Here are 10 of the best restaurants in Orange County where you can blow a big wad of cash to commemorate that well-deserved promotion, a milestone anniversary, a birthday that ends in a zero, or some other significant life event that warrants something better than TGI Fridays. Prices are mentioned when available, but really, if you’re considering anything on this list, you shouldn’t be thinking about cost.
Located on the roof at South Coast Plaza, Marche Moderne is enclosed by the building’s outer wall and a tall wooden fence. Sunlight pours in a deluge from the sky, while potted fruit trees dance in the breeze to the relaxed rhythms of bossa nova. You wouldn’t think such a bucolic spot could exist two stories above Tiffany and steps away from Nordstrom, but it does. The servers are pros, basically what you would expect at one of the finest French restaurants in the county. Yes, the prices can be astronomical, but with one notable exception: the three-course lunch that owner and chef Florent Marneau dubs “Spontanée.” For about the price of one dinner entree, the Spontanée includes a salad, main course and dessert. The selections change daily, but anything can appear, even duck, which isn’t something you probably expected to eat on the roof at South Coast Plaza.
Mastro’s is famous for its steak. Only the sissies or those who realize they’re in way over their heads order the chicken, and even that isn’t cheap. Forget the salmon, forget the pork chop, forget everything else that doesn’t go moo. Hunks of beef, bloody rare inside, crusted with black sooty char outside, is why you go to Mastro’s. Sure, it’ll cost an arm, a leg, and possibly, a spare kidney. Why worry now? Go for broke for the Australian wagyu ribeye that’s served still attached to a bone as ridiculously large as the price is steep. It eats like a hundred dollar piece of steak should: effortless, sinew-free, every sanguine, tender piece you slice an affirmation that you’re still alive and carnivorous. The sides? A la carte, of course. A few, like the lobster mashed potatoes will cost as much as a steak. But even a pauper should at least sacrifice a few hours’ wage for the sugar snap peas. Expect a dimly lit room, excellent free bread, white tablecloths, hot towels, crumb scrapers, and a uniformed guy in the bathroom who expects to be tipped after he hands you a towel.
Let’s face it, everything on Disney property is expensive and only getting more so every year. As a consumer, it’s all about determining which expense is worth it. The $100 Chef’s Counter Prix Fixe Dinner at Napa Rose is very expensive, but it’s the one Disney splurge that’s still an outright bargain considering what you actually get. Your dinner will consist of about seven courses in all, including an amuse bouche, a salad/appetizer course, a fish course, a cup of an ultra-savory soup of some sort, a meat course, another savory course after that, a dessert, and finally, a tiny box of chocolates you’ll need to take home and eat two days later because it will take you that long to digest the meal that preceded it. And it’s not just a prix fixe menu that changes seasonally; for each course, the chefs will cook individually tailored meals for every member of your party, each one customized to that person’s likes and dislikes. If you dine with three other people, you will potentially get to sample at least 20 distinctly different dishes. You won’t ever see the same dish twice. No other restaurant that offers prix-fixe meals does this willingly. Napa Rose thrives on it.
The views are exhilarating: That much you should already know about Raya, the modern Mexican restaurant at the Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel. To get a more expansive vantage point of the Pacific Ocean, you’d have to be on a cruise ship. The wide windows are as tall as masts. Off in the distance, you see the glassy ripple of the ocean as it reflects the colors from the sky at dusk. Closer to shore, the tiny figures of surfers ride the crests. Such is the reason why seats nearest the windows are coveted. You either need to secure your reservations days in advance or else know people who are willing to bump somebody who has one. Your alta cocina meal (that’s “upscale Mexican” if you don’t already know), however would be spectacular if eaten in the Ritz-Carlton’s broom closet or, heck, a Motel 6. The man responsible is Richard Sandoval, a Culinary Institute of America-trained Mexico City native who made a name for himself in New York City with three eateries and has award-winning restaurants in such cities as Vegas, Dubai and Acapulco. Expect everything from huitlacoche on the short rib, dainty cornbread squares they give you in lieu of bread, to a dessert of helium-light churros with three dipping sauces.
At the St. Regis Dana Point, you see more Bentleys come through the valet than Toyotas. And as you float through the lobby, past the gorgeous foyer, admiring polished marble columns, you are surrounded by the aura of wealth. And where do these Bentley-driving, modern Rockefellers eat when they’re here? At Michael Mina’s Stonehill Tavern, which could only pass for a tavern if you consider a Rolex just a watch. A glass-encased booth bejeweled with wine bottles towers over the lounge. The waiters will be precise and professional, most of whom sport the chiseled features of daytime soap stars. Although you can order a la carte, Stonehill Tavern offers a seasonal tasting menu of about six courses for north of $120 per person. The only catch (other than it’s one of the most pricey prix fixes in OC) is that everyone at the table has to agree to order it, or no one does. So if you want to do it, be sure to bring people with bling.
They never say “sir” or “madam.” Instead it’s Mr. or Ms. [insert your surname here], whatever you told them when you made the reservation. What’s more, the servers at Studio Restaurant remember to use it throughout the night. Ask where the restrooms are, and they’ll not just point you the way, but they’ll also escort you there. When you come back to your table, your crumpled napkin has been folded neatly. If you’re part of a large party, each plate served gets its own attendant, who will put the food in front of the diner who ordered it without asking whom it belongs to—and at precisely the same choreographed moment as everyone else. No detail is missed. Everyone has a demeanor that is nothing short of impeccable, as is the food. You will be eternally spoiled, your credit limit be damned.
“Omakase” is what you say to a sushi chef when you trust him to give you the best and freshest. Though it translates roughly to “I’ll leave it up to you,” what you’re actually saying is: “Give me great things to eat, I’ll worry about the money later”. And when you’re at Sushi Noguchi, it’s what you want to do. It’ll cost between $60 to $100 per person, but plan on spending the $100. You want all that Chef Hiro Noguchi has to offer. Every visit will be different; every visit will be great. You will be acquainted with fish species you’ve never heard of. One night it could be teensy weensy Japanese icefish. Another night, it might be needle fish with its eponymous pointy nose on display. For sure, there will be luscious ootoro. But Noguchi’s greatest masterpiece will be the culmination of his omakase: a sashimi plate that he takes several minutes sculpting, decorating, and tweezing to perfection. Not only will it be sparkling fresh, it will be adorned so vividly with flowers and leaves that it can no longer be called just a plate of raw fish—it’s art.
Taco Maria is the finest fine-dining Mexican restaurant in Costa Mesa right now. A local boy who eventually became the pastry chef at a Michelin-starred restaurant called Commis in Oakland, chef and owner Carlos Salgado returned to OC a few years ago to sling tacos and burritos out of a lonchera he named after his mom, Maria. But the truck, as great as it was, turned out to be just warm-up to this brick-and-mortar. At his now nationally-acclaimed restaurant, also called Taco Maria, Salgado has traded tacos for the sophisticated Mexican of alta cocina. A meal here will come at a leisurely two-hour pace, each course served with its own set of utensils. With a small crew and working in a kitchen in full view of his customers at the OC Mix, you can see Salgado is where he was always meant to be. He prepares only eight dishes, each of them thoughtful and flawless, served four per person for about $75 a head. The thing to do, of course, is to bring a friend, have them order the other four dishes, and then share each one.
The Hobbit is from a dying breed, a group of the proud and the expensive that once included La Vie en Rose, The Arches, and The Riviera at The Fireside—places that had their heyday when eating out was still called dining, men were required to wear dinner jackets, and the cost per person was about the same as a ticket to Disneyland. But even among those, The Hobbit is distinguished. Instead of succumbing to changing attitudes about what it meant to be a restaurant in the new century, The Hobbit forged on. It even recently remodeled. Its longevity may have something to do with its business model. It has always offered a prix fixe even before pop-ups made them cool again. And it does so to full houses, one seating per night, five nights a week since 1972.
The PR people at THE RANCH (their caps, not ours) hate it when we media types refer to the restaurant in write-ups as a steakhouse. If they’ve told us once, they’ve told us a thousand times, “It’s not a steakhouse! It’s a restaurant and saloon!” They’re right, of course. And it is a great restaurant with none other than ex-Napa Rose chef Michael Rossi in the kitchen. But we media types have a love/hate relationship with PR people, so we’re going to call it a steakhouse even if the non-steak menu items outnumber the cow-based ones. Extron’s Andrew Edwards spared no expense in remodeling his electronics firm’s lobby into THE RANCH, which, ahem, sure looks like a steakhouse, with darkly lit leather booths and steer-head motifs all over. And the slabs of cow served, ranging from a filet mignon to the 36-ounce, bone-in rib chop, can compete with and easily defeat the offerings at Morton’s. That it doesn’t require you to pay for the sides à la carte as would a typical steakhouse immediately makes it better than a steakhouse, which is probably the point those PR people are trying to make.
*An earlier version of this article stated that master sommelier Michael Jordan still worked at THE RANCH. He no longer does.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.