As a town, Corona del Mar is technically among the various segments of Newport Beach—Newport Coast, Balboa Island, etc.—but CDM, as the townies call it, has matured into its own identity; it's the Chile to Orange County's South America: a tall and thin coastal sliver. (Thanks, perhaps, to the thrilling innovation of the gastric bypass, much of its citizenry is tall and thin as well.) CDM is at once a sleepy beach town, a fitness and plastic surgery hotbed—and a haven for other sorts of less legal activities. Here, for instance, is where the daughter of a certain Orange County mega-millionaire was nabbed with more than two kilos of cocaine and not even arrested. If any little port along the Newport Coast truly resembles television's The O.C., it isn't Newport. It's Corona del Mar. Here you'll find tall, blond, dumb water polo players actually quoting lines from films or TV shows shot here—like Satisfaction with Justine Bateman—and getting into drunken fights at charity events. (Actually, no: no one's quoting Justine Bateman.) Corona del Mar is a world away from downtown Santa Ana, with its bodegas and multicultural street life, but this, too, is the real Orange County. It's just sometimes slightly surreal. Like Santa Ana.
Photo by Heather X
Best Signpost to Little Corona Beach Five Crowns. If honey-colored light poured from the windows of this place, if hobbits played in the bushes outside, we'd say this English-style prime-rib cottage with the Beefeaters inside (and an old-school London phone booth outside) was a Kinkade painting. The food is great, the bosoms of the serving wenches are positively medieval—and the postprandial walk down the street to Little Corona Beach is perhaps one of life's great desserts. Really: you're absolutely stuffed when you come upon a single bench overlooking the vasty Pacific, and you realize, maybe, that you live in a painting. Not a Kinkade, thank God, but maybe Paul Cezanne's The Great Bathers or Mont Sainte-Victoire. 3801 E. Coast Hwy., Corona del Mar, (949) 760-0331.
Best Gelato Orange County has two strong gelato stores, both within a sugar rush of each other, but we'll have to go with the old-school hole-in-the-wall Gelato Classico. This place is all but hidden on PCH, with maybe one parking space, but its chilly, pungent treats take you back to the land of luparas and Lambrettas with just a lick. 2756 E. Pacific Coast Hwy., Corona del Mar, (949) 721-1160.
Best Nursery Roger's Gardens. Seven acres of individually landscaped, beautifully florid greenery to explore—and purchase, something John Muir would no doubt have approved of. Except the purchasing. And the annual Christmas ornament extravaganza; there's scant empirical evidence to suggest Muir was at all bullish about Christmas. You, on the other hand, shouldn't miss the shop's Yuletide gaiety—featuring one-of-a-kind handblown glass Christmas ornaments and elaborate natural displays—which typically begins shortly after you carve the Thanksgiving turkey. 2301 San Joaquin Hill Rd., Corona del Mar, (949) 640-5800.
Best Cougar Crossing The Quiet Woman. The name, and the old sign, line art of a headless woman, shouldn't fool you, and if they do, the din inside at 10:30 on a weekend night will set you right. Its age aside, this place has stayed as frisky as the rangiest cougar, thanks to good food, deep drinks and a perennially swank scene. Speaking of cougars, they're on the prowl, and, like their younger counterparts, they've developed a taste. For man, baby. 3224 E. Coast Hwy., Corona del Mar, (949) 640-7440.
Best Retreat Sherman Library & Gardens. This city's answer to Henry Huntington, on a slightly smaller scale: a genuinely ambitious and successful try at encapsulating most forms of world plant life in a couple of acres. Everything from tropical vegetation to cacti is represented in a lush, hushed landscape that invites introspective strolling. When you tire, hit Cafe Jardin for a lunch of "coastal garden cuisine" or the library, to browse more than 25,000 books and documents, including copies of the Los Angeles Times dating to the late 19th century. 2647 E. Pacific Coast Hwy., Corona del Mar, (949) 673-2261.
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Photo by Tenaya Hills
Best Way to Put You in the Picture Svelte. We've already rhapsodized over the beefy decadence of its $35 Kobe beef burger. Factor in signature "Sveltini" martinis, baroque pretty-ugly architecture ("Joe Millionaire" Evan Marriott if he were a building), and an outdoor bed on the smoking patio large enough for all the pretty, tipsy young things, and you've got Svelte: a microcosm of this city's party scene. 440 Heliotrope, Corona del Mar, (949) 723-9685; www.svelte.cc.
Best Cheap Date A walk along the beach. Still. There are two great stretches of sand here, the appropriately named Big Corona and Little Corona. Even after you find/pay for parking and accept the fact that assorted carcinogens may have trickled down from Huntington, the beach is still one of the main reasons we can't get enough of CDM.
Best Plant Life PCH medians. Corona del Mar pays attention to the details. You drive south on PCH through Newport Beach and, really, where's the love? You hit CDM and you realize: these are people who love their town. Note first the little topiary porpoises and such on the medians at PCH and MacArthur. Only Fullerton—with its short-lived experiment in fiberglass cows—has come close to seeing the connection between community and animal-shaped plants.