Interiors by Betsy Van't Hof of Art by Design and Kevin Forbes at CdM
1. CdM Restaurant
THE TABLE While all of the tables are desirable, the sumptuous blue velvet booths provide intimacy and comfort.
THE COCKTAIL Head downstairs to Under CdM to enjoy bar manager Ravin Buzzell's smoky Old-Fashioned. "The presentation usually inspires guests to yell, 'Wait, I need to record this!'" quips Buzzell. "It's a cocktail and a show."
WHAT THE CHEF LIKES Pressed to choose, corporate executive chef Jonathan Blackford touts the spicy pizza as his go-to, while the crispy whole branzino is most popular among guests.
WHY WE LIKE IT The team behind Newport Beach's A Restaurant is responsible for this hot spot, which includes an underground speakeasy and upstairs private dining room. Corona del Mar, cdmrestaurant.com
Chaak Kitchen's puffy tortillas with braised turkey, blackened chile and salpicon
2. Chaak Kitchen
THE TABLE The dining room is a charmer, as its retractable roof, designed by local architect Leason Pomeroy, brings the outdoors in. Book the two-top table 12 to place yourself in the heart of the action.
THE COCKTAIL Spice things up with the Tamarindo con Chile—Montelobos mezcal with muddled orange, tamarind paste, Tres Amigos bitters, agave and lime salt.
NO. 1 ON THE MENU The vibrancy of chef-owner Gabbi Patrick's cuisine steps into the spotlight with tastes like the banana leaf-steamed tamal colado served with wild mushroom ragout and housemade spicy pork sausage.
WHY WE LIKE IT Patrick has long been loved for Gabbi's Mexican Kitchen, and her second venture is as close as you'll get to tasting the Yucatán Peninsula in O.C. Tustin, chaakkitchen.com
Sea scallops at Davio's Northern Italian Steakhouse
3. Davio's Northern Italian Steakhouse
THE TABLE Score a spot at the 12-seat white quartz chef's table, where you'll get an up-close look at how the
from-scratch Italian dishes come to life.
THE BOTTLE Go big with a magnum bottle of Peter Michael vino.
THE COCKTAIL The Davio's Doli is ideal for sweet palates, while the newly added Paloma is a refreshing seasonal option.
NO. 1 ON THE MENU Make the night twice as nice with orders of both the tagliatelle Bolognese highlighted by braised veal, beef, pork and tomato sauce, and the handrolled potato gnocchi with organic mushrooms, basil and white truffle oil.
WHY WE LIKE IT Chef-proprietor Steve DiFillippo has poured his heart and soul into his first West Coast outpost of this East Coast icon. Irvine, davios.com
The lush dining room at Harley
4. Harley Laguna Beach
THE TABLE Sit at the kitchen counter, advises chef-owner Greg Daniels.
OFF-THE-MENU MUSTS Vegetarian lovers will delight in the Korean-style fried cauliflower finished with spicy garlic glaze. "We can't always make it, but we love sending it out to a vegetarian table when they least expect it," he says.
THE COCKTAIL The Strawberry Hill—featuring vodka fat-washed with Terrace Hill extra virgin olive oil and a torched bay leaf to garnish—takes top marks.
WHAT THE CHEF LIKES Daniels is all about the wild elk tomahawk chop sourced from Texas' Broken Arrow Ranch.
WHY WE LIKE IT Daniels is as passionate as can be about his latest concept, named after his grandfather, where the fare is as fab as the surroundings. Laguna Beach, harleylagunabeach.com
An amuse-bouche of coconut, makrut lime and rose gelée atop a coconut, pistachio and lime salad at Journeyman's Food + Drink.
5. Journeyman's Food + Drink
THE TABLE "There's not a bad seat in the house," says executive chef Zach Geerson. "But my personal favorites are the corner tables because I love to people-watch."
THE COCKTAIL Try The Donny Difference—Kappa Pisco, Spirit Works gin, rhubarb, lavender, lemon, bath bomb bitters and egg white.
NO. 1 ON THE MENU Geerson suggests ordering the dry-aged organic duck—roasted duck breast and braised leg turned into a nage with blackberries inside a blackberry ravioli, Parmigiano-Reggiano air, parsley and dehydrated smoked duck heart grated on top.
WHY WE LIKE IT The dishes on Geerson's four- or six-course prix fixe menus are as artfully presented as they are created. Fullerton, journeymanfood.com
The Louie Salad at Louie's by the Bay
6. Louie's By The Bay
THE TABLE On summer nights, book table 12 for a primo waterfront view. When temps dip, cozy up by the fireplace at table 43.
THE COCKTAIL Go classic with a Louie's Martini, featuring Tito's vodka, Dolin dry vermouth, grappa and chamomile liqueur, and prosciutto-stuffed olives.
THE BOTTLE Co-owner Piero Selvaggio is an oenophile whose cellar includes $9,000 vino from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti in Burgundy, France.
WHO TO ASK FOR General Manager Colby Reedy ensures every guest is a VIP.
NO. 1 ON THE MENU Carb out with the Mandilli handkerchief pasta coated in creamy pesto sauce.
WHY WE LIKE IT It's buzzy—from the chic ambiance to the affluent crowd. Newport Beach, louiesnewport.com
Ocean at Main's Dungeness crab cavatelli
7. Ocean At Main
THE TABLE Enjoy plush Tuvalu Home-designed booths inside or soak up the salty breeze on the Tuuci-covered patio.
OFF-THE-MENU MUSTS Order the secret short-rib cigars and imbibe the cult-favorite Hey, Ladies cocktail, featuring vodka, St-Germain, lemon juice, fresh strawberries and simple syrup.
WHAT THE CHEF LIFES Chef-owner Craig Strong is partial to the charred Spanish octopus with cauliflower ratatouille and Carnival Amaranth parsley sauce.
WHY WE LIKE IT The Michelin-starred maestro brings all the pedigree from his luxury hotel background, but it's his freedom to do as he pleases—like offering surprise dishes starring premium caviar, wagyu beef and seasonal truffles—that shines. Laguna Beach, oceanatmain.com
Oliver's Osteria's baked eggplant with mozzarella, fontina and Parmesan cheeses
8. Oliver's Osteria
THE TABLE Make a reservation—there are only 62 seats at this newbie. Locals like either the bar side of the dining room or the quaint heated patio.
THE BOTTLE Sip the 2014 Gaja Sperss Langhe from Barolo, Piedmont, Italy. "This is one of the best—if not the best—Barolos you will find," advises owner and executive chef Erik De Marchi.
WHO TO ASK FOR Call on General Manager Gianfranco Morgese, who's happy to plan special chef's tasting menus or reserve a discreet table.
NO. 1 ON THE MENU De Marchi and patrons agree—the rigatoni al cacio e pepe dressed with Parmigiano and pecorino cheeses is the must-try.
WHY WE LIKE IT This on-the-rise Italian eatery is as authentic as it gets. Laguna Beach, oliversosteria.com
Saline's croque monsieur stacked with ham, swiss, Gruyere and serrano pepper served with farm greens
THE TABLE While the patio is dotted with intimate tables, try seat one at the bar—you'll catch the ocean view and gain access to Saline's deft mixologists.
OFF-THE-MENU MUSTS Ask for the cacio de pepe, which chef Leo Bongarra learned to make in Rome. There’s also the unannounced nights when Bongarra passes out his specialty paella.
WHAT TO WEAR Go California-cool with casual threads—after all, you must be an overnight guest at Hotel Joaquin to dine at Saline, so relax and settle in.
NO. 1 ON THE MENU It's a tie between the crab gnocchi and the Napa lamb chops.
WHY WE LIKE IT Since you won't be fighting crowds, you'll get plenty of face time with Bongarra—and top-notch service to boot. Laguna Beach, hoteljoaquin.com/saline/
Scottish salmon teamed with soba noodles, shiitake mushrooms, bok choy and soy ginger dashi at Terrace by Mix Mix.
10. Terrace by Mix Mix
THE TABLE "If you're not sitting on the terrace when the weather is beautiful, our chef's table does not disappoint," offers chef-owner Ross Pangilinan of this South Coast Plaza staple.
NO. 1 ON THE MENU The albacore tostada with Sriracha mayo, Japanese dressing, cilantro and avocado is a favorite, and can sometimes be found on the three-course prix fixe lunch menu.
WHAT THE CHEF LIKES Pangilinan admits he eats the pork adobo fried rice daily.
WHY FOODIES LIKE IT The chef is known for his innovative fare, which is best experienced via his nine-course omakase tasting menu ($125 per person).
WHY WE LIKE IT The cuisine is ever-changing and the 80-seat terrace is simply divine. Costa Mesa, terracebymixmix.com
Photography by: anne watson; saline photo courtesy of hotel joaquin