Some restaurants do nothing in terms of décor; others do too much. These restaurants stand out for their paintings and photos.
DINNER FOR TWO:
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Beachfire is what a neighborhood restaurant should be—a mini-gallery featuring hometown artists (appreciate the colorful boats of Chico Dias), goofy theme nights from Monday Night Football to Aloha Fridays, live bands, kids' specials and booze. Lots of booze. But it's the seafood that ultimately impresses the most—the macadamia-nut-crusted mahi, particularly. 204 Ave. del Mar, Ste. D, San Clemente, (949) 366-3232; www.beachfire.com. $$BISTANGO
California cuisine. When we're dining on someone else's account, we like the prix fixe. Key attraction: ambiance. A rotating art exhibit features contemporary artists of the West (for sale) and lite—we mean helium-filled—jazz on the weekends. Always a business buzz. 19100 Von Karman Ave., Irvine, (949) 752-5222. $$$CORNER BROILER
Corner Broiler is the sort of intimate neighborhood steak house that fell years ago to the nationwide chains but is rightfully, slowly staging a comeback. True to its name, Corner Broiler specializes in revered American meat cuts: mountainous rib-eyes and porterhouses, nicely smoked barbecued chicken, blackened salmon or halibut fillets. The steak-and-potatoes entrées complement the restaurant's hushed, humble décor: maybe 20 tables, a small bar, tasteful landscape paintings and warm, low lighting. 24301 Muirlands, Ste. Y, Lake Forest, (949) 581-1289. $$THE COTTAGE
What's the secret of this Laguna Beach restaurant's decades of success? Good food and lots of it; comfy chairs and friendly service; charming framed photographs of Laguna's original greeter; a full, sated belly every time you leave. 308 N. Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach, (949) 494-3023; www.thecottagerestaurant.com. $
FERDUSSI TASTE OF PERSIA
This Persian palace, replete with pictures and paintings of ancient Persia, makes its lamb shank just as it should be: stewed for so long the meat falls off the bone when you so much as look at it. This goes very well with their morrasa polo—basmati rice with orange peels, raisins, almond slivers and barberries. As to appetizers, their kashk budemjon (eggplant and whey dip) is so deliciously gooey, topped with toasted garlic, onion and mint, that you'll be tempted to lick the plate. 3605 S. Bristol St., Santa Ana, (714) 545-9096; www.ferdussi.com. $$
Seemingly half of Little Gaza visits Kareem's three times a day, taking comfort in one of the few Orange County Middle Eastern restaurants to offer distinctive breakfasts, lunches and dinners. Owners Mike and Nancy Hawari are the sole employees of the tiny place, and the waiters/cooks/hosts coddle their customers from entrance to exit with wondrous hummus and a smile rounder than a pregnant woman's belly. But the most beautiful thing here is the painting of Mary's Well in Nazareth. 1208 S. Brookhurst St., Anaheim, (714) 778-6829. $
LAXMI SWEETS & SPICES
What is it about Tustin and Indian food stores? And why are they all so delicious? The produce is fine, but Laxmi also makes many Indian snack foods. Get the thali, a platter of two vegetables, a yogurt dish and fresh naan. And get the Indian spinach and eggplant for your two vegetables.And dig all the portraits of Hindu gods and goddesses! 638 El Camino Real, Tustin, (714) 832-4671. ¢
EL POLLO FINO
Though it's in an area long overrun by Mexicans, all races line up in equal numbers outside El Pollo Fino, a charbroiled chicken shop decorated with photos and paintings of fighting roosters, a bulletin-board collage of boxing cut man extraordinaire Chuck Bodak, and three portraits of Aztec nobles cradling naked, curvaceous damsels. The best spectacle, however, is in the kitchen, where the cooks scamper from freezer to butcher counter to grill to takeout counter in a ballet of hen preparation. 723 N. Anaheim Blvd., Anaheim, (714) 533-1160. $
REMBRANDT'S BEAUTIFUL CUISINE
Rembrandt's may claim to do "beautiful food," but that translates to hearty, plain fare done to nostalgic perfection: a Brown Derby for our county minus the starlets and without that whole wrecking-ball thing. This is truly the little steak house that time forgot. It looks like what the Velvet Turtle would be if they'd redone it Spanish-style in the '80s: stark, white walls; huge paintings; chandeliers; and filet mignon to the hilt. 909 E. Yorba Linda Blvd., Placentia, (714) 528-6222; www.rembrandtsrestaurant.com. $$$
One thing that distinguishes Arandas' tacos from other taquerías is its selection of rare-for-taco meats like buche (pig stomach) and tripas (cow intestines), and the photos of the historic bell and church from Arandas, Jalisco. Regardless of meat choice, the restaurant uses down-soft tortillas as a base, cramming them with huge chunks of savory onions and cilantro and topping them with a tangy salsa to make their humble specialty a gourmet meal. 305 N. Brookhurst, Anaheim, (714) 520-7935. ¢
At the bottom of Avenida Victoria, below a bed-and-breakfast and a short jaunt from the ocean, stands this stunning, cozy bistro, named for what the British call foam-crested waves. Every six weeks or so, owners Mark and Aileen Norris redesign everything. Menu. House breads. Appetizers. Artists. Everything. There's only one constant at White Horses, and that's that the Norrises are consistently spectacular in their epicurean experiments, as dependably memorable and adventurous as riding Trestles. 610 Ave. Victoria, San Clemente, (949) 429-1800; www.whitehorses.us. $$$
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