Best Of :: Bars & Clubs
Jazz clubs—a dying breed—come and go faster than political smears. Live jazz demands intimacy, a reach-out-and-touch-the-performer proximity that complements the personal aspects of the music. And it goes down great with booze. Since 1994, Steamers has provided the up-close experience and great audio to boot. Owner Terence Love books the best musicians he can afford—and, on occasion, a few he can't. Such greats as saxophonists Lew Tabackin, Bud Shank and Miles Davis sideman Dave Liebman; vocalists Kurt Elling and Diana Krall; drummer Billy Higgins; and the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra have made a few nights here very special. Love likes to mix it up, booking big bands on Mondays, often singers on weekdays (no cover!) and a host of name acts. Lately, the club has seen the Estrada Brothers Latin band, ultra-hip drummer Gerry Gibbs (son of legendary bop vibraphonist Terry Gibbs) with scintillating pianist/composer Billy Childs, the world-renowned master of Cuban rhythms Francesco Aguabella, swing drummer Jeff Hamilton's trio and the great that Poncho Sanchez. There's a cluster of tables around the bandstand for the serious, and a group of them in the back for those who just want to hang. But the best seats are at the end of the bar near the sound board, where you can flirt with the servers, listen to Terence boss his staff around, sip your martini and peer over the crowd into the heart of the music. Hit it!
The slummiest of slums, Fern's is a dive bar for the punk-rock crowd. The tatted—yet gorgeous—bartenders in this dark, dreary spot won't take any shit, but they will pour you a massive Pabst on tap. Keeping with the scuzzy awesomeness of this place, the bands who play are all of the same genre: loud, terrible and no one you've ever heard of before. Fern's décor is standard: Aside from the pool tables and sticky high-top tables, the most visually interesting elements are painted on the walls. Our favorite is the nude satyr woman with the phrase "I Fuckin' Did It!" scrawled above her lashing tongue and frosty pint of beer. Warning: The flavored-condom machine in the women's restroom (which is painted highlighter pink) will totally eat your money.
Located steps from the sand in beautiful Newport Beach, Mutt Lynchs is a local bar and restaurant known both for its bomb breakfast and extensive beer selection, the latter of which is served in 32-ounce schooners (remember your wrist brace—they're heavy). Sit down at one of the old wooden tables carved with the initials of past patrons and stare out the windows at the blue waters of the Pacific while being served by the cute waitstaff. It's a Southern California bar with classic beach style. It's the perfect location for a drunken Sunday, Sunday brunch, or both (if you get down like that).
This joint has all of the elements that make a great neighborhood bar. Heavy pours, reasonable prices, pool tables, a smoking patio, a jukebox and some TVs. It's dim enough that you don't have to worry about that nasty forehead zit. It's large enough to handle a decent-sized crowd of your friends for when your significant other dumps you and you just can't be alone that night. It has plenty of parking, and it's close to some fast-food restaurants. It's also near the freeway, so your designated driver doesn't have to spend any more time in the car with your drunk ass than necessary. Sure, there's no burly doorman to assess your wardrobe. There's no bathroom attendant to dry your hands. And we can almost guarantee that Paris Hilton won't show up when you're there. Oh, wait, these aren't drawbacks at all.
While bright-green shamrocks on the walls and traditional Irish appetizers may not scream "ideal place to hang out," Patsy's Irish Pub in Laguna Niguel is just that. Not to be confused with its more rustic counterpart in Mission Viejo, this cozy little public house really is a great place to kick back with some friends on a Friday night. The Irish theme is there (shamrocks, brightly lit green-neon signs, Emerald Isle faves on the menu), but this bar does it so tastefully that the clichés fade into the background—especially once you've had a drink or two. For $5, you get a great selection of beer, a welcoming atmosphere and the warm feeling of comfort that only comes when alcohol is mixed with Irish hospitality.
Though this venue opened just last year, the place has already earned quite a reputation as one of most happening bars in the county. Located in the Artists Village of up-and-coming Santa Ana, Proof caters not only to the county's hipsters, but also to the plain ol' cats as well. Depending on the night, you can hear any of a variety of musical flavors being spun by featured DJs. While getting your groove on to those rockin' tunes and sipping your vodka tonic, you might as well ogle the bare-breasted artwork that adorns the otherwise-spare, industrial-looking walls. Don't fret, gals, there's something for you there, too—the ladies' room proudly displays pictures of male packages tightly wrapped in denim. Whew! Is it getting hot in here, or is it just us? Good thing you can head out to the brickwork back patio to chill out.
Long Beach's Que Sera is known for its strong drinks and friendly bartenders, its sweet laser-bathed dance floor, and its regular club nights: Sucka Free Sundays, Call Sick on Friday, Mannequin, Release the Bats and, of course, the legendary Goodfoot (which could pack a venue thrice the size of the Que). With an extraordinarily eclectic lineup of live acts to choose from, almost anyone can feel comfortable at Que Sera, depending on what night they go. The stage is divided enough from the bar so that if the music isn't to your liking, you have a spot to get away to and enjoy your drink—and it's right across the street from a creepy 7-Eleven for post-drunk snackage.
Yes, it's more than a bar—it's a venue that books the best bands OC has to offer and amazing touring acts. But it still has that unassuming, pull-up-a-stool, whaddaya-have feel. You can kick back with friends and play pool in front of a fireplace and, of course, get wasted. Head in to groove to the live music or just lounge with a cocktail at one of their comfy booths that you don't have to be a high-roller to enjoy. The drinks are stiff but affordable, and the parking is always ample. (Being in a big-ass strip mall does have its advantages.) Sure, the patrons are—here comes that word again—hipsters, but they're mostly really nice! Don't be intimidated; just think of them as slightly scruffy men in skinny jeans and ladies with fabulous taste in shoes.
For steady drinkers in Downtown Fullerton, Branagan's is the perfect place to bring out the Irish in ya. Wedged in the thick of trendy nightspots and frat-boy watering holes, Branagan's offers the quintessential comfort of a neighborhood bar, one that pays attention to the culture of the old country. It's nice to know that there's at least one place where you can settle down for a pint and some conversation without having to scream over a barrage of Top 40 club anthems. The kitchen is open into the evening and serves a mix of Irish and New World snacks and entrées at prices that won't suck up too much of your green. And as for the things you really care about, their wall of beer taps host some of the finest authentic ales in downtown Fullerton. If you're into something stronger, their whiskey selection is also a force to be reckoned with.
With its awesome DJ nights and live music, this swanky, dimly lit bar in Fullerton (also the oldest drinking establishment in Orange County) makes it pretty easy to get schnockered. Getting too wasted, though, will get you a swift kick in the ass and an 86 for the night. However, being ushered out over the velvet rope in the front—especially if there's a line waiting to get in—kind of gets you rock-star status. Plus, a short walk down the street lands you smack-dab in the middle of downtown Fullerton, where the watering holes are aplenty. So many bar options enable you to keep getting your drink on, and chances are you won't run into anyone who may have witnessed your less-than-graceful departure—unless you land on top of them the next time you get the bum's rush.
The trick is to arrive early enough to find a parking space (if you don't take advantage of the valet service), but late enough that you'll slurp up cheap eats and swill jungle juice. An entrée on the restaurant side can set you back $30, but during happy hour (or, more accurately, "Duke's Aloha Hour") from 3:30 to 6:30 p.m. weeknights, the Barefoot Bar slashes food and drink prices. Fish tacos are $2.25, and margaritas are $3 on Tuesdays from 4 to 10 p.m., while Maui Mai Tai Punch and Tropical Itch cocktails are $4 all night on Fridays. Your mass consumption will leave you well-primed for the free dinner show: another magnificent Southern California sunset. But the orange, yellow, blue and purple sky as the sun seemingly dips into the Pacific isn't the only sight you'll want to toast. Your field of vision—or double vision, depending on how long you've been stuck to the barstool—takes in strapping surfers catching waves, teeny-weeny-bikinied babes lounging on the sand, and people of all shapes, dispositions and nationalities ambling along the pier. A final enticement: The staff at Duke's, named after the father of modern surfing, Duke Kahanamoku, is known for keeping the aloha spirit alive, but management tends to deposit the most welcoming workers in the Barefoot Bar. Party on, Garth.
The upper floor of Mozambique feels like the creaky, alluring edge of a ship bound for somewhere far from Orange County. Thick curtains, huge 360-degree windows and a small stage with a million-dollar sound system in the middle of it all make this a must-stop on a Sunday afternoon. It's the only place in the county that features live roots reggae every Sunday while a big lazy sun dips into the ocean and colors the entire place pink. Two bars upstairs and a scrumptious African-fusion menu complement the beats that spill out of every door here before sunset.