I must preface this by stating my opinion of Irvine factors in a number of attributes. First, I think it says something when any chain will put its first OC/Southern California/West Coast operation in Irvine. Next, anyone in a regional chain wanting to be here is a compliment. Last, memorable dining isn't about being in a particular city for a specific cuisine. It's getting a satisfying meal that's accessible. This is my Irvine.
Reason #1 - I finally tried Pho Bac Ky last night, per my manager's raving. While it is the sister restaurant to Pho Bac off Barranca, I found it to be even better. Perhaps it's because of the spacious parking, prompt service, and chill atmosphere. While folks complain about the few extra dollars it might cost, uh, hello? Irvine charges more rent than Westminster people. I'm not about to hit my Pho 86 anytime soon if I can drive less than 10 miles for some salty lime soda and #41. Residents don't blink at the extra $, or else why is it so crowded at 6pm on a Saturday?
Reason #2 - I read about Strickland's right when they were opening in '05. An Akron, Ohio based chain, UCI is the only West Coast operation at the time of this blog. With two new flavors each day, and a husband & wife team taking care of business on a Saturday night, this place is a destination for all: students, families, anyone tired of Cold Stone. They even give props to some of my acquaintances, Professor Salt and Elmomonster with framed copies of their blogs hanging next to their local awards. Note: banana flavor is very tasty.
Reason #3 - Yes, I am going to say Melting Pot. Who was the first city in CA to land one? Irvine. What has a bar scene that's never empty? Yes, you can cringe at the $50/person you're going to spend on cooking your own food, but they are not hurting for business. Actually, Irvine was the top money making location in the company for 2007. Hey, I did some research.
Reason #4 - Bistango. A major player for business lunches and dinners, their live music and artwork fits right in among the white collar crowd. While the parent company, Dining As Art, has branched out in other directions (Kimera, Tonic), this is their prized possession. My co-worker still dreams about the beef stroganoff.
Reason #5 - Taco Rosa. For a rockin' Sunday brunch that includes both a Mariachi band and a tall glass of sangria, look no further than the local Market Place. Their seasonal specials are excellent lunch fare, and you cannot beat the accessible location.
Reason #6 - Pei Wei. Laugh all you want, but when the P.F. (of Chang's) wanted a quick casual option, he knew the ideal neighborhood to start the chain was in the IRV. In a county full of Asian options, this is a smooth operation. Shortly after, others followed suit in their concept of "make your own meal" by selecting a protein and cooking method.
Reason #7 - Mochilato for shaved ice. Do you have any idea how difficult it is to find this? Check the boards and learn this is few and far between. Their deluxe version can feed a family of four or more. Lovely alternative for dessert.
Reason #8 - Three words: Three Trader Joe's! (Culver/Irvine, UCI, Sand Canyon/Irvine Blvd).
Reason #9 - Family owned and operated, New York's Upper Crust Pizza is a six location chain dedicated to bringing Brooklyn style pizza to the masses. You ain't finding this joint in Anaheim or Westminster. They are RSM residents who know where garlic knots and sauceless White Pizza would be appreciated.
Reason #10 - Irvine cares about their vegetarians. When you steal the co-founder of Native Foods and hire the architect who designed Bluefin, you know something special is brewing. In the land of UCI it is called The Veggie Grill. Where the city falls in love with sweetheart fries and tempeh is the new chicken.
Reason #11 - To show that we are not just health conscisous, down the street is the mother of Brazilian carnivore havens, Agora Churrascaria. With a business lunch vibe and endless meats to savor, being near SNA has never been so good.
Reason #12 - What do you do when you have a successful restaurant in Laguna Beach? Open another in Irvine, of course. Javier's Cantina and Grill keeps the vibe cool and the food hot in the Spectrum. My preferred spots are in the covered patio. Update: The original LB site has up and moved to Crystal Cove for more spacious and swankier digs.
(August - July was a very long month of sickness and otherwise)
Reason #13 - First opened in Irvine, the surge of frozen yogurt frenzy began at the corner of Jeffrey and Walnut. Yogurtland and its IKEA furnishings was an immediate hit. With lines out the door, the Arbor's parking spots would be primer real estate then when it's time to get some dim sum. Averaging no less than a dozen flavor options, their tagline of "Thirty cents an ounce" is enough to get anyone in their car. Most sing the praises of their mochi topping. I now frequent another one even closer to home.
Reason #14 - Across from John Wayne Airport, diners either love or loathe Gulliver's. For over 35 years they've been cranking out creamed corn, English trifle, and prime rib. Their claim to fame is being host to frequent diner John Wayne himself. They'll even seat you at The Duke's table if you ask. When you are ready for Old World experience and some serious red meat, make the drive down.
Reason #15 - "Italian food in Irvine" and one is inclined to ask 'Olive Garden', 'Buca di Beppo', or 'Macaroni Grille'? I say none of the above, thanks to Adriano Paganini, owner and chef of Pasta Pomodoro. While I will probably be told to find some real Italian, I dream about their ravioli di zucca. I dare you to find a more savory starter so close to home. Roasted butternut squash with parmesan and brown butter. Sage and crumbled amaretti atop.
Reason #16 - Stuck in the Market Place. Not craving a combo meal. How does one find an award-winning chef in suburbia? Marc A. Cohen is your answer. He helms the palette pleasing (albeit noisy) menu at Opah. Known for a social patio, the Pacific inspired cuisine is dateworthy. Named after a symbol of good luck, as an entree it is a unique find.