The Daily Meal, a popular food and drink lifestyle site, has just unveiled its 2015 list of the 50 Best College Bars in America, and guess what? As usual with national “best of” lists, Orange County got stiffed. Oh, the ignorance! Despite a wealth of college campuses and our famously leisure-oriented lifestyle, the Mealsters couldn’t find a single student-friendly dive, beer hall, boite or watering hole to single out for praise in our fair county. Here’s a list of 10 places they missed. (I could have picked 50.) They all have loads of atmosphere and a stimulating crowd, and you can order a drink there without dipping into your Pell Grant (although I threw in a couple of classy places for date-night purposes). Many aren’t within walking distance of a campus, but that’s what Uber is for.
Owners Jason and Rebecca Schiffer transformed this downtown Seal Beach haunt into O.C.’s first bona fide cocktail Mecca, and it’s still in a league of its own for artfully made classic cocktails and inventive variations on age-old themes. The room feels timeless; Hemingway would have felt right at home here. Get a seat at the bar – watching the bartenders work is an integral part of the experience.
320 Main St., Seal Beach
The Anthill Pub & Grill
Great prices on brewskis are the draw at UCI’s beloved pub (especially during Happy Hour — $1 off pints, $3 off pitchers), and the selection is impressive, too. They manage to find and serve Pliny the Younger, which is about as challenging as getting J.D. Salinger to do a reading in your dorm room.
215-C Student Center, Irvine
This new Costa Mesa brewery isn’t as much of a secret as when it first opened – it gets crowded quickly despite its commodious size. Bonus: unlike most craft breweries, it has its own kitchen. The food truck industry must be heartbroken.
2957-B Randolph Ave., Costa Mesa
Who doesn’t love a dive-y, rowdy beach bar on a sunny Saturday? Even Bartleby the Scrivener would have ended up yakking his fool head off at this friendly place, where the beer is cheap, strangers will pull you into their orbit, and the people-watching is world-class. (Hmmm, Hemingway would have felt right at home here, too.)
2116 W. Oceanfront, Newport Beach
This is craft beer drinking in its most elemental form, with a bare-bones outdoor seating area that could pass for a prison yard. But don’t let that be a turn-off – Bootlegger’s makes some primo IPAs. Try the Knuckle Sandwich DIPA if you dare, hop heads.
130 S. Highland Ave., Fullerton
Still the gold standard for artisanal beer in the O.C. Everything is worth trying here, from porters and stouts to some of the puckeriest sours you’ll encounter south of Firestone’s Buellton tasting room. Go for the flights – they’re always cleverly put together and illuminating, even to jaded beer snobs.
715 Dunn Way, Placentia
Goat Hill Tavern
Want that feeling that you’re at a blue-collar townie bar near some big ol’ state school in a godforsaken Texas town the night before a crucial football game? That would be the Goat Hill Tavern on any random night. It’s a rowdy, dog-eared mess, but there are 140 taps staring at you when you walk in the door. And throwing peanut shells on the floor appeals to the inner Pigpen in all of us.
1830 Newport Blvd., Costa Mesa
I always feel like I’m in a back-alley bistro in Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter when I’m at this tiny restaurant-bar in the same plaza as CSUF’s Grand Central Arts Center. It’s got a fascinating bar menu with seasonal cocktails and, for the plebes, cheap Happy Hour beer. You’re smack dab in the middle of DTSA, with its plethora of possibilities, but if you want to get into a serious discussion about Marcuse, Mapplethorpe or “Moby-Dick,” this is the place.
211 W. Second St., Santa Ana
The handiwork of whiz-bang bar manager Joel Caruso is the reason to seek out this place in the shadow of South Coast Plaza. A dizzying array of sweet vermouths, barrel-aged cocktails, intelligent reconstructions of classics like the Negroni – the possibilities will keep you glued to the bar all night long. Oh, and the pizzas are terrific, too. Don’t forget to validate your parking – otherwise that fancy parking spot in the garage will cost you more than your drink.
650 Anton Boulevard, Unit J
Who wouldn’t want to hang out in a dive bar where Douglas Fairbanks is rumored to have whiled away some idle hours? Yes, it’s been around that long, and the décor looks like it hasn’t been freshened up since the Eisenhower era, but that’s part of the charm. Turc’s is the kind of place where you could nurse a $6 whiskey all night long, as long as you don’t cause a ruckus. Just check out the dusty nautical décor and the local color – it’s a novel waiting to happen.
16321 Pacific Coast Hwy, Sunset Beach, CA 90742