YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

O.C. Eats : O.C. on the Menu

Steering and Breaks : Urban prowlers can fuel up at the 'drive-under' Autobistro. At Bristol Farm's market cafe, diners can downshift, even sit a spell.


Autobistro bills itself as the country's first "drive-under" restaurant. It belongs to Gordon Bowker, a guy with a heavy track record (he co-founded Starbucks), but to some people--well, to me--it seems a little impractical, though admittedly wild and strange.

I remember being fascinated as a child with Horn and Hardart, better known in New York as the Automat. It was a sort of cafeteria where food was displayed in little boxes with glass windows. You'd put in a coin and--presto!--the door would open and you'd get your pot roast. (I also remember being terribly let down when I saw a hand placing something inside one of the boxes and realized that that ordinary human beings, not robots, had cooked it all.)

Autobistro has a similar futuristic mystique. The difference (this being California) is that cars are involved--and that the food is fashionable California stuff rather than apple pie and pot roast.

Here's the drill. You drive in, pick up a menu, place your order and pay a cashier--so far, not too different from going to a fast food drive-through.

But next you're assigned one of three lanes, and you drive down it and pull up (eventually--there may be a couple of cars ahead of you) to what looks like a dumbwaiter built out of Lego materials. A mysterious voice confirms your order. The food, cooked in a kitchen on the floor above you, is lowered in a red metal basket.

Everything comes neatly packaged in modular brown bags. And the dishes, you won't be surprised to learn, are the foods baby boomers love: focaccia, penne, Chinese chicken salad, warm chocolate chip cookies. And, of course, espresso, a la Starbucks.

Most of the food is fairly elaborate, and there's the rub. Where are you eating it, after all? Is your Catera really the place to have pasta or seafood Newburg pot pie? (Beats me.)

I did enjoy my so-called "one-handed" breakfast--a "home-style" pastry with a filling of roasted turkey, carrots and red peppers bound with eggs--though it struck me as more like quiche than breakfast food. The stuffed biscuit (chicken apple sausage, smoked Gouda and green onions, again with eggs) is a quantum leap beyond an Egg McMuffin. Also, the breakfast pastries, particularly the gooey hot cinnamon roll, are all delicious here.

Still, lunch suits this concept best. The delicious roast beef on focaccia is embellished with caramelized onions, melted cheddar and horseradish. The Caesar salad topped with grilled chicken was bland, but everything was fresh and crisp. I wouldn't order the sesame peanut noodles again, though; the sauce was cloyingly sweet. What they call bistro potato chips are properly crunchy, but you'd better like a malt vinegar flavoring.

Dinner's the same as lunch plus four hot entree choices: three pot pies and one pasta. The pot pies are in fact stews served on top of puff pastry. The beef version--chunks of meat in a red wine sauce along with mushrooms and pearl onions--is the best. None of the pot pies keeps well, though. They get soggy pretty fast.

A drive-under restaurant may be novel and fun. So far, though, the concept isn't taking Newport by storm. And, personally, I'd rather be eating meat loaf at a Horn and Hardart, but the Automat is no more.

Autobistro is moderately priced. Breakfasts are $2.49 to $2.69. Sandwiches are $5.95 to $6.45. Salads are $4.95 to $7.45. Hot entrees are $6.45 to $9.75.



Meanwhile, farther down PCH in Corona del Mar, there is more boomer food fanfare. The new Bristol Farms market includes Bristol Cafe, which serves sumptuous breakfasts, elaborate sandwiches, rustic soups and fancy salads, all in a large dining area filled with varnished wooden tables and high-backed chairs.

Those who've been to Bristol Farms know it's quite an operation. The aisles are full of perfectly stacked produce, boutique wines and imported cheeses. Specialty counters sell freshly made pastries, composed salads, rotisserie meats and sushi.

Technically, you can take anything you buy at the market to one of the cafe tables and eat it, but the cafe has a menu, and it's a good one. In the early morning, when things are quiet, a waitress will take your order and bring the food to the table. At lunch, when the place is full, it's best to order from the cashier and serve yourself.

You'll eat well and at a reasonable price. At breakfast, the thick Belgian waffle is served hot with real maple syrup. "Bagel 'n' lox" is a huge helping of smoked Atlantic salmon with a crusty homemade bagel, Bermuda onions, tomatoes, a mound of capers and plenty of cream cheese.

Still, it's lunch I like best here. The cafe sells a good herb-roasted chicken for under $5--a whole bird, big enough for three. On Mondays, there's a hearty pasta e fagioli soup, and on Saturdays you can get a really delicious wild rice chicken soup, probably the cafe's best.

One of the best sandwiches is the Bristol Reuben, with pungent sauerkraut, low-fat Swiss and lean Boar's Head pastrami or corned beef (your choice). I also give high marks to the chicken salad, crunchy with celery, which I prefer on an onion roll with lettuce and tomato.

I also like to come in here for a s'mores bar or a lemon bar (which you buy at the bakery in the rear of the supermarket) and wash it down with a cup of Peet's Italian roast coffee. You can also come in and taste the coffee for free, a Bristol Farms calling card.

Betcha can't drink just one.

Bristol Cafe is moderately priced. Light bites and salads are $3.49 to $6.95. Sandwiches are $5.95 to $6.95.


Autobistro, 3100 W. Coast Highway, Newport Beach. (949) 515-9060. 6 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 7 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday. MasterCard and Visa.

Bristol Cafe, 810 Avocado Ave., Newport Beach. (949) 760-6514. 8 a.m.-9 p.m. daily. All major cards.

Los Angeles Times Articles