Let's get real. When it comes to late-night dining, we are not living in Madrid here. People in Orange County tend to dine at civilized hours.
But though most local restaurants are empty by the time the clock strikes 10, the situation is not as hopeless as you might imagine. Let's say you've just seen a meaty performance by South Coast Repertory or a pithy 8 o'clock movie, and you want to sup in style. Or let's say you've been working until midnight on that impossible project, you're hot and grumpy, and you just want to roll up your sleeves and dive into a burger. You've got a baby-sitter you can trust or you don't have an appointment until 10 the next morning. And things were so frantic that you haven't eaten a thing since breakfast.
Well, surprise! There are restaurants of all shapes and sizes for after-hours dining in Orange County, where just about anything that strikes your fancy is being served. For this story, I've limited the choices to more familiar fare (a separate story spotlighting Asian restaurants is planned for a future date). Here is a short list of some noteworthy spots, and a few suggestions about what to eat in them.
Bennie the Bum's Diner. Let's assume that, for now, the fancy stuff is more than you can handle. It's after midnight, and you've been working or doing some heavy partying. So you decide to head for the beach, and one of those oceanside diners like Edie's, Ruby's or any of the other late-night haunts that line Pacific Coast Highway clear up to Seal Beach. You clear your senses with a big whiff of that refreshing sea air, and then you head for Bennie the Bum's Diner.
Bennie's is one of those '50s-style diners with belligerent cooks and singing countermen, where people sit bleary-eyed in the turquoise booths waiting for their burgers with fries. Singles sit on turquoise stools at the pink-topped counter, staring down the giant Coke sign and the pictures of celebrities named Joey (Joey Bishop, Joey Heatherton) while waiting for service. No one is holding his breath, by the way.
The food at Bennie's is basic but solid. There are a variety of classic American sandwiches; the Reuben, Philly cheese steak, hot dogs, burgers, and a delicious BLT. The chili fries are classic, a giant portion smothered in Bennie's unctuous chili and gooey melted cheese.
Get there before 11:30 or so and they'll cook you chicken, meat loaf, pork chops or other short-order specialties. If you request these dishes after midnight, the counterman had better like you a whole lot, or he'll abuse you verbally for daring even to ask.
But there are always good milkshakes, a large selection of pies, a few soups and some soggy omelets. And the rather confused-looking crowd makes a fair bit of noise. In short, Bennie the Bum's provides all-American, late-night entertainment, sort of like the Letterman show with catering. But if you're after a classier establishment, read on.
Bennie the Bum's Diner, 238 Laguna Ave., Laguna Beach. (714) 497-4786. Open 24 hours daily. Visa/MC. Food for two, $8-$18.
Gustav Anders. My unquestioned first choice for a late-night repast would be Gustav Anders, a sleek, sophisticated jewel of a restaurant that combines the spirit of a Paris bistro with the good sense of a Stockholm supper club.
The restaurant is centrally located, close to the Performing Arts Center and the area's heaviest concentration of movie theatres. Dining there after hours is a joy. The restaurant's "anytime we are open" menu features just the kind of light fare that goes down easy in the wee hours: several caviars, various smoked fish, innovative salads and elegant sandwiches. There is a superb wine list, full of top-drawer California wines and hard to find French champagnes like Salon, Cristal and Perrier Grand Siecle. And service, always deft and casual, becomes more relaxed and soigne when the crowds thin down.
Things are anything but sedate, however. The dining room is softly lit and its majestic beams recall a Scandinavian cottage. But a suave collection of art and sculpture makes the surroundings a challenge to the eye. And Thursday through Sunday, a pianist plays soft jazz, the better to sip champagne by and arouse your most primal instincts.
Should you desire something stronger than champagne, Maitre'd Bill Magnuson (Gustav) has added an aquavit bord-- an hors d'oeuvres table featuring several of candinavia's celebrated, caraway-flavored liqueurs. The sharply lined, zinc-topped bar has been laden with goodies--oysters on the shell, carpaccio, house-cured herring, gravlax, even smoked reindeer--and the aquavits are potent and icy cold. It can all be had for one price, $22, a price I'd say was a steal. Just make sure someone else is driving home. Aquavit is definitely not for drivers, or wimps.