Orange County was born to drink. Father Junipero Serra planted the first vineyards in California; the first permanent colony of non-Mexicans in OC was the Germans who bought a chunk of what's now Anaheim to create a socialist wine-making utopia. And ever since, every successive wave of immigrant to our fair land has set up their homes, found success . . . then ended their nights somewhere with the purpose of getting shit-faced among peers.
Our drinking scene is lively, from dives to hotel bars, Korean karaoke lounges to Vietnamese speakeasies, sporting lodges to cantinas (popularly known as paisa bars—that is to say, wab bars)—and that's just Santa Ana. But as every OCer knows, some cities are more equal than others when it comes to the excellence of its boozing scene. So we've decided to rank all of our towns, from the best to the blurst, with shout-outs to places we love sprinkled in. Discover some new spots, revel in seeing your local hangout represented—and Yorba Linda: step it up!
1. SANTA ANA
Yes, the Golden City just suffered a black eye to its carefully nurtured reputation as a hipster haven with the horrific Jan. 18 beating death of Kim Pham outside the Crosby. But don't believe The Orange County Register readers' propaganda: Santa Ana is safe. Santa Ana is great. From the city's many paisa bars—best are the beer-only Las Vegas Bar (2339 S. Bristol St., 714-546-3035) and the infamous El Fracaso ("The Failure," 701 N. Harbor Blvd., 714-554-6361)—to the Vietnamese drinkers on the edge of Little Saigon to the craft bars in downtown and the distilleries and breweries planned to debut this year and next, Santa Ana is where you can experience drinking at its finest: as a respite from the problems of the world, as a place where you find camaraderie in the shared experience of a pint or shot. Again, Santa Ana is safe. Santa Ana is great.
This city alone has more liquor licenses than whole chunks of the 949, and Fullerton is one of the only places in Orange County that can support a proper pub crawl. There's food available late, and for that all-important shot of post-bar espresso, the Night Owl Coffee Shop (200 Harbor Blvd., 714-525-0305; www.thenightowlfullerton.com) is open until 3 a.m. The only thing missing is street food, the 24-hour Taquería de Anda down the street from the DMV station notwithstanding. And the nexus of the city's drinking scene is its downtown, home of the dual bar: places that attract one crowd early and turn into nightclubs afterward. The Continental Room (115 W. Santa Fe Ave., 714-469-1879; www.myspace.com/thecontinentalroom), for example, or Slidebar Rock-N-Roll Kitchen (122 E. Commonwealth Ave., 714-871-7469; www.slidebarfullerton.com) or Matador Cantina (111 N. Harbor Blvd., 714-871-8226; www.thematador.com). It's a college town, after all, which means at least half of its bars are going to be filled with selfie-snapping young women and the bros who pursue them, but there is something for everyone. Wine? Head for the Twisted Vine (127 W. Commonwealth Ave., 714-871-1200). Beer? Bootlegger's Brewery (130 S. Highland Ave., 714-871-BEER) is just a block off the main drag. Start your evening drinking whiskey at HopScotch (136 E. Commonwealth Ave., 714-871-2222) before it gets too crowded. Like jazz? Steamers (138 W. Commonwealth Ave., 714-871-8800) is internationally famous for its live jazz combos, but it's also the county's best-kept secret for craft cocktails. Dueling pianos? Ziings (209 N. Harbor Blvd., 714-526-5777) is the place to go. The late-night crowd tends to be young and a little raucous—you've been warned—so get your last call at 2J's Cocktails (120 W. Houston Ave., 714-871-9665; www.2jslounge.com), conveniently located next to the 91 freeway and a cheap Shell station.
3. COSTA MESA
From the high-end booze barns of South Coast Plaza to the paisa spots on the Westside to the bars concentrated at the end of the 55 freeway to the burgeoning barrel of fun that is East 17th Street to good ol' Kitsch Bar (891 Baker St., Ste. A10, 714-546-8580; kitschbar.com), still waiting for this generation of Weeklings to discover it, to the county's best liquor store, Hi-Time Wine Cellar (250 Ogle St., 949-650-8463; hitimewine.net), and the iconic Memphis (2920 Bristol St., 714-432-7685; www.memphiscafe.com) and Tin Lizzie (752 Saint Claire, 714-966-2029; www.tinlizziesaloon.com), Costa Mesa is as good as it gets for drinks. So why does it only reach No. 3? Because it's not Santa Ana or Fullerton—DUH!
4. HUNTINGTON BEACH
Where the bros are, yes. But Surf City is far more nuanced than the rest of us want to give it credit for. The fabulous SeaLegs Wine Bar (21022 Beach Blvd., Ste. 105, 714-536-5700; sealegswine.com) stocks a robust collection of vino, The Corner (8961 Adams Ave., 714-968-6800; thecornerhb.com) remains OC's most underrated cocktail bar, and Johnny's Saloon (17428 Beach Blvd.; www.johnnyssaloon.com) does all sorts of great charity work. And dive bars rule, from Sunset Beach to PCH to Main Street to everywhere else. Best of all? The skinhead hangouts are almost all gone!
In addition to some of the county's last working-class white bars, more than a few paisa places and the tiki masterpiece that is Trader Sam's at the Disneyland Hotel, this is OC's best city for beer drinkers. Downtown Anaheim has the resurgent Anaheim Brewery (336 S. Anaheim Blvd., 714-780-1888; www.anaheimbrew.com), whose 1888 California Common shows up on taps all over town; Noble Ale Works (1621 S. Sinclair St., 714-634-2739) has award-winning IPAs and a milk stout that causes stampedes once a quarter; and directly across Katella Avenue is J.T. Schmid's (2610 E. Katella Ave., 714-634-9200). There's a German pub, the Phoenix Club's Bierstube (1340 S. Sanderson Ave., 714-563-4166), nestled up against the 57 freeway; it runs the county's largest Oktoberfest. Even Anaheim's sports bars (Lopez & Lefty's, 1759 S. Claudina Way, 714-300-0000; www.lopezandleftys.com) and team sports-oriented pizzerias (Out of the Park Pizza, 5638 E. La Palma Ave., 714-77-PIZZA) sell craft beer. Moreover, the only country-dancing bar in North County is at The RANCH Saloon (1025 E. Ball Rd., 714-817-4200) just east of Disneyland; sneak over to the restaurant side for a huge whiskey selection and the best wine list in town.
6. LAGUNA BEACH
Once the heart of Orange County's gay community, Laguna Beach is down to one LGBT bar: Bounce (1460 S. Coast Hwy., 949-494-0056). And the 24-hour frat party along Pacific Coast Highway is far tamer than it was in past decades. Instead, Laguna has reinvented itself as a cocktail destination, with Broadway By Amar Santana (328 Glenneyre St., 949-714-8234), Three Seventy Common (370 Glenneyre St., 949-494-8686), Selanne Steak Tavern (1464 S. Coast Hwy., 949-715-9881) and Nick's (440 S. Coast Hwy., 949-376-8595) duking it out for mixology supremacy. This is good gentrification, right?
There's more to Orange than the Circle, though it is possible to drink and drink well there: Haven Gastropub (190 S. Glassell St., 714-221-0680) and its spinoff, Provisions Market (143 N. Glassell St., 714-997-BEER), both specialize in craft beer; of the two, Provisions has the longer tap list. Hang out with the Chapman kids at the District Lounge (223 W. Chapman Ave., 714-639-7777) or Paul's Cocktails (207 W. Chapman Ave., 714-639-2480), or head to the train station for the Streamliner Lounge (186 N. Atchison St., 714-639-7829), the coolest thing the Ruby's Diner chain has ever created. Outside the downtown area, there are such locally famous dives as the Olive Pit (834 E. Lincoln Ave., 714-974-9994) and the Cherry Pit (749 W. Katella Ave., 714-639-5851), though Jimmy Bones (1815 E. Chapman Ave., 714-532-4920) is where bartenders go to drink on their night off. Pro tip: The craft cocktails nobody knows about are at the saloon at the Orange County Mining Co. (10000 Crawford Canyon Rd., 714-997-7411), but don't drink too many—it's a long way down that hill.
8. SEAL BEACH
Seal Beach is Huntington Beach's northern, better-behaved cousin. The same beachy, laid-back feeling pervades (flip-flops everywhere), and there's the same awkward mix of pickup trucks, beach cruisers and pedestrians, and the same kinds of bars, including three Irish pubs within a single block. At no point on Main Street are you more than 50 feet from a cool, refreshing drink. A few standouts: At The Abbey (306 Main St., 562-799-4246), there's a long list of wines by the glass, as well as local craft beers. While no beer is brewed at the original but tiny Beachwood BBQ (131 Main St., 562-493-4500), it serves its Long Beach sister's brews as well as a rotating batch of guest beers. And, of course, for cocktails, there's only one possible destination: 320 Main (320 Main St., 562-799-6246), where owner Jason Schiffer creates concoctions that bring people all the way from LA.
9. NEWPORT BEACH
Rich. Fancy. Hoity-toity. Expensive. Yep, you're in Newport Beach. But there's no reason to hate too much. The best tequila selection in coastal OC resides at SOL Cocina (251 E. Coast Hwy., 949-675-9800), and the best fancy-beer selection is at SideDoor (3801 E. Coast Hwy., 949-717-4322). Newport Beach has its own brewing company (2920 Newport Blvd., 949-675-8449), and Lark Creek (957 Newport Center Dr., 949-640-6700) is the latest place to go for craft cocktails. Plus, the bar at the Fairmont Hotel (4500 MacArthur Blvd., 949-476-2001) gets its honey from its rooftop apiaries—how awesome is that? Shockingly, there's not much of a wine-bar presence for such a wealthy place. Most of the vino is drunk in restaurants, and A Restaurant (3334 W. Coast Hwy., 949-650-6505) has more than two dozen available by the glass, as well as a huge wine cellar. Thankfully, it's not all starch and stiff upper lips. There are a few un-fancy bars left on the Peninsula: Try Cassidy's (2603 Newport Blvd., 949-675-8949), Mutt Lynch's (2300 W. Oceanfront, 949-675-1556), Blackie's (2118 W. Oceanfront, 949-675-1074; www.blackiesbythesea.com) and Class of '47 (209 Palm St., 949-675-5774), where John Wayne would start his days. And then, of course, there's the silicone slice of MILF heaven known as the Quiet Woman (3224 E. Coast Hwy., 949-640-7440).
10. SAN CLEMENTE
Given it's so far away from the rest of Orange County, the Spanish Village By the Sea's offerings are a bit more regimented than other cities. MILF? Beachfire (204 Avenida Del Mar, 949-366-3232; beachfire.com) has held court for more than a decade now. A jarhead? You'll be welcome across town, especially at Goody's (206 S. El Camino Real, 949-492-3400). An old-timer? The legendary Red Fox Lounge (220 S. El Camino Real, 949-492-3403) has served them since the Eisenhower administration. There are bona fide pubs and wine bars—but no matter what your tribe is, everyone ends up at Knucklehead's (1717 N. El Camino Real, 949-492-2410) for a round of pool.
"Let's go nhau." No, not now, but nhau. Westminster is the epicenter of Orange County's Vietnamese booze scene, with small bars tucked into the corners of the two-story plazas that endlessly line Bolsa, Brookhurst, Magnolia and Westminster boulevards. You'll mostly be drinking beer, but Vietnamese people don't drink without eating, and quan nhau tend to have the best bar snacks. If you're new to the genre, start at Q's Lounge (15380 Beach Blvd., 714-725-1011), then just troll Little Saigon looking for the word Quan. If that sounds too exotic for you, Westminster is also home to our Best Bar of 2013, the Posse Bar (13093 Springdale St., 714-769-6240). While there are police and EMT patches decorating the bar, this is more of a locals' place, with an outstanding whiskey and moonshine selection, rock and country on the jukebox, weekly karaoke, and a great all-day Sunday happy hour. And Westminster also boasts the Green Girl Saloon (14341 Beach Blvd., 714-897-8612; www.thegreengirlsaloon.com), one of the finest lounges in the land, and C'Est Si Bon (6640 Westminster Blvd., 714-379-9934), one of the final reminders that Westminster once had gabachos.
12. SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO
Wait, when did San Juan Capistrano become cool? It was always about brunch at the Ramos House. But all of a sudden, there are all these new restaurants and friendly bars? The city has arguably the best wine bar in Orange County, Five Vines (31761 Camino Capistrano, 949-800-9145), with its ever-changing wine flights. There are outstanding cocktails at Harlow's Cuisine & Cocktails (31111 Rancho Viejo Rd., 949-240-8100), including the best Old Fashioned in OC, and the old Swallows Inn (31786 Camino Capistrano, 949-493-3188) is still attracting ne'er-do-wells from across Southern California. All SJC needs now is a brewery to replace the defunct Capistrano Brewing Co., and it'll be the drinking destination of the 949.
13. RANCHO SANTA MARGARITA
Don't laugh: Since Rancho Santa Margarita has to do double duty as its own city and the drinking destination for scared, walled-off rich people in Coto de Caza and Ladera Ranch, it's surprisingly rich in watering holes. If you drive a Lexus or the latest Mercedes, we'll find you at UnCorked Wine Bar (22342 El Paseo, 949-382-4644) or Pizza e Vino (31441 Santa Margarita Pkwy., 949-713-1500). If you're arriving in a lifted F250, you'll end up at Daily Sports Grill (29881 Aventura, 949-858-8788) or perhaps at Cismontane Brewing's (29851 Aventura, 949-888-BREW) tiny but delicious tasting room next door. For cocktails, there's the Blind Pig (31431 Santa Margarita Pkwy., 949-888-0072), where the bartenders are fighting the good fight against vodka and introducing inland South County to craft cocktails. If you simply can't accept that martinis contain gin and not vodka, make like a Real Housewife and hang out at Hanna's (22195 El Paseo, 949-709-2300). We're going to include the lively backroom of the Rose Canyon Cantina (20722 Rose Canyon Rd., Trabuco Canyon, 949-766-6939), even though it's located just outside the city limits—the upturned Corona-bottle margaritas notwithstanding, there's a real Mexican margarita on the menu.
There's no watering hole in Tustin fancy enough to dress up for—but if you love cheap beer, pool, darts and group karaoke, you'll find yourself hangin' in this town. Best known countywide is the Swinging Door (355 El Camino Real, 714-832-5214), but most popular are Marty's (14401 Newport Ave., 714-544-1995) and the Tustin Inn (440 E. First St., 714-731-3446). Even the Tustin Brewing Co. (13011 Newport Ave., 714-665-BEER), which features a great rotation of guest beer alongside its own brews, has dark panels and a slightly dive-y feel to it, despite being housed in a building out of Grimm's Fairy Tales.
15. BUENA PARK
To drink in Buena Park, you need to love noraebang—which is to say, karaoke. Noraebang are always private-room karaoke bars, at which you signal the waitstaff with a doorbell when you want food or drink. It's important to understand how Korean bars work, too: The more you drink, the better the bar snacks become. Your best option is Octave 18 (7241 Orangethorpe Ave., 714-522-3800). Buena Park still has some of its old dive bars, which date from when the place was a stop on the trail from Los Angeles to Anaheim and San Diego; of these, Rush Cocktail Lounge (6146 Beach Blvd., 714-522-7874) is the best. The drinks skew sweet, but the scene is chill and friendly, and on busy nights, there's a taco stand outside to kill the post-drinking hunger.
The Stanley Ketchel of OC cities when it comes to boozing, Placentia swings far above its weight class. It hosts a surprising amount of great sports bars, starting with Kelly's Korner Tavern (909 E. Yorba Linda Blvd., 714-961-9396; kellyskornertavern.com), where boisterous boyos cheer on their teams while playing a mean game of 8-ball. Down the street is TJ's Locker Room (1164 E. Yorba Linda Blvd., 714-996-0929), where Gustavo's cousins act as the self-appointed "bin Ladens of bush." And Placentia's haymaker is The Bruery, (717 Dunn Way, 714-996-6258; thebruery.com), one of the best breweries in Southern California. There's a smattering of paisa bars, but they're so ornery we've yet to step in.
17. GARDEN GROVE
An awesome drinking town, from the paisas to Koreans to Viets to the jumble of places on Main Street to Gaynor's Lounge (9902 Westminster Ave., 714-638-2800), the last vestige of working-class white Garden Grove. And don't forget Crooner's Lounge at Azteca Mexican Restaurant (12911 Main St., 714-638-3790; www.theazteca.com) and its Elvii!
18. LA HABRA
Almost equally split between white and Mexican cantinas, La Habra must compete with Whittier—one of the great drinking cities in Southern California—for livers. Nevertheless, the city can boast of two great locals: Duffy's (531 W. Imperial Hwy., 714-870-4181) and the 13th Frame (370 E. Whittier Blvd., 714-526-2058; lhbowl.com), the latter housed in the legendary La Habra 300 Bowl. Make like Sobchak, and beat the nihilists.
Land of the 24-hour dental services, Stanton's bar scene has worsened over the years, as the city's notorious dives have classed up or disappeared—things just haven't been the same since the infamous Fuzzy's Bear and its creepy-ass mural flipped into respectability as a bikini bar. In the middle of all this mayhem, of course, is Park Ave (11200 Beach Blvd., 714-901-4400; www.parkavedining.com), where you can unapologetically drink as though you're part of the Rat Pack.
Nightlife in Irvine? Not really. In America's Safest City, the sidewalks roll up at 8 p.m., so you have to do your drinking in Newport or Tustin. The saving grace—the only reason to be in the vicinity—is UC Irvine's Anthill Pub (C-215 Student Center, 949-824-3050), where you'll find 30 taps of craft brew, all at about $5 per pint, providing real-life education to our future leaders. Further up the 405, OC Wine Mart (2272 Michelson Dr., 949-250-0033) has several tables and a card-operated self-dispensing system that gives you measured pours of a good selection of wine. If it's hard alcohol or any kind of scene you're looking for, though, your only choice is the chain restaurants at the Spectrum—good luck with parking!
21. DANA POINT
On the one hand, you have the high-priced resorts with the kind of cocktails you can only afford when your boss or crazy aunt wants to spend time with you; on the other hand, you have Turk's (34683 St. of the Golden Lantern, 949-496-9028), perhaps the best dive bar in South County, and a branch of the venerable Hennessey's chain (34111 La Plaza, 949-488-0121). Between that? Not much—surprisingly slim pickings for a beach town. Sure, there's Capistrano Beach, but the last time we tried to say the enclave was part of Dana Point, we got punched.
22. LAKE FOREST
Given that Lake Forest is the last stand for Mexican food as you head south, you'd think there'd be a great paisa bar or two—but no. There's a great dive bar called the Iron Mule (21212 Bake Pkwy., 949-586-6853), an even-better dive called Our Place (24301 Muirlands Blvd., 949-588-7522), and great beer bars at Brü Grill & Market (23730 El Toro Rd., 949-305-5757) and Slater's 50/50 (24356 Swartz Dr., 949-460-9314), with huge numbers of taps of mostly local craft brews . . . and that's about it. Can someone open a cocktail bar for the thirsty residents of Foothill Ranch now, please?
23. LAGUNA NIGUEL
The greatest of the Little Lagunas, Niguel is internationally famous for Mugs Away Saloon's (27324 Camino Capistrano, 949-582-9716) annual Mooning of the Trains, a tradition that goes back to the Carter administration. The other bars here are mostly pedestrian, namely because the real drinking happens in the sex dungeons of the city's wealthiest, wackiest millionaires.
For being such a criminally overlooked city—seriously, what else do you know about it other than its college and swap meet, Forest Lawn Cemetery, and the fact that Los Alamitos Race Course is technically in this town?—Cypress has a surprisingly vibrant dive-bar scene. Spend your nights at the White Rooster Pub (6072 Lincoln Ave., Ste. B, 714-952-4611) and Jeanie's Dirty Martini (4360 Lincoln Ave., 714-826-0570) and give this fun 'burb a shot.
25. FOUNTAIN VALLEY
As with its neighbor cities, Fountain Valley tends toward the divey and pubby when it comes to drinking. Though it's located on the south side of Little Saigon, there aren't any places in the city limits to nhau—so you'll end up at places such as Ozzie's (17110 Brookhurst St., 714-963-7888) in the bowling alley or Ed's Stumble Inn (8896 Warner Ave., 714-841-6245), where billiards sharpsters hang out. Your best bet, though, is probably Silky Sullivan's (10201 Slater Ave., 714-963-2718), the Irish pub on Slater Avenue that serves proper pints and breakfast for afters. It's also the only place in town that's open late.
This is the Mission Viejo of North County. Brea's downtown is a pub crawl waiting for a place to happen . . . except that restaurants and bars have so much trouble staying open it never quite happens. Still, some of the best beer in the county is made by brewmaster Victor Novak at TAPS Fish House (101 E. Imperial Hwy., 714-257-0101); you can walk up to Two 40 South (240 S. Brea Blvd., 714-256-2401), a wine bar with full bar attached; and authentic Italian spritzes and Negronis can be found at Bruno's Trattoria (210 W. Birch St., 714-257-1000). Some day, though, this place will explode, and it'll move far up the list. We can only hope. Where else are you going to go—Yorba Linda?
27. MISSION VIEJO
The Brea of South County. Wine-bar central—but since we're poor, we can't tell you the last one we visited. Home to the great Dublin4 (26342 Oso Pkwy., 949-582-0026) and perhaps more Irish pubs per capita than anywhere else in OC. Still, it's Mission Viejo, home to some of the most self-entitled natives in OC. Be warned.
28. LOS ALAMITOS
This city's problem is it's smushed between the far-better boozing environs of Seal Beach, Huntington Beach and Long Beach, meaning drinking is reduced to a bevy of sports bars. Los Alamitos' best treasure is Fiddler's Green (4745 Yorktown Ave., Bldg. 19, 562-795-2168), the only way you'll ever be able to peek into the Joint Forces Training Base without being thrown into a hoosegow.
29. LA PALMA
OC's tiniest city actually has a great bar in Cliff's Hideaway (5442 Orangethorpe Ave., 714-521-7883), a trip back to 1970s blue-collar Orange County, when the defense industry was at its height. La Palma boasts a couple of Korean bars, too. Not bad for a place once called Dairyland, huh?
30. LAGUNA HILLS
There is just one true bar in Laguna Hills—Players Sports Grill (24401 Ridge Route Dr., 949-588-5973)—but the city saves itself from being further down the list by virtue of its Total Wine (24001 El Toro Rd., 949-206-1539). However, it stops itself from being further up the list by virtue of city managers forcing the fabulous Break of Dawn to shut down for a couple of months while the city tries to become hip and therefore deny us one of the best Bloody Marys in the land.
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31. ALISO VIEJO
It's telling that the best place to get a cocktail in sleepy Aliso Viejo is at the gym at the Renaissance Hotel. Your choices other than standard restaurants are the Stadium Brewing Co. (26731 Aliso Creek Rd., 949-488-9611), which is most renowned for its blueberry beer (yes, there are blueberries floating in it), Bagels & Brew (yes, a bagel shop with beer, 26601 Aliso Creek Rd., 949-521-6120) or Time Out Tavern (27822 Aliso Creek Rd., 949-362-5919), the most rollicking strip-mall sports bar around. The best advice we can give you is to drink in your palatial suburban home; Pacific Park Market (27792 Aliso Creek Rd., 949-831-0330) has a good craft beer selection.
32. YORBA LINDA
The best bar in the Land of Gracious Living is The Canyon Inn (6821 Fairlynn Blvd., 714-779-0880; canyoninnsportsbar.com)—but it's smelled up by Coronans and Chino Hillers. That's what happens when the most popular bar in town isn't even within city limits—that would be Foxfire (5717 E. Santa Ana Canyon Rd., Anaheim, 714-974-5400; foxfirerestaurant.com) the finest MILF bar in the land that invented them.
33. LAGUNA WOODS
The only place to get a real drink in the Almighty's waiting room is at the golf clubhouse, which requires either being a resident of OC's most elderly town or accompanying one. The bar menu includes such knee-slappers as the "Retire-mint Pomegranate Martini" and the "Sleeper Car" (a margarita minus the orange liqueur). The denizens of Leisure World South must do their drinking in the other Little Lagunas. . . . Now, get off their lawn.
34. VILLA PARK
With all apologies to the venerable Rockwell's, you know the drinking's bad in town when the best place to get drunk is the Villa Park High parking lot . . . which is in Orange.