasting, and
Hope you enjoyed this guide!