Should you choose to eschew celebrating Valentine’s Day this year as a conscientious objector due to the holiday’s non-optimal midweek placement, there are 365 other days this year that are just as good, if not better, for honoring your special someone (or special someone to be) with a nice meal in a dimly lit, romantic setting. Orange County has an abundance of such restaurants, many of them ideal for either a first-date bite or a silver-anniversary feast.
Some spots will offer Valentine’s Day menu specials (like tacos with red tortillas made with beet juice or truffle-laced lobster rolls), while others will keep their menus as-is. Wherever your palate, there’s something here for everyone, even the lonelyhearts (see: 24-hour doughnut shop). Here are a handful of the most romantic date-night spots in Orange County.
4th Street Market (Santa Ana): For a casual date night, head to one of OC’s greatest food arenas. With so much to see and so much to do, you won’t feel nearly as much pressure for conversation as you might at typical sit-down restaurants. And you’ll have so much from which to choose: Mexican-Californian specialty grocery store Alta Baja Market, which also serves breakfast and lunch from its cafe; Zacatecas taqueria Burrito La Palma; sandwiches from Deli Station; contemporary Hawaiian comfort food by Faka’s Island Grill, Gina’s Crepes and Waffles; plant-based, vegan and gluten-free taqueria La Vegana Mexicana, which specializes in tamales; Loose Leaf Boba Co.; build-your-own burrito or bowl Mix N’ Bowl Co., Recess by Playground for cocktails, sodas, beers and wines; sushi care of ShariNori; smashburgers and Nashville-style hot chicken at Golden Eatery; Thai-style chicken comfort food from the Chicken Rice; and chef-founder Toto Limsombat’s sublime Tuk Tuk Thai Street Food. 201 E. Fourth St. (at North Bush Street), Santa Ana.
B&B Donuts (Fullerton): No, stay with me: A doughnut shop is, and will always be, at least for me, a romantic pitstop, especially B&B Donuts in Fullerton. Why? Because a) doughnuts and b) it’s open 24 hours. Among the more underrated swoon-worthy gifts one should receive in life is a box of maple bars at 2 a.m. after a late-night date or a lover’s spat. The midcentury design of this dessert spot also makes for a nice backdrop for any first-date photos. 925 Harbor Blvd., Fullerton.
The Cellar (Fullerton): This subterranean restaurant designed by a former Disney Imagineer who helped create the Pirates of the Caribbean ride is a choice spot for setting a romantic tone. The semi-private banquettes, circular booth seating, and red velvet all work in unison to help create an intimate yet enchanting vibe. Menu highlights include chateaubriand steak tartare, escargot, shrimp cocktail, duck breast, bouillabaisse, chocolate or vanilla souffle, champagne floats and other white-tablecloth fare. 305 N. Harbor Blvd., Fullerton.
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Chaak Kitchen (Tustin): Chef Gabbi Patrick uses her Yucatàn roots to create her modern Mexican cuisine. Highlights here include an 11-hour Yucatecan-style cochinita pibil, tacos stuffed with pork confit and an entire branzino rubbed with achiote. Playing a strong supporting role is the warm decor with a dramatically draped skylight and the wraparound bar. Stunning all around. 215 El Camino Real, Tustin.
The Chart House (Dana Point): Both the views and the modernist architecture at this cliffside restaurant nestled along the Dana Point Bluffs are hard to beat when it comes to picturesque vibes. Although its main dining area features views of the Pacific, opt for the more intimate booth-style seating for dates that require more intimate moments. The Chart House, one of several located throughout the country, specializes in seafood fare and steaks galore. 34442 Green Lantern, Dana Point.
Driftwood Kitchen (Laguna Beach): One of many seaside dining spots in Laguna Beach, this one offers seafood, burgers, oysters, parker house rolls, lobster flautas, wagyu beef potstickers and other fusion comfort fare. But the main draw here is the view of the ocean while you eat. If you can swing it, try to grab a reservation around sundown to bear witness to a glorious sunset over the Pacific while as you feast. 619 Sleepy Hollow Lane, Laguna Beach.
Fable & Spirit (Newport Beach): This contemporary restaurant on Balboa Island features intimate two-seat tables for sidewalk dining. A Michelin Guide-recognized spot, Fable & Spirit is known for its elegant setting. The 12-hour Kurobuta porchetta with polenta, romanesco, Calabrian chili and chimichurri is a don’t-miss item. For Valentine’s Day, executive chef David Shofner will offer a 32-day dry-aged prime rib-eye, as well as seared scallops. 3441 Via Lido, Newport Beach.
Gema (San Clemente): For a refreshing break from chips-and-guac rowdiness, Gema offers some of the best Mexican cuisine in town under the care of executive chef Juan Pablo Cruz. His seasonal menu features mole verde, halibut en pipian, a sublime birria de res and an infladita with beef birria, cheese foam and arbol salsa. The bar program whips up craft cocktails (as well as nonalcoholic concoctions made with house-made syrups and purees) with more than100 mezcals with 32 varietals of agaves. Potted plants, floral arrangements and wooden accents give this place an earthy, contemporary charm. An ideal spot for gastronomes seeking a night out on the town. 110 S. El Camino Real (at Avenida Del Mar), San Clemente.
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Knife Pleat (Costa Mesa): Founded by couple Tony Esnault and Yassmin Sarmadi, this Costa Mesa spot is one of three Michelin-starred restaurants in Orange County. The acclaimed eatery will feature a three-course Valentine’s lunch menu and six-course dinner menu with Tsar Nicoulai Golden Osetra Caviar, black truffle risotto, and American wagyu ribeye cap. Every couple enjoying dinner will leave with a box of macarons. South Coast Plaza, 3333 S. Bristol St., Costa Mesa.
Las Brisas (Laguna Beach): An exceedingly elegant beachside restaurant that offers views of the Pacific, Las Brisas features a menu of oysters, bone marrow, corn mousse tostada, seared scallops, butter squash tamales, beef filet, butter-poached lobster and more. From Feb. 15 through Feb. 18, it will also have a five-course prix fixe menu featuring grilled lamb chops, Maine lobster, tomahawk steak or beef filet. After dinner, be sure to take a stroll along Heisler Park, a walk that features a wooden gazebo overlooking the waves. 361 Cliff Drive, Laguna Beach.
Marché Moderne (Newport Beach): Located in the Crystal Cove enclave, this modern French affair will have a special La Saint-Valentin prix-fixe menu for the heart-throbbing holiday. Look forward to lobster bisque, oysters, sashimi hamachi, sauteed sepia, steak tartare, bone-in short rib, a pavlova/vacherin with grapefruit mousseline and more. Outside of Valentine’s Day, Amelia Marneau’s glamorous bistro is sure to impress any other day of the year. 7862 Pacific Coast Highway, Newport Beach.
Mayfield (San Juan Capistrano): With plates designed to be shared, as well as being located a stone’s throw from a cinema across the street, Mayfield is the place to go for dinner-and-a-movie nights out. For starters, Mayfield has some of the best interiors in South County, with soaring ceilings and floor-to-ceiling windows that somehow manage to keep the vibe lively yet intimate. There’s also a heated back patio (with blanket service to boot) for diners seeking a quieter dining experience. Also of note: Mayfield serves some of the best food in Orange County, from roasted lamb with minted peas, pomegranate and harissa glazed pork chop and twice-cooked sweet potatoes with yuzu kosho and preserved lemon tahini. 31761 Camino Capistrano, suite 5-6, San Juan Capistrano.
Nok’s Kitchen (Westminster): The Laotian food (please get the Lao sausage and sticky rice), the cozy space, the food arriving on wicker platters to the table. Chef/owner Nokmaniphone Sayavong’s spot is a must for anyone who yearns to bond with someone over complex flavors. 9378 Westminster Blvd., Westminster.
Orange Hill (Orange): An upscale, hilltop restaurant with koi ponds, waterfalls and outdoor seating is perfect when paired with a menu of New American dishes like caviar fries, wedge salad with pickled shallots, wine-braised short ribs, caviar and truffle baked potato and more. Look for a four-course prix fixe menu on Valentine’s Day. 6410 E. Chapman Ave., Orange.
Puesto (Anaheim, Irvine): For Valentine’s Day, this contemporary Mexican restaurant will serve its tacos on red tortillas made in-house and naturally colored with beet juice. Guests can also add octane to their Valentine’s Day fete with beverages from Puesto’s craft bar program, which features freshly-squeezed juices, house-made sodas, and an impressive list of agave spirits sourced from Mexico. 1040 W. Katella Ave., Anaheim; 3311 Michelson Drive, Irvine.
Sushi Roku (Newport Beach): The rich and decadent truffle lobster roll with champagne butter is worth paying this sushi spot a visit. In addition to its regular sushi fare, this Fashion Island spot will also have special menu items for Valentine’s Day. 327 Newport Center Drive, Newport Beach.