Newport Restaurants Nab Golden Foodie Awards

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Golden Foodie hosts Aarti Sequeira and Neil Saavedra during the awards ceremony at Marriott Newport Beach on Sept. 29.
— Photo by Christopher Trela ©

How good are Newport Beach restaurants?

At the eight annual Golden Foodie Awards, held on Sept. 29 at the Marriott Newport Beach, local restaurants, bartenders and chefs were nominated in 14 out of 16 categories. Newport restaurants went on to score an impressive seven wins, cementing the city’s reputation as a culinary oasis.

The Golden Foodie Awards were created by the Orange County Restaurant Association to honor OC-based restaurants and those who work in the industry.

Chef Amy Lebrun of Lido Bottle Works serving burrata crostinis during the event reception on Sept. 29.
— Photo by Christopher Trela ©

The evening began with a reception in the Marriot’s rose garden, where 16 restaurants served signature bites. A who’s who of the OC restaurant community mixed and mingled — a rare time for everyone to come together and enjoy a night out.

Spotted in the crowd: Chef Amy Lebrun of Lido Bottle Works, a nominee for Chef of the Year. She was serving superb burrata crostinis and looking like a chef-model. Chef Craig Strong from Ocean at Main in Laguna Beach was also there, serving an amazing roasted beet salad. He deserves to be nominated in multiple categories.

Once inside the Marriott’s ballroom, hosts Neil Saavedra and Aarti Sequeira welcomed everyone and set the stage for the awards to follow. They also introduced a succession of humorous video clips that were modern takes on food or bar scenes from classic movies, with chefs substituting for famous actors.

Newport wasted no time getting into the spotlight. The first award, Bartender of the Year, went to Ravin Buzzell of CdM Restaurant, which opened earlier this year.

Russ Bendel, the mind behind Newport Beach’s Olea, accepts the Golden Foodie Award for Restaurateur of the Year during the Sept. 29 event.
— Photo by Christopher Trela ©

Best Lunch Spot went to Farmhouse at Roger’s Gardens, another Corona del Mar hotspot founded by longtime OC Chef Rich Mead, who was named Best Chef at the awards ceremony in 2017.

Restaurateur of the Year went to Russ Bendel, the face behind Olea (Newport Beach), Vine (San Clemente) and Ironwood (Laguna Hills).

Bendel strikes restaurant gold wherever he goes. When I congratulated him that night, he teasingly told me that a fourth restaurant is on its way. I can’t wait to find out details. By the way, I celebrated my birthday last Tuesday by dining at Olea. I had the burger — still one of the best in OC.

Best Service Award went to Five Crowns in Corona del Mar.

I agree with the choice. Five Crowns not only has fabulous cuisine, but the service is always friendly and attentive. Plus, they have Tommy “Roadrunner” Martin, a host/sommelier/ambassador who recently marked 50 years with the restaurant. I have dubbed him the “King of Goodwill” and “Prince of Smiles.”

Any time Martin is making the rounds, he always makes diners glad they came to Five Crowns.

Ocean at Main chef Craig Strong with his beet salad during the Golden Foodie Awards reception on Sept. 29.
— Photo by Christopher Trela ©

Best Brunch in Orange County was won by Bosscat Kitchen & Libations near John Wayne Airport. I have had their cuisine many times at special events, but now I need to go and try their brunch!

Best Beer Program in Orange County went to Helmsman Ale House, a relative newcomer that opened last summer where Newport Beach Brewing Company once stood. They remodeled the interior, added a brew master, revamped the menu, and became an instant neighborhood classic. Oh — and the beer program is outstanding.

It was a given that a Newport Beach eatery would win Best New Restaurant — all three nominees were from Newport: Helmsman Ale House, CdM Restaurant, and Fable & Spirit. Fittingly, as Helmsman and CdM had already won awards, this time it was Fable & Spirit’s turn to garner the spotlight.

Two special awards were bestowed during this year’s event.

The Avila family accepts the Legacy Award during the Golden Foodie event on Sept. 29.
— Photo by Christopher Trela ©

The Legacy Award went to the Avila family, founders of Avila’s El Ranchito Mexican restaurants. They have 11 locations in Orange County, including in Newport Beach and Corona del Mar.

The restaurant was launched in the mid-1960s by Salvador Avila, with recipes created by his wife. His children and grandchildren continued the Avila legacy. Each of the restaurants is managed by a family member, with many of the original recipes still on the menu, including Mamá Avila’s Soup with chicken broth, chunks of chicken breast, rice, avocado, tomato, cilantro and lime.

The Lifetime Achievement Award went to the one and only Chef Pascal Olhats, who has been concocting creative French cuisine in Orange County for more than 35 years.

Chef Pascal Olhats accepts his Lifetime Achievement Award, as presenter Alan Greeley watches in the background, during the Golden Foodie Awards on Sept. 29.
— Photo by Christopher Trela ©

Olhats has had several noted restaurants, including his famed Pascal restaurant on Bristol Street and Brasserie Pascal in Fashion Island. His latest project is his Café Jardin at Sherman Library & Gardens in Corona del Mar.

Olhats recently waged a battle with T-cell lymphoma, but, after treatment, has recovered and is back in action. He has a new sidekick: Chef Jessica Roy, formerly of Current Coastal Cuisine at the Renaissance Newport Beach hotel. Roy recently won Guy’s Grocery Games on the Food Network, an impressive feat. Look for her to receive accolades soon for her modern fresh twist on classic dishes.

Another legendary chef, Alan Greeley (Golden Truffle), came out of his Florida retirement to present the award to Olhats. Greeley noted that Olhats told him during a phone conversation that he had stage three cancer, and Greeley replied that it’s better than stage five cancer. Olhats said “there is no stage five.” Greeley, with his customary unfiltered tongue, retorted “that’s what I f-ing said — it’s better than stage five.”

Olhats received a standing ovation when he went on stage to claim his Golden Foodie trophy, while the Elton John song “I’m Still Standing” played in the background.

Best Dressed couple Noah and Marin Von Blom of Arc Butcher & Baker in Newport Beach present the award for Best Beer Program.
— Photo by Christopher Trela ©

“I’m happy to be here — I’m still standing,” Olhats said to cheers from the audience. He thanked his wife for her support, and also thanked the entire restaurant community for their friendship.

After the awards ceremony ended, it was time for an after-party with an array of cocktails, beer and bites, plus coffee and donuts.

Congratulations to the winners, nominees, and everyone who has managed to carve a career in the restaurant industry. This humble food writer thanks you.

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