The changes reflect culinary trends, often fueled by social media and chef-driven television shows. Changing demographics, continued economic growth and more inspired leasing strategies by landlords are part of the story, too.
Here are our selections for Irvine’s most superlative restaurants. While not intended to be encyclopedic, do let us know which favorites we’ve missed.
Most Impressive New Spot
The most ambitious new restaurant of recent years has to be Habana, the Cuban-themed hot spot in the Irvine Spectrum that debuted last December. There’s amazing coffee and pastries in the morning at the bakery, a Latin and lively bar scene with Mojitos, Sangrias, Rum Cocktails and other tasty treats, and delicious Cuban-inspired cuisine all in a gorgeous tropical environment.
Top Spot to be a Regular
It’s been two years since Angelina’s Pizzeria Napoletana debuted at Los Olivos Marketplace, and it’s quickly become a favorite for lovers of things Italian. Dine there regularly, and soon everybody will know your name, from Mickey at the bar and COO/sommelier Antonio to owners Filippo and Sho Fusco. Order Chef Jonah Amodt’s charred octopus, a bottle of Italian wine and a perfect Neapolitan-style pizza or two.
No. 1 New Casual Restaurant
The owners of Sessions West Coast Deli came home to Woodbridge recently with the opening of their creative sandwich shop—they grew up in the Irvine village. The new anchor of the remodeled Woodbridge Village Center provides locals a taste of coastal casual cuisine with an artisanal edge that we’ve been missing.
Sessions is also in the running for the best kids menu in town. Chicken strips are a staple of a family outing, and those at Sessions are top of the class. Plus, the prices are reasonable. Though TAPs Fish House and Brewery is more expensive, we love that the first course of the three-course meal comes out right away. But the best combo of a tasty and reasonably priced (considering the quality) kids menu is found at North Italia. Bonus points for it being a restaurant adults actually love. The grilled cheese ($6) and cheeseburger ($8) choices come with salad or potatoes, and spaghetti ($5) is like homemade. And all ages adore the zucca chips.
Leading Link in a Chain
If you haven’t been to Houston’s in a while, it’s just as good as you remember, and just as hard to snag a table. The things that most chains get wrong, Houston’s has down to an art. Order a cocktail and a Hawaiian ribeye, and relax. You’ll be well taken care of.
Irvine Legacy Award
Irvine is one of the most inclusive cities in the country, but we don’t have as many female chefs as we should. The leader among them is Geeta Bansal, executive chef and co-owner of Clay Oven. For more than 30 years, the restaurant has featured gourmet Indian cuisine with cutting-edge offerings that include habanero pork vindaloo and the best swordfish in OC. Bansal is also a global culinary ambassador for Irvine, traveling the world and interviewing the greatest chefs in it for her influential blog, as well as magazines and websites.
It’s hard to argue with Hive & Honey, the rooftop lounge high atop the new Marriott Irvine Spectrum.
The interior design at North Italia is cool and contemporary, as is the attractive crowd dining there, like at the haute happy hour.
Best Billionaire’s Bistro
Andrei’s is one of the select Irvine restaurants not paying rent to our largest landlord—or to anyone, for that matter. It helps to own the land, and the office towers on it. Opened by the Olenicoff family in the name of their son/brother, the profits go to charity. The stylish restaurant draws a corporate crowd on weekdays. But in-the-know locals realize that restaurants located away from retail centers are great choices, especially on weekends. Easy parking. Great cocktails. Upscale ambience.
Tastiest Weekday Breakfast
We can’t get enough of S’Wich, a culinary treasure of a cafe tucked into a center near Blizzard, Hoag and Kaiser. The chef/owners are the nicest, and the food—breakfast burrito, chilaquiles, vibrant fresh fruit plates, addictive house glazed bacon—is worth searching out on weekday mornings (closed on weekends, alas). Lunch is amazing as well.
There’s something a little bit decadent about a gigantic brunch buffet like the abundant one at TAPs Fish House and Brewery. Select from seafood on ice, omelets made to order, carnivorous carving stations, and delicious desserts, and much more. It’s the best splurge in town.
Top Power Spot
EATS Kitchen & Bar @ Hotel Irvine draws Irvine’s powerbrokers, civic and nonprofit leaders and tech industry leaders for breakfast and lunch confabs, while happy hour and later night action at Red Bar and Lounge draws a younger up-and-coming crowd.
Irvine Image Award
Irvine is diverse, safe, successful and educated, and at once global and local. The restaurant that best represents all these things is Meizhou Dongpo. Offering fine Sichuan cuisine in a gorgeous setting, the restaurant is also as accessible as any in the city. Its easy-to-understand menu is welcoming, as is the multi-lingual staff. That isn’t always the case with spots as authentic as this.
Cool and Classic
Sometimes we just want a taste of old school Irvine, with a menu that’s comfortable and classic, and a value, too. For those days we choose between Knowlwood and Lampost Pizza. For a few bucks more, you’ll find us reminiscing about the old days while eating at the bar at Gulliver’s.
Best Restaurant 2018
Our standard for the top restaurant in town is that it can hold its own anywhere in the world, with cuisine and a dining experience that meets the high standards of connoisseurs, critics and fans. We believe that Ootoro Sushi is that restaurant. It would fare well against the best sushi restaurants in L.A. and Tokyo for quality of the fish and its perfect preparation and presentation. Yes, it's expensive. But best-in-its-class cuisine like this is worth it.