Best of Orange County 2020: Navigating a year unlike any other

Ron Hasse

Last year at this time, few among us attended family get-togethers via Zoom or wore facemasks to do our grocery shopping. But the events of 2020 have required us all to adapt to a new environment.

The Best of Orange County has had to adapt as well. In its 27th year, the annual reader survey of our community’s top destinations, attractions and businesses faced some unprecedented challenges.

For starters, the places we’d go, such as movie theaters and music venues, closed because of the novel coronavirus pandemic in March and have remained so for months. The popular fairs and festivals we’d previously attended didn’t take place in 2020. Restaurants had to pivot to delivery, takeout and patio dining. Some longtime businesses threw in the towel.

However, like our hardworking local businesses and workers, Orange County Register readers didn’t miss a beat. They cast tens of thousands of votes, a 22% increase over 2019. The businesses and attractions they voted for in scores of categories are in the magazine you’re holding right now.

Besides popular perennial categories such as the best beach, burger and city to live in, this year’s guide features readers’ choices in several new categories. The Places to Go + Do chapter has voters’ recommendations for the best family outing and the best Orange County college or university. The Luxury Lifestyle chapter honors the county’s top charitable organizations and the most breathtaking waterfront dining spots. The Food & Drink chapter calls out the best date night restaurants and food halls.

We hope you enjoy the 27th annual Best of Orange County publication and use it as a resource as you explore the county in the months ahead. Many of the locations profiled here are available for you to visit or patronize right now, while others will have to wait until conditions change to reopen their doors.

If the past year has taught us anything, it’s that circumstances can be highly unpredictable. However, one thing you can count on is that Orange County will remain a beautiful place to live and experience, with perfect weather, a stunning coastline and amenities that rival anywhere else on the planet.

The Best of Orange County celebrates the attributes that make our community a world-class destination. Even when terms such as “social distancing” have fallen from use, these places, events, restaurants and other businesses will continue to attract people seeking to experience the Orange County lifestyle.

Ron Hasse

Publisher, The Orange County Register

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Best of Orange County 2019: Our county is an incredible place to experience

Ron Hasse is the publisher of the Orange County Register and president of the Southern California News Group.

In an era when technology has made it, seemingly, unnecessary for anyone to leave their home, The Orange County Register encourages you to “get out there!” From locally owned shops, to best-in-class performance venues and postcard-perfect beaches; there’s so much more that awaits us when we venture out — especially in Orange County.

With opportunities to boat, surf, mountain bike and explore trails on horseback, we live in a mecca for outdoor activities. And for those craving urban appeal, we can enjoy world famous shopping destinations, music, theater, and a thriving local restaurant scene with two establishments that were recently awarded Michelin stars.

Downtown areas of Fullerton, Anaheim, Orange and Santa Ana draw students and hipsters to their clubs, eateries and nightspots. Irvine, the county’s third-largest city, is known for its safe tree-lined neighborhoods and excellent schools, but also is a major sports and cultural draw with the Great Park and its adjacent amphitheater and sports facilities.

With such an array of incredible places to experience, the greatest challenge is where to begin. The Orange County Register’s 26th annual Best of Orange County magazine is a great place to start.

Every year, thousands of readers cast votes to choose the county’s best activities, shops, restaurants and businesses. The biggest vote-getters are reviewed in this special publication. As you search for dining, entertainment and places to do business, consider Best of Orange County to be your go-to guide.

The magazine is divided into five engaging chapters: Places to Go + Do, Shopping & Services, Luxury Lifestyle, Food & Drink and Home & Garden. Within each chapter, you’ll recognize some “best of” favorites and discover new places to explore.

Congratulations to the businesses, organizations and activities featured in this year’s Best of Orange County. Your good work lays the foundation of what makes our county great.

And to our valued readers, we hope that you find the Best of Orange County to be an informative read and a compelling resource throughout the year, whether you’re looking for a place to hold a child’s birthday bash or planning to upgrade your outdoor living space.

So sit back, relax and enjoy the Best of Orange County magazine, but not for too long — there’s so much out there for you to experience.

Ron Hasse

Publisher, The Orange County Register

President, Southern California News Group

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Best of Orange County 2019: Orange County attractions take an intergalactic leap

It seems that every year Orange County has some new attraction to serve locals and visitors alike, but in 2019 there’s an 800-pound Wookiee in the room that has to be addressed.

Disneyland, the area’s most popular man-made attraction since it opened in 1955, debuted the largest expansion in its history, Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, on May 31. The 14-acre themed land set in a distant world inspired by George Lucas’s space adventure franchise sets a new bar for immersing guests in an alien landscape, complete with signs printed in the Star Wars language of Aurebesh and cast members using otherworldly phrases such as “bright suns” to welcome visitors.

The new land, which expands the park’s publicly accessible areas by 20 percent, does not emphasize Disneyland’s staple attraction — theme park rides. Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run — an E-ticket attraction, no doubt — was the only ride operating at the land’s opening. A second, Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance, may be open by the time you read this.

Instead of rides, much of the land is made up of “experiential” enterprises such as Oga’s Cantina — the first place in the original park to sell alcohol to the public — Droid Depot and Savi’s Workshop — Handbuilt Lightsabers, along with food concessions selling items with intergalactic names. All of these experiences involve visitors paying more than the $129-$149 daily admission or annual pass cost that it took to get into the park.

Disney’s expansion is not over yet. A new land at neighboring Disney California Adventure themed around characters from the Marvel universe will open in 2020.

Up the road, Knott’s Berry Farm unveiled a “new” ride — Calico River Rapids. It’s a re-themed version of BigFoot River Rapids that includes the addition of 20 animatronic wilderness creatures, including an actual Sasquatch.

Orange County’s original go-and-do attractions weren’t theme parks, but the beaches dotting its more than 40 miles of coastline. In recent years a couple of these stretches of sand — Huntington State Beach and Doheny State Beach in Dana Point — have taken on new roles as the venues for a burgeoning number of music festivals.

Events such as the ska-infused Back to the Beach, the punk-centric Surf City Blitz, the music, beer and taco celebration Sabroso and the musical cornucopia of Ohana (curated by Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder) pack the beaches with thousands of visitors.

This year, radio station KROQ moved its annual Weenie Roast daylong fest to Doheny after two years at the stadium formerly known as StubHub Center in Carson, where it relocated following the demolition of Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre in 2016. The event sold out after rapper Snoop Dogg and revived nu-metal act Limp Bizkit were added to a bill that included 311 and the Lumineers.

Of course, festivals aren’t limited to the shoreline. The Real Street Festival, featuring artists such as Future, Rae Sremmurd, Meek Mill, Big Sean, 2 Chainz, ASAP Rocky and Miguel, attracted 40,000 fans to the Honda Center parking lot in August.

FivePoint Amphitheatre, the temporary replacement for Irvine Meadows, is hosting its second full season of shows, which kicked off with Brad Paisley in June and featured shows by Beck, Zac Brown Band, Rascal Flatts and Elvis Costello with Blondie over the summer. The music will continue into the fall, with upcoming gigs by Greta Van Fleet, Morrissey with Interpol and the season closing How The West Was Won with Snoop Dogg, The Game, Xzibit, Tha Alkaholiks, Sas, Warren G, Dj Quik and others. The amphitheater will return with another slate of concerts in 2020 while plans to build a permanent venue continue to take shape.

The spectrum of places to go in Orange County also encompasses luxury movie theaters with recliners and food cocktail service, world-class golf resorts, top-notch museums and a full slate of fairs and festivals. Despite the convenience of life in 2019, it’s always worth your while to get out of the house and sample what’s out there.

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Best of Orange County 2019: Best downtown

1. Orange

Mile-square area with Plaza Park at Glassell Street and Chapman Avenue at its center;

A recently designated “Great Place in America” by the American Planning Association, the city of Orange prides itself on conjuring up images of Main Street, USA.

For Mayor Mark Murphy, the most remarkable part of downtown Orange is Plaza Square Park and the history behind it.

“If you are from Orange (or even just visited!) you immediately recognize the fountain in the plaza and are within walking distance of hundreds of historic structures to enjoy,” Murphy said. Our residents and friends enjoy gathering at the plaza multiple times a year for special events which contribute to the ‘small town’ feel and sense of community.”

The fountain is actually not the first built in the plaza.

“The original fountain,” Murphy recounted, “originally provided by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (for $585 in 1887) still proudly stands adjacent to the library 3 blocks east on Chapman.”

Murphy also said the historic Hemphill & Morse real estate building, built back in 1888, recently returned to the Old Towne Orange area. Urth Caffé co-owners Shallom and Jilla Berkman — who, according to a press release, have long been smitten with Orange — helped spearhead the restoration. “We’d come and stroll around, enjoy the restaurants, cafes and, of course, I think the best antique stores in the county,” Shallom Berkman said.

Although the architecture for their business has roots in the 19th century, the Urth Caffé adds a 21st century flavor to downtown with its heirloom-grown organic coffees and teas.

Yet, as Murphy pointed out, Orange visitors have no shortage of places to go for a variety of food and drink.

“With over 50 restaurants downtown alone, you could visit every day for almost two months and not eat at the same place twice!” he said.

— James Anderson

2. Huntington Beach

Main Street off Pacific Coast Highway and nearby areas; 714-536-8300;

From the annual Chili at the Beach event held in June to the regular Surf City Nights on Tuesdays from 5 to 9 p.m. that convert the downtown area into a giant street fair and certified farmers’ market, Huntington Beach has a number of festivities to keep Orange County entertained.

That entertainment comes courtesy of the Huntington Beach Downtown Improvement District, a non-profit organization established in 2004 that seeks to improve the business environment of the city’s downtown.

Follow the HBDID on social media — @hbdowntownusa on Twitter and Instagram — for updates on all the local events in the beach city, such as the National Cartoon Society Festival and the Miracle on Main Street special during December that gives families the opportunity for photo opps with Santa.

3. Fullerton

Area bounded by Chapman Avenue, Highland Avenue, the train tracks and Santa Fe Train Depot and Lemon Street; 714-738-6300;

It can be hard to ignore the public art collection in downtown Fullerton. The restored “Pastoral California” artwork, which dates back to 1934, adorns the exterior of Plummer auditorium. A more recently added mural, “A City Rich in History,” by Cal State Fullerton fine arts graduate Jun Blanco, uses the south-facing wall of Capri Shoes off Commonwealth Avenue to depict California’s agricultural and industrial past.

Other downtown attractions include the South of Commonwealth district along Santa Fe Avenue; Fullerton Plaza, where market festivities run from April through October; and the Fullerton Museum, which has featured exhibits on the art of hip-hop and on the evolution of Leo Fender’s business from a small radio repair shop in town to a music instrument empire.

Downtown Fullerton features more than 70 historic buildings and in excess of 350,000 square feet of retail, according to the city’s website, which also features a 3D model of downtown available for download in Google SketchUp© format.


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Best of Orange County 2019: Shopping centers turn to immersive experiences, craft beer and unique dining concepts to draw the public in

In an attempt to entice consumers out of the comfort of their own homes and away from the ease of delivery services like Amazon and GrubHub, Orange County shopping centers and strip malls are getting even more creative and cleaver with their shopping, dining and entertainment options. It’s hard to compete with the nearly instant gratification of hitting a few buttons in an app on a smartphone from the couch, however, in the digital age a lot of these centers continue to expand and thrive.

The MainPlace Mall in Santa Ana, for instance, is slated to undergo a $300 million renovation that would include more dining options, an upgraded movie theater, interactive and educational play centers for kids, a grocery store and 1,900 residential units. A similar idea was also pitched with the Brea Mall, though nothing has been approved there.

It’s become common place for large apartment and condo buildings to be erected near tshopping centers — such as Bella Terra in Huntington Beach, for example — however, the construction is beginning to move inward, bringing all of the amenities of a mall to the front doorsteps of hundreds of thousands of residents throughout Southern California.

To get folks of all ages out and shopping, some of the biggest centers in Orange County have added attractions like water features that kids can play in during the hot summer months, bowling alleys, craft breweries, unique fine and casual dining concepts, arcades, comedy clubs, concert venues, pop-up exhibitions and virtual reality experiences.

Simon Malls, which runs The Outlets at Orange, Anaheim Town Center, Westminster Mall, The Shops at Mission Viejo and the Brea Mall, is currently in partnership with the “Pokémon Go” like augmented reality mobile app game, “Harry Potter: Wizards Unite.” Though the game can be played pretty much anywhere, mall patrons will be able to discover sponsored inns and fortresses that give an advantage over other non-sponsored locations. Some of the malls will also host live events and QR assignments for the game players. The thought behind that partnership is simple: Get them in the door and hopefully they’ll spend their money.

Downtown Disney in Anaheim is home to The Void, which currently features “Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire,” an immersive VR experience in which patrons become stormtroopers and fight lava monsters while on their mission. The Void was made to be able to change themes and is rumored to next become an experience based on the “Frozen” films. Just down the street, the Anaheim GardenWalk has the Go VR Gaming and Mission Escape Games, where groups work together to get out of an escape room in 60 minutes or less.

Pop-up experiences are also a big deal since they usually have a wacky theme with a cult following — ice cream, tacos, Mickey Mouse, horror movies and more — and most of them are interactive, but all of them are highly Instagram-worthy. It’s like free publicity every time someone visits one of the pop-ups and posts it with the coinciding hashtag. The District at Tustin Legacy has the BubblePop! experience for kids who love bubbles and fans of Hello Kitty can relax and take pics inside the Hello Kitty Café at the Irvine Spectrum Center. The  Spectrum also has a Ferris Wheel and a carousel for kids and families while the Outlets at Orange has train rides and Those Animals, motorized scooters disguised as stuffed bears, giraffes, lions and leopards that you can actually ride around the shopping center.

Not everything is designed specifically for kids. Downtown Disney now includes the Ballast Point Brewing Co. and the Splitsville bowling alley and Bella Terra is home to The Public House by Evans brewing Co. South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa and Fashion Island in Newport Beach still offer higher-end shopping and fine, multi-cultural dining suitable for just about any palate.

Several locations also now offer adult paint nights that are usually paired with a wine or beer tasting. Most of the movie theaters have been upgraded to include reclining seats, adult beverages and gourmet food that can be ordered right from your chair inside the theater. A bulk of the eateries that serve alcohol are also offering extended and even late night happy hours and various specials as well.

All of these bonus amenities are curated to get people to walk by the shops and hopefully stop inside to pick up a few things as they make a full day or evening of the shopping center, rather than just a quick trip. The stores themselves are offering in-store-only merchandise and exclusive deals including BOGO (buy one, get one) offers and numerous gifts with purchase options.

A lot of the stores are also hosting in-store experiences, everything from cooking demos and book signings to kids crafts and fashion shows, all in an effort to keep the economy stimulated, give the existing more tactile customers somewhere to graze and to lure in and hopefully temporarily convert a tech-savvy online shopper.

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Best of Orange County 2019: Best auto repair

1. ExperTec Automotive

Costa Mesa; 949-645-7722; Huntington Beach; 714-848-9222;

Since readers voted ExperTec Automotive the top auto repair shop in Orange County last year, the business earned another notable accolade.

The city of Huntington Beach and the California Green Business Network designated ExperTec a Certifiable-Sustainable Green shop. According to office manager Emma Naranjo, the shop is the first and only auto repair facility in Southern California to receive that designation.

“Becoming Certified Green was the clearest way we could set a positive example and could show both our community and our customers that we care about the environment and we are fully committed to conserving resources and preventing pollution in both our facility and operations in order to sustain a healthy planet for many generations to come,” Naranjo said.

Customers who not only care about the environment, but who also want peace of mind when they take their vehicle in for repairs, have found a local shop that can put them at ease.

The ExperTec crew is so confident in the work it does, Naranjo said, that it backs it all with a three-year/36,000 mile nationwide warranty.

“We want our customers to rest assured knowing that they’re receiving the best automotive care that Orange County has to offer,” she said. Knowing that more than 35,000 other repair facilities across the country will honor the warranty can assuage the fears of those who like to travel, and it keeps clientele coming back to the same shop they count on to innovate without sacrificing quality of service

“Certain things may change,” Naranjo said, “however our integrity does not.”

2. Star Motors

26181 Avenida Aeropuerto, San Juan Capistrano; 949-443-1970;

This past year Star Motors reached a milestone. The independent auto repair shop had been operating for 10 years under the ownership of Chris Knuth and his wife, Emma, and local readers voted the business one of the Best in Orange County for 10 years in a row.

Star Motors specializes in repairing Mercedes Benz, BMW, Porsche, Jaguar and Land Rover — as well as exotic brands like Rolls-Royce and Bentley, not to mention Euro diesel vehicles and high-tech hybrids.

Within the last year, the business moved to a new location that Chris Knuth calls “bigger and better,” as it enables the shop to serve clients more efficiently.

“We also opened the Star Auto Spa where we take same day appointments for full vehicle detailing,” he said. Star Motors started a new technician apprentice program to mentor and create career paths for entry-level personnel as well, Knuth added, and the business became a completely paperless shop in February.

3. Coastline Imports

225 S. Grand Avenue, Santa Ana; 714-973-2039;

Stu Urquhart says that when he took over at Coastline Imports three years ago he intended to bring dealer-quality service to the Orange County community

“We’re very family-based. We treat everyone who comes in the door as if they’re a member of our family,” Urquhart said about his shop, stressing his crew’s emphasis on honesty and fair prices.

No matter what vehicle problem you have, the Coastline Imports team is confident it can almost surely fix it.

The team consists of Urquhart, his wife, a good friend of some 14 years, and an apprentice.

“All of us are ASE Master Certified and actually Mercedes-Benz certified as well,” Urquhart said, adding that he is formally qualified with Maybach and AMG models, among others.

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Best of Orange County 2019: Best garden center/nursery

1. Green Thumb Nursery

23782 Bridger Road, Lake Forest; 949-837-3040;

Strolling through the aisles at Green Thumb Nursery’s Lake Forest store can feel like a welcome escape, one filled with emerald leaves and fragrant blooms. For large-scale projects, the store’s landscape design service can be a decisive go-ahead.

Shoppers who meet the purchase minimum for the program can sit down with one of two designers: One employee has more than 30 years of experience in professional landscape design, and the other has over 10 years’ experience, according to James Parr, Green Thumb Nursery’s online marketing manager.

After one of the experts has created a design based on the customer’s goals, it’s time to look at plant options, Parr said. The company does not offer installation but provides referrals for landscape installers.

Green Thumb Nursery’s Lake Forest store, which is on a property of 5-plus acres, features a vast inventory of plants. There are roses, fruit trees — including many citrus varieties, peaches and plums — indoor houseplants, a water-wise section, pollinator-friendly plants, and more, according to Parr. The dog-friendly store also carries more than 40 soil options, along with other items, including patio furniture sets, fountains and organic pest-control products.

Green Thumb Nursery operates with a total of 225 employees, 60 of whom are based at the Lake Forest location, according to Parr. The company was established in 1946 in Canoga Park and has grown to five locations in Southern California.

2. Armstrong Garden Centers

Multiple locations; 626-914-1091;

The expertise at Armstrong Garden Centers extends beyond the company’s several locations in Orange County. One service that has become more popular is Armstrong’s garden consultation service, according to Desiree Heimann, vice president of marketing at Armstrong Garden Centers and Pike Nurseries, which is part of Armstrong.

“Whenever we have unusual weather, like all the rain we experienced this winter, gardens change, often leaving homeowners wondering what they need to do to keep their garden and lawn healthy,” she said.

A garden consultation brings an Armstrong expert on-site “to identify garden issues while answering all of the homeowner’s garden-related questions, including pruning tips and plant identification,” Heimann said.

Armstrong Garden Centers’ menu of home services also includes landscape design and installation, artificial grass installation, and more, according to the company’s website. Armstrong’s stores are dog friendly and regularly host classes. For DIY lawn and garden care, month-specific tips are available on the company’s website.

3. Roger’s Gardens

2301 San Joaquin Hills Road, Corona del Mar; 949-640-5800;

Plants and inspiration are nurtured side by side at Roger’s Gardens, and participation is welcome.

Visitors can learn about spaces as varied as a culinary garden, a California-friendly garden, a small-space patio garden and a modern garden, among other new display garden themes, said Nava Rezvan, director of marketing and public relations.

“Customers can see all the different styles that we have available and decide how they want to create that in their own garden,” Rezvan said. Even Fido can take part, as Roger’s Gardens is dog-friendly.

For extra gardening inspiration, there’s the annual California Friendly Garden Contest, which includes cash prizes and has been held for 11 years. The Roger’s Gardens contest usually starts in February and runs through June, Rezvan said.

Customers also can turn to the company for its expertise, from the Roger’s Gardens Floral Studio to in-home consultations to landscaping services.

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Best of Orange County 2019: Best home builder

1. Landsea Homes

660 Newport Center Drive, Suite 300, Newport Beach; 949-345-8080;

Landsea Homes’ corporate headquarters is located in Newport Beach, with additional offices located in Arizona, Boston, and New York City, as well Irvine and San Ramon.  A subsidiary of the international company Landsea Green Group, Landsea builds a myriad of homes that range from suburban single-family detached and attached homes as well as urban mid-rise and high-rise homes. In addition, the business has also taken steps to develop planned communities throughout the United States.

With a commitment to sustainability, Landsea utilizes a more eco-friendly approach to home building.

“It is the defining characteristic of our parent company, which pioneered the use of environmentally conscious building materials and geothermal technology, high-performance windows, air and water filtration systems and other advancements that contribute to healthier and more enjoyable living,” the company’s website reads. “We have a deep respect for the shared environment of the communities we create, and it manifests itself in the meticulous thought we put into the balance of the inside and outside environments.”

Landsea Homes Sale Counselor offers financing services to assist homebuyers in finding the best loans possible. Through its pre-qualifying program, customers are able to connect with the company’s preferred lenders who are able to accommodate their needs and their budgets.

2. Lennar

Multiple locations;

Currently the largest home construction and real estate company in the United States, Lennar’s roots trace back to Miami, Fla., in 1954. Today, the home builder operates as a conglomerate with a number of other home building companies that were acquired over Lennar’s 60+ years in business.

“We build homes in some of the most desirable cities in the nation and for all stages of your life: first home, move-up home, or a multigenerational home to accommodate your changing family needs,” Lennar’s website reads. “Our communities cater to all lifestyles and include urban, suburban, active adult and golf course living.”

Lennar is the owner and developer of numerous up-and-coming communities throughout Orange County, including Central Park West in Irvine, Loma Vista Townhomes in Yorba Linda, and Levity at Tustin Legacy.

3. William Lyon Homes

Multiple locations;

With office locations in Texas, Washington, Oregon, Colorado, Nevada, as well as Northern and Southern California, it comes as no surprise that William Lyon Homes is one of the preferred options among residents of Orange County. What started as a family-owned company in 1954 by General William Lyon has manifested into a notable organization, recognized by more than six decades worth of dedication, leadership, and customer service.

“One thing that is important to us as a family and us as a company, is that we are building homes for people to live in and have their lives revolve around,” says executive chairman and chairman of the board, William H. Lyon.

Offering a variety of housing options including custom built structures and planned communities, this William Lyon continues to pride themselves on customer approval and creating a sense of loyalty with home-buyers.



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