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Great Food in South Orange County for Celebratory Dinner

Looking for great food and nice ambiance in South Orange County for a special celebratory dinner.

Just checked the online menu at the Montage in Laguna and the prices seemed, in these recessionary times, obscene. I don't mind paying for good food, but this seemed really over-the-top.

Any other suggestions?

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  1. First question: can you give a distance range from a central point? Studio at the Montage is amazing, but you can do well with alternatives at more reasonable cost.

    Second: If you search for "laguna", newport", South Coast Plaza" on this board you should find dozens of posts on this topic which will include restaurants in the general area.

    Third: If you're looking as far South as San Clemente I'd recommend Vine, on El Camino Real. I think it's easily the best South of Laguna/Monarch Beach.

    7 Replies
    1. re: Midlife

      Yes, the closer to San Clemente the better. I'll check out the menu at Vine.

      1. re: Midlife

        Just checked out the online menu and wine list for Vine. Neither seem very innovative or exciting to me. (Although the wine list is not quite as bad as I thought on first glance - I have never seen a wine list before where a wine like a Sancerre was listed generically as a "Sauvignon Blanc" and, on first glance, missed that they actually had anything other than California Sauvignon Blanc.)

        I think I am somewhat spoiled living in L.A. with a wide array of upscale restaurants. I think that is why I was so shocked at Montage's prices - there are dozens of upscale superb restaurants in L.A. with great wine lists and beautiful decor where one can dine for far less than at the Montage. And the entrees at the Montage also seem like generic "hotel food" - nothing innovative. I think I would be more excited about paying the Montage's prices if the menu looked exciting (rack of lamb, short ribs, tenderloin of beef, roasted turbot - seems sort of '70's to me). But I get the impression that adventurous diners are not exactly the Montage's target demographic.

        1. re: omotosando

          Vine: innovative? Not so much! Good? Yes!

          Personally I think Vine's wine list is terrific, if small.

          If you want a WINE LIST try Hush, in Laguna. Their food is very good but El Bulli it's not.

          South OC has a population of around 500,000, so......................................

          1. re: Midlife

            Thanks. Checked out the Hush menu online, and it looked dreadful to me, and the restaurant has some nasty reviews on this Board.

            So far, it is looking like Vine, based on price and convenience factor, and we will bring our own wine and pay corkage.

            1. re: omotosando

              Maybe try Nirvana Grille in either Laguna Beach or Mission Viejo. The menu isn't exactly innovative but it's very tasty. I highly recommend their cauliflower-goat cheese gratin, mussles with fries, and their seabass. My friends ordered the lamb chops and loved them also.

              1. re: junglekitte

                Hmmn. Checked Nirvana Grille online, horrible wine list, but corkage is only $15 (it's $25 at Vine). What's the ambiance? From the pictures on their website, the Laguna location looked a little more upscale than the Mission Viejo location.

          2. re: omotosando

            I would not recommend Vine for a special dinner. Neither the food nor the service there are especially great.

            Marche Moderne is really a wonderful place. The ambiance is nice, the service is very good and the food is excellent.

            If you are willing to spend the prices charged by either the Montage (Studio) or St. Regis (Stonehill), then you should definitely consider going about 40 minutes south to Addison at the Del Mar Plaza Hotel. This is an extremely expensive restaurant (~$150+ pp for dinner), but it is clearly one of the very best special occasion restaurants in southern CA.

        2. Just did some more sleuthing - the celebratory event is on a Monday and it seems that neither Vine nor Nirvana Grille are open on a Monday. In fact, I see that even the restaurant at the Montage is not open on Monday, which surprises me since it is in a hotel. I also see that Stonehill Tavern is not open on Monday. This is proving more difficult than I imagined.

          Just read an old (2003) L.A. Times review of the Montage restaurant. It said: "Main courses are luxe, but still recognizably hotel food. Forget the spectacular setting, you could be eating anywhere." That's exactly what it seemed like to me from reading the menu online.

          3 Replies
          1. re: omotosando

            Orange County restaurant week starts the 22nd of which is this Sunday. There are quite a few restaurants on the list this year. I would go to one of the places on this list.

            I have never been but I have heard some good things about Stone Hill Tavern in the St. Regis Hotel in Dana Point. Three courses for $40 and an additional $25 for wine pairings. Not a bad deal!!

            Here is the link:

            http://www.orangecountyrestaurantweek...

            1. re: Tony

              I've been to Stonehill Tavern which I didn't recommend only b/c their prices match those of Montage. Great food, akin to Napa Rose. The only thing that ruined the evening was two tables of kids & adults: the kids were well behaved while their parents got loud & drunk. Otherwise, great food & service (we had the tasting menu w/flights). Our next visit will be to try their kobe beef burgers....

            2. re: omotosando

              What about the Loft at the Montage? I'm positive they're open Mondays.

            3. How about Sapphire's on PCH in Laguna Beach? Great truffle fries!

              2 Replies
              1. re: justagthing

                Sapphire's seems to be the only upscale restaurant in South Orange County open on a Monday. So definitely a contender.

                1. re: omotosando

                  I second the Sapphire recommendation. Innovative food, good ingredients and prices well below the Lodge/Stonehill realm. Reservations need to be made well in advance though.

              2. After reading through tour posts omotosando, I have to conclude that what you are really looking for may not exist here in OC. It might be easier if you'd provide some specific examples. The population here is only 3 million, as compared with 10 million in LA. Maybe not enough, or diverse enough, to have the truly unique attributes that you seek. Certainly the choices narrow drastically more upscale and the farther South you go.

                Someone please prove me wrong! Have I been away from LA too long?

                In truth, looking through the wine lists of the places you found lacking, I do see a marked focus on California wine. GREAT California wine at some, but mostly California. And that seems to mirror the food as well, if you can describe these menus as CALIFORNIA. I'm not sure I could guess what upscale LA establishments you prefer, but it would be interesting to know.

                5 Replies
                1. re: Midlife

                  Midlife, there are so many great innovative restaurants in New York that for the longest time I couldn't stand to eat in my native L.A. (except for Japanese). Always disliked Spago and Patina, which until the last couple of years were supposed to be the best of what L.A. had to offer. Until I recently started looking for a restaurant for an upcoming event, Southern Orange County wasn't even on my radar, so I have been somewhat taken aback perusing the Southern Orange County online menus and wine lists, which seem quite dated to me.

                  Lately, I have been loving Craft in L.A. (surprise - it's from New York and looks like a New York restaurant) and also Mozza, Pizzeria and Osteria (one of the owners is a New York restauranter). Had dinner recently at Gordon Ramsey's The London - wasn't bowled over by the food, but was bowled over by the wine list and by the room. Would love to try the new Jose Anders restaurant. All of those restaurants are considerably cheaper than the Montage, whose prices still startle me.

                  I've decided my strategy for this Orange County meal is to procure extraordinary French wines, pay corkage and not worry so much about the food. I have found that a great wine can smooth over a lot of rough edges, so long as the food isn't totally inedible. By contrast, I find that mediocre wine can sour even a meal with great food.

                  1. re: omotosando

                    Honestly I don't believe we have any restaurants that can compare to Mozza, Bazaar, and Gordon Ramsey. If you are looking for that you will be severely disappointed. However, the food at Studio at the Montage is good and in a beautiful setting. I haven't been to the Loft in many years but it was good and is from what I remember, cheaper than Studio but still a lovely setting.

                    If you are willing to drive a bit north, I would suggest Charlie Palmer's restaurant at South Coast Plaza. I think that is as close as you're going to get.
                    Otherwise I think you're better off eating a cheaper, ethnic meal and bring your own wine! ;P

                    1. re: junglekitte

                      Charlie Palmer's got a really scary review in the L.A. Times. Not that critics are always right, but does give me pause.

                      I'm thinking Sapphire in Laguna might be okay. I wasn't aware there was good ethnic food in Southern Orange County. I know there is great Vietnamese food in Westminster, but that is a little far.

                      As to the Loft (which is the "casual" restaurant at the Montage), I just looked at the online menu and the prices are insane - just a bit below the prices at Studio. $19 for a salad (versus $14 for the most expensive salad at Craft in Los Angeles). Chicken for two $68 ($34 per person) versus $28 for chicken at Craft. (Has the stock market collapse not reached Orange County yet?) Just not interested in paying those prices in this economy, especially when I am suspicious that the food won't be as good as Craft.

                      1. re: junglekitte

                        When at SCP, the place to eat is Marche Moderne. A bit cramped, but they serve great food.

                      2. re: omotosando

                        I know what you mean as I was born and raised in New York and went back regularly on business through the late 90's. Got hooked on Esca, and it's supposed to be not the best. On the West Coast, for me anyway, San Francisco has always been more of a food city than LA. OC - never really.

                        BUT............Going by the recs of a friend who is both a wine and food fanatic, I would have you take a look at Marche Moderne. It's in South Coast Plaza but he says it's the most unique and best food he's had in this area. One of the raps it gets here is that it is has a 'city' feel. Sounds like a good thing based on what you've said.

                        For future reference, Hush has an extraordinary 10,000 bottle cellar [http://www.hushrestaurant.com/menus/w...]. I know there have been some bad reviews here but I've found the food good when I've been there.

                    2. Fusion Sushi in Laguna is the best in Orange County. Nirvana Grille is consistent-Laguna
                      location has more ambiance than MV. If you drive further north, Marche Moderne is the
                      best restaurant in OC. Pinot Provence is very good as well.