I’ve already noticed regulars seated at their preferred table, and without needing to ask. And though we’ve been only a few times, somehow they remember our preferences. It’s the type of experience one expects at luxury resorts and when a regular at certain South Coast Plaza boutiques, but it’s all too rare in other forms of hospitality.
Just the other day I was with a group chatting about how much we miss The Ritz Restaurant, the old-school favorite owned by Hans Prager and his wife Charlene. Its Newport Center location closed in 2014, and though a restaurant by the same name opened on the water, it was never the same. Few places offer that sort of experience, developed over decades: everyone there knows you, and you know everyone, including the servers, the bartenders, and the other regulars.
While we certainly won’t say that Davio’s has the potential to equal The Ritz, which was likely a product of its era, it certainly has the potential to offer similar levels of service. The bottom-line is the staff at Davio’s are adults, not kids working an after school job who would rather be on Instagram or texting friends. The servers we’ve encountered are well-spoken, well-dressed (love the white jackets) professionals who understand their job is about service, and they are trained and/or have the personality that makes them skilled at providing the highest levels of it.
We’ll give the credit to owner Steve DiFillippo for instilling the service ethos to the staff, and for hiring managers and servers who understand it. The Irvine restaurant is the first Davio’s on the West coast.
The food needs to measure up to the service, of course, or nearly. And we can say that this Davio’s also succeeds, mostly. It’s an extensive and expensive menu, and it takes a few trips to find your favorites.
I’d definitely return just for the buttery popovers paired with the Kobe Beef Meatballs, as appetizers or a full meal at the bar. The secret to the delicious flavor of the giant meatballs served in a cast iron skillet? They’re made with Kobe beef, plus veal and pork.
For something lighter, the tuna tartare, though nearly a cliché these days, is a good choice. A bit more offbeat are the spring rolls, which are so popular they’re offered packaged in retail stores back East. Big deal, spring rolls, right? Yes, when the options are Chicken Parm, Reuben, Buffalo Chicken and Philly Cheese Steak versions. Go for the sampler to try them all.
Among the pastas, the top choices include potato gnocchi with mushrooms and the veal agnolotti with truffle jus and Parmigiano.
So far I prefer the seafood to the steak. The seared scallops, the raw bar offering platter (lobster, crab, shrimp, oysters, clams, tuna and scallop crudo), and the East Coast-style crab cakes are all fresh and delicious. Crab cakes are something we rarely order from California menus as the choice almost always disappoints with the bread to crabmeat ratios. Davio’s is nearly all crab. While not quite the softball-sized ones I love from Faidley Seafood in Baltimore’s Lexington Market, the ones from Davio’s are easily the best in Irvine.
The kid’s menu is more extensive (and expensive: $8-$15) than most in town, offering four choices of pasta (penne, spaghetti, gnocchi or macaroni) served four ways (butter, tomato sauce, Bolognese or with a Kobe meatball). Other children’s choices include macaroni and cheese, pizza, burgers, chicken fingers, Philly cheese or Chicken Parm spring rolls, salmon and short ribs.
I’m a fan of the clean and lovely design of the new restaurant. It is much lighter and brighter than Prego was, and has a contemporary feel with high ceilings, white walls, white table cloths and a dash of color with Spanish art on the walls. Around the holidays, it was hard to get a table. A sure sign of success: firms and families celebrating the season took the private rooms and many large tables, leaving the bar area or chef’s counter as our only options.
So how does Davio’s fit into Irvine’s business dining hierarchy? The top three has long been Prego, Bistango and Il Fornaio.
While Bistango and Il Fornaio remain power players in the area, Prego Ristorante closed in early 2017 after 30 years when owners Tony and Ruth Bedi moved it to the District in Tustin.
Though it’s still early in the Irvine experience for Davio’s, which opened last October, I am confident in saying Davio’s has assumed the place of Prego as one of the three most important power dining spots in the IBC, and may even be No. 1.