Photo by Keith MayVery Middle America—or at least what Hollywood believes is Middle America: the studios frequently use Old Town when they need Rockwellian virtue made solid (see That Thing You Do! and Big Mama's House). But there's more to Orange than Old Town. There are colleges, a university, great food, malls, movie theaters, parks and more malls, along with houses and freeways and more malls.
Dairy Treet. Orange has its Baskin-Robbins and Dairy Queens, but it also has this stand called Dairy Treet right across the street from Chapman University. This little shack of a restaurant serves all sorts of ice cream delights, but it's the chocolate malts that bring me back for more. 292 N. Glassell St., (714) 538-5904.Watson Drugs & Soda Fountain. Say you wanted to take a girl on an old-fashioned date and need someplace a bit more formal than Dairy Treet. Go to Watson's in the Circle, put a few coins in the jukebox (I like "I Only Have Eyes for You" by the Flamingos), and order a hot-fudge sundae. 116 E. Chapman Ave., (714) 532-6315. Moreno's. A family-owned and -operated Mexican restaurant open for more years than any of us can remember. It's a fun place with a huge outdoor patio featuring lots of shade trees and a great reception room. The best thing about Moreno's is that nothing changes. The atmosphere, the food and the service are consistently good. 4328 E. Chapman Ave., (714) 639-2181. Zito's Pizza. A half-block north of the Orange Circle in Old Town Orange is the city's best pizza joint. The tables and floors in this old-style pizzeria are never sticky, there's a comfy outdoor patio, and the pizzas are made to order right in front of you. The toppings are fresh, and the sauce doesn't taste like Ragu. 8416 E. Chapman Ave., (714) 633-2500. Thai Pan B.B.Q. Thai Pan is empty every time I go there, which is incredible considering the otherworldly quality of its food. My recommendations: the red and yellow curries (both will bring out a good, wholesome sweat, but the yellow curry is sweeter), the Mongolian beef (beware: the green peppers in this dish are not bell peppers! They're hot as hell and will make your eyes fill with water like a cartoon character that has just eaten a dynamite stick in a hot-dog bun—and so tasty), and the stir-fried scallop and shrimp. Wash everything down with Thai iced tea (if I were a goddess, this would be my nectar), and indulge in the Thai coconut or green-tea ice creams. 724 E. Katella Ave., (714) 532-4922.Citrus City Grille. A favorite meal at Citrus City Grille starts with the butter lettuce salad with pear or the Gorgonzola salad with candied walnuts. Then comes the entre: Will it be the roasted pork chop with caramelized onions and garlic mashed potatoes or the pan-seared salmon over bowtie pasta with a light vodka-tomato sauce? The dessert, if I have room, is the luscious cheesecake and an espresso. 122 N. Glassell St., (714) 639-9600.Poul's Danish American Bakery. Two things hit you when you walk into Poul's: the mouth-watering smell of vanilla and cinnamon and the feeling that you are the youngest person in the store by at least two generations. My dad, who is past retirement age, loves going into this Orange landmark because they call him a young whippersnapper. Poul's is the old-fashioned kind of bakery with glass cases full of cheese, fruit and spiced Danishes, still-warm-from-the-oven cinnamon rolls, and huge coffee cakes that your grandma would serve with black percolator coffee. If you want real bakery, go to Poul's. But be ready to push the 80-year-olds out of your way. 770 N. Tustin Ave., (714) 532-5101.
The Block at Orange. It has its share of national chains and pretzel shops like other malls, but it also has Van's Skate Park, where skaters can try out their latest moves while listening to blaring music. In my day, we listened to blaring music at Skateway as we roller-skated, but that was a different town and a different sport. And clearly a different time. 1 The City Blvd., (714) 769-4000. Old Towne Orange. A great collection of antique stores where you can find an authentic 1960s Bozo the Clown lunch box or a beautifully restored 1870 mahogany sideboard with hand-carved accents. Mostly I like the old books, the Life magazines and those Jackie Kennedy pillbox hats. Chapman Avenue and Glassell Street at the Orange Circle.Big Y Yardage. As soon as you walk in the door, there is a salesperson, equipped with a measuring tape and chalk, to measure off the correct length of discount damask for the dining room table. Women walk in with a dream and leave with a bolt of fabric and new sheers faster than you can say "the Martha Stewart Collection at Kmart." 769 Tustin Ave., (714) 744-9052.
Chapman University. Listed among the top private schools in U.S. News & World Report, Chapman offers more than just an expensive education. There are also celebrity sightings! There's Ella Fitzgerald and Thomas Jefferson and George Washington and Martin Luther King Jr.—but we think King's the only one of the disembodied heads littering Chapman's expanding campus who has actually been to the site. And don't forget the superhuge bust of Chapman's patron saint, humanitarian Albert Schweitzer, in front of the Argyros Forum, named for the board of trustees chairman/Newport Beach gazillionaire. Inside the cool, energy-efficient building, you won't find George Argyros' bust (a bronze relief, yes, but his head's in Beckman Hall), but you'll find a whole other collection of names, each one attached to a different room or hallway. In fact, every building and some of their rooms are named for someone rich and/or famous: Cecil B. DeMille, Betty Hutton Williams, Ernie Chapman, Bob and Norma Lineberger (and just what the heck is a loggia terrace anyway?). If you can overlook the annoyance of bumping into bronzed heads every few feet, it's a lovely, Ivy League-looking campus to stroll through. 1 University Dr., (714) 997-6815.Bookman. The wooden shelves of Orange County's best used bookstore are filled with volumes of every nature, so be prepared to spend some serious browsing time—perhaps bring some coffee and a sleeping bag. It's not uncommon to come out of Bookman with more than 20 books, from classic first editions to the latest John Grisham paperback. And the knowledgeable staff will research author names and dig through piles of books to find that tome you won't be able to put down or at least show off as if you'd read it ("Yeah, Ulyssesis the reason I bought a leather couch."). Here's a great secret: Bookman has a huge selection of cookbooks, from classics such as Fannie Farmer and Craig Claiborne to the newest trends la Emeril and the Naked Chef. 840 N. Tustin St., (714) 538-0166.
Earl's Home Cookin'. Tell me, is there anything better than eating a pile of pancakes heaped with whipped cream and strawberries at 9 p.m. and being able to smoke while you do it? Earl's is probably the only restaurant in Orange County that still allows smoking indoors. Of course, this is accomplished by closing off the non-smoking section of the restaurant with glass doors and constructing what is best described as an indoor/outdoor-patio/restaurant. The smoking area features proper wooden tables, walls and a ceiling, and the all-important screened windows that allow the room to breathe. The whole atmosphere lends itself to the feeling of being in some wilderness camp for hooligans. Earl's is also a marvel of science, declaring that certain specials—as well as breakfast—are served "25 Hours a Day!" All this—and prices lower than Norm's or Denny's. 807 N. Tustin, (714) 639-8590.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Orange County, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.