Irvine’s Oldest Eateries
But what about the old favorites? When a long-lived local restaurant closes, there’s an outcry. An ICN staff writer still talks about Pinky’s Hamburger Grill, which was located where the In-N-Out Burger is across from UCI, and it’s been gone for a couple of decades (and wasn’t there that long to being with).
A list of Irvine restaurants found in an October 1984 issue of Orange Coast magazine, was revealing: Baxter’s, Café Gazebo, Chanteclair, Chicago Joes, El Capitan, Irvine Pride, Jades, Le Chardonnay, Max 5000, Monty’s Ribs, The Mediterranean Room, Plat du Jour, The Terrace, Village Pantry Restaurant and Yee’s. One current Irvine restaurant on the 1984 list was Knowlwood, but it was in Woodbridge Village Center then, where the yoga studio is now, and not on Sand Canyon.
To everything there is a season, and that goes for dining concepts. Some become dated, others lose their audience, and some can’t live up to current tastes and expectations. And, if we’re honest with ourselves, when an old “favorite” closes we often have to admit that we hadn’t been supporting it much recently, anyway. So if you have a favorite, by all means pay it a visit.
But all of this musing had us wondering: what are the oldest restaurants in Irvine, anyway? We asked around, checked with long-time residents and did research in the city’s business license database. The latter has its limitations, as ownership can change over the years.
Below is a list of the 10 or so oldest that we found. Let us know any that we left out. Which Irvine restaurants of yore do you miss most?
The venerable prime rib place across from John Wayne Airport is so old that John Wayne himself is said to have frequented the restaurant, which opened in 1971. When was the last time you ordered chateaubriand or prime rib, anyway?
Celebrating 40 years in Irvine this year, the pizza place in Heritage Plaza has seen generations of youth sports team gatherings and family celebrations, including Barro birthdays, as dozens of the founding family live in or near Irvine. Don’t forget to order a beer from Backstreet Brewery, which is part of the restaurant.
Taiko Japanese Restaurant
There’s been a long wait to be seated at Taiko seemingly since it opened (in 1980, according to the business license). Whether you go for the generous portions of sushi, the sesame chicken or the combo of calamari and sashimi, you’ll never dine alone at this bustling favorite at Walnut and Jeffrey.
We can quibble over whether the menu at the bowling alley café qualifies as a restaurant, since it’s pretty much limited to nachos, super nachos, wings, chicken strips and pizza. But it’s hard to argue with the Happy Hour prices (beers start at $2.75, with pitchers of imported beer $14) that seem in line with its 1981 opening era.
Mag’s Donut & Bakery
We were surprised that one of Irvine’s favorite donut spots had been around for so long (business license was issued in 1984). Mag’s longevity is a reminder that the center at Culver and Michelson was one of the only places to buy gas and groceries in the early days of Irvine’s University Park.
The Knowlwood on Sand Canyon debuted circa 1986 when the Old Town Irvine reuse of original Irvine Ranch agricultural buildings opened. But by some standards it could be seen as the oldest in Irvine. It’s housed in a blacksmith shop that was built in 1908, the original Anaheim Hills Knowlwood opened in 1957, and the existing restaurant revels in its nostalgic elements, down to the antique truck in the dining area. Don’t miss the burgers, or the fried zucchini.
The first of the three power lunch spots that still dominate the Irvine Business Complex, Prego opened in March of 1986. A story on its opening said that “Half the diners, it seemed, were telling everyone how long they’d waited for an Orange County Prego so they could spare themselves the drive to Beverly Hills.” Bistango followed Prego in 1987, while Il Fornaio debuted in 1991. All three raised the bar for dining in Irvine, and they still set standards of excellence, even today.
David Wilhelm’s Bistro 201 was part of that era, and his Zuni Grill opened in 1991, too, at the Crossroads Center. When Zuni Grill closed in 1994, a reporter gave Irvine a bit of a slap that still stings today: “Zuni’s bill of fare delighted critics, but the eatery failed to attract families who are drawn by the heftier portions and lower prices delivered by competitors such as Claim Jumper, Olive Garden and Chevy’s.”
pregoristoranti.com; bistango.com; ilfornaio.com/irvine
Of Irvine’s oldest restaurants, it can be argued that the Clay Oven has remained the most relevant to today’s global foodie. Its cutting-edge Indian cuisine is informed by chef Geeta Bansal’s world travels, which include meeting and cooking with great world chefs. She also was invited to cook at the James Beard House in New York, an important (and expensive) honor few if any other Irvine chefs have enjoyed.
This is one of those restaurants that are easy to overlook, but one visit and you’ll remember why the chain has remained so successful. And for the contingent that cries foul whenever an American food favorite chain like Marie Callender’s closes, this is a place you’ll want to support.
McCormick & Schmick’s
El Torito Grill
Office workers on Main Street have been keeping these two places busy since the late 1980s. McCormick & Schmick’s is a corporate seafood and steak place that feels little changed. And it’s hard to remember how innovative El Torito Grill was when the late Larry Cano created the concept. Today, when one looks around the Irvine El Torito Grill, which opened as a Caliente’s in 1988, it seems like it could still be that year.
Fast Food Firsts
Some of the other Irvine restaurants that opened in the late ’80s and early ’90s that are still around include Mr. Sandwich at Jamboree and Barranca, Ray’s Pizza near UCI and Diho Bakery on Culver.
Also easily overlooked among Irvine’s oldest are our fast food chains. The most venerable in the city include Del Taco #101 in Northwood, which has a business license dated 1980, the oldest fast food license we could find. Others include McDonald’s #6803 on Culver Plaza and McDonald’s #6319 on Main St.; Carl’s Jr. in University Park Center; Taco Bell #3904 on Barranca; Rubio’s on Harvard and the first Irvine Starbuck’s in Walnut Village, which opened in 1992.