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South Orange County (Laguna, Dana, SJC) Recs for a Fun/Young Group Dinner on a Friday Night?

Hello Chowhounders, West Coast branch,

I've got a pretty specific mission that I've chosen to accept. I'll be out in Orange County from NYC for a wedding at the St. Rege (Monarch Beach) at the end of August. Also attending will be a number of friends from law school, mostly flying in from NYC/Texas, and we are planning a group dinner get-together (there's about 10 of us) for those not going to the rehearsal dinner. Most will be staying in and around Dana Point, while a handful will be coming down all the way from up by the airport in Irvine (I thought Capistrano might be a nice compromise location?).

Any suggestions for a restaurant? Priorities would be "fun" (nothing stodgy, everyone is 25-30, free flowing drinks a plus), character (nothing too generic in food or ambiance, this is on average a pretty adventerous/sophisticated group of eaters), and to some extent price (I think under $20 for an entree would be be fine).

Despite going to college in LA, having a sister in Orange, and a best friend from Dana Point, I'm somewhat at a loss. I thought perhaps El Adobe in SJC? I thought the building looked cool, and they have have some special dining areas for groups, and some of the more reactionary friends in attendance might like the Nixon connection. But how is the food? I figured we could stop off at the infamous Swallow's Inn after, which seems up our collective alley. Looked into this Ramos Point place in SJC that gets raves as well, but seems only open for brunch. Otherwise I've been suggested a few places in Laguna. It seems K'ya has a nice rooftop bar, but looking at the a menu (which is all over creation and includes tilapia piccata and chicken fingers) gave me flashbacks to menus I hated growing up in So Cal. Do I have the wrong idea there? I also looked into Coyote Grill in Laguna, which looked like fun, even if pretty gringo-mex. Thoughts? Anything I'm missing anything? Perhaps in Dana Point itself? Thanks in advance!

Oh, and sub-question: planning on a hangover lunch at El Campeon the next day. Good idea? I have fond memories of the nearby El Molino.

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Coyote Grill
31621 Coast Hwy, Laguna Beach, CA 92651

El Adobe
31891 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, CA 92675

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  1. I do like El Adobe for their seafood dishes especially, their lobster fajitas. Check out Sol Del Sur in SJC as it sounds like it would better serve your group.

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    El Adobe
    31891 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, CA 92675

    2 Replies
    1. re: JAB

      I looked briefly at Sol del Sur but was scared off when I read reviews suggesting that a larger group might overwhelm the place a bit. I guess there's just the one chef? Or do you think those concerns are misplaced? Thanks for getting another option out there though.

      1. re: Mr Porkchop

        Just call ahead and make a reservation - no problem.
        Things move a bit faster if you focus on the small plates and tapas as opposed to the main plates, especially for larger groups.
        The food has got to be the most unique in Orange County, the mood is very casual and relaxed.
        Duck Tacos are just awesome!

    2. I would do the hangover brunch at Coyote Grill. I really like the enchiladas and eggs with beans and potatoes, and they do a nice Bloody Mary.

      As for the dinner part, I generally find that sophisticated and moderate in price do not go hand in hand when you get close to the water.

      I look at the El Adobe menu and don't see anything that draws me in. I would just as soon go to El Ranchito in SJC, a decent Cal-Mex mini chain. But if I were choosing between dinner at Avila's and brunch at Coyote as my Mex meal, I would take brunch.

      Maybe Eva's would be a fun choice for dinner. A little Caribbean vibe with free flowing rum drinks.

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      Avila's El Ranchito
      204 Avenida Del Mar, San Clemente, CA 92672

      Drew & Eva's Caribbean Kitchen
      31732 Coast Hwy, Laguna Beach, CA 92651

      1 Reply
      1. re: ocshooter

        Thanks, I had second thoughts with the word "sophisticated," after I used it. I meant more as in "these people are open to various cuisines and dining experiences and would be happy to eat a tongue taco" rather needing beluga caviar or anything. I guess what I'm saying is it's not anyone's "first rodeo," and no one will be impressed by micro greens thrown on a plate and sauces unnecessarily called "gastriques." Sophisticated sounds pretentious now that I think about it.

        I don't think El Adobe looked too unique in terms of menu, but when trying to think of some local color Cal-Mex came to mind (try finding chile verde or chile colorado in New York or even Houston). I'll check out El Ranchito as an option too.

        Had seen the Caribean Kitchen. That sounds fun and different, and will check out further. Thanks!

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        El Ranchito Restaurant
        3401 S Main St, Los Angeles, CA 90007

        El Adobe
        31891 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, CA 92675

      2. Hi there. Aren't you lucky, going to So Cal. I'm a Laguna and San Clemente native now living in NYC. Wish I could say it wasn't so.

        My two cents about El Adobe is, don't go. I went to a wedding there a few years ago and was terribly underwhelmed by both the food and the ambiance. It's quite dark inside and felt stodgy (to me anyway), and I didn't think the food was particularly memorable.

        For a group of young professionals, I'd say stick closer to the coast. The temps will be cooler, the resto scene younger (and dare I say, hipper). And there's better bar hopping for postprandial fun (tho Swallows Inn does look like a good time too..).

        If it's Mexican you're looking for, one possibility is Javier's in Crystal Cove, which is on the PCH and dead center of Dana and John Wayne Airport. The prices run from ~$15-50 for entrees, depending on what you order. The food is really good, the drinks runneth over, and you can't beat the view at sunset. Sometimes great people watching too (it can run to the Real Housewives of OC-types, but not always), esp on a weekend night.

        It's much more beachy/casual & bungalowish, but Avila's El Ranchito is right in the middle of downtown Laguna Beach and perfectly situated for strolling the PCH and Main Beach after dinner (ditto for bar-hopping). The food is generally good and the prices reasonable. But I'd call ahead, b/c they might be too small to host a group your size. (Coyote Grill is similar, also small, and the location is terrible. You'll have a helluva time finding parking if I remember correctly, and there's not much else around on that stretch of PCH for after-dinner strolling/drinking).

        There's also the Crow Bar and Kitchen, which is a great little gastropub on the PCH in CDM, just down the hill from John Wayne. It's got a super hip, 20s-30s scene & tasty vittles in the $25 range. It was a little sceney the last time I was there, but that might be what you're looking for. Also, it's rather small, so def call ahead and reserve a table if you can.

        It's a bit more of a jaunt south for your folks coming from the airport, but Fisherman's on the San Clemente pier might be fun (& for your Nixon fans, there's the "West Coast White House" mystique of SanClem). The pier is nice for strolling and really near one of OC's better surf spots, so can be good for watching body boarders and surfers. There's a super low-key bar side that's always slammed on the weekends, and a separate restaurant side. Request a table under the heat lamps, on the resto side. Parking can sometimes be a headache, but you're going to find that to be the case just about anywhere during the summer.

        And my last little bit of two cents is -- you'd be depriving yourself a truly memorable experience if you didn't go to The Ramos House Café in historic SJC for your hangover brunch. You can read more about it online, but the place and its owner are one of a kind. It's "fun" and I find a lot of interesting, artsy types like to go there. The brunch is spendy, but worth it, I think. Their Soju Bloody Marys kick ass, too.

        Good luck and have fun. Jealous!

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        Ramos House Cafe
        31752 Los Rios St, San Juan Capistrano, CA 92675

        Swallows Inn
        31786 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, CA 92675

        White House Restaurant
        340 S Coast Hwy, Laguna Beach, CA 92651

        El Ranchito Restaurant
        3401 S Main St, Los Angeles, CA 90007

        El Adobe
        31891 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, CA 92675

        3 Replies
        1. re: jbeaux

          p.s. I have friends that really like Eva's. Haven't been myself, but heard it's got a really fun vibe.

          1. re: jbeaux

            2nd the El Adobe sucking. I've been going for years (Granny's favorite) and have yet to have a decent meal.
            The trolley (free) runs from Crown Valley and PCH south to just north of the Laguna Musuem until August 28th, so you could have happy hour at Coyote Grill and work your way up the coast.

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            Coyote Grill
            31621 Coast Hwy, Laguna Beach, CA 92651

            El Adobe
            31891 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, CA 92675

            1. re: jbeaux

              I am one of the few defenders of Javier's on this board, but I would not recommend it for this group. It is too far north along the coast, doesn't really have a view since it sits across PCH, and isn't cheap unless you are careful with the ordering (I always get the carne asada tacos). Margaritas are good there, but from Dana Point you are passing a lot of other options before you hit Newport Coast.

            2. I would look at the Renaissance Dana Point. Despite their very sucky website, it sounds exactly like what you are describing. Lots of entrees under $20, live band that goes on at 8PM, it is directly across the street from the Marriott Laguna Cliffs and a fun place all around.

              You could probably reserve a table outside on the patio for 10.

              http://www.renaissance-danapoint.com/

              If you want Laguna, look at Mozambique.

              http://www.mozambiqueoc.com/menu/

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              Renaissance Dana Point
              24701 Del Prado, Dana Point, CA 92629

              1. Casual, fun, and cheap with a taste of how the locals do it = House of Big Fish and Cold Beer in Laguna Beach! You can then all walk over the Gelato Paradiso, head over to the main beach.....

                They have lots of cocktails, beer, and good selection. I'd highly suggest a reservation, there's an ocean view and some live music sometimes. It will be a fun night there especially with all the formality of a wedding at St. Regis.

                  1. re: Mr Porkchop

                    Just ate at El Adobe last week for the first time ever. Very cool building with lots of history and very good service however the food was simply average and not worthy of a return visit. How about Mozambique in Laguna Beach?

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                    El Adobe
                    31891 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, CA 92675

                  2. If you will be at or near the St. Regis, and the rehearsal dinner isn't being held there, consider Stonehill Tavern at the hotel. The drinks and apps are great, and there is a distant view of the ocean. Also, Mahe, across from the Dana Point harbor, has fun-type (as opposed to authentic) Japanese food, and more of a scene. I'd stay away from Renaissance though. I took my teenage sons there a month ago and they still give me a bad time about it. The food was mediocre at best, and the crowd was 50-60 y.o. singles.

                    Second Olamendis and El Campeon. for brunch and hangover food. There is an Olamendis in the Gelson's shopping center across the golf course from the St. Regis, and if you are staying there, you can walk.

                    San Juan Capistrano is not a compromise between Dana Point (south) and the OC Airport (north)-- it is farther south than Dana Point. For a compromise, Laguna Beach provides the best dinner options. And given what you seem to be looking for, I would recommend that. House of Big Fish is ok food-wise, but a lot of fun atmosphere-wise. Don't rule out the roof-top bar at Kya. The view is so spectacular this time of year. Try drinks up there then move downstairs to the restaurant. Also, right across the street is Sapphire, which may be the best bet of all. Unique menu, and large group tables outside. I did see a bad review of the place on this board not too long ago, but I've been there a dozen times at least and have never been disappointed. The biggest rap is that the menu hasn't changed as much as I'd like, but that shouldn't be an issue for you.

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                    Stonehill Tavern
                    St. Regis Monarch Beach Resort, Dana Point, CA 92629

                    Kya Restaurant and Bar
                    1289 S Coast Hwy, Laguna Beach, CA 92651

                    Mahe
                    24961 Dana Point Harbor Dr, Dana Point, CA 92629

                    Olamendi's
                    34660 Pacific Coast Hwy, Dana Point, CA 92624

                    4 Replies
                    1. re: 2intune

                      Thanks for a few new options. The reception is at the St. Regis so I think we'll try and mix it up from that. I think I'm going to try for something in Laguna for a few different reasons. Initiailly was thinking SJC because you drive through it to get to Dana Point on the 5 (I think SJC is north east of Dana Point, no?), but it sounds like there's lots of great Laguna options.

                      Looked into Avila's El Ranchito since there's been a constituant push for Mexican, but it seems they don't take reservations. Eva's Caribean Kitchen is making a strong move, and House of Big Fish sounds interesting...

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                      El Ranchito Restaurant
                      3401 S Main St, Los Angeles, CA 90007

                      1. re: Mr Porkchop

                        Laguna definitely has a nice little area you can peruse after dinner, very quaint and gorgeous at sunset. You can't go wrong being in Laguna.

                        IMHO Avila's is more along the lines of the usual unremarkable mexican drowned in tons of cheese and sauce. I still think House of Big Fish would be fun, maybe because I have a recent memory there of eating oysters while being slightly buzzed and belting out Sweet Caroline (lead by the live musician). Vast menu with solid seafood options at a great price.

                        You can search the boards, but Brussels Bistro has moules frites and some live music and maybe dancing? I've never been. Please report back and enjoy the wedding!

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                        Brussels Bistro
                        222 Forest Ave, Laguna Beach, CA 92651

                        1. re: Mr Porkchop

                          You did say fun was the priority. Mozambique would be fun even if the food is so so, K'ya, the same thing, but they can handle a group, K'ya is also the same company that has Big Fish and Ice Cold Beer, fun is what they sell.

                          Renaissance has live music and is close, but the advantage of Laguna Beach is it is small and you can move around from K'ya, Rooftop Lounge, Big Fish, etc. If you want Mexican, you could go to Olamendi's in Laguna Beach and then the rest of the places for fun.

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                          Olamendi's
                          1100 S Coast Hwy, Laguna Beach, CA 92651

                          1. re: Mr Porkchop

                            Scott has the right idea. Stick with Laguna. Eve's is fun, but K'ya and House of Big are more centrally located, and probably better equipped to handle a large group. Be aware though that at House of Big the wait can be over an hour, so see if they will give you a reservation for a large group. That wait is testament to the fact that the food is very reasonably priced (though not exactly locally sourced) and people are generally having fun and partying.