Newport Harbor and the Balboa Peninsula embody the endless-summer lifestyle for which coastal Orange County is justly famous. And what’s not to love about the wide-open beaches, The Wedge, the idyllic pace of Balboa Island, the impressive yachts in the harbor, the bustle of Oceanfront Drive…? More than 100 restaurants and bars sit on the peninsula and the surrounding stretch of Coast Highway, giving this compact enclave one of the highest concentrations of restaurants in OC. So why is it so hard to find something good to eat? Most restaurants in this area are mere decoys meant to lure tourists. But great food does exist, thanks to a few newcomers and classics alike. Here’s where to find it.
It’s not just the oldest continually operating restaurant in Orange County (since 1926), it’s also the best place around Newport Harbor for a steak. The dining room is dark and moody, outfitted with semicircular red-leather booths. The bar is a great, low-key place to watch the Newport singles scene in action.
When to go: Dinner only.
What to order: Prime steaks, big red wines, and a killer burger with hand-cut fries.
3334 W Coast Highway, 949.650.6505, arestaurantnb.com
Prolific cookbook author and chef Deborah Schneider’s flagship Mexican restaurant is just the right mix of Newport and Cabo. And while some folks might balk at paying $12 for a taco, that’s their loss because they’ll be missing out on the best duck confit that’s ever been stuffed into a tortilla. And the margaritas are perfection.
When to go: There’s never a bad time for a Cadillac margarita.
What to order: Duck confit tacos, lobster tacos, charro steak, street corn.
251 E Coast Highway, Newport Beach, 949.675.9800, solcocina.com
Chef Bernard Althaus serves classic, unpretentious French cuisine in a charming 24-seat bistro that would feel just as appropriate in the Swiss Alps as it does in the heart of Balboa Island’s main drag. It’s perfect for a date night away from the crowds.
When to go: Dinner only. And because the dining room is so small, reservations are essential — made by phone only, and you’ll usually speak with the chef himself.
What to order: French wine, raclette
cheese, blue-crab salad, lamb chops and creme brûlée.
217 Marine Ave, Balboa Island, 949.673.0570, basilicrestaurant.com
In April, after an interminable construction delay, one of the finest Italian restaurants in Orange County finally opened it’s authentic Neapolitan-style pizzeria in the space next door. They knocked down the wall between the old and new spaces, allowing the two decidedly separate restaurants to share a common bar in the middle. They also share kitchens. The new custom-built wood-fired oven in the pizzeria services both restaurants, just as salads for both sides come from the old kitchen in the ristorante.
When to go: The ristorante (with its sexy fireside patio) serves dinner only. The pizzeria serves lunch and dinner.
What to order: In the ristorante, the not-so-secret, off-menu veal chop is king. In the pizzeria, focus on the classic Neapolitan Margherita with buffalo mozzarella.
1080 Bayside Dr., Newport Beach, 949.644.4220, saporinb.com
This old-school oyster bar and fish house could use a good scrubbing, but it wears its begrimed patina well. The fish is always fresh and plentiful, some of which comes directly from the restaurant’s own private fishing
vessel. With the harbor’s biggest yachts parked at the dock out front, and waiters who seem to know most customers on a first-name basis, it has the feel of a members-only yacht club, but of course it’s open to all.
When to go: The cooking and service are strongest at lunchtime.
What to order: At lunch, you can’t go wrong with the crab BLTA sandwich with avacado and or the chilled lobster roll. At dinner, it’s hard to deny the king crab legs or linguine with clams.
630 Lido Park Drive, Newport Beach, 949.675.3474, bluewatergrill.com
The word “deli” might send the wrong message. Yes, the kitchen focuses mostly on sandwiches and a couple of salads, but make no mistake: This chef-driven newcomer is the best place to eat along Oceanfront Drive, overlooking the beach. It has a nice selection of draft and bottle beers, too.
When to go: Lunchtime is busiest, but it’s the same menu all afternoon and night.
What to order: The burger is fantastic, topped with Swiss cheese and thick slices of pastrami that are cooked like bacon. The Kennebec fries are hand-cut and twice-fried.
2108 3/4 Oceanfront, Newport Beach, 949.220.7886, dorydeli.com
Hidden away on one of the peninsula’s sleepiest backstreets, overlooking one of the harbor’s least-traveled canals, The Dock always feels like an insiders’ secret. The dining room is entirely outdoors, albeit covered and heated, overlooking the restaurant’s private dock. The cool kids arrive by boat.
When to go: Sunday brunch is when this place really comes alive. Weeknight dinners can Hofeel rather sleepy.
What to order:usemade gravlax, brioche French toast and mimosas.
2816 LaFayette Rd., Newport Beach, 949.673.3625, dineatthedock.com
Wild Taco debuted in March in a garage-like shack with an Ensenada hideout vibe, gourmet tacos, ice-cold beer and aqua frescas.
When to go: Lunch or dinner, it’s all the same and always crowded.
What to order: Carne asada and al pastor tacos, shrimp ceviche, street corn, clams on the half shell, and grilled red snapper.
407 31st Street, Newport Beach, 949.673.9453, instagram.com/wildtaconewport
A former tunafish cannery is now one of the biggest, busiest and best restaurants on the harbor. The trendy upstairs lounge is a popular hangout for Anaheim Ducks hockey pros — which explains all the Lamborghinis in the parking lot — but the real action comes from the kitchen of the elegant downstairs dining room, where chef Nick Weber takes full advantage of a wood-fired grill and a local seafood catch.
When to go: Lunchtime is laid back and relaxed while dinnertime always feels like a celebration.
What to order: Fish and chips (lunch), wood-grilled swordfish, bouillabaisse, octopus.
3010 LaFayette Ave, Newport Beach, 949.566.0060, cannerynewport.com
Celebrity chefs Mario Batali and Nancy Silverton joined forces and changed the trajectory of Italian cuisine in Orange County. Nobody makes pizza quite like theirs, which blend Silverton’s legendary sourdough with Batali’s knack for big, bold Italian flavors.
When to go: Build your own pizza on Monday nights only. And while reservations were hard to come by in the early days, it’s gotten much easier to walk in and find an open seat at the first-come-first-served kitchen counter, day
What to order: Wood-oven-roasted bone marrow, pane bianco (hard to believe a slice of bread could be so delicious), caprese salad, and pizza alla Benno (awesome twist on Hawaiian pizza with jalapeño and shaved pineapple).
800 W Coast Highway, Newport Beach, 949.945.1126, pizzeriamozza.com
This article originally appeared in the Orange County Register’s Coast magazine. To view more of my work for the Register, check out the archives. I also invite you to follow me and join the conversation on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.