When planning a family vacation, I pack our itinerary with fun things to do, but don't always have a lot of ideas about where to go eat. Dining can be an event in itself and is a great way to soak in the local scene as well as fuel up - so I try to find fun restaurants that are different, offer food and drinks that are unique to the region and/or are where the locals like to go, but if we wait too late to make a decision - we end up going somewhere "safe" like a chain restaurant that we have back home.

You don't want to be around me when I'm hangry!

How to find a good restaurant when you are on vacation:

1. Before leaving for your trip, ask friends who have been to where you're going (or those that live there) where they recommend going.

2. Look online. I got a lot of great dining ideas from the folks at Destination Irvine and Visit Huntington Beach/Surf City USA who also helped coordinate some of our activities in Orange County. Other great resources that were helpful while I planned my Orange County vacation were Travel Costa Mesa and Visit Laguna BeachI highly recommend visiting these sites to prepare for your perfect Southern California family vacation as well as blogs and travel review sites specific to Orange County, California.

3. Ask those you meet during your trip. When we were in Laguna Beach, we stopped in the Visitor's Center to get some ideas about when low tide was that day and where the best tide pools were. While talking to Peggy, we mentioned that we were going to dine at a well known restaurant overlooking the ocean. She said that it was good, but always busy, very expensive and a little more formal than what we were looking for. She suggested we go to The Cliff Restaurant, which was more casual, less expensive and great for kids...with the same awesome view.

If you are going to Orange County, here are a couple ideas to get you started. These were our favorite restaurants we visited during our 6-day family vacation to Southern California.

1. Andrei's Conscious Cuisine and Cocktails - Irvine

We LOVE this restaurant. Located just 1/2 mile from the Embassy Suites Irvine and the John Wayne Orange County airport, Andrei's Executive Chef Yves Fournier uses fresh, local and organically grown produce and naturally raised meats and sustainable seafood to create a "Conscious, California Cuisine" menu with Mediterranean flair.

You can't go wrong with any menu item - but you must...I repeat...YOU MUST start with an order of the homemade chips.


For lunch, I had the Pacific scallops with organic yellow corn goat cheese risotto, avocado emulsion and oven roasted baby carrots. I just can't even describe how yummy this dish was. I swear it wasn't Andrei's Summer In Provence cocktail talking (champagne with lavender essence and white grape juice).

Which was also...Amazing.

Jackson ordered a new dish to the menu - the Quail Ravioli: free range quail, ricotta and sage ravioli, sundried tomato, pancetta, fava beans, burley buss cheddar and braising jus. I was pretty impressed that my 14-year-old ordered this... and he loved it. My 10-year-old picky eater who is slightly less adventurous was as happy as a clam to see a kid's menu with items she knows and loves (if you happen to have a "I only like pizza and chicken nuggets" eater - you know what I mean!)

Then there's dessert.

Andrei's had me at Warm Beignets.

But then they brought out the accompanying tray of homemade chocolate and caramel sauces with whipped cream and I suddenly understood why locals went loco when they tried to remove this item from the menu a while back.

In addition to outstanding food and comfortably sophisticated surroundings (I just came up with that description. I'm feeling like a J. Peterman catalog writer!), what makes this restaurant truly unique is the story behind it. After the owner's son, Andrei, was diagnosed with a retinal eye disease, he embraced a healthful diet comprised of organic and locally sourced food. He dreamed of opening a restaurant, but he passed away after being involved in a car accident in his 20's. To honor his memory, Andrei's was opened in 2009 and 100% of the restaurant's net profits benefit The Andrei Foundation, which supports many charitable causes and organizations.

What a beautiful way to honor his life.

When you visit Andrei's, ask for Rob (he's originally from Liverpool). He was our server and was absolutely fabulous and fun. If you ask - he'll send out Chef Yves so you can gush over the meal (and you will). Chef Yves, who is from Paris, is pretty fabulous, too. In addition to a great regular menu...he also whips up some fun offerings. For example, from July 8 - 16th, they had French Week with several special entrees and desserts that looked tres bien. We were sorry to miss it.

After talking to Rob and Yves together with their accents and stories from home, we felt like quite the international travelers. My kids and I agreed that if we lived in Irvine, we would be great friends with both of them and their families.

Seriously - go to Andrei's and tell them we said hello and we miss them. And eat a beignet for me.

2. 85 C Bakery and Cafe- Irvine

If you like pastries, then get yourself to Diamond Jamboree, a multicultural dining plaza in Orange County, and visit 85 C.  We fell so hard for this delicious Taiwanese bakery, we went back twice for breakfast on the go. When you enter, you grab a tray and tongs and serve yourself to the huge selection of goodies like sponge cakes, mango and chocolate breads and egg custard tarts. Jackson and Annie loved the iced chocolate milk drinks as well. If you are anywhere near Irvine, visit 85 C Bakery.

Just do it.

Unfamiliar with the different pastries? Just grab a couple that look can't go wrong. You'll thank me later. Now that I'm hooked, I'm so sad we don't have one in Houston.

3. Honey & Butter Macarons - Irvine Spectrum Shopping Center

Rob at Andrei's told us to be sure to grab a macaron from Honey & Butter and we were so glad we listened to him. They were as cute as they were delicious. Annie was THRILLED to score the last pig-shaped macaron (she's crazy for micro pigs). Check out my previous post about fun things to do in Irvine for more about Honey & Butter.

4. Cucina Alessa - Huntington Beach

I can't wait to tell you all about our adventures in Huntington Beach. Stay tuned for an upcoming post about what to do in a day at Surf City USA. We had the best day. EVER.

(Spoiler alert) - Eat at Cucina Alessa. We had dinner at this quaint Italian restaurant on Main Street just a few minutes away from the hustle and bustle of the Boardwalk. What a great way to end a day in the sun...relaxing with a glass of Pinot Grigio, delicious food and my kiddos.

We started out with the Nodini - fresh Mozzarella, aromatic focaccia breadcrumbs, lightly fried, served with pomodoro basil sauce.

I had the Ravioli D'Aragosta (Lobster, fennel, sherry reduction stuffed ravioli, vodka cream sauce), Jackson had Lasagna Napoletana (Original recipe, ricotta cheese, mini-meatballs, ragu', mozzarella, and basil) and Annie had pasta with grilled shrimp.

Tip: We were all so thrilled with our selections, we didn't leave room to enjoy dessert. Be sure to pace yourself (and package leftovers to enjoy for lunch the next day) so you can get the tiramisu or creme brulee.

5. Sandy's Beach Grill - Huntington Beach

After learning how to surf at Huntington Beach - we rode bikes we borrowed from Toes on the Nose (located at the Hilton) to grab a bite to eat for lunch at Sandy's Beach Grill. Just a short bike ride down the boardwalk, Sandy's offers authentic California cuisine with locally sourced ingredients. Located right by the Huntington Pier and below Duke's, we ate outside with a great view of the beach. It was so relaxing and yummy.

Jackson loved the mushroom flatbread. I devoured the seared scallops with yam medallions and sage brown butter and Annie ordered the kid's cheese pizza (I'm telling you - she is nothing if not consistent!)

We loved this casual restaurant because of the great service, super location and yummy food.

Tip: Try Sandy's Surf Burger (shrimp and tuna cake instead of beef). We hear it is to die for!

6. Medieval Times - Buena Park

While staying at the Costa Mesa Marriott, we visited Buena Park to attend a 7:15 p.m. dinner jousting show at Medieval Times. We live in Houston and there is a Medieval Times in Dallas that we've always wanted to go to, but never had the opportunity - so we were really excited.

This 2-hour jousting tournament complete with horses, knights and a falcon also includes a 4-course dinner. When we arrived, we were assigned a table and knight to cheer for (the green knight) and given green paper crowns. We got our picture taken with the Queen (you can purchase photos at the end of the show) and while we waited for the doors to the arena to open, we walked around the Hall of Arms where you can see the weapons, coat of arms, horses and the falcon up close. They also have a bar where you can purchase refreshments in souvenir cups as well as a gift shop with all things medieval.

Trumpets sound, the doors open to the 11th-Century, European-Style Castle, and you are escorted to your table in the color coded area that matches your knight. As a guest of the King, we watched knights engage in a jousting competition using weapons including a sword, lance, alabarda and mace. We also experienced a falcon flying over our heads and a dressage show performed by Andalusian horses.

We had a great time. While you know that the sword fighting is rehearsed, they take great care to make sure the show is authentic while protecting the performers and animals.

I've heard great things about the show, but didn't know what to expect from the meal itself since the same thing is served to everyone. We were pleasantly surprised! It included tomato bisque soup with garlic toast, roasted chicken with buttered corn on the cob and potatoes and an apple turnover for dessert. The chicken was really good (my picker eater cleaned her entire plate!) and we liked dipping our garlic toast in the tomato bisque. The old school apple turnovers reminded me of when I was younger and I may or may not have stolen a couple bites from Annie's dessert (I mean - it was dark in there so no one actually SAW me eat anything!)

Tip: Arrive early to get your seat assignment and walk around the garden and castle. A lot of families upgraded their tickets (there are several packages to pick from) which include a group photo, premiere seating and a flag to wave in honor of your knight. Even though we had the standard tickets, we were able to buy a green knight flag for $5.00 so we could join in and show our "green" support!

7. ChocXO - Irvine

While not a restaurant, we definitely ate a lot of great chocolate during our tour of ChocXO. Check out the details in my earlier post, Family Travel - Fun Things To Do In Irvine, California. We loved learning about how chocolate is made and sampling all the yummy goodness. You could probably count a visit here as a meal.

Or two.

The Cliff Restaurant Laguna Beach

8. The Cliff Restaurant - Laguna Beach

We loved Laguna Beach so much, we went back on the last day of our trip to say goodbye to Shaw's Cove and stop by a few shops in town. Peggy at the visitor's center had recommended The Cliff Restaurant to us when we visited earlier in the week, so we stopped in and had a wonderful brunch by the ocean.

The Cliff is located within walking distance of Main Beach - so it's a popular place for breakfast, lunch and dinner. We had tried to go for dinner once earlier in the week, but the wait was too long. We were happy to have some time on our last day to enjoy the good food and fabulous view.

Jackson had eggs and bacon, Annie ordered waffles and I got the California Benedict with crab meat. Everything was really yummy and the portions were generous, so Annie had plenty of waffles to share with me and Jackson!

It was so peaceful to overlook the Pacific Ocean while we talked about our fantastic week together in Orange County. We had such a great time and The Cliff made our vacation even more memorable,

Tip: The Cliff doesn't accept reservations, but you can call ahead to get your name on the waiting list. I highly recommend doing so - especially for dinner.

What are your favorite restaurants in Orange County?

As a guest of Destination IrvineSurfCityUSA, and Medieval Times some of our expenses were covered in order for us to experience Orange County area restaurants and attractions. We also happily paid for some of our own travel, food and activities during our journey. No other compensation was received and, as always, all opinions expressed are my own or taken from input received from my kids.

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