Orange County, California is more than housewives and McMansions. Granted, we do have our fair share of overly plasticized people, sprawling estates and vapid teenagers, but anyone who visits will encounter a far different vantage than what you might have seen in a show.
What they don’t show on TV is a 3 million + populated area filled with cultures from all corners of the world. There’s Little Saigon, Korean District, and Little Arabia to name a few neighborhoods around.
But, what started it all, and what was most attractive to settlers to this part of Southern California was its miles and miles of orange groves, hence the name of the county.
Before Walt stuck his spike down to create Disneyland, this whole area was filled with ranches amongst the fruit trees. And in some pockets of the area, you can still unearth some of the history of this county, especially in appropriately named Orange, California.
“You won’t get a lemon at Toyota of Orange” — famous Orange County slogan
Orange is a bit obscure in Southern California travel. Anaheim adjacent, it’s often overshadowed by the mouse, but it’s a really nice place to spend some time. It’s Americana to the max. But, there are some surprises along the way, too.
If you’ve ever read this blog, you’ll know that I enjoy a good donut. It’s the perfect way to start a vacation, and Donut Hub is a good place to start. They use fresh fruit/juice in their creations, and I like the unique flavors, particularly the Orange Circle.
OC is not known for its hiking, but Orange actually has one of the more strenuous trails around in Black Star Canyon. It has gotten popular over the past few years, but take precaution if you go, bring lots of rations, good hiking shoes and let people know you’re going — it can be a little isolated out there on the near 7 mile hike. Mostly, it’s a party destination for local teens, but there’s been some more nefarious activity there also, so better to be safe.
After a strenuous hike, make your way to the center of the city, Old Towne Orange. A few blocks from Chapman University (apparently now a major cinema education destination), this area is always teeming with locals. If you’ve ever seen That Thing You Do! or Forrest Gump, you’ll have seen this area and its time-capsule-of-the-60s vibe.
The Orange Circle itself is a roundabout in the middle of Old Towne surrounded on all sides by pedestrian streets lined with antique malls, coffee shops and restaurants. It is a hub of relaxed entertainment, a place to wander around to enjoy one of the many temperate, breezy nights for which Southern Cal is known. Over Labor Day weekend, thousands of souls brave the scorching temperatures for the International Street Fair, this area’s largest festival that features food from everywhere.
But, on any other day of the year, you should visit for the antiquing. Orange Circle Antique Mall, Antique Depot, Antique Station, Now & Then Thrift are probably some of the better antique malls in the county, but they can be pricey. Mid-century delights abound, displays upon displays of toys and collectibles as well as vintage clothing will delight you around every corner. And nestled in between these stores are bakeries and cafes like Blue Frog, Paris in a Cup, Kimmie’s Coffee Cup, Pandor French Bakery and a la minute ice cream.
There are two really great coffee shops circle-adjacent, the Aussie Bean and Contra Coffee. The Aussie Bean was established by a duo of ex-pats from Australia, who found their calling in a hip, industrial space tucked away in this mid-century haven. This is the only decent place to get a flat white in OC.
Contra, is literally the contralateral spectrum, a bright open air event space (think gallery/poetry readings) that serve up refreshing nitro brews. The Gold Coast is a carbonated Vietnamese coffee that could fuel you to the moon.
Just down the road from Contra is one of the circle’s few original venders, Watson’s Drugs. A former pharmacy and soda fountain, now it is a full time restaurant, with an outpost of the OC famous Rockwell’s Bakery (white chocolate curl raspberry cake is a personal fav) inside. Presidents and movie stars have dined here, it’s an institution.
If you’re looking for more Latin flair (and honestly, who isn’t?), head over to Felix Continental Cafe, a cuban restaurant that will transport you to the streets of Havana, with their delicious plantains and extensive Caribbean menu. This place has been around since I was born.
After exploring this area, head over to the Main Street area, where you’ll enter Santa Ana if you turn one way (and run into the Main Place Mall) or hit the hospital district of Orange if you head the other way. CHOC is the main pediatric hospital in OC, and just east of it is a tiny little shopping center that houses one of the gems of the healthy food scene, Blue Bowl.
There needs to be a Blue Bowl on every corner. Acai, pitaya, chia pudding with incredibly fresh toppings are the offerings at this hole-in-the-wall shop. The lines often stretch around the corner because it is so, so good and fresh. Parking is awful though.
There is no trip to Orange County without getting a little shopping in, and the Block at Orange is filled with outlet stores and even a Vans skatepark. Vans tennis shoes are a staple of the area, started in Anaheim, and you can’t walk around without seeing the checks or stripes adorning the feet of everyone, from babies to senior citizens. It’s a culture around here, and grabbing some apparel might make some great souvenirs.
Maybe you want to have a fancy dinner while you’re in town, so head for the hills and seek out Orange Hill, a restaurant that has a firm place in OC restaurant history. It’s a good ole’ American steakhouse, with views to die for, sweeping across the whole county. The champagne brunch is incredible as well, with lots of seafood and prime rib and everything you want in a fancy meal. Grab a seat by the fire pit and enjoy a glass or two from their VERY extensive wine list. It’s the perfect way to end an Orange County day.