By hand-selecting a Newport Beach-based restaurant to move into an iconic space in Old Towne Orange, the Fraser family has given the owners of Bosscat Kitchen & Libations an opportunity that they never would have expected: one with historical significance.
By Ashley Ryan
The culinary scene in Orange County is typically focused on modernity: fashionable dishes, innovative cocktails, contemporary design. Bosscat Kitchen & Libations in Newport Beach embodies that modern vibe, in everything from its menu to its ambiance.
But the brand’s newest location in Old Towne Orange has something completely different to offer: historical relevance. Let us take you on a journey into the new expansion, from its humble beginnings to its grand opening in late March.
Wading Through History
There are two sides to every story, and when it comes to the latest Bosscat project, the two halves that make up the whole are the company’s history and the building’s importance to the local community.
Bosscat Kitchen first launched in 2014 by Newport Beach resident John “JT” Reed and his business partner, Leslie Nguyen. “We never anticipated growing it,” Reed says. “We just wanted to tell a really cool story.”
When they did decide to expand, they ventured outside of California and settled in Texas—Houston, to be exact. After opening two eateries in the city, Reed and Nguyen set their sights on Dallas and Austin. But there were bigger things in store for them.
The Fraser family, owners of Rod’s Liquor in Orange as well as the widespread Rodrigo’s Mexican Grill chain, was persistent as they tried to entice Reed and Nguyen to take over their space. After a few calls, the Bosscat heads decided to meet with the family, who was seeking a concept from a nearby city in an effort to bring two communities together. “They said, … ‘We love what you do,’ ” Reed recalls. “… Just talking to them, they were so approachable and so kind.”
They decided to check out the space—and the area—before making a decision. “When I walked into the liquor store, I was like, ‘I don’t see the vision,’ ” he says. “Until you walked behind the coolers and it was all this brick and all this history. Leslie just grabbed my arm and she was like, ‘We have to do this, this is incredible.’ ” The project was different than any the duo had taken on before, and the Fraser family insisted that they honor the history of the building, which Reed was instantly excited for.
Despite their excitement, after they decided to go through with the deal, there was pushback from the local community—one of many struggles they faced with the opening of this new Bosscat Kitchen. Aside from the obvious difficulties that arose from opening during the COVID-19 pandemic, Reed was finding that locals loved Rod’s Liquor and simply did not want to see it go.
While sitting next door at Urth Caffe, Reed says he was approached by a woman wanting to know if he was thinking of taking over the space. “She’s like, ‘We don’t want you here. We want Rod’s to stay.’ … And there was another person and another … and it was just this flood of negativity on social media.”
As they soldiered on, working with the historical society to make sure to get every detail right, the Fraser family put out a message that they had handpicked Bosscat to take over the space. “ It changed the whole dynamic,” Reed recalls.
So, finally, they had the support of the Orange community—one that is unlike any other in Southern California. “I never thought about coming to Orange. I never spent a lot of time here,” Reed explains. “But this is how I grew up. I’m from upstate New York, a very small town. … When I was sitting here at the Circle one day, I was thinking how this is so me. I live in Newport Beach and I love Newport Beach, but this is me. Hometown America is me. … It felt really good.”
Incorporating a building’s history into its design isn’t a foreign concept, but it’s something that isn’t extremely prominent in Orange County. The modernization of the dining scene has weaved its way into so many aspects of the restaurant industry. But, as Reed mentioned, this new challenge brought a whole different level of excitement to the project.
The history of the downtown building is an interesting one. Rod’s Liquor opened in 1949, serving as a must-stop shop for many Orange residents for more than 70 years. Up until its closing, the family-run business featured a drive-up design—guests would pull in on Olive Street, hop out, grab their goods and drive out onto Chapman Avenue. It doesn’t get much more small town than that.
Rick Fraser was the owner, but he learned everything he knew from his father Rod, who launched the business. However, Rick and Rod weren’t the only Frasers to work in the store, with a number of other family members holding roles at different times.
It wasn’t simply a convenience store though, as the Frasers worked hard to learn their customers’ names, make deliveries when necessary and offer unique services, like selling blocks of ice from a historic ice machine out front. Despite spending seven decades as a convenience store, the history dates back even further, with stints as a gas station, an automotive shop and, originally, as a horse-and-buggy repair shop.
As with any historical venture, it’s the details that matter, and that’s exactly what Reed and Nguyen worked to include as the space was remodeled. The new location in Orange features a rustic, yet industrial-style design that encompasses both the building’s history and what the company is all about.
“There has got to be an intersect between keeping the nostalgia and evolving and modernizing,” Reed says. “And I think that we have crossed those intersections very, very well.”
By working with the Orange Community Historical Society, Reed and Nguyen were able to preserve key details, from the liquor store marquee outside and the original sign—which has been placed above the bar, also renamed Rod’s for this location—to the ice machine that was moved inside and mounted on a wall. Even the floor of the ice machine was incorporated, with the 85-year-old wooden slab becoming a table in the eatery’s private whiskey room.
But the attention to detail didn’t end there. Re-creations of the historic gas pumps were added to the patio, which has been placed where the driveway originally was, and new brick pillars were added to finish the space, matched expertly to the ones that were already there. And, even more impressive, are the antique metal pieces that were once part of a pulley system that transported wheels across the ceiling during the horse-drawn carriage repairs; these can now be found in the stands of some of the tables, adding a truly unique touch to the space.
Another old-school Rod’s sign was placed in the whiskey room, deemed the crown jewel of the space. Here, birdcage-inspired lockers are rented out to customers (one has already been dedicated to the Frasers) looking for somewhere to store their special bottles. Around the sign, 300 additional whiskey bottles are displayed, each one representing a family distillery from countries around the world—some with histories even more extensive than the building they’re now housed in.
The whiskey room is also spacious enough to hold private dinners and parties, something the space was initially earmarked for after the popularity of a very small version at the Newport restaurant. “Our next store in Houston has a similar whiskey room to this; it seats 14 to 16, and it’s really been an evolution through the last three,” Reed notes.
Something unique to the Orange location is a room called the library, which is situated just before the whiskey room. With comfy chairs and vintage decor—like old telephones and typewriters—this waiting space offers a comfortable introduction to the restaurant and its historic elements.
“We have those lockers inside of our whiskey room in both Newport and Houston, and what we realized was the general consumer who comes in never had a chance to really experience it … or really look in it, look at the bottles. Big whiskey aficionados, the sticker shock might scare them from getting a locker, [but] they want to see it, they want to touch it, they want to feel what it’s like to see some of those great bottles,” Reed explains. “So we wanted to pull that out, so the general consumer waiting for a table on a Friday night can peruse the lockers and really become part of that experience. … That’s why we’ve really separated the two rooms and, in doing so, we’ve created a whole different vibe in the library.”
As special as the whiskey room and library are, there’s a beautiful homage the history in the back of the eatery as well. Near a large sliding wooden door that once allowed horse carriages to roll into the space, photos of Rod’s, the Fraser family and more cover the walls, offering just a small glimpse at what came before.
Finally, Fabulous Food
While there is so much to love about the historical work that went into Bosscat Kitchen’s Old Towne Orange, diners are really there for one thing in particular: the food.
Known for its distinct twists on classic comfort foods, Bosscat has become a prominent part of the dining scene in both Newport Beach and Houston. The same will likely be true in Orange, where locals are already gathering to try the restaurant that the Frasers picked out.
When Bosscat first launched, Reed says they weren’t naïve to the fact that people eat differently in different locations, but that they wanted to keep their menus consistent. Although they found success with that method, he says guests were always saying they’d love to see regional specials. “We now have about a third of the menu that is regionalized to each area,” he adds.
For lunch and dinner, a number of starters are available, including a spicy chicken and cheese dip served with house-made potato chips, a hearty Parmesan-crusted meatloaf, Portobello mushroom fries, numerous flatbreads, pulled pork hush puppies, cornbread madeleines with huckleberry sweet cream butter and more. Opt to share so you’ll still be able to squeeze in the main entrees, which range from shaved pork chop or crispy fried chicken sandwiches to the Bosscat Burger, citrus pasta, Cajun chicken, roasted salmon with barbecue mustard, grilled mahi mahi, and 12-hour beef short rib. A plethora of soups, salads, sides and desserts are also available, making this the ideal spot to stop for a snack, a bold meal or time spent wining and dining with friends and family.
In addition, the new location also offers a weekend brunch menu, complete with brunch beverages, small bites like avocado toast and overnight oats, and main dishes like savory short rib chilaquiles, the Smokehouse Benedict with pulled pork hash, Fruity Pebbles French toast (which can be topped with an optional scoop of ice cream), banana and almond protein pancakes, and more.
And during the week, stop by for happy hour deals on well drinks, draft beers, house wines and small bites, like ahi tuna wraps, short rib grilled cheese sandwiches and Dr. Pepper wings.
“Here, we’re talking about adopting a philosophy we do at our burger concept in Houston, which is having a local menu just for here—asking our locals what do you love, what do you eat at home?” Reed notes. “We think there might be an opportunity to make some off-menu items for the regular who comes in every day. … So, we’re working on some ideas that are really central like that, to the Orange community.”
This notion of adapting the menu to the locals is one that is sure to win in Orange, where the close-knit community is already embracing this new venture.
Bosscat Kitchen & Libations
118 W. Chapman Ave., Orange