7 Must Try Restaurants in Orange County

Written By: Kristal Docter Must Try Restaurants in Orange County

GREENLEAF Must Try Restaurants in Orange County

Proof that healthy recipes can be scrumptious and slimming, Greenleaf Gourmet Chopshop has already drawn a host of followers. The bright yet rustic establishment is “keeping it earthy” with refinished fixtures and furniture and pops of brilliant color on the floor from vintage, personalized produce ads. The outdoor space is lined with seating, boxed herbs and veggies, and the restaurant is attached to Greenleaf’s marketplace where you can purchase produce and groceries form local vendors as well as protein shakes and juice blends (try the Fat Burning Lemonade) for that quick healthy fix. Executive Chef Kristi Ritchey’s powerful story of fighting obesity on the Greenleaf “diet, ” enabled her to lose 110 pounds. Her own life-change positions Chef Kristi as the perfect person to deliver flavorful, fun and healthy food. Greenleaf’s Harvest-to-Home concept hopes to develop a community of neighborhood customers as they have at their Beverly Hills and Century City locations. Encouraging that community feel is a large communal table, covering nearly half of the interior dining space – the ideal place to enjoy our favorite signature or build-your-own salad. Try the Antioxidant Orchard, a tasty conglomeration of fruits, veggies, nuts, herbs and mixed greens with a pomegranate whole grain mustard vinaigrette. This Greenleaf favorite is even more mouthwatering with the addition of their pan roasted salmon. Every salad has a recommended wine pairing and is served in stylish bright, white dishes. Greenleaf’s Thin-Crust “Pizza’s” (they are actually made with whole wheat tortillas!) are only 500 calories and come in several flavors. And don’t leave without a side of Baked Sweet Potato Fries with Avocado Pesto – avocado and sweet potatoes?! A heavenly new pairing that I now crave. Whether this new eatery becomes your weightloss solution or the next great place to meet your neighbors, we’re sure you’ll love the eco-friendly experience. Must Try Restaurants in Orange County


Must Try Restaurants in Orange County


Unable to focus on my paper menu, I can’t take my eyes off this compound of a space. Taking after its San Diego predecessor, Cucina Enoteca in the Irvine Spectrum has a homey, hippy rusticity about it that grabs your attention and doesn’t let go. Surprised by the juxtaposition of the bright neon orange chairs and flowered tablecloths just beneath the antler chandeliers, I thought I must be dreaming. There are so many facets and features hidden like little treasures for diners to discover, and when I found out that all of the fixtures and even the furniture were designed and produced in San Diego to sell (in addition to the retail shop which houses an impressive collection of culinary accessories, apothecary and wine), I nearly forgot about eating all together so I could start shopping. A collage of old wooden shoes covers one wall while flea market finds are making my eyes meander in every direction. Cucina Enoteca is a vibrant new eatery that feels alive and comfortable and elemental. The ambiance drums up memories of dinners at the family farmhouse and so does the food! Executive Chef Joe Magnanelli plays to an Italian palate with simple and intentional eccentricities. The menu begins with a section titled Vasi (or vessels in Italian) and each is served in a mini mason jar with Tuscan toast. We skipped to the Antipasti section and munched on one of my favorites – stuffed fried squash blossoms ($9.75). Cucina Enoteca serves their version with purple basil pesto. The server assured us that we couldn’t leave without tasting the customer-favorite Pizza Bianco, which was deliciously crispy and cheesy; but, our favorite dish was the Short Rib Pappardelle, a classic home-style stew-like pasta feast. The pappardelle was fresh and perfectly aldente while the 24-hourbraised short ribs and cremini mushrooms put us over the top. But wait – there’s more. We had to sample the Zeppole, Italian-style donut holes with vanilla crema, dulce de leche and sugared cinnamon. I am telling you, these donuts are even more delish than those I’ve tasted in Italy. Don’t forget to check out their artisan cocktail list and weekly wine tastings of their more than 150 labels! 

IRVINE, CA 92618


Wife behind the counter and Husband at the stove. The smell of charred almond wood warming the pizza oven to over 800 degrees permeates the air. You might feel like you are walking into a cafe in Sicily instead of a renovated strip mall across from Triangle Square, and might expect typical Americanized Italian fare strictly based on the location, but your expectations are wrong. Roberto, the Argentine owner and chef of IL Dolce has developed a quiet reputation among locals as a purveyor of fresh, homemade Italian food. He imports Antimo Caputo Flour from Italy, serves Italian Angelo Poretti beer and makes his own mozzarella in the kitchen from a mix of milk, salt, water, cheese and curd. We were fed like we were sitting at a farm table after clearing a field, starting with a bright beet salad, one of their famous prosciutto e rucola pizzas, and we finished with the sweet, spicy and creamy deliciousness that is his version of Orecchiette with rapini and sausage. The pasta was served in a heaping portion, producing mountains of steam in an immense, white family-style bowl that was perfect for sharing. Our team of four clanked spoons on several occasions as we fought over the sausage and sauce. Il Dolce is a perfect family restaurant in the dining room and the kitchen.  Must Try Restaurants in Orange County



“We’re kind of like the bullies on the playground. We force you to do food our way, ” said Owner Jason Quinn. Quinn’s stubborn attitude is well-received to those who know his food. As the winner of the Food Network’s Great Food Truck Race in 2011, Quinn’s Lime Truck specialties certainly seemed destined for bigger and better things; and, with the 2012 opening of Playground, Quinn set out to surprise adventurous palates with his contagious passion for playful food. The Playground’s menu is printed daily just minutes before the doors open, consisting of the freshest, hand-picked proteins and produce. In fact, menu item availability is based on quantities which can be picked up by the Chef that day. The Playground has a freezer, but it is smaller than most residential freezers, meaning everything Quinn serves you is farm-to-table fresh. So, onto the Playground’s in-your-face food … We couldn’t resist that day’s “Attempt for the Perfect Food Porn” for $13, so we started with that. A bold take on a classic Croque Madame, this dish definitely qualified as erotic eats. It was melt-in-your-mouth delicious and oh-so sinful. In an effort to be a little braver, we also savored the Squid Ink Risotto with Baby Octopus and Piquillo ($13). This artistic entrée exhibited the Playground’s unique blend of daring and delectable. The creamy risotto was cut by the salty little squid and the heat from the dollops of pequillo. Although it is unlikely you’ll find this item on your next visit to the Playground due to the fast-changing menu, Quinn assures us diners can discover equally adventurous eats on every night of the week. Quinn also recommends making a reservation for one of their Sunday Suppers for the most comprehensive Playground experience. For $40, you will have the opportunity to taste 12-15 customized courses, using on-hand ingredients. It’s a family-style meal that showcases the Playground’s creativity while personalizing plates to suit your mood. The Playground is open for dinner Tuesday through Sunday (Supper) and recently opened for lunch Tuesday through Sunday (Brunch). Must Try Restaurants in Orange County


Must Try Restaurants in Orange County


If I blindfolded you on the drive to this restaurant, you might be able to tell you were near the ocean (as it is situated just across the street from the Montage and Treasure Island beach). If I took off the blindfold when you entered you would never guess that the aqua leather benches, tasteful art and dark wood finishes reside in a shopping center. We were greeted with a Lagniappe Margarita (Espolon Silver Tequila, muddled kumquat, fresh mint and lime, agave syrup and soda), then with Saigon Rolls and finally with Wagyu Banh Mi sliders.  Must Try Restaurants in Orange County


Must Try Restaurants in Orange County


Tired of fighting off the Main Street scene in Huntington Beach? Located in an underrenovation strip mall on Beach, Sea Legs Wine Bar is that comfortable, loungy locale that we 30 and 40-somethings have been longing for after too many years of fiestas at Fred’s. This beach chic eatery is beautifully adorned with wine-barrel and shell art, tufted chairs, linen banquets, glass chandeliers, personal photography vignettes and an all around cottagey elegance. A nautical theme converts the charming space into a Hampton-esque hideaway for wine connoisseurs with a stunning floor-to-ceiling glass wine cabinet replete with a library ladder behind the quartz bar. Owner Alicia Whitney said she “can’t wait to fill her wine cabinet and have a place to make memories without leaving home, ” which was the derivation for the Sea Legs concept. SeaLegs offers a selection of limited production wines, hand-selected craft beers, craft cocktails and an exceptional seasonal California shared-plates menu by Executive Chef Alexander Dale. This year, SeaLegs Wine Bar even secured its place in the “Foodie” Hall of Fame upon receiving the Best Californian Cuisine Award, a three-peat win for the restaurant, at the annual Golden Foodie Awards. It is the perfect spot to revel in the fresh ocean air, imbibe a glass of wine, or a craft beer or cocktail, indulge in award-winning shared-plates, and leave your worries at the door and live in the moment as you unwind from the day and connect with old friends or make new ones.



Andrew greeted us with an electric smile that seemed to charge his sense of humor. If the interior of this restaurant reminds you of their food truck in regards to the minimalism, it is partly a coincidence and decidedly due to an intense focus on the food above all else. Oowner Andrew Gruel had a plan and it started with a truck. When he joined the immensely popular food truck market it was simply part of the business plan. He figured the best way he could attract clients to a brick and mortar restaurant was to make food that attracted clients that were willing to follow you around. It didn’t hurt that for six months the former food truck business acted as a rolling billboard for the soon-to-belaunched restaurant. The restaurant, furnishings and platings are utilitarian. The fish and flavors are, in contrast, anything but practical. The menu contains the clever naming you would expect from former food truck operators, with names like “Slap me fresh, plate” and “Because we had to, fish tacos.” The focus on social media has also added creative touches to the menu with one item dedicated to an online contest to create a dish. The winner receives an item on their chalkboard menu and unlimited orders of that item during their 90-day reign. The key to the restaurant is the fish. Andrew also partners in a fish distribution company. Slapfish is able to take advantage of the absolute best cuts of fish at wholesale pricing. The goal is to bring fresh, sustainable seafood to the masses at affordable pricing. They nailed it.

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A writer transformed by the beatniks before her, Kristal Docter headed west after earning a BA in Literature and Creative Writing with a journalism concentration from Southwest Minnesota State University. Her career has been driven by diversification as a newspaper editor-in-chief, copy editor, corporate advertising professional, non-profit marketing maven, and brand contributor to a venture capital firm. Throughout her journey, Kristal continued asserting an appetite for all things linguistic, and now contributes a fresh voice at LOCALE.




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