Yes, after more than two months of either closing their doors or offering take-out menus, local restaurants have reopened for dine-in service.
The cuisine remains as good as always, but protocols have changed. Wait staff and bartenders wear masks, tables are spread further apart or have parties seated every other table, and some restaurants have even installed movable clear panels to separate diners.
Above all, most restaurants are going to extreme measures to reassure customers that it’s safe to come back and dine again.
Naturally, being a food writer, I was anxious to visit Newport Beach restaurants and once again enjoy my favorite cuisine while checking out the new safe-dining guidelines in action.
Last Thursday, I had lunch at Café Jardin in Corona del Mar the day they reopened. Chef Pascal Olhats and Chef Jessica Roy had operated a pop-up food and produce stand at the restaurant’s back door until the word came that restaurants could reopen.
Although Olhats had been planning his protocols, he waited until his system was in place before inviting diners back to his café located inside Sherman Gardens, which had reopened in mid-May.
Olhats had a specific entrance and exit marked off for his restaurants, and tables were spaced further apart. A masked server took my order from a menu enclosed in a small frame on the table: tomato bisque to start along with a half loaf of fresh baked French bread, a “Grec” salad with grilled lamb, olives, cucumbers and peppers, drizzled with tzatziki sauce for an entree (a new menu item), and a mini crepe for dessert.
Chef Olhats had told me he was going to go as green as possible, so I was pleased to see bamboo utensils and plates, and a recycled placemat.
The tomato bisque arrived with the bread, which I used to dunk in the soup. Chef Olhats also sent out his famous French onion soup for me to try—loaded with onions, and very French indeed.
The salad with lamb was wonderful, a perfect summer dish. The dessert a perfect ending. I lingered at the table, enjoying the view of the garden and promising myself I’d return that weekend to take another garden tour and savor a meal at Chef Olhats’ creperie, which is open on weekends. Café Jardin is open weekdays, and soon for Sunday brunch.
I did indeed return to Sherman Gardens on Saturday with fellow foodie Della Lisa. This was her first time at the Gardens, so we lingered on the trail admiring the foliage and the current “Sculptura Botanica” art installation.
Then it was time for crepes. Della chose the smoked salmon and dill crepe, while I selected the caprese with buffalo mozzarella, tomato and basil. Both delicious.
Tavern House Kitchen + Bar
Having ordered to-go meals from Tavern House over the past few weeks, I looked forward to dining in again and enjoying the harbor view.
Tavern House had just reopened for dine-in service last Thursday when I made a reservation for dinner, and they were busy—every other table seated, and patrons six feet apart at the bar, which is where I dined.
Masks were on all servers and bartenders, as they were at every restaurant I visited.
After perusing the menu (which is extensive), and remembering I had their cheeseburger, charred brussels with pine nuts and pecan wood smoked bacon to go, I settled on the buttermilk fried chicken with mashed potatoes, green beans and thyme gravy, which I had not enjoyed for months.
“It’s our most popular dish,” said the bartender as she took my order and brought me a watermelon margarita to sip while waiting for the entrée. I had talked to Tavern House owner David Wilhelm last week, when he was on his way to Tavern House with a trunk full of watermelons. Obviously, the watermelon margarita is a hit.
So is the fried chicken, which arrived stacked on top of the mashed potatoes and beans. The chicken is incredibly moist and flavorful, and the thyme gravy is the secret ingredients. Wilhelm brought me a petite pitcher of the gravy, saying “I always like extra gravy with my chicken.” Good call, David!
I had so much fun that I returned with fellow foodie Della Lisi for brunch on Sunday—although I also called to see about reservations for Saturday, and was told they were fully booked.
The brunch menu is more abbreviated than the dinner menu, but is packed with breakfast favorites. Shrimp Dijon and brussels sprouts are on the menu, but so are buttermilk fried chicken & malted waffles with pecan wood smoked bacon, Vermont maple syrup and thyme gravy, prime rib benedict, Christmas burrito, Tavern scramble, and huevos rancheros.
Della and I arrived a few minutes after 10 a.m.—brunch time. We nabbed a window booth and perused the menu. I decided to continue with my chicken adventures and ordered the chicken and waffles, while Della went with the scramble.
We chatted with GM Carlos Godinez, who told us that they did more business on Saturday night then they normally did before the Pandemic closures, which means patrons are more than ready to return to restaurants.
My chicken and waffles was, as expected, terrific, and Della enjoyed her scramble. What a joy to relax and gaze out at the paddleboarders, kayakers and boats navigating the picturesque waters.
I popped over to Moulin on Friday to grab a sandwich and see how busy they were. As expected, a steady flow of customers, masks mandatory.
I had talked to owner Laurent Vrignaud a few days after the go-ahead to reopen was given, and he told me he was not going to reopen for inside dining yet because his products were always meant to be to-go.
“I’ll start with the patios and put half the tables out, separated from each other. If you decide to have your sandwich and sit down, that ls fine, but we’re not going to do what we were doing three months ago.”
I nabbed one of the last veggie sandwiches, and instead of having them heat the sandwich, I took it home and used my toaster oven to perfectly heat and brown the sandwich.
I went back on Tuesday and grabbed a tuna sandwich—my favorite. People were sitting at patio tables, which had been strategically placed more than six feet apart.
Moulin has it figured out.
Winery co-owner JC Clow had invited me to tour The Winery prior to reopening to see the safeguards that were being installed to offer safety to guests and employees alike.
The safeguards are extensive: tall clear moveable panels to separate tables and diners in the lounge, clear panels at the bar to separate patrons, and clear panels installed between booths. Add to that the mask-wearing staff, and you have a still-classy dining experience.
Going solo last Friday (their reopening day), I sat at the bar and ordered a glass of The Boyz red wine, a special blend made just for The Winery at Halter Ranch Vineyards in Paso Robles.
The menu is as extensive and mouth-watering as before. I started with crispy almond dusted calamari accompanied by cucumber salad and a spicy tomato-saffron aioli. I had intended to order The Winery corkscrew pasta with chicken, but the calamari order was enough to share between two—or one hungry food writer, so instead of the pasta, I ended my meal with an old favorite: Tahitian vanilla bean crème brulee with berries.
In addition to proper covid protocols, I was impressed with the valet—a necessary element at The Winery, otherwise need to park down the street. The wiped down every inch of my Dodge Charger that they touched, from steering wheel to door handle, making me feel good about using the valet, and giving them an extra tip.
Fellow foodie Della Lisi and I wanted to dine at a restaurant last Saturday night and called around to see who had a table available. I was happy to hear that The Winery, Tavern House, and Olea were all sold out. Luckily, I was able to nab a table at Il Barone.
There was a line waiting to enter Il Barone—with parties self-spacing six feet apart. Once we had our table, I looked over at the exhibition kitchen and saw owner/chef Franco Barone hard at work with his masked chefs.
Our server recited several specials of the evening, all of which sounded tempting. I had to order Il Barone’s most popular item to start: Facci ri Veccia (thin focaccia filled with imported crescenza cheese topped with Parma prosciutto and truffle oil).
For entrees Della opted for an octopus and cuttlefish salad with potatoes, teardrop tomatoes, arugula, oregano, and extra Virgin olive oil, while I had been yearning for the black ink pasta with cuttlefish, Argentinean prawns, garlic, white wine, tomato and squid ink sauce.
The Facci ri Veccia was a delicious and welcome indulgence, with the cheese-loaded focaccia and thin slices of prosciutto a perfect combo. The truffle oil added decadence to every bite.
Della enjoyed her salad, and I relished the pasta dish, which was delightfully dark and packed with a marriage of flavors.
We paired our meal with an excellent super Tuscan that was so good I had to order a second glass. We were too full for dessert. Next time.
On our way out, I flashed a thumbs-up sign at Chef Franco. I had a feeling he was smiling behind his mask.