I spend the whole damn year thinking about whether a place I'm at could make Top 5. What I've come to learn is that my instinct is generally right. If it's good, I won't have to think about it. I'll go without hesitation, and the menu will make me smile every time.
5. Honda-Ya Box
When they quietly opened in Costa Mesa over a year ago, it was my answer to the waiting game outside its older Tustin sibling. With a solid menu, zero tatami rooms and fewer alcohol selections (read: not an izakaya), Honda-Ya Box provided the comfort I desired, minus the standing around. Rich curry plates, blue crab musubi and more or less everything else made our meals relaxing ones. Perfect when there's a chill in the air, it fits the bill for any occasion. Just ask Edwin– I dragged him there for my birthday lunch.
4. Oak Grill
After a massive remodel of The Island Hotel, I wondered what upscale restaurant concept would move in. Resort dining in Newport went up a notch when Oak Grill launched mid-summer, with a tandoori-seasoned ahi I consistently ordered. They may be partially eclipsed by the snow flurries and bustle of Aqua Lounge next door, but that doesn't prevent Marc Johnson (a Le Cordon Bleu grad who studied under Studio's original chef, James Boyce) from serving a refined experience. Bonus points for not having to deal with the parking lot that is Fashion Island.
3. TJ's Woodfire Pizza
My luxe lonchera days were numbered, having felt as though I've experienced most of what was out there. Also, I am a die-hard, Chicago-style pizza eater. Yet it took one visit with a trusted gal pal to turn me on to the hot grub that is TJ's. Request extra char for pies that are toothsome and made with care. The Prima is brunch when I'm at the Sunday Farmer's Market at Great Park. Old school tastes will want the sausage, pepperoni and Carmelina tomato love that is Big Al's. Tim took a concept that conceptually shouldn't work, and made it his own.
2. Sessions West Coast Deli
In a word: Awesome. Creating bites with substance, not just mass quantities of ingredients, is what Sessions is all about. Max and Matt are a killer combo of business savvy, creativity and service. The vibe is surfer chic, offering custom Hurley merch in a sleek, yet chill space. We can plow through an entire tray of Shaka spuds, but save room for one of the best meatless wonders you'll sink your teeth into: The Summer Zephyr (look– no meat!). And that El Cubano? So good, so good. 2015 is the year they will expand to Huntington, and when I plan to conquer their breakfast menu.
1. Little Sparrow
The day Eric Samaniego and I sat down for his interview, it was a big day all around. They had recently installed a banquette along their dining room wall, it was chef's birthday and my very first visit to Sparrow. While everyone I knew had passed through at some point in 2013, I had not. But I have been frequenting both bar and banquette ever since. When you consider the number of places we cover in a year, I'd be lying if I didn't say I was here the most. Their cocktails do not disappoint. Our food hits the spot, even when they change it up. And the Madeleines that Gustavo likes are reasons enough for me to put them at the top of my list.