If you haven't already checked out the 2014 Orange County Restaurant Week selections, now's the time. Recommending five good places is like listing 10 great (fill in the blank), it will generate the kind of commentary that makes me wonder if people know how to read intros. It's a list, people. Like the kind you might scribble before heading to the store.
This time, my approach focuses on what the OCRW gurus are suggesting. In their "Tips & Suggestions" section of the website, they've got it sorted by attributes I sometimes consider when seeking a stand-out menu. Take that info, times stuff I've learned from chef interviews and dining out, and you're extra informed.
1. Dining With A View
Depending on the purpose of your meal, this can be critical to the decision-making process. Are you out to impress a visitor? Is it a celebration? If chasing a sunset is on the agenda, look no further. With the exceptions of Orange Hill (landlocked) and Blind Pig (RSM lakeside), it's all about the Pacific. In this case, I have a fondness for resort dining. VUE is perched across the street from Dana Point Harbor, and you'll get some ocean action from most patio tables. Splashes inside Laguna's Surf & Sand Resort has you steps from the water. Zimzala in Huntington Beach has a standard, dog-friendly menu-- a bonus! Just be sure to reserve a table outside.
2. Vegetarian-Friendly Dining
For every guest that chooses to not eat meat, you have one or more who do. To please both parties, Andrei's Conscious Cuisine incorporated vegan and gluten-free options on their OCRW menus. Ovo-vegetarians might like 370 Common's broccolini topped with fried egg. If you're open to pasta, head north to Brunos Trattoria, where you can also request the insane budino al caramello for dessert. Seafood is the star at Anepalco's, featuring shrimp bisque and Atlantic salmon at lunch; fish tacos, ahi and tilapia for dinner.
3. Beverage Included
When I first read this, I laughed. Did they run out of ideas? Then I thought about it. If your meal factors in alcohol, that's money saved---especially during dinner. At Maro Wood Grill, it's a glass of red, white or sangria (and remember to order some Golden Foodie Award-winning bread pudding). If it's lunch, have chef Debra explain the benefits of their mate tea. Dinners at Wahoo's include wine or beer, while Chapter One throws in the option of a Moscow Mule or craft draft. I've got my sights on Wild Goose Tavern's cocktail selection.
I want to do Medieval Times . . .because I can, and for cheaper than what's typically charged. The same goes for Pirate's Dinner Adventure. Pure entertainment and eating with your hands sounds excellent, with heaping amounts of cheesiness. And kids can be noisier without being too much of a disturbance during the show. If you're already at South Coast Plaza, drop into zcafe for unique deals. Their $10 lunch has three versions for the discriminate diner. A $30 dinner for four (really, four) includes a full-sized pizza, duo of starters, dessert per person and beverages! Plus, they offer a $5 kid's menu I'd even order. I like kicking back on their overlooked patio and conducting a round of people watching.
5. Something different
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Different means different things, depending on who you ask. I think it means not only trying a new restaurant, but ordering items you want to learn more about. A carnivore haven like Slater's 50/50 is teaching patrons a triple threat of turducken. Both Slater's and TAPS Fish House are exploring potatoes in poutines. C4 deli wants porchetta in a sandwich, while Pizzeria Ortica wants to serve you a pizza with that and bone marrow(!). If you don't know what a brandade is, but like seafood, order one at Little Sparrow. I trust whatever Chef Eric's bistro kitchen cranks out. There's a ton of options, so open your wallet and mind to something new. Just Google it beforehand.