The 20 Most Important Orange County Restaurants of the Past 20 Years

We miss you, Memphis At the Santora :-(
We miss you, Memphis At the Santora :-(

In honor of OC Weekly's 20th anniversary this year, behold the launch of 20 for 20 a bunch of listicles celebrating the best, worst, craziest, most influential, most most that's happened in OC during our existence. Stay tuned every week or so as we dive into our archives and teach. Enjoy, and second-guess on!

When I started reviewing restaurants for this infernal rag in 2002, I wasn't very impressed with OC's dining scene. Most places were retreads of restaurant trends already passé in Los Angeles five years earlier, or were some riff on Italian/Mexican/steaks/Japanese food. Oh, there were some good restaurants doing interesting things, but I wanted to only focus on hole-in-the-wall spots, as that's where the real culinary action was at the time.

Thankfully, OC chefs were just about to enter the golden age of dining we live in today, in which many young chefs set trends instead of following them. And some of those holes-in-the-wall also proved crucial, introducing tastes to OC that had never registered on county palates. Behold, then, a list of our choice for the county's most important restaurants over the past 20 years. Remember: We're speaking importance -- places that either set trends or influenced others with dishes, chefs or actions outside of the kitchen. Enjoy!

20. Portola

Drink up!
Drink up!
From Michelle Woo's awesome cover story

Coffee in OC is nothing new, of course, nor is higher-end coffee -- hell, one day we gotta write about the beatnik coffeehouses during the 1950s and 1960s in Garden Grove, Fullerton and SanTana, where artists such as Sunny Hills boy Jackson Browne started their career. But Portola's commitment to coffee nerdistry pushed every local coffeehouse in OC to up their coffee know-how, even if Portola was just riding the third-or-fourth-or-is-it-fifth? wave of coffeehouses that swept America in previous years. Depending on whether you just want a cuppa joe or Bulletproof-style, you can thank or curse them.

19. Pascal Olhats

Ohats
Ohats
OC Weekly archives

More than any other local chef, Olhats has waved the flag for fine dining and French cuisine in Orange County, since he started Traditions in the late 1980s through his various, usually eponymous, concepts through the 1990s and to his present-day spot, simply named Pascal. A slew of local chefs have worked under him, and he claims to have offered macarons in OC long before anyone else -- we'll ignore that last, unproveable point and laud his true pioneering ways.

18. Javier's

The only reason to visit Javier's -- and not a bad reason AT ALL . . .
The only reason to visit Javier's -- and not a bad reason AT ALL . . .
OC Weekly archives

Oh, the food is middling at best. But one cannot argue with success, and Javier's unleashed a middle-class Mexican revolution not seen since El Torito's heyday in the 1970s. Avila's El Ranchito was the local pioneer in this genre, but Javier's upped it in prominence, glamor and overpriced food that made its owners insanely rich, leading to copycats from Brea to San Clemente and more. The brand is such that there are outposts in Las Vegas, Cabo and John Wayne Airport, all patronized by the same MILFs and sugar daddies happy to pay steep prices to be able to fiesta with one another.

17. Ramos House Cafe

Long before "locavore" and "organic" became overused buzzwords, Stan Q. Humphries incorporated the trends into his Southern-fied menu. Long before hipsters tried to convert old houses and buildings into new digs, Humphries set up shop in a century-plus-old house in the oldest continuously inhabited neighborhood in California. And back in the days when South County was a true wasteland, he was the brave pioneer who got foodies to head to Capistrano. Now impossible to eat at because of the crowds, Ramos House's place in history is secured with every fancy French toast and mimosa offered at brunch.

16. Bruxie

Making them sammies
Making them sammies
OC Weekly archives

"The Bold Fold" is this chain's slogan, but far bolder than its gimmick -- sandwiches with a waffle in place of a bread or bun, plus great custard -- is its luck. It arose at the perfect time, when OC eaters became the Yelping masses they are today, and they cashed in by opening multiple spots far earlier than anyone else, inspiring every hipster restauranteur since to shoot for franchising before they even finish their first spot.



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