Best Of :: Bars & Clubs
Gay bars are still few and infuriatingly far between, so VLVT Velvet Lounge is already a beloved staple in LGBTQIOC, not just for its many themed nights, but also for its Sunday brunch. Among a sea of bottomless mimosas, a DIY Bloody Mary table and fresh-to-order omelets stand the Brunchettes, who trot out the sequins, wigs and torch songs as though they were lip-synching for their lives. Their popularity is such that VLVT schedules them for two shows—at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.—and highly recommends reservations.
It's telling that the Orange County Bartenders Cabinet—the group of local bartenders that meets once a month to teach one another how to make better drinks for the rest of us—uses this Seal Beach beaut as its home bar. Jason Schiffer and his crew have made 320 Main a Tesla-esque lab for cocktail experimentation, a place where Old-Fashioneds come out with the frequency of water with ice—and mustard isn't just a condiment for fries, but also comes in drinks. Despite its wizardry, the most remarkable part about Schiffer's crew is its lack of egos—no one won't look down on you if all you want is a Cosmopolitan, but one will whip up something on the house to entice you toward greatness.
It was the pioneer, the bar that went into downtown Santa Ana when everyone else was still convinced some cholo would rob anyone with skin lighter than coffee. It was the young gun, the place that wowed Orange County with its inventive cocktails that complement a New Southern menu. It was the perennial all-star, making Best Of lists such as this one and so many more year after year for its consistency. Then it became the veteran, sometimes forgotten as new kids emerged on the block to take away the buzz. Yet in the past year, Memphis At the Santora has re-emerged to take back its rightful crown, much as Nucky Thompson in Boardwalk Empire, by focusing on what always made it so spectacular: honest cocktails, bartenders who know to use Buffalo Trace instead of Maker's, and an atmosphere that finds all of SanTana leaning on Memphis' concrete bar and asking for one more for the road.
Far from the crowds in downtown Fullerton, the corporate schlock of downtown Brea, and the uppity gastropubs and mixology joints of Tustin and Orange stands this oasis of old-school. For 31 years, Brian Fairley has operated this friendly, clean dive bar on the eastern edge of Fullerton serving nothing but beer, wine, pickled eggs and barbecue. No liquor. No karaoke nights or DJs. No douchebags pounding Red Bull and vodkas. It's a place where you can actually conduct a conversation and not worry about attitude from the clientele or the bartenders. Sports memorabilia—much of it relating to Cal State Fullerton—lines the walls, and the 13 TVs mean you're never too far from the sporting life. There's one billiards table and a shuffleboard table, but beer is the main draw: more than 30 on tap (Pabst Blue Ribbon!), offered in pints or schooners or by the bottle. There are old-timers, college kids, working Joes and Joans, business types, and everything in between. The only comparable tavern in North OC is the equally groovy Kelly's Tavern, not too far away in Placentia.
One day, we're going to spend the entire day at Cassidy's—start off in the morning with the legendary cheeseburger, drink about 15 Bloody Marys for lunch, begin dinner with Jägermeister shots, have another cheeseburger as the locals and tourists start crowding the place, and end at 2 a.m., laughing as some idiot finally gets tossed out after last call for drinking and barfing and fighting and fucking and laughing just a bit too much and hard. Oh, wait . . . that was Saturday.
UC Irvine students don't drink like other college students. Well, they do, but instead of guzzling some mass-produced, American-style, light-lager swill brewed by a big-two brewery, they're knocking back Pliny the Elders and Oaked Arrogant Bastards, all without realizing what kind of beer they're drinking. Some of them even take a "Quarter Club" challenge, downing California craft brews for 10 weeks straight just to get their name on the wall. Did I mention that on average, it's only four bucks a pint? Cheaper during happy hour? The Anthill Pub on UCI's campus has been serving beer-geek brews at PBR prices for longer than anyone has ironically enjoyed PBR, churning out more accidental beer snobs than anywhere else in Orange County. Yeah, it's always crowded, keeps weird hours and is full of college kids, but it was also one of the first places in Orange County you could get a pour of Pliny the Younger. Trust us: Dealing with college kids is worth it for a chance at their booze.