Welcome to our annual Top 5 countdown, in which our SAFII writers tell you what impressed them over the past year! Here, Anne Marie shares her picks – drink and eat up!
While I spend the year searching for and reporting on what's new, some of my favorite joints have been around a bit longer. Each place feeds a different need, whether it's entertaining a friend or cheering myself up. More often than not, I've interviewed the chef or the bartender. What makes the difference to me is learning what makes them tick, then seeing their passion reflected in what I consume. Here are 10 who possess the drive to take them straight to the top (in no particular order).
Anne Marie's Top Five Bars of 2017
The Blind Rabbit
Assuming you know how to make a reservation and where to find it inside Packing House, the crew here is a cohesive family. Dedicated seating for every customer means you're not standing around. And while I can order whatever I'm in the mood for, the best options come from the Blind Rabbit's menu. Or, in the off-menu case, you gotta Wait for It (trust me, it's worth it). After dinner or before the main event, it's up to you. I prefer spending all our allotted time here because that mac dish is the stuff dreams are made of. Let them show you how cocktails are done. 440 S. Anaheim Blvd., Ste. 104, Anaheim; www.theblindrabbit.com.
I didn't think I'd see the day when one of the best bars in OC was inside of a Marriott in Irvine. Of course, it isn't just any bar. It's a cozy room just beyond the lobby bar, where until about a week ago you'd find the one-man-show known as Ravin Buzzell putting together something unexpected. Every so often, YNK would change its theme to another region of the world. Drink options, music, even the décor would be updated to match the location. Browse older recipes in his hand-scrawled journal for ideas, or let him get crafty. Buzzell was the best thing to happen to Irvine's beverage scene in 2017. How long would it remain this way? And exactly how late did he stay open? As Buzzell would remind me, "You never know . . ." 18000 Von Karman Ave., Irvine, (949) 729-6900; www.ynk-irvine.com.
When Kimpton Group took over Shorebreak Hotel, I knew the dining room would get an overdue makeover. Casey's comprehensive bar program plays off chef JT's menu, offering a little something for anyone thirsty. His twist on classics (as well as the controversial yet award-winning Dazed and Confused) pleases Surf City's locals and visitors alike. My hideaway is beside one of the fire pits, with a boozy Captain Barbossa in hand. 500 Pacific Coast Hwy., Huntington Beach, (714) 965-4448; www.pacifichideawayhb.com.
The Recess Room
The backstory may be about childhood friends, but its name certainly fits the vibe. With both an ambitious menu and bar program, this team isn't afraid to shake things up, covering the gamut in beverage selection: dessert cocktails, hot coffee-esque ones and some winter-themed beauts. Most have a pop culture theme to get customers to crack a grin. Creative without being pretentious, the Recess Room is the kind of place where I'd want to celebrate a birthday. 18380 Brookhurst St., Fountain Valley, (714) 377-0398; www.therecessroom.com.
The Snug Bar
As Cannery's upstairs bar maintains a boisterous crowd, the scene at its secondary watering hole downstairs is more relaxed. That an additional bar was built in existing dining space shows how much elbow room there is to spare for an updated selection of standards. We've visited when Mike West was behind the bartop, and it's ideal for an after-dinner drink. Or a before-dinner drink. Heck, order something from chef Philip and stay for dinner. Pictured is Thunderjack: Nitro-charged on draught, Jack Daniels, Madagascar vanilla and Thunderking cold brew. 3010 Lafayette Rd., Newport Beach, (949) 566-0060; www.cannerynewport.com.
Anne Marie's Top Five Restaurants of 2017
Glee Donuts & Burgers
I wasn't quite sure what to expect the first time I stepped inside Glee. Yes, there are doughnuts. But how many places pull off two very different tastes without a hitch? These guys hit both the sweet and salty spots. Most will head in for a sugary fix. Yet I know better — and end up spending much longer than I probably should. Start with one of the many meat-and-bun creations. Stay for homemade Dole Whip (get the horchata flavor if it's available!). Splurge on a few pastries to go. Factor in the brekkie burritos, and I can eat here morning, noon and night. 9475 Heil Ave., Fountain Valley, (714) 531-0288; and 3024 W. Ball Rd., Anaheim, (714) 816-5777; www.gleednb.com.
Lido Bottle Works
For as fun and fancy-free as chef Joel Harrington is, his cuisine is seriously thoughtful. Very few can plate with that kind of attention to detail; even fewer will put together ingredients that harmonize like an a capella group. A basic gem salad is upgraded with ricotta salata and polenta croutons, making it just as worthy of ordering as the hearty carbonara. The dining room is my preferred spot in Lido Marina Village for its chill vibe and agreeable drink selection, but this locavore menu is what I keep returning for. 3408 Via Oporto, Ste. 103, Newport Beach, (949) 529-2784; www.lidobottleworks.com.
Of course a brekkie spot made my list! While it had been on my radar for a while, I had not dined at Outpost enough to make an informed decision until now. When in doubt, chef Matthew's varying salmon dishes at brekkie and lunch are solid. Although if you take a chance on the Mongrel (Chef's Choice), he won't steer you wrong. Hooray to brekkie being offered all day! 1792 Monrovia Ave., Costa Mesa, (949) 873-5123; www.outpostkitchen.com.
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Although I loved eating at Alessandro's newer spot, Salerno, Pirozzi is where I keep going back to. His dining room is near impossible to navigate, yet staff flow through the space like water. I usually start with either Nonna's soup or the Butternut Squash Ravioli. Veal or pasta? Pizza or seafood? Yes to all of them. And on the off-chance chef is not at one of his other sites, he'll periodically work the room, greeting all guests like family. Being consistently delicious means never having to think twice about going here. 2929 E. Coast Hwy., Corona del Mar, (949) 675-2932; www.pirozzicdm.com.
The Water Brewery (#2)
If chicken pho is my remedy for a cold, then Water Brewery's menu is my go-to for everything else. My meals here are either gluten-free, vegan or paleo (because sometimes I really want that duck egg). If I'm feeling extra hellish, I also order off the Elixir Bar menu. Stocking up on the AQUAE Mineral or A.M.O.R.E water is an added bonus. Just please don't get rid of the bánh mì tacos! 1125 Victoria St., Ste. A, Costa Mesa, (714) 499-9977; www.thewaterbrewery.com.