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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:


            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.

                      1. After exhaustive research, I've decided that there is no place in Southern Orange County I want to eat. I stare at the menus online of Southern Orange County restaurants and there is not a single thing that I would want to order.

                        So, we are moving on to central Orange County. The menu at Marche Moderne looks appetizing (finally dishes I could actually imagine ordering), and corkage is only $10. However, we are going on a Monday and I see that Charlie Palmer does not charge corkage at all on Mondays. However, I take it the food is much better at Marche Moderne???

                        Also, if we go to Marche Moderne, should we ask to be seated on the rooftop terrace? Is that nicer? Since it is a little far from Southern Orange County and since we will probably polish off a bottle of champagne, as well as a bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, I'm thinking that a leisurely lunch might be the ticket - I guess we can walk around South Coast Plaza until we are fit to drive.

                        8 Replies
                        1. re: omotosando

                          I like both MM and Sapphire's. Not sure if you checked Sapphire's menu, but they also have daily specials. The barramundi is quite good, but I love, love, love their truffle fries.

                          1. re: omotosando

                            >>"After exhaustive research, I've decided that there is no place in Southern Orange County I want to eat. I stare at the menus online of Southern Orange County restaurants and there is not a single thing that I would want to order."<<

                            Now that's a pretty sad state of affairs! You seem to feel about our best restaurants the way way we feel about McDonalds and Taco Bell. I agree it isn't great around here but my only reaction is to feel a bit sorry for you. Not finding ANYTHING you would even order is quite a statement. If you don't find anything to order at Marche Moderne, please don't post about it. If this is a celebratory meal you should probably have your guests drive up to LA.

                            1. re: Midlife

                              No, the menu for Marche Moderne seemed quite appealing, unlike the menus I perused for Southern Orange County. I wish there was something equivalent for Southern Orange County, but there does not appear to be.

                              1. re: omotosando

                                Omotosando - I think that you made the right choice moving to more central O.C. more choices and not so expensive.

                                Marche Moderne is an excellent choice. I have only been for the $25 lunch spontanee menu a few times and never for dinner but enjoyed all of my lunches there. As for your question about the rooftop terrace. MM is located on the top floor of the South Coast Plaza. You don't have to request the rooftop terrace, you just want to request to sit outside.

                                I have also heard of good things from Old Vine Cafe in Costa Mesa and they have a $65 4 course tasting menu with wine included.

                                You can check out a few of the dishes I had at Marche Moderne on my blog. Click on the Marche Moderne link on the right side of the page.


                              2. re: Midlife


                                However, in his disdain for south OC restaurants, OP didn't state that he's also looking for (1) a certain price point; (2) great wine list or low corkage; and (3) a location that's open on Mondays.

                                Since OC has such high prices for mediocre food, perhaps OP would be better served by having the dinner in LA or having it catered?

                                Here are a couple other thread that might help:
                                http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/595261 --OC Restaurant Week: Feb 22-28, 2009
                                http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/585999 --Ultimate OC Restaurants 2008; Results

                                BTW: two restaurants with great wine lists are Napa Rose & Mastros.

                                1. re: OCAnn

                                  Actually he has stated all those things, in one way or another. High prices, bad wine lists, Mondays..... all became issues as his posted research continued. I haven't disagreed that South county is not LA, but the idea that someone can't find ANYTHING THEY WOULD WANT TO ORDER is really something else. My Mother always used to tell me to keep my mouth shut if I couldn't find anything nice to say, so I think I'll stop now.

                              3. re: omotosando

                                You could head in the other direction and go to the Market in Del Mar (I haven't yet been, but it's on my list to try this year).

                                If you do go to MM at SCP for lunch, the terrace may be less confining than their dining room which tends to feel crowded. The terrace has retractable overhead shades which you can have them adjust depending on the weather....

                                I'm not an OC native, but it's obvious that OC is young, large and sprawling compared to LA and NY, with no real county/city centre and a dismal public transportation system...thus you aren't going to have great finds on every corner. All your ballyhooing about south OC is only going to incur the rancor of OC CHs. With all the limitations you set on your search, it seems silly that you would limit yourself to south OC in the first place.

                                1. re: OCAnn

                                  To each his own, every region's cuisine can't be everything to everyone.....that what makes each region's cuisines/specialties/restaurants unique and a travel destination. With that said, OC may not fulfill the OP's parameters. But, I know when I want some good Indian, Vietnamese, Korean, Thai, or Japanese and at the same time be able to find parking without a cloud of smog, then I'm happy to chow about in OC. Yes, some parts in the country, what people sometimes call "the space between LA and NY" may not have enough foams, gastriques, or sabayons to please the gourmand, but they do make some mean regional food. Much better than we can imagine. I only hope to experience that great food without any pretense...

                              4. You might think about Napa Rose. I've found their match of wine to food excellent. Many of their dishes are excellent. The entry through the hotel and the dining room itself are very beautiful with arts and crafts decor done to a T. Service was always fine. Valet parking is free. I've had a group meal there and a tasting menu and both were really fine.

                                2 Replies
                                1. re: EclecticEater

                                  Some people are just impossible to please.

                                  1. re: EclecticEater

                                    Napa Rose is great, with one caveat. Twice recently we have been there when there have been large parties near us with young children who were noisy, and crawling all over the place. This unfortunately did interfere with our enjoyment of the restaurant...but, of course, we realized that this was Disneyland, and certainly kids are welcome everywhere here as they should be. Just something to keep in mind when dining at Napa Rose.

                                  2. We ended up having lunch today at Marche Moderne.

                                    I am glad we opted for the patio, because as others have noted, the inside is quite cramped.

                                    The highlight of the meal was the cold foie gras with apple compote and baguette. No one at the table other than me had ever had foie gras before and everyone found it quite delicious, albeit not being quite so enthusiastic after I explained how foie gras comes to be and why certain localities have banned it. Cold oysters were fine, but not special. The Tribute to Gustaf Anders North Sea herring lemon, coriander, carrots, warm potatoes, and horseradish left me indifferent. Didn't taste any coriander.

                                    For entrees, we had a trout dish, which was fine, but not earth shattering; a roasted chicken, which was ordinary and generic; something called Fire Roasted Bell Pepper And Lemon Mosto Marinated White Anchovy “Boquarone," which again was ordinary and generic; and the Nevat goat’s milk cheese, chorizo rustico romesco sauce and arugula tart. The tart was my favorite of the entrees -- while not something that I would crave and go out of my way for, it was quite pleasant and the flavors melded well.

                                    For dessert, we split a chocolate lava cake, which was served with ice cream, and we also had a cheese plate. The ice cream was excellent; the chocolate lava cake okay, but again, generic. The cheese plate, which came with Fig marmalade, honey comb, candied pecans and baguette, was fine, but I wished the accompaniments were a little tastier and less generic.

                                    Our server was not polished and, at the beginning of the meal, not very attentive. We brought champagne and wine and we were over half way through the bottle of champagne before he even took our appetizer order, which meant that most of the champagne was consumed with bread, rather than with the appetizers, which would have been preferable. The place was not jam packed, although I was a little surprised how full it was on a Monday for lunch, particularly in this economy and it not being right in a business district.

                                    All in all, Marche Moderne served the bill given that I wanted to dine in Orange County and wasn't interested in a place with $40 and up entrees, but I wouldn't go out of my way to go back and didn't find it special at all.

                                    8 Replies
                                    1. re: omotosando

                                      Please, please, please list the top 5 or 6 restaurants in LA that meet the criteria you were seeking in OC.

                                      1. re: Midlife

                                        1. Melisse
                                        2. Spago
                                        3. Valentino
                                        4. Lucques
                                        5. Sona

                                        1. re: josephnl

                                          Thank you, but I hope omotsando will reply as well. That's who my post was nested under. It's not that I don't care what your favorites are but omotosando spend a great deal of time setting a bar and I'd love to know what goes beyond it.

                                          One major rung on that bar was entrees that are priced well below Stonehill Tavern and Studio. Another rung was low corkage fees.

                                        2. re: Midlife

                                          Midlife- even before the great financial meltdown, I began to question the wisdom of spending huge yearly amounts on discretionary dining and when I do go out, I often want Japanese food, so I would not be the best one to comment on the current L.A. non-Japanese dining scene.

                                          I do like Craft a great deal. There have been a few just okay dishes there (a salmon dish, for instance), but most of the dishes really sing, the service is good and if it is a special occasion, they make you feel, well, special. (I forgot to add re Marche Moderne that even though they were advised that it was a very significant special occasion, no one made us feel in the least special -- I seem to recall that another poster had a similar experience).

                                          To me, there are four aspects of a restaurant: the food; the wine; the service; and the ambiance (and, of course, the company, but the restaurant doesn't control that). Some of those can balance each other out - for instance, if the food is good, but not great, but if the wine list and service are spot on, that can really change about how I feel about returning to a restaurant. I can't comment on the wine list at Marche Moderne, since we brought our own, but there was nothing special about the ambiance (even the vaunted patio, in my opinion, although perhaps that was because it was a rainy day, so the roof was pulled) and, as described, the service was less than spot on. To me, it was just another upscale not bad restaurant in a shopping mall. I contrast that to my recent dinner at Gordon Ramsey at the London Hotel, where I wouldn't say the food was spectacular, but I found the room magical, the service was impeccable, including the sommelier, and the wine reasonably priced and excellent. Dining there left me with a much happier feeling than Marche Moderne.

                                          Josephnl - I haven't been to Melissa or Valentino (strange that I never made it to Valentino, since for many, many years, Valentino was considered the epitome of fine dining in L.A.). I have been to Spago numerous times and can't remember a single dish I ever found outstanding (I have not ordered the tasting menu, however, which is what people on this board seem to love). I get dragged to Spago by others and think the room is pretty enough, but try not to spend my own hard-earned money there. I ate at Sona once and the only thing I liked was the cheese course - haven't been back. (And didn't like the room at all). Ate at Lucques once as well - don't remember what I had -- but nothing about the restaurant screamed to me that I needed to go back.

                                          1. re: omotosando

                                            Melisse is the restaurant I referred to.

                                            Please don't take it negatively, but compared to me, you really are a tough customer...or perhaps I should more politely say...have higher requirements and perhaps a more discriminating palate. I have eaten all over the world including many 3 stars in France, and many of the top rated restaurants in New York, London, Italy and Tokyo. Although there are some restaurants that are generally well-liked in southern CA that I don't like at all (the two Mozzas immediately come to mind), there are several restaurants in the area that I consider quite good. I am astounded by your poor experience at Marche Moderne. I have eaten there many times, and although I have occasionally had a dish that was sub-par, most everything else about the restaurant including service has been spot-on.

                                            Also I have had many excellent meals at Spago, Lucques and Sona. I do think that Valentino and Melisse (which you say you haven't visited) are probably my favorite L.A. restaurants, but nevertheless, after hearing about your recent bad experiences, I would hesitate to recommend anything.

                                            Are you from New York City, or do you visit there regularly. I am curious as to what you like there?

                                            1. re: josephnl

                                              I wouldn't say it was a "poor" experience at Marche Moderne, other than being annoyed that we were more than halfway through a bottle of champagne before our appetizer orders were even taken. It's just that I found it far from a "wow" restaurant other than the lovely foie gras.

                                              I'm not from New York - I am a native Angelino. But I used to spend a lot of time in New York and I think it is much easier to find a great meal there than in Southern California. The last great meals I had were in Las Vegas at B & B Ristorante in the Venetian and at Lotus of Siam in a dumpy shopping center.

                                              1. re: omotosando

                                                My favorite in Las Vegas is Rosemary's which is off the strip on Sahara. It is owned by a couple who love to cook and are almost always there. I love it. See: http://www.rosemarysrestaurant.com/

                                                Second best imho in LV is Bouchon at the Venetian. I generally avoid chains like the plague, but Thomas Keller is not quite there yet...although he is certainly on the brink. Bouchon is an excellent super-bistro.

                                                I will likely not go to B & B, because Batali has become an entrepreneur/businessman/tv star and has little, to nothing to do with cooking at his restaurants. His two Mozzas in L.A. rely strictly on his celebrity, and although many will disagree, I find them horrible. Perhaps B & B is better, but I prefer supporting restauranteurs who cook themselves, and are present at their restaurants to see that all goes well.

                                                Certainly Wolfgang Puck is the ultiimate "celebrity chef" nevertheless he can be seen working at Spago and Cut in L.A. most evenings. Unfortunately this is not the case with most famous chefs...and is one of the reasons I like patronizing restaurants such as Valentino or Melisse in L.A., Bayona in New Orleans, Aquavit and Le Bernardin in New York, and many others that I could go on lisiting where their celebrity chefs are not only making an appearance, but regularly making sure that the food is top-notch/

                                        3. re: omotosando

                                          Thank you for reporting. I have mixed feelings for MM; our lunch time server seemed to have been plucked from a Denny's while our dinner server was top notch. I also have mixed feelings for the food: 85% of the time, it's great, while the remaining 15% has been meh (oversalted escargot)....

                                        4. This has been the most fun thread for me to read EVER!

                                          I lived in LA until 1983 and have lived in South Orange County ever since. Vine is a great restaurant, but you have to realize that people eat there in jeans and Ugg boots, as well as celebratory occasions! But that is the "San Clemente" feel - it is a casual surf town. Period. The pork tenderloin is outstanding and I have never had a bad meal, or experience, there. Another great place to eat is The Village Mediterranean in San Clemente on Del Mar. Very tiny, but delightful and a secret. Eating at South Coast Plaza is a completely different experience and I can't even imagine trying to compare the two.

                                          Zov's Bistro in Tustin, and Black Sheep Bistro, are just fabulous (and favorite destination restaurants), but again, you are eating in a strip mall or on a shady street. I can't possibly compare it to the Beachcomber Cafe in Crystal Cove, for example.

                                          Anyway, YOWZA! I am wondering what restaurant I would have recommended to omotosando for a celebration. I would have definitely screwed up. And by the way, Nirvana in Laguna Beach? Lovely place, great food, but really nothing remarkable. I would recommend Claes' Restaurant in Laguna Beach for the best of both!

                                          1 Reply
                                          1. re: LisainCali

                                            Thanks for that rec. I don't know why I've never heard of it but plan to fix that soon. Their site is a little misleading in that the regular menu is linked under 'Starters' and their 'Specials' menu was a little pricier than I would have expected for every day. There are some really glowing reviews on Yelp. Full name is apparently Village Mediterranean Rim.