The convenience of southern California suburbia meets the culture of a college town in Orange, California, the geographical center of Orange County. It doesn’t have Disneyland or miles of coastline like its neighbors, but instead boasts a walkable downtown area, eclectic bar selection, attractive historic homes built before 1920, and lots of delicious cheap dining—features all too rare in some of the surrounding towns.
Much of Orange is defined by its suburban sprawl, filled with multilane highways, oversized shopping malls and rows of colorful wood-paneled homes with the occasional gem of a deli or taco joint sandwiched in between it all. Rolling hills of straw-colored chaparral begging to be hiked loom in the east, but the walkable city center of Old Towne Orange must be the first stop for visitors, if only for the convenience of discovering so many unique places to shop and browse within stumbling distance of each other.
Simply by virtue of being in southern California, Orange County has no shortage of fantastic food, thanks to its proximity to the farmland of central California and the Pacific Ocean as well as its sizable Asian and Hispanic populations. Plus, the presence of the university ensures a perfect combination of trendy gastropubs or cafes and authentic hole-in-the-wall eateries.
Making great vegetarian food isn’t easy, but they pull it off and then some at Mead’s Green Door and Café (642 W Chapman Ave). Their menu is almost overwhelming, extensively covering every meal of the day as well as baked goods, smoothies and coffee, so give yourself plenty of time to customize one of their various veggie burgers or opt for pretty much anything on the breakfast menu, especially the enormous fork-and-knife Mead’s Ranchero burrito or the Morning Stack sandwich. Order and then browse through the eclectic artsy décor looking for anything you like, since pretty much everything you see is for sale.
French-Mexican fusion sounds tempting enough, but Anepalco’s Café (415 S Main St) takes its specificity of concept one step further by focusing on breakfast cuisine, letting its sister restaurant, simply titled Anepalco, handle the dinner demand. It’s difficult to go wrong with either meal, but the eggy greatness of their brunch options is not to be ignored, even if the place can become busy with staff from the nearby hospital. Anepalco’s Chilaquiles are the ultimate Mexican comfort breakfast, overflowing with flavor from its cream sauce and cotija, while lunch fixtures like the Croque Madame or Chipotle Crepe offer something a little more interesting, somehow true to both European and Latin traditions without compromising the harmonious taste.
Small regional chain Orange Roll and Sushi (450 N Tustin St) is further removed from downtown, indiscreetly tucked away amidst the endless strip malls of Tustin Street, but the inconvenience hardly matters when the sushi is this good. Novel regional flavors creep into their fusion-minded sushi rolls like the Mexican-tinged Bomba Caliente or the fried chicken-topped Kentucky Koko. The friendly, unpretentious atmosphere means great service and prices, but order wisely; those rolls and Chirashi bowls are more filling than you think.
Enormous portions of rich ramen broth await at another nondescript location along Tustin. Yoshiharu Ramen (1891 N Tustin St) sticks to its niche for the most part, serving up enormous bowls of Japanese ramen with the meat of your choice—the garlicky Tonkotsu black pork is especially delicious—in a sleek interior that seems to reflect the neon glow of a busy Tokyo street. Take some of your ramen to go, if only to leave room for the surprisingly delicious novelty of the Yoshiharu burger with slabs of ramen in the place of buns.
Mexican food tends to diminish in quality as you head north from the Mexican border, which means Orange has plenty of great taquerias but can’t quite compete with San Diego. California burritos and other San Diego staples abound at Cali Tacos on Main, but Taco Adobe (121 N Lemon St) offers something unique to Orange. Like any great Mexican joint, this intimate clay restaurant situated between the Circle in the heart of Old Towne and Chapman’s thriving film school is defined by their free servings of fresh-fried chips and addictive dark red salsa, though the Carne Asada tacos, Mexican pastas and blue crab enchiladas are at least as delicious and still reasonably priced, even if they’re not quite complimentary.
The Mexican fare gets considerably more expensive and considerably more interesting at Gabbi’s Mexican Kitchen (141 S Glassell St) just south of the Circle, perpetually crowded despite its lack of an identifying sign. Chef Gabbi Patrick’s cuisine blends gourmet ambitions and Mexican culinary traditions to create cleverly tweaked revisions of old favorites made from more eco-friendly sources, like duck carnitas and braised beef gorditas. Don’t forget to check out the drink menu for margarita variations made with fresh cuts of jalapeno, watermelon and more.
Barhopping districts are few and far between in this region, and in spite of its wealth of walkable amenities, Old Towne Orange is as lacking in great taverns as the county named after it. Despite a modest bar scene in the circle, drinkers will mostly have to rely on neighborhood watering holes for their fix of liquor and companionship. Luckily, even Orange’s dives have their charms.
Even if you’re not much for sports, it’s hard to resist the friendly allure of a good sports bar like Danny K’s Billiards and Sports Bar (1096 Main St). The divey atmosphere is homey rather than off-putting, like relaxing in a friend’s den, if your friend had 33 beers on tap and a surplus of televisions tuned to various sporting events covering almost every square inch of wall space. There’s a lot of space to relax or shoot pool in the welcoming glow of the TV screens, and the bar food is simple yet always comforting.
Stop by the cheap Irish dive of Paul’s and the sweaty dark dancefloors of The District before heading to O’Hara’s Pub (150 N Glassell St), a friendly and convenient location too often eclipsed by those neighbors. The convenient location coupled with that jovial sports bar-specific atmosphere makes it the kind of bar where you can actually relax and enjoy a conversation. Failing that, strike up a game of pool with some strangers or gorge yourself on their over-garnished Bloody Mary, which includes a skewer of tater tots and a slider.
The Pint House (1547 W Katella Ave, Ste. 102) is Orange’s premier spot to kill a few hours with beer, burgers and a perfectly crisp pretzel, especially before catching a movie at the theater next-door or a hockey game at the nearby Honda Center. The casual but clean bar’s focus is primarily on their diverse selection of craft beers from around the nation on tap, but their food menu is nothing to scoff at either, encompassing a huge array of American comforts and shareable appetizer plates like the Black Phoenix chili fries or, of course, the Pint House wings prepared with your choice of six house-made sauces. Come on a Friday or Saturday to hear some live music while you eat, drink and be merry.
Shopping malls aren’t in short supply around Orange, but just as with dining, it’s hard to beat the proximity and variety of the Orange Circle in Old Towne. Rows of boutique clothing stores and antique shops surround the lush city center that makes for the perfect place to sit around and catch your breath.
The Orange Circle Antique Mall (118 S Glassell St) is the largest of the area’s many antique stores, and it’s easy to get lost among the jam-packed aisles of forgotten gems. There’s something strange or quaint adorning every surface of the antique mall, and much of it will invite fond memories of nostalgia for anyone old enough to remember when all these vintage treasures were still common. Its greatest virtue is its blend of charming housewares as well as bizarre trinkets like teeth impressions and ceramic ears.
A little north of the circle, the shops begin to look an awful lot like historic homes, cleverly rearranged for retail purposes. Dragonfly Shops and Gardens (260 N Glassell St) is housed in a vintage ‘20s home, but much of its wares are on display outside, covering the would-be front lawn with distinct outdoor decorations and gardening tools. Colorful succulent plants join the endless selection of iron sculptures outside as well as the handmade jewelry inside, making this a prime spot for finding a truly unique gift. They also offer more than 50 classes, covering just about every craft you can imagine.
Pepperland Music (850 N Tustin St) is a must-stop for any Beatles fan as well as casual record collectors on the hunt for discounted vinyl classics. Instruments and memorabilia join the aisles of new and used records and CDs encompassing the full breadth of the rock genre, with a specific focus on vintage merchandise relating to the Fab Four. The friendly staff members are always willing to make recommendations and share their passion for the music, and they even offer guitar lessons for aspiring young rock stars.