orange county guide

image sources: death by 1000 papercuts & visit orange county

today we’re heading west for our weekly city guide- all the west to sunny orange county, california. when i think of orange county, my brain sadly cuts to an image of these ladies, so i was thrilled to hear from costa mesa local (and designer/artist) aileen holmes. aileen is walking us through her favorite art & design spots in over 15 areas of orange country and proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that orange county is far, far more than the oc and “real” housewives. thanks to aileen for sharing her favorite spots in orange county! as always, feel free to add your favorite spots in the comment section below. the oc is a big area so i’m sure there are some great spots people will want to add.

CLICK HERE for the full guide after the jump!

City Guide: Orange County

by, Aileen Holmes

Known as the home of Disneyland a and for its beaches full of tanned surfers, Orange County lies nestled between starlet-filled Los Angeles and sleepy San Diego. It has been represented as a rich and shallow suburbia by TV shows such as "Arrested Development", "The O.C", and "Real Housewives of Orange County." However, Orange County is the home of ethnic, cultural and economic diversity with neighborhoods like Little Saigon and the dominantly Latino downtown Santa Ana. Punk rock and ska were brewed from angsty suburban garages in the '80s and '90s and later inspired famous surf and skate brands such as Quiksilver, Hurley, Volcom, and Vans.

Today, the art scene is on fire with new galleries springing up and craft shows occurring often. Drawing clubs like Dr. Sketchy's Anti-Art School at Rothick Art Haus, OC Illustrators, and Drink n' Draw at Azteca Restaurant are meeting regularly—artists all over Orange County are busy creating. Also craft groups like Handmade Brigade of OC and Long Beach Craft Mafia are not also busy making handmade goodies, but they also often put together craft fairs.

Each region in Orange County offers a unique flavor full of vitality and originality. I hope you will sample a bit of each! Also, please pick up a copy of OC Weekly when you're in town to find out what events are in store during your stay. Enjoy!


Anaheim is much more than Disneyland. There is an eclectic mix of restaurants, shops and galleries to discover:

  • Rothick Art Haus: The home of modern art in Anaheim. Rothick just started hosting the Orange County chapter of Dr. Sketchy's Anti-Art School. Come by the 2nd and 4th Sundays of every month to draw pin-up style alternative models.
  • Ma's Islamic Chinese: This sounds like a wacky combination but it works. Try the sesame bread and bring someone to share with as the portions are large.
  • Merhaba: Eritrean cuisine is very similar to Ethiopian, a little less heavy. If you haven't tried Ethiopian food before, you can't go wrong with a combination plate. It's a sampling of a variety of dishes served on spongy tangy flat bread called injera.
  • ReWear Vintage: This place is huge. Downstairs it's a normal thrift store, upstairs has 100% vintage clothing for men and women. The garments vary in quality, but bargains are ready to be had.
  • Bat's Day Harry Potter Day Gay Day at Disneyland: All unofficial themed days at Disneyland theme park.


Santa Ana

One of the most historic areas in Orange County, Santa Ana has been undergoing revitalization for the past decade. The best time to come for fine art, culture, and nightlife is during the Art Walk on the first Saturday of the month. The Arts District is where most of the action is, located in downtown Santa Ana on 2nd street between Main and Broadway.

Arts District/Downtown Santa Ana

  • Santora building: Historic 1920's building located in the arts district is home to many galleries.
  • Museum of Theatrical Design: Joseph Musil designed many historic and famous theatres throughout LA and OC. His museum is home to very intricate and fantastical miniature dioramas of his architectural and stage designs. Calling ahead for hours is advised.
  • The Art Bar: If you are into making journals, collage, painting, scrapbooking, you'll be in heaven. Space and materials are available for rent at $5 an hour. When inspiration strikes, you don't need to bring anything in order to create–all the tools you require will be ready for you.
  • Memphis Cafe: There are two locations for the modern style southern cuisine provided by Memphis: downtown Santa Ana and next to the LAB in Costa Mesa. Try the gumbo, the seared ahi salad with mango, and the fried catfish with black-eyed peas, hush puppies, and collard greens. Don't forget to ask for the cornbread!
  • Grand Central: Built in 1924, Grand Central used to be a central market of Orange County. Now it houses a satellite campus for CSUF art grad students. There are some wonderful exhibits ranging from modern Islamic art to the controversial art of R. Crumb.
  • Gypsy Den: Located across from Memphis is the Gypsy Den, a coffee shop and cafe. Their California style home cookin' is very vegetarian friendly. Try the Veggie BLT: veggie bacon, avocado, and tomato sandwich.
  • The Crosby: This is the place to go for hipster night life. Great DJs spinning post-punk, northern soul, or new romantic '80s and sometimes there's local bands playing. There's great bites to eat, thought the menu is on the small side.
  • Cantera: Mexican hand crafted furnishings and home goods. Exquisitely embroidered tapestries by Diane Aguilar who also curates a boutique of local arts and crafts in the mezzanine of Cantera.
  • Night Gallery Ceramics: Art cultivated from the darker side of life: gothic-inspired ceramics, metal work, paintings, and kinetic sculpture.
  • El Curtido: A delicious Salvadorean restaurant a little bit of a walk away from the Arts district. Delicious traditional Salvadorean dishes. Try their cheese pupusas with a generous helping of curtido.

Elsewhere in Santa Ana

  • Bowers Museum of Cultural Arts: A cultural museum representing arts and crafts from around the world. Check with their schedule to find out when their festivals are happening: Indian, Native American, African, Art of Adornment (beading), etc.
  • The Road Less Traveled/The Annex: Lots of handmade eco friendly home decor items. They host classes on how to craft and live an organic lifestyle in The Annex attached. Patchwork, a local trendy craft festival is held here twice a year.
  • Floral Park: A historic neighborhood in Santa Ana that holds an eclectic mix of mansions. A lovely area to walk/drive around and gawk.
  • Hollingshead's Delicatessen: Sample fine beers from around the world while enjoying European delicatessen sandwiches.
  • Centennial Heritage Museum: This old Victorian house is lovely to explore on its own, but there's also a rose garden and a blacksmithing shop in the back. Victorian tea parties and other themed events are hosted here.

South Coast Metro (a section of Santa Ana and Costa Mesa that is the neighborhood surrounding the South Coast Plaza mall)

  • Han's Homemade Ice Cream: A delicious selection of homemade ice cream flavors: Chocolate Orange, Rum Raison, Licorice. If you would like a meal before dessert, try the veggie croissant sandwich that comes with a side of veggies and ranch.
  • Room and Board: This is a chain mod furniture store but there aren't many locations. This is a generously sized showroom, so enjoy!
  • South Coast Plaza: This is the most famous mall in Orange County, a mecca for locals and tourists alike. The newsstand near Sears on the 2nd level is a place to get Apparel News and other harder to find foreign fashion mags.
  • Crystal Court: That's what locals call the annex of South Coast Plaza across Bear street. You'll find a selection of home decor stores like Emmo Home; also Paper Source, Paul Frank, and Orange Lounge (Orange County Museum of Art's new media lounge and gift store).
  • Mitsuwa: Our mini little Tokyo–it's a mall with a Japanese grocery store, a food court w/a variety of Japanese food, book store, etc.


Costa Mesa

The LAB area (south of South Coast Plaza on Bristol)

  • The LAB: The "anti-mall" down the street from South Coast Plaza is a home for hipsters. Amazing deconstructed architecture and decor with a fine selection of hip boutiques and restaurants. The LAB frequently hosts bands and art exhibits.
  • ARTery: Located in behind Urban Outfitters at the LAB. Modestly constructed from a few shipping containers, the ARTery features an eclectic variety of works by local and national artists.
  • The CAMP: This is another mall across the street from the LAB. The entire complex holds eco-friendly stores and restaurants. They have events like Greenology and Handmade Brigade.
  • SEED People's Market: Huge store at the CAMP full of handmade eco-friendly gifts. Craft classes are taught upstairs by Nicole Stevenson.
  • The Box Gallery/ Splitends: Splitends is the location of a TV show on the Style Network and also a small working hair salon. The Box gallery resides inside the salon and host art events.
  • Kitsch Bar: Nestled in a quirky strip mall with tasty Japanese food and a new age bookstore, this bar is a perfect hideout. Their big cozy chairs are perfect for intimate conversations.
  • Crystal Cave: New age bookstore with a great selection of crystals and herbs. Get a tarot card reading while you're here.

17th Street Costa Mesa

  • Paris to the Moon: Gorgeously merchandised, Paris to the Moon is a charming and magical wonderland of gifts and dioramas. The gift store concept is merged with an art installation creating a memorable experience.
  • Where's the Party?: A wonderful stationery, card, and party goods store. Design your whole party here from invites to decorations.
  • Lola Rouge: A boutique carrying a fine and funky mix. Lola Rouge was one of the first stores to carry Tarina Tarantino jewelry before it got popular. Also a location at Fashion Island(mall in Newport Beach).
  • Sound Trolley: A small and hard to find store but well worth discovering. A well-crafted collection of psych/kraut rock records, crazy art, and some vintage duds. There's an insane custom guitar pedal shop next door geared towards experimental musicians.
  • Plum's Cafe: Delicious upscale breakfast nook. The crab asparagus omelet is highly recommended.
  • Wahoo's: A chain of fish taco restaurants started by Hawaiian fishermen who wanted to share their take on Mexican food. Try the white cajun beans or black beans with spicy fish tacos. The location between 17th and 19th streets was the original location of what is now a west coast chain.
  • Kean Coffee: Started by the founder of the Dietrich coffee chain, Kean is the best place for coffee aficionados. It's our closest thing to Portland Oregon's Stumptown.
  • Hi-Times Wine Cellars: Tucked away on Ogle Street behind 17th is this fully stocked independent liquor store with wine bar. Every kind of alcohol you could possibly desire is here and reasonably priced.
  • The Costa Mesa Omelette Parlor: This breakfast haven is full of atmosphere with knick knacks everywhere. Cheap, family-owned and friendly, you can't go wrong having breakfast here.

19th Street

  • Avalon Bar: They don't have a full liquor license but they make up for it with awesome sangria. Often DJs and bands play in this small hip dive bar across the street from Detroit Bar.
  • Detroit Bar: This bar manages to wrangle some incredible indie bands from around the world—from Stereolab to Broadcast to Quasi. Check listings for events.
  • Taco Mesa: California-style Mexican food. Try the horchata, Taco Tuesdays ($1 tacos), and Margarita Mondays.


Coastal Towns down PCH (Pacific Coast Highway)

Seal Beach

Sunset Beach

  • Harbor House Cafe: Trashy 24 hour diner great for hipster spotting. Perfect for late night food after staying up too late.

Huntington Beach

Famously known as "Surf City." Hang out at the pier during the US Open of Surfing or other surfing competitions that happen periodically. It's always great for people watching. Many famous surf brands were home-brewed on these shores.

  • Electric Chair: Punk, goth, and rockabilly clothing and accessories. Also, there's a selection of obscure vinyl and CDs.
  • Ruby's Diner: A beautiful location on the pier. Views of the ocean all around. Get delicious burgers and shakes.
  • Huntington Beach Central Library: In the middle of a beautiful park, HB Central Library is a great place to relax with a book.
  • Happyness Consignment: A cute consignment store with newer clothes in the front (well '80s on…) and vintage in the back.

Newport Beach

  • Swellegant: A *swell* vintage clothing store packed with goodies at reasonable prices. Great customer service.
  • Orange County Museum of Art: Orange County's contemporary art museum with sometimes surprising exhibits. I saw the most intimate Sonic Youth concert at OCMA! Check the events schedule for music and film nights.
  • Fashion Island: This is an upscale outdoor mall (think Neiman Marcus and bleach blondes with tiny pets) close to the ocean (you can see it in the distance). Small boutiques: American Rag, The Closet, and Lola Rouge.
  • Newport Beach Public Library: A gorgeous library offering a clean and quiet refuge after visiting the mall mere blocks away.
  • Newport Beach Film Festival: Starlets come down annually for feature films, artsy foreign films and local cinema treasures.

Laguna Beach

  • Crystal Cove State Park: A beautiful beach just north of Laguna Beach. There's an entrance fee, but it's worth it to enjoy nature without the crowds of Laguna, Newport or Huntington Beaches.
  • The Koffee Klatch: On the south end of Laguna Beach, this coffee shop is open later than most. Great friendly neighborhood vibe and cozy couches for long conversations.
  • Tuvalu: Amazing collection of home accents, interior design books, and organic beachy knick knacks.
  • Areo: A delightful collection of modern home and bath accents. A bit cramped but it's packed full of goodness.
  • Little Bohemian: A cute collection of colorful children's clothes from affordable to upscale.
  • The Crystal Image: An awe-inspiring store filled with excessively large crystals, rocks and even ancient fossils.
  • La Sirena: Try their tasty fish burritos: light and fresh with a zesty sauce. Their salsa is divine.
  • Taco Loco: Vegetarian friendly California-style Mexican. Try the blackened mushroom tofu burger… or anything with blackened tofu!

San Clemente


Central Orange County (Old timey antique-filled quaint towns)

Fullerton (First Friday Art walk starting in March '10)

  • Ipso Facto: Providers of goth/industrial attire for over 20 years! Hard to find goth and industrial CDs.
  • Burger records: Loads of vinyl and some cassette releases. This place is for purists. No CDs! They have releases from their own record label and have bands play on occasion.
  • Out of Vogue: Quality vintage mid-century modern vintage furniture, house wares, and clothing. They supplied the TV show Mad Men with costumes and set pieces.
  • Continental Room: Swank lounge that has live music. The stage has a cute curtain that rises and falls for each set! Vintage vibe.
  • Stray Cat Vintage & Costumes: Full to the brim with vintage, it's a bit hard to go through the full racks. Make sure you look over your selections as the quality varies.
  • OTTO: Uber-cute novelty gifts and toys inspired by Japanese pop culture.
  • Hibbleton Gallery: Exhibits local and international contemporary art. Also, hosts a weekly movie night and other events.

Orange (Orange Circle is the epicenter of the antique-y part of Orange)

Orange Circle

  • Rutabegorz: Hippie Californian food with an epic menu (also in Tustin and Fullerton).
  • Watson Drug & Soda Fountain: a cute vintage drug store, cafe and soda fountain. Sandwiches and milkshakes.
  • Heavenly Hostess: If you are into entertaining, you'll love their frilly aprons and cleaning gloves. Kitschy novelty gifts.
  • Frogs Breath Cheese: Fancy cheese and wine bar. Come here for a tasting and for decadent relaxation.
  • Woody's Antiques: Specializing in excellent Heywood-Wakefield furniture. Turn of the century oak and 30's and 40's mahogany.
  • Elsewhere Vintage: Finely edited selection of men's and women's vintage clothing and accessories. Pleasant staff, excellent quality.
  • Felix Continental Cafe: Cuisine from Cuba and Spain. A pleasant dining experience in the Orange Circle.
  • Two Sisters: Painted silk tunics, funky eyeglasses, and gift items perfect for an arty mom or grandma.
  • Paris in a Cup: Shabby chic gift shop with fine teas and chocolate. A great place to relax for afternoon tea, though a bit spendy.

Elsewhere in Orange

  • Bookman: A wonderful selection of used books carefully organized by category.
  • Beads Beads: If you are at all into beading, you'll adore this cute cottage full of treasures.
  • Flashbacks: The quality varies and it's hard to wade through the bursting racks, but there are treasures to be found. If you're looking for a specific type of petticoat, ask and they probably have it!
  • Versatile Fashions: Excellently custom-made steel-boned corsets.
  • Arthur's Restaurant: Good for breakfast. Tasty Belgian pecan waffles or the basic bacon 'n eggs.
  • Morenos: Old-fashioned authentic Mexican restaurant in a beautiful setting with mariachis serenading.
  • Eichler homes: Eichler's famous homes are located in a few spots in OC. Some are on Fullerton Street in Costa Mesa. Some sporadically placed in the Orange Hills. Orange is a good starter place to check 'em out.


  • Laxmi Sweet and Spices: Indian grocery store in the front with a deli in the back. It's got that hole-in-the-wall vibe. Best masala dosas!
  • Pina's Bistro: Family owned and operated Italian restaurant. Homemade sausages and sauces.
  • Sassoon Chicken: An unforgettable mixture of spices in the chicken schawerma and the zestiest garlic sauce.
  • Cowgirls Cafe: A greasy spoon diner but, wow, those biscuits and gravy are to die for.
  • Soul at Home: A meditation oasis with acupuncture room, yoga studio, and gift store with journaling workshops.

Villa Park (small town next to Tustin):

Other cities in Orange County

Irvine (famed planned community known for its blandness and University of California Irvine)

  • Lee's sandwiches: This is a chain of Vietnamese sandwich establishments, but I recommend the UCI campus location for the most awesome hours. Open 'til 2am! Try their green coconut waffles for dessert–looks toxic but it is oh so delicious.
  • KUCI 88.9fm in Irvine: KUCI 88.9fm is the college radio station of UC Irvine and the best radio station to listen to when driving around OC if you'd like to hear underground music and talk radio. They also put on local events: KUCI Nights.
  • Veggie Grill: Great crispy faux-chicken burgers with kick and sweet potato fries.
  • Pho Bac: The best pho you'll find outside of Little Saigon. The spring rolls are very light and fresh.

Fountain Valley

  • Au Lac: Vegan Vietnamese restaurant with a sizable raw food menu. Anything with faux beef is highly recommended.

Garden Grove

  • Azteca Restaurant: A shrine to Elvis in the form of a Mexican restaurant/bar with uber-garlicky tacos. Elvis everywhere: walls, ceiling, and bathroom… Also the host of weekly Drink and Draw Social Club meetings.


  • Art Supply Warehouse: The finest selection and best prices for art supplies in Orange County. They also carry hard to find items like portfolios by Case Envy, skateboard blanks to customize, and kitschy trinkets.
  • Little Saigon: A Vietnamese neighborhood filled with restaurants and shops. Suggestions for eats and digs welcome.
  • A PinUps Closet: They carry vintage-inspired clothing catering to the Rockabilly/PinUp crowd and also regularly sell at OC Rollerderby events like Renegade Rollergirls of Orange County and OC Rollergirls.


Thank you for perusing my selection of notable shops, restaurants, and art galleries in Orange County. I strive to keep this list updated so please let me know if any of the information above is inaccurate or outdated. Orange County houses more cities that I haven't even mentioned or explored in depth yet (even after spending my whole life in OC!). I welcome your suggestions for places to investigate and enjoy.

I sincerely hope you enjoy your stay in Orange County!

  1. Twink says:

    Chen’s Panda in the Orange Hills is awesome. They can substitute soy products (i.e. chicken) for anything on the menu. I always get the Almond Soy Chicken! Family run business – Danny, the son, will treat you right! Green China on Tustin Ave. in Orange is pretty awesome, as well – the owner, Lily, is a total doll!
    And, Au Lac in Fountain Valley is an amazing vegetarian/vegan “must eat”! :)

  2. Liz says:

    Wow! Great list! But you missed one of my favorite places in OC!

    Just a few blocks south of Ipso Facto in downtown Fullerton is a little shop called “The Brick Basement.” People around the area sell vintage and hand made items in the store, and you always find something new and interesting each visit.

  3. Liv says:

    You can’t forget about Balboa Island! It’s my favorite part of the OC. Right off of Jamboree. Check out Dad’s balboa bars and frozen bananas they are amazing. There is also tuns of great restaurants and fun shops!

    1. grace says:

      bluth frozen bananas! sorry, i couldn’t resist. ;)


  4. aileen says:

    Thanks for the feedback, everyone. : ) I want to check out all your suggestions! : ) There’s so much goodness in OC!

  5. krischelle says:

    THANK YOU for showing what Orange County really is! I have lived in south OC for over 20 years and the past 4 years I haven’t been able to stand the image that reality shows have made us out to be! Not everyone in orange county is like an “oc” housewife or husband! :D Thank you for your entry!

    Next time you are here, you ought to visit Mission Viejo as well as San Clemente’s downtown and T street! :D and right off the Pico exit is the famous Rainbow Sandals store! The original!

  6. Michele says:

    I love this list….
    I have lived in Orange County for almost 20 years and have gone back and forth from loving it to hating it…it really depends on where my focus and attention are put…this list highlights the best of OC. and reminds me of the beautiful experiences I have had here shopping and eating and it also inspires me to go check out the places I haven’t been yet. A couple places to add:
    Zinc Cafe in Laguna…one of my favorite places to go hang with my sisters and have coffee and breakfast…
    Pizza Port in San Clemente…great micro brewed beer, many selections….casual
    After the beer…workout- there’s a place called Seaside Studio in Corona Del Mar that is geared toward young moms…check it out- they offer art classes, cooking classes and yoga for the kids and mom gets to choose from a variety of work-outs like yoga, ballet, Pilates, the list goes on…
    Also, a new place in Mission Viejo opened up called Sno on the Go…they do sno balls like in New Orleans…similar to shaved ice in Hawaii- ice cream in the middle. You gatta try the Tropical Treat!

    Thanks for your list! I can’t wait get out and experience more of this diverse and beautiful county!

  7. debbie says:

    i love the love the love-hate we orange countians have!

    just wanted to add Honda Ya to the restaurant list in Tustin. So delicious!

  8. michelle says:

    Don’t miss Haven Gastropub in Old Towne Orange! It is a great place to try boutique beers, and creative, seasonal, and organic, interpretations of comfort food favorites.

    (For full discloser: I designed the interiors, but regardless it is a place I wouldn’t want to miss if I’m hanging out on the circle.)

  9. mj says:

    this is an awesome list! i just moved to the area for a job in corona del mar and i was afraid this place was too boring. any recommendations on places to live near here? THANKS!

  10. mb says:

    i believe the costa mesa omelette parlor is closed :(

  11. Rachel H says:

    Mission Viejo has 2 FANTASTIC restuarants that you should add to this list. First is WineWorks. The second is Nirvana Grill. Both are amazing, small places that are SO worth trying out!

  12. Sue says:

    I am not sure who does all of these City Guides but one very important place in CA. is the Inland Empire. It is an amazing place and takes in Riverside and San Bernardino Counties. Lots to do and see. Where other than here can I put in my suggestion that it also be included in these great City Guides?

  13. dana says:

    As a guide to Orange County, I think its very clear where the writer lives and works.

    I’ve lived in OC, but never heard of Floral Park in Santa Ana. It sounds interesting, but its too bad that the OC Weekly’s post about Floral Park is one of the first things that pops up when you google it. After reading that post, I would strongly disagree that people should pick up a copy of the OC Weekly- it perputates the worst sterotypes of Orange County with its race-baiting schtick.

  14. Sabrina says:

    Can you do a guide for the Long Beach area? Catered towards CSULB students. (: I’m moving there in a few months, and I don’t know any good places to go! AKA: Cupcake places! (;

  15. Lindsay says:

    Very comprehensive, but unfortunately many of the places on this list are now closed- could we get an update, pretty please? :)

  16. Edwin says:

    Wow, what a great resource for so much that is happening locally. Thanks for taking the time to put together such a comprehensive list of activities.

  17. Susan says:

    Just moved here from SF/Berkeley, before that Brooklyn. Your list exactly what I was looking for. Thanks!

    These places also sound nice
    Anaheim Packing District
    OC Mix Mart in Costa Mesa


Design*Sponge reserves the right to restrict comments that do not contribute constructively to the conversation at hand, contain profanity, personal attacks, hate speech or seek to promote a personal or unrelated business. Our goal is to create a safe space where everyone (commenters, subjects of posts and moderators) feels comfortable to speak. Please treat others the way you would like to be treated and be willing to take responsibility for the impact your words may have on others. Disagreement, differences of opinion and heated discussion are welcome, but comments that do not seek to have a mature and constructive dialogue will not be published. We moderate all comments with great care and do not delete any lightly. Please note that our team (writers, moderators and guests) deserve the same right to speak and respond as you do, and your comments may be responded to or disagreed with. These guidelines help us maintain a safe space and work toward our goal of connecting with and learning from each other.