Irvine proves you can plan cities, you can't plan people. Consider the Irvinian who worked for more than a decade to transform his bland tract home into a mighty gothic castle and was subdued only by the combined power of City Hall, a homeowners association and his pissed-off neighbors. Or the former mayor who chased his very large wife into their very small bedroom, fired several shots—and missed. Or the two Irvine policemen who, in 1993, fired 43 bullets into a cow that had wandered onto the San Diego Freeway. Or the straight-as-they-come Mormon drug-company founder who, just last year, arranged a hit on his business partner (it failed), rushed back to his serene-looking Irvine home (where he'd buried strange specimens in glass jars in his equally serene-looking back yard), and fired a bullet through his own head. Or that something shaped screamer Zack de la Rocha for Rage Against the Machine—perhaps his childhood in well-ordered Irvine. We're saying look beneath the surface, is all.
IS THIS OC'S BEST CITY OR WHAT?
Michelson Drive. This is the first Southern California city to establish curbside recycling and the first U.S. city to ban ozone-eating chlorofluorocarbons. It has one of the few OC animal shelters that doesn't kill its guests. But the city's greatest achievement may be Michelson Drive. Get off the 405 at Culver and head south—about 20 yards—to Michelson. Turn left. This anonymous road through a residential neighborhood was once a fast-moving river of cars. Then came a few traffic fatalities in the late 1980s—one involving a kid on his way to one of the neighborhood's several schools—and a remarkable moment: city officials cut Michelson from four lanes to two, reduced the speed limit from 45 mph to 35 mph, and built leafy medians to slow traffic. The city's mayor came under relentless attack from The Orange County Register, whose editorial writers said the smaller Michelson was evidence of creeping socialism. Please name another city (besides ever-vigilant Laguna Beach) that has even tried to fight the imperialism of the automobile.
EATING LIKE A LOCAL
Taco Bell's worldwide HQ is in Irvine (visit the employee cafeteria to sample the conglomerate's many cuisines, from burgers and chicken to something that appears to be a taco). Despite that fact, you won't find any remarkable Mexican food in the city. Asian is another matter. Sam Woo is the original location of one of Orange County's finest minichains and its best Chinese restaurant. Key attractions: live fish and shrimp, crispy Peking duck. 15333 Culver Dr., (949) 262-0888.
Clay Oven offers a soothing, dark, somehow Victorian interior. We order the succulent tandoori chicken. Key attraction: cool, sweet lassi. 15435 Jeffrey Rd., Ste. 116, (949) 552-2851.Ray's Pizza. "Reza"—the man who would become Ray—came to Irvine from Iran via NYC, where Ray's Pizza shops are more common than pigeons in a park. His pizzas are simple and yet sublime for reasons he refuses to explain. The key has something to do, he swears, with Persian cuisine. 4199 Campus Dr., Ste. D, (949) 854-5044.
Bistango. California cuisine. When we're dining on someone else's account, we like the prix fixe. Key attraction: ambiance. A rotating art exhibit features contemporary artists of the West (for sale) and lite—we mean helium-filled—jazz on the weekends. Always a business buzz. 19100 Von Karman Ave., (949) 752-5222.Vessia Ristorante is one of Irvine's finest fine-dining experiences. High ceilings, tall windows, a fine bar. We order braciole alla barese (pancetta, garlic and pecorino cheese rolled into a tender hunk of flank steak) and rotolo di spinaci, a lasagna-like wheel o' ricotta and spinach that tastes wonderfully like Christmas (could be nutmeg). 3966 Barranca Pkwy., Ste. B, (949) 654-1155.
Steelhead Micro Brewery offers good local beer and sports on the TV around the corner from Ray's Pizza and Asia Noodle Caf. We go for the darkest suds on tap—at deadline time, that was a knockout glass of Turtle Rock Porter. 4175 Campus Dr., (949) 856-2227.
COME HERE IF YOU DON'T WANT TO DIE IN A HOMICIDE
Every year, the FBI's number crunchers tell us that Irvine is OC's safest city, and among the state's Top 10. Which is great—until one night when you're walking the Irvine streets alone (it's like 11 p.m.), and you reach for the doorknob on your front door, and it comes off in your hand, and the walls of your house fold in on one another to reveal this gigantic, really towering girl—maybe five or six years old—reaching for you like you're nothing more than a goddamn doll.
University of California, Irvine. You've flown into Irvine for a business meeting, and you want to find the downtown. If you're the brainy sort, you want the University of California, Irvine, home to Orange County's best architecture (ask students to point you to Frank O. Gehry's computer science and engineering building or James Stirling's Science Library; it's unlikely they'll know, but you'll have participated in someone's public education) and an astonishing botanical collection in the campus's central Aldrich Park. Pop by Rowland Hall and look for an immense man who might be a former basketballer dressed in a lab coat: he's likely to be the university's Nobel Prize winner, F. Sherwood Rowland, the man who first discerned a link between CFCs and ozone depletion. In the basement of the very same building is an actual nuclear reactor. (Note to terrorists: the uranium used in the reactor core is not weapons-grade.) Across the street from the university, you'll find great food and drinks (see "Eating Like a Local," above) and one of Orange County's great movie theaters, the Edwards University. You don't know this—because you're visiting—but Orange County has hundreds of screens showing a total of about 14 movies, most of them Shrek. In that context, Edwards University is an art house. Additional attractions: underground tunnels haunted by undergrads and some of America's most artful graffiti—in a storm drain emptying from the campus into nearby San Diego Creek. Corner of Campus and University.
SCARE THE HELL OUT OF LOCALS
Urban America.Huntington Beach designer Samiah puts together women's coats and men's shirts with faux furs and heavy velour in loud animal prints—leopard, zebra, tiger. Men's shirts have that bowling alley feel—pointy collars, boxy fit. Urban America's Nikki can custom-order Samiah's designs to fit men as big as XXXL. $99-$140; women's jackets, $129. 4237 Campus Dr., Ste. B-164, (949) 725-9607.
CITY OF KIDS
The Pleasure Company.Irvine's previous mayor set up a "romance committee" to pump more testosterone into the city, but Irvine hardly needs it: Have you seen all the kids in this town? There's something in the air: legs. Which may be why Irvine can get along with a red-light district that comprises just one shop—this one dealing in skimpy clothes, immense dildos and powerful vibrators. 17955 Sky Park Circle, (949) 261-8615.
CITY OF GODS
Alton Parkway between Culver and Jeffrey. In Irvine, the obsession with master planning put several of the city's houses of worship in one small area. And what churches: look what the postmodernists have done to Irvine Presbyterian! Buckminster Fuller's geodesic dome is home to the Unitarians—who else!? But the temple to beat all temples—the Vatican of Irvine, its Duomo—is quite clearly the magnificent Greek Orthodox St. Paul's. When it first appeared, the massive church ticked off nearby homeowners who appreciated neither its bone-white color scheme nor its kick-ass dome. Within months, they were all dead of boils; the church remains.
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BEST PLACES TO SEE THE PAST
The Irvine Museum. Joan Irvine Smith is the great-granddaughter of James Irvine I, the man who built the Irvine Ranch—a spread that runs from the Pacific Ocean pretty much to the Santa Anas in central OC. And this is her museum. Her collection specializes in Impressionist work, especially the plein-air work of Southern California artists, which makes her museum a monument to the ranch before it fell under the suzerainty of Don "Bulldozer" Bren in the 1970s. 18881 Von Karman Ave., Ste. 12, (949) 476-2565.Irvine Valley College Antique Market.Not the kind of neat crap you'll find cheap at a swap meet—and not technically antique, either. I came this close to blowing my life savings on a bent-cane chair with a Hawaiian print that screamed mai tais. Please investigate the vestigial orange grove next to the campus; this may be your last chance. 5500 Irvine Center Dr.; first Saturday of each month.
ESCAPES FROM IRVINE
The Sinks. One day soon, the Irvine Co. promises, this Grand Canyon of Orange County will be open to the public. For the moment, it's open only to company executives and to guided tours by the Nature Conservancy. Tour information: (714) 832-7478.Culver Plaza.In a recent survey of OC cities—Where are you most likely to run into someone who isn't white?—Irvine ranked No. 1 among South County cities. The city's "diversity" is pretty monolithically Asian, but within that very broad classification, the variation is remarkable: Chinese (from Taiwan and the People's Republic of China), Koreans and Vietnamese abound. Culver Plaza is the city's Chinatown—Chinese banks and stores and Sam Woo's restaurant. The best attraction: 99 Ranch Market. The market's live shellfish, fresh-dressed fish and animal heads offer a brief escape from Irvine. 15333 Culver Dr., (949) 651-8899.San Diego Creek. Once, at the height of a storm, two young men ignored maritime regulations and set themselves a-sailing on the raging San Diego Creek. Their tiny, rubber craft wheeled like the compass of the SS Minnow, snagged momentarily on branches, ricocheted off the trestles of overpasses and tumbled over once near the corner of University and Campus—the young men, their craft and their caps sailing separately for the moment. Regaining their boat, the men steered out of Irvine and into Newport's Upper Bay, where the water broke and fanned out into a placid mirror beneath the slate sky. They were free. In the summer, the creek is nearly dry, but we have seen men catch fish there.