We'd made reservations for Fireside Tavern—tucked inside the Crowne Plaza across the freeway from South Coast Plaza—but we didn't actually need one. Aside from the two traveling businessmen who'd just checked in at the front desk and were making a beeline toward the bar, we were the only customers there at 7 o'clock on a Sunday night.
"How was your flight?" I heard one of the businessmen ask the other as they passed. Fireside, as far as these gents were concerned, was just a way station, a place to get a beer and a quick burger before turning in to rest up for their important Monday morning meeting. They were most likely oblivious that the restaurant was new, and that it replaced Savoy, the previous eatery to hold the space in what was, at the time, the Hotel Hanford.
I also made a reservation at Savoy two years ago, but I didn't need it then, either. It was as deserted as Fireside is now, ignored by locals before it closed. Savoy was gutted when the hotel became Crowne Plaza, and what was cavernous and dark got brighter and more open. In addition to a series of enormous U-shaped booths at the back that could each seat six with space to spare, there are now fire pits surrounded by couches outside.
To redo the food, they called in Scott Brandon, current owner of LinX and previously the opening chef at Corona Del Mar's Crowbar, OC's first gastropub. Brandon got rid of the protein-starch-vegetable plates on which Savoy leaned like a crutch. Instead, there's shrimp and grits, pot pie, and pork and beans. Though Brandon has included fish and chips, a burger and even deviled eggs on the menu, Fireside Tavern isn't really the gastropub it's billed as; it's actually a real restaurant serving comfort food designed to stave off homesickness in itinerant souls.
That first night, we ate a Bolognese made with strozzapreti, twisted pasta helixes cooked with a veal, beef and pork ragout—a softly sweet and not-too-rich concoction reminiscent of home-cooked, stove-simmered sauces that start with a pound of ground beef. And as I pierced the yolk on the sunny-side-up egg laid on top, the restaurant manager came around and gave me a thumbs-up. "That's my favorite dish here," she said. I believed her.
Then there was the creamy kale side dish. It's like creamed spinach, our waiter said when I asked, but a little bit bitter and not as cloying. He was right. Yet it was also refreshing, not unlike Indian saag and looking like the same swamp sludge, but with a better texture and flavor. The dish proved to me, once and for all, that to eat kale raw is to ignore the vegetable's true potential.
There were other unorthodox side dishes, such as tomatoes roasted on the vine. But as it turns out, the better way to have them was to order the mussels. Two char-flecked tomatoes were included on top as a sort of garnish that could conceivably be smashed and incorporated into a broth already flavored with Riesling and fennel. We found a better application for them, though: We smeared them like jam on crusty pieces of grilled bread. More of that grilled bread would have been nice to have with the pot pie—not because the pie needed it, but because the dish was inexplicably served with a whole roasted bone marrow (don't read this as a complaint; one should always welcome free bone marrow).
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Before our next visit the following Saturday, again we made a reservation, but we didn't need it then, either. This time, though, there were other customers, and it was then that I ate Fireside's best dishes: the chicken noodle soup and the whole-leaf caesar salad. I consumed the latter by grabbing each leaf by the stem and shoving entire stalks into my mouth, honoring the way the original salad was eaten in the Roaring '20s. My date ate hers by carefully cutting up the cheese-covered leaves, then constructing little caesar sandwiches with a broken piece of crouton and a sliver of white anchovy.
Since it was a meal unto itself, we shared the chicken noodle soup. There was barely any room for broth; it was chock-full of shredded meat, vegetables and beguiling strips of "noodle" that had brown mottled spots presumably from being pan-fried. If the noodles reminded me of anything, it was of the soft chewiness of Korean panjeon.
After we finished the soup, I overhead the couple in the next booth chatting with their server. They told him they were locals from Newport and loved that they were able to have a great Saturday night meal here without so much as a reservation. "Well, we'd like to be the kind of place that needs reservations," the waiter told them with a wink.