Best Of :: Bars & Clubs
This past March, we hosted a KCRW Good Food/OC Weekly Happy Hour at Memphis At the Santora featuring OC bartender royalty: Ricky Yarnall, Gabrielle Dion, Jason Schiffer, Matt Robold and Felicia Chavez. While the members of the Orange County Bartenders Cabinet were busy slinging free samples of their signature sauces, Jefferson Van Billiard held down the main bar, dishing out more $5 Old-Fashioneds than Memphis had rocks glasses. Now, he can be seen working the bar six days a week, serving his own limited-edition cocktails with the swagger of a veteran barkeep—except he's only kept his bar for slightly longer than half a year. When you ask Van Billiard to make you a drink, his choice, you never know what you're going to get. It might be his baked-apple Old-Fashioned, his whiskey buck, or his custom-made mango-habanero infusion. Or it might be one of dozens or hundreds (we've honestly lost count) of cocktails he has concocted during the past eight months or so. What you do know, though, is it's going to be good—and you'll be ordering more.
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.
Some may view the Pike Bar & Restaurant near the funky intersection of Fourth Street and Cherry Avenue as a hipster mecca due to that winning combination of relatively inexpensive PBRs, pricier microbrews, nightly entertainment from bands and DJs, and non-manufactured dive-iness. Indeed, the building on Retro Row seems as if it must've been constructed at the same time as the original Pike attractions. Long Beach has many fine, old watering holes, but the Pike goes above and beyond by being a lifeline for the area's many renters who appreciate having a place that lets you drink, unwind and eat pretty good grub after late work shifts, clubbing and/or long walks of shame.
Now that the Helm in Costa Mesa rests in Davy Jones' locker, the hipsters took over the Swinging Door, and the Fling is next, the Quill remains the last gasp of how drinking used to be in Orange County—not uppity froufrou mixologists, but a grizzled guy or gal who doesn't get fancier than a White Russian; not obnoxious EDM or too-cutesy DJs who think playing 1970s-TV-show theme songs is oh-so-awesome, but a jukebox that seems to always pull its songs from the combined KLOS and KFROG playlists; not fancy food, but a popcorn machine and a lunch menu no one seems to have ever eaten from. We'll let you in on a secret: More than a few judges and prosecutors make this their home away from home, so slide up to the bar and plead your case over the umpteenth Jameson neat.
When combining the terms all ages with Orange County, there's only one definitive spot to discuss: Chain Reaction. Here, boys with flat-ironed hair and eyeliner resemble girls and still manage to do well for themselves with the ladies. Here, marginalized teens from a variety of subcultures (from emo to screamo) come to listen to bands with banal names such as As I Gently Lactate and Lions Versus Eohippus and look their best while bobbing their heads to the sweet sounds of youth. In business for more than two decades, Chain Reaction is an institution, man.
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.
Main Street in HB has more bars; Harbor Boulevard in Fullerton has more crowds; Main Street in Seal Beach has a better view. But for sheer diversity of experience and quality, no stretch of Orange County beats Broadway in downtown Santa Ana. In just two city blocks, you can experience alcohol in all its wondrous ways: from wine and craft beers in a DIY setting at the Gypsy Den to the crafty hipsters at Lola Gaspar, from the city regulars at Memphis At the Santora to the underground den of beer at the Copper Door, from the loudness of Proof Bar to the chaotic love of the Crosby and Chapter One: the modern local. And for a nightcap, you can even stumble into the Mexican bars off Fourth Street and the CVS Pharmacy.
Anaheim has always been the center of the strip-club industry in Orange County, whether for of all the conventioneers and professional sports players who need to get their jollies after a day at the office or the city's working-class makeup—Latino or white, Asian or Arab, sometimes Tube8 just won't do and you need an actual girl whispering sweet nothings in your ear while loving you legally. And while the city has some long-established clubs, the relatively young Venetian Gentlemen's Club has already made its mark as the leader, not just for its gorgeous gals, not just for its classy atmosphere and proximity to the 91 freeway, but also for honest-to-goodness food and an affordable price point for dances—an important factor for its customers affected by the Great Recession.