Best Of :: Bars & Clubs
You might never get a loud, "NORM!!" greeting when you enter a bar, but at the Japanese pub Shin-Sen-Gumi, the entire staff welcomes you with the rousing sing-song "eera-shai-MASE!" the second you enter. Pubs in the Japanese sense are called izakaya—a house of sake—and like those of Britain, they're a place where you meet good friends to share good food, beer, sake and the other rice wine, shochu. Like beer, sake and shochu are brewed, not distilled. Though it's made from but three ingredients, the styles of sake vary a great deal in sweetness or dryness, aroma, mouth feel, and sting of the alcohol. Shin-Sen-Gumi is one of the places where Orange County's Japanese expats gather to sample a good selection of that country's major sake producers. It's the sort of lively, loud place that makes you wonder how the Japanese ever got tagged as quiet, earnest people. The music can range from J-pop to punk, depending on the mood of the place, and though this space is technically open at lunch as an overflow room to hold customers from the adjoining ramen shop, the izakaya menu is served only at dinner. And what about the food? Izakaya chefs prepare a special grill fueled with imported Japanese binchotan charcoal and cook up everything from jidori chicken and pork-belly-wrapped vegetables to diver scallops. But an izakaya does more than just grill food—the menu is organized into stewed, simmered, fried and raw dishes to represent the four fundamental techniques of the Japanese kitchen. Whatever you do, order some of the yuzu kosho, the green citrus-pepper paste that adds a powerfully fragrant, slightly bitter and salty counterpoint to the rich protein you're about to eat. Expect to pay the same as you would at a good sushi bar: about $30 per person before alcohol. If you like to tour Japan's breweries while you're there, the tab can easily reach up to $50 or $60 per Norm.
So you're looking to pick up some fine young thing for a little action—nothing serious, just a good time. Head over to Sutra, the glitzy club at Triangle Square where you'll find a bevy of pretty party people to choose from. The scene is very image-conscious—there's more silicone at Sutra than a Mattel production plant—and if you're serious about getting laid, prepare to throw around some cash: Money speaks very loudly to this very loud crowd. You and your new friend may not spend the evening discussing Flaubert or Kierkegaard—but you'll probably wake up with a big, fat smile.
Where do people of a refined age, well-established career and certain means go to find love (or a hot hook-up)? Javier's in Newport Beach's Crystal Cove. The coastal restaurant is decadently decorated, appealing to those of finer tastes, and boasts a giant, jungle-esque cantina complete with a fire pit, indoor greenery, and very expensive-looking seating and tables. The food is irrelevant for this group—it's difficult for most people to look sexy while shoveling carne asada in their faces. But what this Javier's offers is ambiance and location: Newport Beach is the mother ship for both rich dudes and artfully augmented women. For the gentlemen, who tend to travel alone or in groups of no more than three, it offers a fine selection of tequilas, Scotch and beer. And for the ladies, who usually venture out in small packs, there is a wide menu of margaritas and champagne. Enjoy the hunt!
We've all done it: Before going out on a date, we've chanted that one request—"Please, God, don't let me run into anyone I know." The Riviera is dark—really dark—and the menu is way too fancy for any of your friends. In operation for more than 30 years, this classic restaurant and bar has all the romantic standards: steaks, seafood, champagne, escargot and frog legs. You stand a good chance of getting through this one unscathed—and unseen. If you're too ashamed to take your date to your favorite bar, at least treat them to fine food and drink. It'll cost you a pretty penny, but hey, this is your shallow insecurity, not theirs.
While we can't comment on friends who may or may not have made brief eye contact with a pretty college-aged lass before the two adjourned to the sidewalk outside Back Alley's large smoking patio for a brief romp, we can say the informal, booze-fueled environment of the venerable watering hole is conducive to bringing strangers together. With Cal State Fullerton and Fullerton College close by, it's an attractive option for stressed-out matriculates looking to blow off a little steam. There's just something about that smoking patio on a hot night. The music from the jukebox is loud, and a large hole in the building's front wall grants access to the bar from outside. Suddenly, people who don't normally smoke are congregating under the stars and rubbing elbows (among other things) in a confined area. Those who lack game might be tempted to throw their hands up and grumble bitterly about Back Alley being just another Fullerton bar, but hey, most folks don't head there on a Friday night for stimulating conversation.
Neighborhood bar? Transplanted community is more like it! The place where Xalos Bar makes its home was once "The Shack"—ground zero of one too many neo-Nazi shows, as the Weekly exposed 10 years ago. The times, demographics and venue have changed, however, and "Un Poco de Jalisco en el Corazon de Anaheim" is now the prevailing banner for the establishment off the interchange for the 91 and 57 freeways. For all the young people with roots planted in the municipality of Jalostotitlán in the Mexican state of Jalisco and currently populating this northern OC city, Xalos Bar is a space to anchor their social lives. But enough sociological shit; let's talk puro pinche pari. Xalos' bar is fully stocked and offers drink and bottle specials, but it's not really designed for people to get liquored-up and lounge. The inebriation is aimed at loosening up patrons enough that they'll hit the dance floor, which tends to get more than crowded, so remember to put extra deodorant on, lest you become the cabrón with the cebolla-smelling armpits drenching your dress shirt. Live banda and norteño music, along with super-estrella club, pop and rock en español DJ mix nights keep the beat going. Muster up some courage and drop a line to any one of the "AnaHynas" sure to be there on any given night.
Turk's is filled with the type of décor one might expect from a bar overlooking a harbor: fishing nets, ship's helm, giant ceramic fish. Some of the regulars live on their boats or work in the harbor; all prefer a bar where the drinks are stiff, the jukebox is always playing, and smelling like saltwater isn't grounds for dismissal. The walls feature black-and-white photos, most featuring Turk himself. The former owner is no longer around, but his bear hugs and handshakes are part of the legend. The beer selection is limited, but the pub fare is solid, especially the fish and chips. Plus, Turk's is small enough that there's a good possibility that if you go enough times, everyone will know your name.
Sometimes, a bar is just a bar. It doesn't have to be a gastropub, it doesn't need to have décor, and it doesn't need to be upscale. Sometimes, strong drinks and a pretty bartender are all it takes. Add in some sports on the TV above the bar, crowd-sourced music (via a pay-by-the-song jukebox) and pool, and you've got the makings for a great dive bar. Swinging Door gets loud on the weekends, but it's filled with mostly locals; the crowd skews young, but drinkers of all ages show up, just like a neighborhood bar should be. Weekdays are more mellow; though there's no happy hour, the prices are cheap enough it shouldn't matter. And the bartenders are all scantily clad, which does mean it's pretty much wall-to-wall dudes, but this is no Hooters or Tilted Kilt with the fake smiles and the Valley Girl accents. It feels honest here. Pass us another giant PBR, please.
Not many bars have fireplaces, but the ivy-covered Turc's in Sunset Beach boasts two—one large fireplace with seating in the main room, as well as a smaller one in the backroom. Besides keeping you warm during those cooler winter nights, Turc's also has two pool tables and two Megatouch game machines to keep the entertainment flowing in this cozy space. And, of course, there's plenty of booze to go around. The tiki-themed dive bar may not have any beers on draft, but there's a good selection of bottled beers and hard alcohol available. The female bartenders are always friendly and know the regulars by name. It's a hotspot for locals—ranging from older, wealthy beach bums to twenty- and thirtysomethings trying to get away from the trendy, overcrowded bars around town.
There's no need for the Pike's dirty teal exteriors to convince you of its awesomeness. The place is so classically Long Beach and wears its dirty-punk-surf-rat aesthetic so well you can smell the pier water from the bar (even though the ocean is about half a mile away). And while the Pike has all the prerequisites of the perfect neighborhood bar (you can come in a ratty shirt and flip-flops, and no one will care; the beer is cheap; and there's free entertainment on most nights), it also has great food: Try the crispiest fish and chips this side of Belmont Shore.
If you've ever tried to get an outside table at Crystal Cove's Beachcomber Café, with its unparalleled view of one of Southern California's last unspoiled stretches of coastline, you know there's a 45-minute (at least!) wait. Fortunately, there's a seat for you at the Bootlegger Bar, a tiki-style tavern tucked into the shady side of the café and connected to the restaurant by an elevated walkway. With a full bar, there's a wide variety of tropical drinks to choose from, but if the swing-era oldies, pirate mural and vintage Hollywood posters don't have you craving a mai tai, both the mojitos and margaritas are well-fashioned and provide a fine pairing with the available appetizers, particularly the wonton-shell ahi taco sliders and the lobster croquettes. Besides the small fleet of barstools, the outdoor seating area is cozy and convivial and provides a nice respite from the summer heat and screaming kids down on the beach. If you're not already staying at one of the rental cottages just across the creek, you'll have to park across Pacific Coast Highway and either take the shuttle, which drops you right at the restaurant, or hike downhill and through the tunnel to get there.
Bars in Southern California tend to be more waterfront than rooftop—which makes Long Beach's AVIA one to definitely check out. Its Rooftop 360° lounge is an upscale, swanky bar area with views of the coastal skyline as well as the Queen Mary. It looks very "summertime cabana," with its colorful chaise lounges and giant umbrellas, which is appropriate considering our fair climate is nearly year-round. Check out which martinis are on special for the month, and indulge in tasty bar bites such as taro-root chips and mixed olives. Plus, hotel guests can skip the cover charge (which is just $10).