Spring is icumenin, and with it arrives the blooming of love, Jesus and colors. Lots of colors. So instead of picking posies at the park, why not admire the spectrum of tones in the names of some of Orange County's better eateries?
The flagship eatery of the St. Regis Resort Monarch Beach, Aqua remains thespot for Orange County's nouveau riche with its moneyed atmosphere and fusion-y feasts. But if you're like me, you can only afford to eat the truffle popcorn—and even that does an Enron on our wallets at $12 per batch. 1MonarchBeachResort,DanaPoint,(949)234-3328.$$$
BLACK SHEEP BISTRO
For the superlative paella, a couple of days' advance notice is needed, but for good reason. You won't find a more complex, beautifully presented or better-tasting dish in OC. The scrumptious leftovers weigh at least a pound each. 303ElCaminoReal,Tustin,(714)544-6060;www.blacksheepbistro.com.$$
Disneyland for haute cuisine? When you're at the Blue Bayou, absolutely! The strange ambience is due in large part to the slack-jawed tourists passing by in the Pirates of the Caribbean boats, but the food is superb. The filet mignon is really juicy and comes with great vegetables and potatoes. 1313S.Harbor,Anaheim.CallMickeyforaphonenumber.$$
This restaurant is a steak oasis, where the meat is aged for about one week to break down the sinew—that's what makes it tender—while being marinated in head chef Jorge Guttierez's secret marinade before being charbroiled to delectability! 10721stPlace,NewportBeach,(949)675-2338.$
There issomething downright satanic about Chat Noir, David Wilhelm's latest addition to his "Culinary Adventures" family of restaurants. It's in the had-to-sign-a-pact-with-Mephistopheles execution of his French fare: basil-fed escargot, three-way duck served in an orange-caramel dressing with Mandarin Napoleon cognac, and a dessert of profiteroles stuffed with espresso ice cream. If they serve these in Hell, just where do I sign, Mr. Wilhelm? 655AntonBlvd.,CostaMesa,(714)557-6647.$$$
The Golden Steer is what a family restaurant used to be—not just inexpensive enough to feed a family, but tasty and wholesome enough to feed it well. It also harkens back to a time when a family meal meant meat-meat-meat. The place is crowded, but good acoustics keep it from sounding like a mess hall, and incredible service keeps that growl in your stomach from turning into a bad mood. 11052BeachBlvd.,Stanton,(714)894-1208;www.goldensteer.com.$
Impossible to categorize with elements of different restaurants including seafood, French bistro, Pacific rim and down-home joint. Everything from pot roast to grits to chicken livers is served up with excellent service, making for one of the best meals you'll ever have. 1767NewportBlvd.,CostaMesa,(949)645-9858.$$$
At the Green Parrot, they know how to dish up hospitality instead of an endless bread basket and a maitre d's neglect. A prix frixe four-course tasting menu is affordable, comes with a not-teeny blood-orange salad with bleu cheese and walnuts, and even includes a nicely crusted crème brûlée. Eat it outside in the twinkly lit patio or inside their beautiful dining hall. 2035N.MainSt.,SantaAna,(714)550-6040;www.greenparrotcafe.net.$$
Fullerton's best East Coast-style bar has plenty of seafood augmenting its Italian menu, and you can't go wrong with what locals tout as Mulberry Street's specialty: the steamed clams. In the words of one longtime patron and master of rhetoric, they are "to die for." 114W.WilshireAve.,Fullerton,(714)525-1056.$$
Mustard's is a haunt for all artifacts Chi-Town: yellowed Tribunefront-page celebrating da Bears' Super Bowl XX victory; a picture of former mayor/god Richard Daley; and the bold yellow slogan for Vienna Beef, the brand with which Mustard's makes its bulky, peppery Chicago dog, complete with tooth-blackening poppy-seed bun, leprechaun-green relish, gritty celery salt and a giant dill pickle. Great Italian roast beef as well, with as many folds as a Cubs pennant run. 3630KatellaAve.,LosAlamitos,(562)598-1662.$
Plum's Café is the county's premier place to enjoy the timber-soaked flavors of the Pacific Northwest. It's also what independent dining should be about: a spare design, gallery-deserving artwork, plus owner/chef Kim Jorgenson's ever-evolving experiments. We like the apple-infused pancakes, salmon platters redolent of the Chinook, and the marionberry cheesecake that forever elevates marionberry to our favorite obscure fruit—barobo, take a hike! 369E.17thSt.,CostaMesa,(949)722-7586.$$
Newport Beach chefs Tim and Liza Goodell are most famous for Aubergine, which we've called one of the best French restaurants in the county, a statement that even the fussiest foodies fear to dispute. Red Pearl, though, offers a strangely good Californian take on Asian cuisine, a sort of "It's a Small World After All" mélange of dishes. They make a mean bowl of jasmine rice. 412WalnutAve.,HuntingtonBeach,(714)969-0224.$$
Dining at Sage can be a mite pricey (but sublime), and appetizers have names that defy you to say them five times fast, like "warm roast root vegetable salad." But it is possible to dine cheaply and well there. The pizzas are superfine, from the tomato/basil/fontina/mozzarella combo to a seafood pizza with shrimp and scallops and pesto. 2531Eastbluff,NewportBeach,(949)718-9650;www.sagerestaurant.com.$$$
Saffron's seven mixed-rice dishes range from the dusky baghala polo (with green lima beans and an avalanche of dill) to the sunny shirin polo (in which the saffron rice blends with pistachio and almond pieces and sugar-fried orange peels). Their charbroiled kebab chunks are marinated in lemon juice, olive oil, onion, pepper and salt, and they are splendidly juicy and flavorful. 720E.KatellaAve.,Orange,(714)538-3940.$$
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Sure, it's a beautiful building, a White House doppelganger where wonderful Italian dinners come courtesy of Bruno Serato, 2004's Southern California Restaurateur of the Year. But my friend, a lifelong Anaheimer like me, put it best when I asked if he's ever dined at the White House: "You mean that's not the mayor's house?" 887S.AnaheimBlvd.,Anaheim,(714)772-1381.$$$
The other famous Orange County restaurant named after the president's digs. Here, you can swap oxygen with celebs who show up to chow down on Cajun crab cakes, shrimp etouffe and seared ahi tuna—all while grooving to live reggae and sipping a cuba libre! Ah, that's the life! 340SCoastHwy.,LagunaBeach,(949)494-8088.$$$