Lasting Legacies: Iconic Eateries Mark Milestones

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By Kristin Lee Jensen

The dining scene in Newport Beach is constantly changing. Lately, it has become a destination for some of the most innovative culinary concepts in Orange County. Major brands like Café Gratitude are coming south from Los Angeles, while national names like Nobu Matsuhisa are settling into town. Even more openings are planned for later this year, as newcomers continue to change the dining landscape that was once dominated by French eatery Ambrosia—considered to have pioneered fine dining in Orange County—and Delaney’s seafood restaurant (now Bluewater Grill) in the early 1970s.

Old favorites still remain, however, as locals continue to return to a select few storied establishments. In 2015 alone, five Newport Beach restaurants celebrated milestone anniversaries, a testament to their consistent hospitality and aptitude for authenticity over the years.

Crown Jewel

Since 1965, Five Crowns Restaurant & Steakhouse has offered an old English respite in Corona del Mar. Known for its prime rib and fine-dining ambience, the restaurant first opened with an “energetic, boisterous” atmosphere, according to Ryan O’Melveny Wilson, Lawry’s Restaurants corporate executive chef and vice president. During this year’s 50th anniversary celebration, the family-owned company hopes to build that vibe back into Five Crowns; changes can already be seen in the new logo and landscaping updates unveiled this past fall.

With nearly three times as many items, a new menu released in March allows for more versatile dining experiences with a range of small plates, though heritage classics continue to anchor the offerings. The beef steak Neptune, for example, originally appeared on the 1965 menu and is a creation of Wilson’s great-grandfather, Lawrence Frank, who founded Lawry’s Restaurants; additionally, the Pride of the Crowns salad, developed by Wilson’s grandmother, is back on the menu with its original flavor profile as the restaurant’s No. 1 salad seller. Also known for its extensive wine program built up in the 1980s, Five Crowns boasts a new “Inspired By” wine list section featuring varietals selected by local patrons.

“You see so much avant-garde modern cooking where chefs are striving to put together zany flavor profiles,” Wilson says. “There’s something really refreshing about the great classics well-executed.”

 

The roast piccata at The Quiet Woman features crispy herb chicken in a mushroom and lemon caper sauce.
The roast piccata at The Quiet Woman features crispy herb chicken in a mushroom and lemon caper sauce.

Leading Lady

For 50 years, The Quiet Woman has been part of many locals’ dining routines. Even on the night she and her husband closed escrow on the restaurant in 1989, Lynne Campbell had only ever eaten the Colorado grass-fed lamb. “Every time we came in we thought, ‘Oh, we need to try something else,’ but we couldn’t because it was so good,” Campbell says of the dish that continues to highlight the Corona del Mar establishment’s menu, along with thick-cut swordfish and baseball steaks from the mesquite grill.

Locals of all ages flock to the comfort food: On a typical Saturday night, the restaurant is filled with families in the know about the exceptional kid’s selections (options include Cole’s golf ball steak and mashed potatoes) before the 20-something crowd descends on the bar for live music five nights a week. “There [are] so many chains now, and people really want authenticity,” Campbell says.

Currently ranked No. 5 on OpenTable’s best overall restaurants in Orange County, The Quiet Woman plans to start celebrating its anniversary in January with numerous events throughout the year. Of note are several wine dinners, including a national release party for Robert Craig Winery on Feb. 1, 2016.

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Seaside Classic

From John Wayne and Humphrey Bogart to Cary Grant and Mickey Mantle, celebrities have descended upon Woody’s Wharf for the last 50 years. In the mid-1980s, the seafood restaurant on Newport Bay was even owned by legendary actor Chuck Norris, who employed Belgian actor Jean-Claude Van Damme as a doorman and was the first to cut the doors to the patio in order to make the space into a dining area. Original owner Woody Payne used the terrace to store his boat parts and lobster and crab traps, as the establishment was initially a small watering hole for local fishermen.

Now, the patio is beloved by local patrons just as much as the cozy dining room with a fireplace. “There’s not too many restaurants in Newport that still have boat access, waterfront views and … moderate pricing,” says Ralph Nudo, one of four co-owners that took over the restaurant in 2005.

Guests rave about the cioppino stew and Kobe beef sliders, while appetizers like the Bang Bang Shrimp and ahi poke tower remain favorites as well. In addition, the fresh fish and hand-cut rib-eye provide entrees for all types of diners. In time for its end-of-the-year celebration, Woody’s Wharf recently won approval for longer hours and dancing inside the restaurant; guests can also commemorate the legacy with an anniversary T-shirt.

 

Taco Tuesday at Avila's El Ranchito is a big hit with locals.
Taco Tuesday at Avila’s El Ranchito is a big hit with locals.

Age-Old Authenticity

Walk into Avila’s El Ranchito on Tuesdays at 5 p.m., and you’ll find a crosscut of Newport Beach residents. From college football players to retirees, locals form a line for the $5 all-you-can-eat buffet bar dubbed Taco Tuesday by owner Sergio Avila. One of 12 locations owned by the Avila family across Southern California, the Balboa Peninsula restaurant is the only one to host the special.

It’s traditions like these that have kept the Newport Beach location, billed the “International El Ranchito,” successful since opening in 1975. Known for his commitment to affordable prices and a menu of Mexican classics, Avila says Mamá Avila’s Soup remains his top seller—accounting for 30 percent of food sales—while the taco and enchilada combination runs at a close second. “I think consistency of the food was very important,” Avila says, noting that his menu remains 90 percent original. “When the customers walk in, they … know exactly what they’re getting.”

To celebrate its 40-year anniversary, the restaurant served up lunch and dinner items with the original 1975 prices in April and has partnered with Drink for a Cause to donate $1 of each margarita sold to 12 charities throughout this year.

 

Las Fajitas is known for its healthy yet traditional entrees, including the popular mahi mahi fajitas.
Las Fajitas is known for its healthy yet traditional entrees, including the popular mahi mahi fajitas.

Neighborhood  Favorite

Talk to any Las Fajitas regular and the salsa bar is bound to come up in conversation. Made from scratch, the Balboa Peninsula eatery’s sauces span red, green, orange, cabbage and corn, not to mention the house-made blend of tomatoes, green chilies, onion and garlic. Add to them an ambience that feels like “an extension of your living room,” according to owner Sandra Lopez, and you’ve got the restaurant’s recipe for success.

For the last 20 years, Las Fajitas has been known for its namesake item, fajitas, most often ordered with mahi mahi and served with rice that’s oven-baked instead of fried, as well as refried beans cooked with olive oil instead of lard. Lopez’s vision is for entrees that are at once traditional and healthy; you can order burritos and chimichangas with whole wheat tortillas.

The heart of the establishment, Lopez is a Mexico City native who worked at the restaurant for 15 years before taking the helm in 2012. This fall, she introduced mole enchiladas and albondigas (meatball) soup to the offerings, which also include same-day catering. And while no anniversary celebrations are in the works, diners can toast to Las Fajitas with its micheladas: Mexican beer prepared with chili powder, salt, lime juice and lemon.

 

Brew Co. has been at its Cannery Village location for 20 years.
Brew Co. has been at its Cannery Village location for 20 years.

Two Decades on Tap

Much has remained the same at Newport Beach Brewing Co. since it opened in Cannery Village in 1995. The city’s first brewery—and the second to open its doors to the public in Orange County—has always had a slew of comfort food offerings like the signature tuna melt and Newport Beach-inspired craft beers. But over the years, much has changed: Healthy items like kale salad and gluten-free pizza crust have been added to the menu, and August saw the debut of a complete line of cocktails made with organic vodka, rum and tequila. “I truly believe that any restaurant concept, no matter what it is, has to continue to evolve,” says owner Mike Madlock.

The microbrews—sold exclusively at the brewery—have seen their own transformation: Opened at a time when Californians were accustomed to light beer, the eatery saw 50 percent of sales dominated by its Newport Beach blonde; now, the restaurant sells an equal amount, if not more, India pale ales (IPA). This year’s anniversary even brought the addition of a Peninsula double IPA that’s “gone viral” with patrons. Since day one, Brew Co. has benefited from a copper-clad, stainless steel, steam-fired system that allows for a more even heating temperature during the brewing process, resulting in one gold, two silver and two bronze medals at the Great American Beer Festival.

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New Favorites

When it comes to new restaurants in town, even longtime owners have their top picks.

When The Quiet Woman owner Lynne Campbell eats out at Newport Beach’s newest establishments, her first choice is sushi at Sota. (949-675-0771; sotasushi.com)

Tackle Box is Ryan O’Melveny Wilson of Five Crown’s newcomer-of-choice, as he opts for the pork belly banh mi, vegetarian falafel sandwich or buffalo cauliflower. (949-723-0502; tackleboxoc.com)

Fly ‘N’ Fish Oyster Bar & Grill was the go-to choice for three owners: Ralph Nudo at Woody’s Wharf, Sergio Avila at Avila’s El Ranchito and Mike Madlock at Newport Beach Brew Co. (949-673-8400; flynfishoysterbar.com)

Las Fajitas owner Sandra Lopez recommends the fish tacos at Bear Flag Fish Co. for their sauce. (949-715-8899; bearflagfishco.com)

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