Anne Marie Panoringan
Voice of OC’s food columnist — reporting on industry news, current events and trends. Panoringan’s prior work includes writing about food for 8 years at the OC Weekly in which she interviewed more than 330 chefs, restauranteurs and industry professionals for her weekly “On the Line” column. She has been recognized by the Orange County Press Club and she also is a recurring guest on AM 830’s SoCal Restaurant Show.
Locals who frequent Old Towne Orange are familiar with its mainstays such as Felix Continental Cafe, Rutabegorz, The Filling Station Cafe and Byblos Cafe. While newer dining rooms have moved in over the past five or even 10 years, the most noticeable shift in the restaurant scene has occurred during COVID. Between shiny storefronts, extensive remodels and concepts in the works, nearly a dozen eateries make Orange’s most frequented streets an evolving neighborhood.
New Kids on the Block
A mix of recognizable and unfamiliar brands emerged as early as August 2020. This representation of changing customer tastes caters to a demographic serving not only residents but hungry Chapman University students and faculty.
Open since July 1, Tabu Shabu’s modern hot pot is the newest of the emerging restaurants. However with existing locations in Costa Mesa, Huntington Beach and beyond, diners are well-versed with its offerings. When I asked founder Jeff Chon about selecting the city he replied, “We have always loved the rich and vibrant culture of Orange Circle and the community that supports it. Tabu Shabu’s mission in Orange is to communicate the same qualities with our interpretation of Japanese hot pot in a fun, energetic atmosphere.”
Chon, an advocate for small business owners, made his stance regarding the state of the restaurant industry known over social media last year. He also acknowledges how COVID has created a hindrance when it comes to the progression of communal and social dining. “Hopefully as things begin to loosen and we control this pandemic, we can find a way to get back to social dining as a norm.” Chon said.
Bosscat Kitchen and Libations expanded its portfolio in late March, taking over Rod’s liquor store on the bustling corner of Chapman Avenue and Olive Street. Featuring an upgraded whiskey room, the brunch specialist is keeping busy, as much of its customer base stems from foot traffic around the plaza. Bosscat’s efforts to remain resilient during a difficult 2020 spanned not only the construction in Orange but its Newport Beach and Houston branches.
Location was a deciding factor when O Sea’s founder and general manager Mike Flynn was selecting a destination to introduce his responsibly-procured seafood program. Specifically, he searched for a spot around which a collective could be built. Per Flynn, “The Plaza of Old Towne Orange has emerged as a community gathering place for all generations, and we want to be at the heart of that energy.”
He also loved the character and legacy associated with the building it would be housed in; the historical charm of businesses based out of the neighborhood is definitely a draw. In addition to a creative menu, subtle interior design elements stood out. “109 South Glassell Street was built in 1910, and we have preserved and highlighted all original features of the space to the best of our ability. When you walk into the restaurant, we want you to know immediately that you’re in Orange,” Flynn said.
Opening its doors in November 2020, 1886 Brewing Company was originally slated to open in late 2019. Owned and operated by Andrew Ciora and Michael Hernandez (the duo that created Smoqued BBQ a few doors over), this brew pub with full dining was the first new restaurant that utilized Old Towne’s Paseo seating option. Receiving its name from the year its building was originally built, this family-friendly tavern pairs sports bar favorites with signature beers and cocktails.
Bay Area fans know Philz Coffee for its interactive baristas and signature iced mint mojitos. Setting up shop at the intersection of Glassell Street and Maple Avenue last August, it is a caffeinated hub for students and residents. Online ordering via its own mobile app allows for shorter lines, timed pickup and a more efficient customer experience.
Rebrand, Renovate, Reopen
Some businesses pivoted in order to navigate the last year. From a complete rebrand to remaining closed until it felt safe to resume operations, tough choices were made by a fearless few.
Joseph Mahon realized early on during the pandemic that craft burgers weren’t very delivery-friendly. His solution: Do away with his Burger Parlor business in favor of Jaxon’s, a chicken tender outpost (named after his son) serving scratch-made sauces and spicy poultry alongside cold beer on tap. Factoring in a half-dozen sides means the possible meal combinations are more than one thinks. It debuted in June 2020 along with other hot chicken concepts.
Longtime watering hole The District Lounge announced on Dec. 14, 2020 over social media that it would be closed until the state relaxed indoor restrictions. Owner Mario Marovic was saddened to make the decision. “Having grown up in the city of Orange, The District Lounge holds special meaning to me,” he said. “It is also the first business I ventured into on my own, and so it was a dream come true when we opened and a nightmare when it closed.”
Established in 2004, the lounge was built inside the city’s original post office. It underwent extensive renovations during the six months that it wasn’t open, welcoming customers back on June 28 of this year. A new draft system for beer service, reupholstered booths plus over 20 televisions indoors and under a dedicated shade canopy on the patio were installed. With regards to eats, the introduction of weekend brunch plus a replacement bar bites menu thanks to sister bar Blackie’s by the Sea gives locals a reason to check out the updates.
Added restrictions for bars in addition to extended restaurant closures made things even more difficult. “However, we remained optimistic and the downtime afforded us the opportunity to reevaluate our core business and better serve the community.” Marovic said.
Reacting at the start of the pandemic, Bruxie temporarily closed all California locations. It reopened in September 2020 with new ownership and a desire to reboot the company starting with its 400 square foot flagship storefront across from Chapman University. Going back to its roots, classic fried chicken and gourmet waffle sandwiches returned to the menu. Bruxie’s revival lined up with Halloween last year.
For 2022, three ambitious projects are in the works. Each one plans to bring something new to Old Towne’s eclectic mix of dining options.
Across the street from Bosscat at the former Country Roads Antiques and Garden corner unit, Finney’s Crafthouse and Kitchen will likely open first along West Chapman Avenue. (Note: The Country Roads storefront shifted down the block and is still in business.) According to founder Greg Finefrock, “We are shooting to open in January 2022 assuming everything goes well with permits, etc.” Specializing in craft beers (30 on tap) and modernized classics like ahi poke tacos or Moroccan salads, it’ll provide another option for downtown nightlife.
Break of Dawn owner Dee Nguyen sold his Laguna Hills location to one of his staff, who will switch up the menu to a Mexican theme with some of BoD’s signature entrees. Nguyen’s focus after a much needed break will be a duo of residences in Old Towne Orange off North Cypress Street, over by Chapman Crafted Beer. One building will be converted to house Break of Dawn; the other will serve as his actual home. Plans to open are currently slated for fall 2022.
Back in May, Nguyen conducted research and development for the future space in the form of a temporary Saturday night steak frites prix-fixe.
The Potting Shed by Carlisle moved from its home at 401 W. Chapman Ave. to a location off Plaza Square back in August 2020. The spacious footprint this boutique home and garden shop left behind is the future address of an unnamed collaboration between restaurateurs Gabbi and Ed Patrick (creators of Chaak and Gabbi’s Mexican Kitchen), plus brothers Michael and David Rossi (formerly of Napa Rose and most recently The Ranch, where Michael is still a consultant). Sharing a passion for delicious food, world-class wine and genuine hospitality, the decision to join forces was a natural one. Per Michael Rossi, “It is an incredible opportunity to do something fun in Old Towne Orange, the city that Dave and I grew up in and where Gabbi and Ed have become fabric within the community.” Expect their Baja Mediterranean concept, complete with live-fire cooking and curated wine selection, to launch in summer of 2022.
Anne Marie Panoringan is the food columnist for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.