Where in OC to eat out often?
This message is admittedly plagiarized almost word for word from a message for someone who lives in L.A. We live in Irvine, and the same message applies to us.
We eat out frequently and have yet to find many restaurants that fit the need for a tasty, all around menu that is reasonably priced. We are not looking for ethnic here - nor are we looking for a diner or coffee shop. Maybe a place with fresh, delicious food and a varied menu that is consistently good and has entrees under $20. We live in Irvine, but Costa Mesa, Newport, Laguna, Lake Forest, or nearby Santa Ana would all be fine. Any and all suggestions welcomes!
Keeping within your budget
75% good enough:
Britta's Cafe (Univeristy Center next to Trader Joe;s and Theater)
Waters Lakehouse http://www.watersrestaurant.com/
The Claimjumper (yeah, its a chain, but . . .)
Mimi's Cafe (yeah, it's a chain, too, but really quite good
)Mother's Market (not at all elegant, but good 80's style health food)
Plum's Cafe (will be open for dinner staring in late November) http://plumscafe.com/
Wolfang Puck's Cafe (still remodeling, but WILL be open again) South Coast Plaza
Sage (Eastbluff location better) (some items under $20) http://www.sagerestaurant.com/
The Alley http://www.thealleynewportbeach.com/
Bloomingdale's 59th & Lex Cafe (really!) (Fashion Island)
And, don't disregard some of the finer dining places because a few of their menu items are under $20.
If you don't consider Italian to be ethnic (I'm guessing by "ethnic", the OP means non-white ethnicities) I tihnk Finbars is reasonable, pretty good, nice ambiance and also has some decent happy hour specials. There's one in Costa Mesa, at that outlet mall next to South Coast Plaza.
Yes, it would be nice to have a brasserie or cafe style place that you could eat at regularly and not feel you're doing something special and paying pricey backs for a meal. Actually, the closest to this ideal that comes to mind is of all places Claim Jumpers. They make a good small pizza, have rotisserie roast chicken, and you can get a beer or wine all fresh and tasty. As I think of them, I realize I take them for granted but, believe it or not, they seem to have a good Quality Control standard and they deliver this good food at reasonable prices seven days a week.
Maybe the restaurant business will change as the economy continues to tank, so that eateries, as opposed to posh restaurants, each trying to out do each other, will opffer a package that entices people to come back regularly. I'd like to hear of such places. I guess to have the emotional wherewithal to start a restaurant a chef has to believe she or he offers something really special, and people need to pay for it. Somestimes they want a place that people can eat at regularly instead of making it a "big deal." I suspect "big deal" places will find it difficult in this terrible time. Another place thjat comes to mind is El Torito Grill, not El Torito, which offers the same wide selection, tasty food, reasonable prices.
I usually don't like the chain type restaurants by the way and find it ironic that the two that come to mind are examples of this type of establishment..
I eat at Veggie Grill (UCI Marketplace) a lot. Fits what the OP wants (tasty, all around menu that is reasonably priced, not ethnic, not diner, or coffee shop, fresh, delicious), except the "varied menu" part. They have a small menu. However, I like this place a lot. This is a vegan restaurant, though many non-vegans like my family go here. Entrees are mostly $9 each.
I go to the Greek Island Grille at least twice a month for four years so it must be my favorite. It's a total gem and extremely cheap. The bifteki, hummus, melezanosalata, tzadziki, and pretty much everything else are terrific. It's a whole in the wall, but comfortable with great service (though you do order at a counter, they deliver your food to your table). Unfortunately, my little secret seems to be catching on. On the corner of Sunflower and Bristol. www.thewholepita.com