Orange County is renowned for its beaches and luxurious suburban neighborhoods, but not so much for its nightlife. Fortunately one of the county’s biggest cities, Santa Ana, is brimming with an urban-tinged drinking culture, featuring a collection of artsy yet unpretentious bars cluttered around First and Main Streets. Whether you’re going on a regular night or during one of the neighborhood’s much-touted art walks, these are some of the best bars to check out.
Playground is more than just a bar, but one of the county’s best-regarded dining experiences, featuring a rotating menu of creative, multinational chef’s specialties, most of them not quite like anything you’ve ever eaten before. The chefs insist nothing be changed about their entrees, but with food this good, you won’t need or want to change a thing. The crowded culinary hotspot boasts an extensive selection of craft beers as well as a few Playground-original cocktails as interesting as the dinner specials, including the A Little Bit Naughty mixed drink with mezcal, cranberry and spicy serrano pepper.
220 E 4th St #102
The Barrel Room
One needn’t drive all the way to Temecula for a tasting room experience, not when The Barrel Room offers the same friendly, wine-centric atmosphere in a historic theater building in the heart of downtown Santa Ana. Knowledgeable servers provide plenty of wine expertise for neophytes and experts, but the rustic restaurant offers plenty in the way of craft beer and tasty tapas lifted from a few different Mediterranean cuisines.
324 W 4th St
The Copper Door
Keep an eye out for the tiny stairwell that leads down to this lively underground bar offering great food and drinks for dinner, and live music for late night festivities. The DJ sets along with the rustic wooden décor and long communal tables help The Copper Door retain its friendly atmosphere even when the place gets packed. The Copper Door rarely disappoints, whether you’re coming for the music, the billiards tables, the extensive selection of beer on tap or even their house-made flatbreads.
225 N Broadway
The Olde Ship
A ways removed from most other Santa Ana bars in terms of both geography and old-school atmosphere, The Olde Ship is a wonderfully unfussy place. Enjoy a well-priced beer and maybe a comforting plate of fish and chips in an authentic British pub setting one doesn’t see very often so close to the Pacific Ocean. The place’s nautical theme is welcoming but never kitschy, the beer and wine menus are extensive but not overwhelming, and you’d be hard-pressed to find any better British fare on the West Coast.
1120 W 17th St
Another European import within walking distance of downtown Santa Ana’s collection of American new pubs and eateries, Wursthaus replicates the communal, comforting experience of a German beer hall within a modest, clean but unfussy brick building at the corner of 4th and French Streets. But this place is all about the beer and the bratwurst—and their menu boasts huge selections of ales and lagers, as well as a dozen-plus distinctly flavored sausages, from the classic smoked polish wurst to the exotic jalapeno duck dog.
305 E 4th St #106
Chapter One: The Modern Local
Housed in a building that formerly hosted a bookstore, Chapter One pays tribute to the literary world in its décor while offering a reasonably-priced menu of novel versions of tasty American classics and plenty in the way of libations. Even without so many irresistible small plates like kimchi chicken wings and duck fat fries, it’s worth stopping in for their literature-themed specialty cocktail menu alone, which includes such highlights as the cherry rum concoction Old Man and the Sea and the fruity tropical flavors of the Paradise Lost.
227 N Broadway
The Robbins Nest
Whether you’re looking to sample odd varieties from brands you’ve never heard of or simply lose yourself in something familiar, Robbins Nest is the perfect place to relax with a glass of wine. The cozy seating arrangements are perfect for lounging around for hours on end, and the friendly staff members are always more than willing to chat or provide recommendations on their extensive wine list and menu of fresh takes on diverse Italian classics like scampi, panini and chicken marsala.
214 N Sycamore St
Native Son Alehouse
Wine isn’t the only boutique beverage in town, of course, and Native Son Alehouse is likely the best spot around for anyone looking to sample an impressive, rotating selection of craft beers. Their 27 taps may change, but they consistently offer some of the best independent brews around in a centralized space that might seem modest until you stumble upstairs to their gorgeous, airy rooftop bar. You’d have a tough time finding any better spot to enjoy a tall glass of beer and a delicious serving of shareable snacks like jalapeno poppers or brussel sprout chips.