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Looking for a special evening on a budget (Central/South Orange County)

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Hey all,

My fiancee's birthday is this Friday (Yeah, the 13th, I know), although we'll be celebrating it next weekend due to scheduling constraints. As I've mentioned in my previous posts, we're on a very strict budget right now. Still, I'd like to take her somewhere nice for something special.

Not including her present and (maybe) flowers, my total dinner budget for the evening is $60. She likes most cuisines, but prefers simple American or West Coast fare. She's not a big fan of sauces, fondues, or huge slabs of meat. For our anniversary dinners, she likes going to 6ix Park Grill for the Risotto or the Beach House for the Chicken Marsala (I think it's been taken from the menu) and lobster bisque. She loved the Ravioli di Aragosta at Florence Italian when it was still open. She wasn't impressed by Park Avenue.

We're located in Irvine, although any recommendations within a reasonable driving radius would be greatly appreciated.

- Chubbypanda


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  1. Hmm...no steaks, but American or Western fare. Tough, but let me try.

    Mastro's Ocean Club (I still haven't been, but it topped the "Ultimate" OC List last year).

    Bandera, Gulfstream, Wildfish, and Houston's. Only been to Houston's, but contrary to what some may think, they do more than steaks.


    2 Replies
    1. re: elmomonster

      All of those would be WELL over $60 total.

      1. re: torta basilica

        Oops. I missed that part of the requirements. Torta is right. You'd be lucky to get out of most of the ones I suggested for $60 per person. Total bill will most likely be in the triple digits.


    2. I went to Shenandoah at the Arbor in Los Alamitos for my birthday during the summer, and had a wonderful meal. Entrees were in the $15-25 range, so it might just fit your budget.

      Here's a link to an earlier review and my replies to it:


      Also a review on the Elmer Dills website:


      Another place to consider is Cafe Hiro in Cypress. The setting isn't as nice or romantic, but the food is awesome.

      1 Reply
      1. re: Wonginator

        I think it goes without saying that I second Cafe Hiro. Very casual. But great food for very reasonable prices.

        Some things are better than others, and sometimes there's a slip-up or two, but I keep coming back. This is one of those places that is close to my heart.


      2. Not particularly romantic, but Duke's / Beachfront 301 / Red Pearl Kitchen in Huntington Beach may fit the budget.

        Good luck!


        1 Reply
        1. re: AquaW

          If you get a window table at sunset, it can be quite romantic... and the prices will be in your range.

        2. If you're careful ordering, Boardwalk at Crystal Cove - the setting is certainly romantic, being right on the beach. Sneak a bottle of wine down to enjoy as you wait.

          1. Thanks guys!

            Some of the recommendations sound great. I should have mentioned that romantic is also a requirement, as is a non-emphasis on seafood. She's normally quite flexible about what she eats, but she was raised on terrestrial meat and potatoes, so that's where her comfort food zone lies. Also, I'd like to not have to take her someplace where we have to be super careful about ordering. The last thing I want to do on her birthday is tell her she can't have something.

            Sorry I'm being so picky. =(

            You've all been a big help, and I appreciate it very much. If anyone has any other recommendations, please add them to the list.

            - Chubbypanda


            1 Reply
            1. re: Chubbypanda

              Let us know where you wound up going! (OC is a tricky spot for finding inexpensive romantic places)

              and following up on my earlier comment, Duke's can be romantic if you can get outdoor seating around sunset; it's also within budget and though they do have a bit of seafood, I liked their land grub too.

            2. You might try Waters on the Woodbridge lake in Irvine. It is really pretty at sunset and should fit in your budget. Also, you posted that you have the Entertainment Book and they are listed.

              1 Reply
              1. re: MzMaggie


                Waters is definitely a possibility. Thanks for suggesting it. Actually, I proposed to her on the bridge over that lake, so it should be quite romantic. I'll give her a few options and let her pick.

                - Chubbypanda


              2. Torta, are you referring to Crystal Cove's Beachcomber? Was there Monday night, my first time. It's definitely romantic, right on the beach, the atmosphere (and menu) throwbacks to the 40's, Bing Crosby on the radio. If it's cold and you're sitting outside, they'll bring you blankets. I'll say, however, that the menu is limited and the food isn't fabulous, just okay. I think the kitchen is working on a skeleton staff, so basically for dinner you have an option of five entrees for dinner--pasta, flat iron steak, swordfish, salmon, hamburger.. I think that's it. And practically all of them come with Bernaise sauce drizzled over them. My swordfish was $27 (the pasta was less); we also ordered the bosenberry pie; it was measly and storebought looking... I'll say, though, that for the money and the unbeatable location, it's pretty special. Probably doesn't fit the bill for your evening out, but something to try another time? Their brunch menu looked better; probably less expensive, too.

                Good luck, Panda, and congrats on your upcoming wedding.

                2 Replies
                1. re: jbeaux

                  Yes, one and the same. I agree, setting is fabulous & food is so-so, which is what I've been saying for awhile. The burger & fries are actually pretty good - along with that banana caramel dessert. And again, that setting...

                  1. re: jbeaux


                    Thanks so much! I appreciate it! BTW, we're going to check out Antoine's the weekend after next on your recommendation.

                    - Chubbypanda


                  2. Can't wait to try Beachcomber....
                    I'd reccomend Iva Lee's in San Clemente. Just ate there this weekend and was impressed. We had the three course meal for $28, very good choices. Nice blues band, not sure how romantic but a fun setting. For review see below.


                    1. Villa Nova Restaurant on the water in Newport Beach is nice, and has an early bird menu that would fit your budget. The entire "early menu" is online at villanovarestaurant.com

                      1. I'm not sure if you want to do all the work involved, but with such a specific, limited budget, how about putting together a surprise romantic picnic for you and your fiance'? That way, you can control the costs without having to squirm in your seat when she decides to order something the brings you over the limit. Find a restaurant or deli that has top-notch "take out" (perhaps from their catering menu), choose a nice but not too expensive bottle of wine, a beautiful outdoor setting with a view, bring along a nice tablecloth to spread out and a blanket to snuggle in if it gets chilly. This way, you pick the menu, and you control exactly how much is spent without looking cheap. Unless she's not the outdoorsy type, she may just find this to be extremely romantic and endearing...as long as you present it as a special romantic gesture, and not a "dinner on a budget" effort.

                        Unfortunately my mind is drawing a blank for exact take out recommendations in South OC right now for this kind of thing... maybe someone else has some ideas?

                        2 Replies
                        1. re: closetfoodie

                          mind's wandering back into un-romantic places, but I was thinking about splitting that recently-raved-about deep-dish pizza joint in Placentia. What better way to show love than with a pound of melted cheese? ;)


                          1. re: closetfoodie


                            That's a great idea. Unfortunately, I do most of the cooking at home. I used to cook in a French restaurant, and I discovered that after a while, you can tell who made what through subtle differences in the flavor of the food, even if two people made the same item. So after seven years, she's grown accustomed to my flavorings, and they're sort of old hat even when I make a new dish. =/

                            As for purchasing take-out from a nice deli, that's an awesome idea. Usually when we have a picnic, that's what we do for the reason mentioned above. However, we're doing this at night, the weather has gotten nippy, and she's not an outdoorsy person . So... =(

                            - Chubbypanda


                          2. Don't marry her if you're already engaged and she doesn't know that you're on a budget. Recipe for disaster.

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: jackattack


                              Oh, she knows we're on a budget. We're saving for something fairly specific. I'd just rather not remind her that we're on the budget once we're at the restaurant. In fact, she's a real sweetheart and really frugal, so she normally feels guilty going out. =) I wanna cut down on the guilt.

                              Total keeper.

                              - Chubbypanda


                            2. Some interesting suggestions so far...and I think you CAN get out of some of the places mentioned for $60 or so. Houston's is certainly in that category if you are careful what to (and not to) order.

                              Ok, I'll throw out one of my Top 5 places in OC...Sabatino's in Newport Beach (Lido Isle). Known for their fantastic homemade sausage, this is an out-of-the-way, unique location italian restaurant with both inddo and outdoor seating. Good variety of food and I have enjoyed everything from the sausage to the pizza to several italian/sicilian entrees.

                              1. Hey all,

                                This follow-up is a little late, but thanks for all the great recommendations. At MzMaggie's suggestion, we ended up at Waters in Irvine.

                                Here's a review of the event and some photos:

                                It was a really great evening, although we ended up spending about $15 more that the $60 I'd originally been shooting for. However, we ended up staying well within our budget for that month, so everything turned out just fine.

                                Thanks again!

                                - Chubbypanda


                                1. Great review, Chubby. I'm glad you had such a good time.