The two-story property at 2406 Newport Blvd. should be a sure-fire customer magnet. It's on the Peninsula, right on the water's edge, bordered by a view of put-putting Duffy boats and across the street from the tourist-trafficked pier. But with its recent track record, the building is a proverbial revolving door of restaurants, seeing no less than three concepts folding during the past decade, one after the other. There was Hooters, a Mexican restaurant called Kantina and something that hawked sushi rolls. It either speaks to the fickle nature of the restaurant biz in general, or the Newport Beach clientele in particular—and I say the latter.
Now there's Commonwealth Lounge, the poster boy of downtown Fullerton's transformation from a charming, antique-store-heavy collection of old buildings to a magnet for the hip crowd in North County. Key to its operating model is its steady roster of DJs, live bands and even burlesque acts whom you've no doubt ogled via slideshows on our website. But Commonwealth, above all else, is less a restaurant and more a nightclub the sunnier and comparatively richer Newport Beach types may not be quite ready for—a place to be after-hours for a drink, to chill, to be around friends you'd rather not hear above the loud, loud music. The best time to come is during happy hour for generous discounts on booze and food—or after 9 p.m., when something interesting happens on the small corner stage on the second floor.
If there's one glaring difference between the Fullerton Commonwealth Lounge and this newest branch, it's this two-floor layout. While the Fullerton hangout spreads out across a spacious, communally cohesive room, Newport Beach's Commonwealth has no choice but to split itself in half due to the nature of its awkward MC Escher-esque building design. The bar and entertainment are upstairs in the cramped main dining room; the rest of the seats are downstairs in a relatively isolated row of booths. Though you'll hear the music clearly as it bleeds through the walls, a ground-floor table is absent of everything designed to make your night. You are removed from the music acts and, more important, the lounge's epicenter, the black-leather-clad bar that looks like a Tim Burton movie set in a sleazy Vegas Keno lounge.
Commonwealth Lounge and Grill, www.commonwealthlounge.com. Open Mon.-Wed., 4 p.m.-2 a.m.; Thurs.-Sun., 11 a.m.- 2 a.m. Dinner for two, $25-$60, excluding drinks. Full bar.
Yes, you want to be upstairs, where the action is, where the people are, because you're certainly not there to just eat the food. But if you are, start with the Monte Cristo: turkey, ham and Swiss between two thick slices of sourdough bread and enveloped in a golden-brown cocoon of batter. Like those county-fair Twinkies, the deep fry blesses it with a crunchiness it never knew it needed. Sliced into big-mouthed quarters, you'd be foolish to not pass this around to share: It's too much sandwich, too much richness and too many crispy tater tots on one plate for one mortal to consume. It's probably safe to skip the other entrées entirely and stick with just the sandwich. The grilled chicken breast was predictably dry. If you must do a main course, opt for a steak or the baby-back ribs, which the kitchen seems to run out of too quickly. All protein-based meals include grilled, ornery asparagus spears and a mound of slightly pasty garlic mashed potatoes as side items.
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As with any lounge menu, the better plan of action is to make a meal of appetizers. The cliché that is an ahi-tuna tower would be easy to write off if it weren't so darned good—something about the cubed cucumbers, creamy avocado, crispy wontons and raw tuna work together to dispel any cynicism. More goodwill is banked when you encounter the pigs in a blanket, those retro cocktail-party relics of wieners wrapped in bite-sized puff pastry, here as charming as ever. But the best appetizer by far is the baked Brie, in which more puff pastry holds a wedge of melting Brie under a dome crust. It's eaten in concert with marmalade and grapes, the fruit answering the richness of the oozing cheese.
For something substantial, a section called "crocks" offers a macaroni and cheese so soupy it's in danger of becoming fondue and a Cape Cod Clam Chowdah made by a journeyman chowder cook who comes by every day and does nothing but this cream-inflected-but-not-too-thick brew halfway between the Manhattan and the New England styles of soup. It's hard to say whether Commonwealth Lounge will do as well here as it has on its home turf. It brings an anti-establishment rebelliousness, youth and brashness that has proven good medicine for Fullerton—but will it work on the coast? If it's around more than a year, congrats; if you're gone by then, Commonwealth, don't take it personally—it's Zooport.
This review appeared in print as "Fullerton Flavor: Commonwealth Lounge has spearheaded the revival of downtown Fullerton—but will it work in Zooport?"