Raise a Glass (and a Utensil)
“Let’s go to the bar.”
It’s a decidedly loaded statement. No two bars are alike. Some revel in reputations driven by partying young adult culture and subpar billiard playing. Others offer pinkies-out levels of sophistication for aspiring Mad Men and Rat Pack wannabees. Still others are sanctuaries for spirits geeks that get their kicks by drinking craft cocktails and nerding out over esoteric top-shelf labels. It really depends on who you are and what you’re in the mood to experience.
Here’s the good news about all of this – there is no right or wrong answer. A good bar is good if it fits your mood. It doesn’t matter if they’re just serving up a quintet of domestic beers in a dank space or if they call their bartenders “mixologists.” If the bar is putting a smile on your face, you’re in the right place.
Newport Beach’s bar scene has several bars ready to match whatever your headspace may be on any given night, as the following list demonstrates. Whether you’re up for a night of fancy libations and sport coats or unfussy beer by the soft glow on neon logos, the city’s line up of bars, lounges, dives, and assorted collection of watering holes will make you feel good – especially after the first round. As a bonus, these places are designed to do more than just get your drink on. They also feature a wide range of food items stretching from ultra-casual finger food to unrelenting elegant fare. Feel free to think of these places as one-stop shops for a fun time.
Aqua Lounge – There’s a big difference between a bar and a lounge. While both serve drinks, the latter produces them with a sense of panache; one that practically compels patrons to don their finest attire and prepare for a night of high-end revelry. The ultra-sleek lounge located in Fashion Island Hotel’s main floor provides more than enough proof of this axiom. Chic blasts of neon blue radiate from its circular bar and washes over the rest of the vibrant yet intimately lit space, providing a near-metropolitan atmosphere that’s light years away from the clacking billiard balls and bro-country blasting from a neighborhood dive. Drinks like the honey syrup-kissed Japanese whiskey libation Here Comes the Sun enhance this motif, as do sharable bites like the oysters on the half shell. However, if you want to mix a bit of basic into upscale elegance, you can always order the lobster-stuffed grilled cheese sandwich with white cheddar, gruyere, and provolone.
CdM – This shiny new Corona Del Mar spot from the team that brought you A Restaurant has only been open for a couple of weeks. To say it launched as a known commodity is an understatement – the square bar anchoring the beautiful main dining hall already boasts the toughest barstools to snag in town. This bar is terrific, but those in the know will slink down the venue’s staircase to try and squeeze into its lounge-like speakeasy. CdM’s bar manager and bartending shaman Ravin Buzzell will likely be behind the bar with a smile on his face and relentless cocktail ingenuity on his mind. You can’t go wrong with anything on the menu, but just know that Ravin possesses a few secrets that only he and the cool kids know about. How you do you become a cool kid, you ask? We suggest you drop by frequently.
Cruisers – There are few food and drink pairings more perfect than beer and pizza. The duo works so well together because they evoke such a laid-back vibe. Think about it: when is the last time you had a serious, intense conversation with someone over a pint of beer and a couple slices? If you’re struggling to recall, you’re demonstrating why the combination is so well-received. One way to make this classic duet even more chill is to enjoy it on the Balboa Peninsula, as evidenced by this beloved place. You can go two ways with your pies here; there are several thin crust selections to choose from, and you also have several stuffed, deep-dish options to consider. You’ll have a few domestic and craft beers to pair with the pizza of your choice, and there are a few margarita, mule, and cocktail options for you peruse if you feel like going rogue.
Farmhouse at Roger’s Garden – Bars don’t always have to be dark and mysterious to create the right ambiance. Take this stunning venue, tucked inside the city’s botanical paradise Roger’s Gardens. You won’t see a trace of dank here. Rather, you’ll bear witness to a bright, rustic space replete with warm woods, adjacent foliage, and an open airy environment. You’ll also find bar manager Anthony Laborin behind the stick most nights, and he’s created a stunning craft cocktail menu that mirrors Executive Chef Rich Mead’s legendary commitment to seasonal, sustainable farm-to-table cuisine. The artisan beverages here feature plenty of ingredients secured from trusted purveyors and local farmer’s market, and they tend to be as beautiful as they are delicious. They’re the perfect accompaniment to whatever calendar-driven culinary voodoo Rich is whipping up in the kitchen.
Malarky’s – St. Patrick’s Day has come and gone once more. Yet the spirit of March 17th never ceases to linger at this legendary Balboa Peninsula spot. This much is obvious when you drop by their website and see their St. Paddy’s Day countdown clock. It’s even more evident when you drop in, order up a Guinness or a properly made Black & Tan, and start engaging in happy dialogue with the patron sitting next to you. Menu items like their thick corned beef sandwich do their part to keep the St. Patty party going all year round, but don’t fret if you need a culinary departure from the mood – hardy fare like their pub chili or street tacos are also available. The latter offering pairs quite nicely with a margarita. Just sayin’.
Olea – This spot has only been around less than two years. However, it feels like it’s been part of the Westcliff neighborhood for decades, and this is meant to be the highest of compliments. This is a restaurant that embraces the neighborhood as much as the neighborhood has embraced the restaurant. The result? A nightly packed bar that’s whipping up delicious beverages with fun names like Bad Decisions, a rye whiskey and amaro-based drink that ironically may the best choice you make all week if you give it a try. Another winning option you can make once you secure a barstool is to order a plate or two of Executive Chef Jared Cook’s signature crispy Meyer lemon and honey duck wings. They could very well be the most transcendent wings you’ll ever have while you’re bellied up at any bar.
Stag Bar – Newport Beach wasn’t an epicenter of chic coastal elegance in 1908. There were tourists smattered about, but it chiefly was a hardy fishing town where mariners made their bones shipbuilding and fishing off the Peninsula. After a hard day on the water, they’d walk a few feet from the shore an into this venerable two-story establishment, where beers, gambling, and shenanigans awaited. The spirit of good times that were established here some 110 years ago is still going strong. While the space underwent a massive remodel in 2015, the establishment’s lore is still intact – the mahogany bar, for instance, is the same bar installed after the repeal of Prohibition. It could undoubtedly share some remarkable stories if it could talk; instead, it lends perfectly stoic support for old-school libations like a Sazerac and satisfying bar food like meatball sliders and short rib poutine.
Topside – Newport Beach’s the home for perpetually excellent weather. (NOTE: We’re going to just pretend the winter of 2019 never happened. Okay? Okay.) So, it may surprise you to find out that when this sleek spot in the Lido House Hotel opened in 2018, it instantly became the city’s lone rooftop lounge. It certainly doesn’t waste its status. The skyline views of the Balboa Peninsula slay, and the chic yet sophisticated décor is casually bougie enough to instantly make you yearn for a glass of champagne (and they have a selection of bubblies to choose from, natch). If you want to skip straight to the cocktails, you’ll be met with a mix of classics and singular libations that already seem embedded into Newport’s DNA. The venue is also home to the most over-the-top indulgent bar food pairing: A chicken sandwich and a glass of Krug’s legendary champagne. If you know of a bar bite-and-drink duo more decadent than that, feel free to let us know, won’t you?
Written By Rich Manning