Costa Mesa is one of the most underrated cities in Orange County, California. I have lived in Orange County all of my life and I am still amazed at how much the city has to offer! Costa Mesa is a gem that has always been full of new trends. Between its burgeoning food scene, endless shopping choices, and eclectic selection of art & culture activities – one could easily see why it is known as the City of the Arts. If you ever find yourself in Orange County, even if it’s less than a day, you cannot miss spending time in Costa Mesa! I stayed there in March 2019, but have revisited numerous times since then. This post was last updated on April 23, 2022.
Table of Contents
- Where is Costa Mesa?
- South Coast Metro
- Central Costa Mesa Activities
- Eastside of Costa Mesa
- SoCo and the OC Mix
- Visitors’ Map of Costa Mesa
- My Thoughts About Costa Mesa
Where is Costa Mesa?
You can’t plan a visit to a place you don’t know where it is! Unlike its small but famous neighbor – Laguna Beach, Costa Mesa is far from hidden. In fact, if you’ve ever driven from Los Angeles to San Diego then you likely have driven through it – it’s right in the middle of Orange County and less than a mile from the beach!
Costa Mesa has several different neighborhoods. Each is distinctly different and offers its own unique vibe. The neighborhoods most worth mentioning are South Coast Metro, SoBeCa, Central Costa Mesa, and the Eastside. If you have time, you’ll definitely want to see them all!
South Coast Metro
The South Coast Metro area of Costa Mesa is the most visited. Having the third-largest mall, South Coast Plaza, in the United States tends to help. A lot. If malls aren’t your thing, keep calm & read on! The South Coast Metro area is much more than just a big mall.
Costa Mesa Arts & Entertainment
If Costa Mesa is the center of Orange County for arts and culture, then South Coast Metro is the center of Costa Mesa. There’s a good reason Costa Mesa is called the City of the Arts. You can go from an art museum in the morning, catch the matinee of a musical, then listen to an orchestra in the evening!
The Segerstrom Center for the Arts is a very unique area. The campus has 4 venues for the performing arts. Segerstrom Hall, formerly the Orange County Performing Arts Center, is a 3,000 seat theater which has headlined performances such as Hamilton, Come From Away, and Book of Mormon. Soon to be showing there is Aladdin. Cats, Fiddler on the Roof, and more!
The concert hall is as amazing looking on the outside as it is on the inside! This 2,000 concert hall hosts the Pacific Symphony, conducted by Carl St Clair. The symphony orchestra performs everything from Bach and Ravel to The Eagles and Star Wars. During the Summer season, catch them at the Pacific Amphitheater at the Orange County Fairgrounds.
One of the best things about the Segerstrom Center is the Argyros Plaza. It is an outdoor area between the theater and the concert hall, is has events throughout the year! Every week there are multiple events ranging from dance lessons to music performances and movies. The best part about these events is that they are typically free! Check out the upcoming events here.
The Orange County Museum of Art is currently in a temporary location across from South Coast Plaza. It is due to move to the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, in 2021, in a location that is still being built.
South Coast Metro Area Restaurants
You’ll find everything from Red Robin to Morton’s Steakhouse in this area of Costa Mesa. I guarantee that there is something for everyone! There are far too many fast casual and casual restaurants for me to cover here; though if you’re in need for recommendations, then let me know and I’ll be happy to give you some.
This area of Costa Mesa has a plethora of excellent restaurants that will be among the best meals you’ve ever eaten. Many of which are great for a pre-theater or concert meal.
I enjoyed a pre-show dinner at the Silver Trumpet, which is located inside the Avenue of the Arts Hotel directly across from Segerstrom Center for the Arts. Reservations are highly recommended, perhaps required, on event nights. I wore khakis and a sport jacket and felt slightly underdressed. Moreover, the service didn’t quite match the elegance of the restaurant. However, the food more than made up for it. It wasn’t that service was slow or overly inattentive, but our water glasses did remain empty, more than once, until we asked for more – a small, but noticeable, detail for an otherwise excellent experience.
At $43, the prix fixe menu is an incredible deal! It’s only a few dollars more than an entree alone and includes choice of appetizer, entree and dessert. I opted for the bacon wrapped dates, rack of lamb, and toffee pear tart. The lamb was probably the best I have ever had. No exaggeration. It was done perfectly to order and wasn’t gamey at all (as some lamb tends to be).
Some other restaurants in South Coast Metro you should consider are: Vaca (Spanish tapas), Pizzeria Ortica, and Terrace by MixMix (good for brunch too!).
Even though Din Tai Fung is more casual than the other places, it is known as one of the best restaurants in America – so I have to mention it. Expect a multi-hour wait to be seated at the best dim sum house. No worries – it is located in South Coast Plaza so there is plenty to do while you wait. If you go, DO NOT pass on the XiaoLongBao (pork soup dumplings). They are what Din Tai Fung is known for.
Pro Tip: Inside South Coast Plaza is the VIP Access lounge. There are two ways to access it: spend a lot of money at one of the high end designer stores in the mall, or fish out your American Express Platinum card from your wallet. I don’t think you’d be reading my blog if you’re able to spend enough money at the designer stores, so I recommend using your AmEx Platinum card. You’ll be able to relax and have a drink or snack while waiting for your table at Din Tai Fung.
Where to Stay in South Coast Metro
This area of Costa Mesa also has the best selection of hotels for points redemptions.
- IHG – Crowne Plaza: 30,000 IHG points
- Hilton – Hilton Orange County/Costa Mesa: 30,000 Honors points
- Marriott – Costa Mesa Marriott: 25,000 Bonvoy points; Avenue of the Arts, a Tribute Portfolio Hotel: 25,000 Bonvoy points; Westin Costa Mesa: 30,000 Bonvoy points. Side note: whoever named Marriott’s loyalty program made the World of Hyatt elite status names sound normal. I can’t help but add “age” to it. “BonVoy-age!”
I stayed at the Avenue of the Arts Hotel and loved it. As I mentioned, it’s a Tribute Portfolio hotel – the only one in the Orange County & Los Angeles area and only one of four east of the Rocky Mountains! It’s a boutique hotel that is located directly across the street from Segerstrom Center and within walking distance to South Coast Plaza. Moreover, you’ll get a much more unique experience than you would if you stayed at the Marriott or Westin. Between the luxuriously decorated rooms, interesting art, beautiful furniture, and the stunning hardwood floors, a stay at this hotel will be most memorable!
If you have Marriott Bonvoy Platinum status (or higher) or get breakfast included with your stay, breakfast will be served in the Silver Trumpet. If it is even half as good as the lamb I had, your breakfast will be amazing. I’m sure you won’t have a better breakfast at the Marriott or Westin!
Mirror, mirror on the wall… which neighborhood is the trendiest of them all? The South Coast Metro area is trendy; it is true, but SoBeCa is trendier. Please forgive my Snow White reference!
SoBeCa, or South Bristol Entertainment & Cultural Arts, is right on the other side of the 405 freeway from South Coast Metro, on Bristol St. There are three things that make SoBeCa one of my favorite areas in all of Orange County: the anti-malls, the food, and the breweries.
The so-called “anti-malls” – The Camp & The LAB – are counter culture to what South Coast Plaza is. Both of them are small and eco-friendly – almost hippy, but more hipster. There is a lot of plant life and unique seating areas which removes the feeling of being in the middle of a metropolitan area.
Food of SoBeCa
The best place I have eaten at in SoBeCa is Old Vine Kitchen & Bar. It is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Every dish is decadent and uses seasonal ingredients. No matter what you order at Old Vine, you won’t leave feeling hungry. If you have the option to get a cinnamon roll, do not pass on the opportunity! I promise, you won’t regret it.
While the cinnamon roll is camera shy, the pastrami reuben omelette is quite the opposite! Yes, that is an omelette with pastrami, sauerkraut, and gruyere. It was also good, as were the cheesy grits served on the side. Old Vine Kitchen does not disappoint!
My other nearby recommendations include: Habana (Cuban), Memphis (creole), Taco Asylum, and Mesa (American).
But wait, there’s more! Did you know that 5 of 10 of the best ramen houses, in Orange County, are within a mile of each other in Costa Mesa? I must say that I wasn’t just surprised, I was shocked when I learned that! They say “no two ramen bowls are the same,” and I can’t wait to try them all!
Costa Mesa Breweries
Another thing I love about SoBeCa is that there are three craft breweries that are all within walking distance. You’ll find tasting rooms for Barley Forge, Gunwhale Ales, and Bootleggers.
Barley Forge Brewery has a wide selection of beers ranging from light lagers to IPAs and stouts. My favorites are the Don Perfecto, an horchata witbier, and the Nom Nom, a mango hefeweizen. Honorable mention is The Patsy, a coconut rye stout. Personally, coconut is one of the few foods I dislike so I wasn’t a fan, but everyone else I was with enjoyed The Patsy. They also serve a decent selection of food, and have Tuesday night trivia and a jazz band on Thursdays.
Gunwhale Ales is directly across the street from Barley Forge. While the tasting room at Barley Forge is stereotypically a brewery (that is, there’s not much to it), Gunwhale is brightly lit with plants scattered around the room. They serve mostly farmhouse ales and IPAs. I find IPAs to be way too bitter for me, but learned that hazy IPAs are far less bitter. If you’re like me and are skeptical about IPAs, give the Whitecap hazy a chance.
Bootleggers Brewery has several tasting rooms in Orange County. The location in Costa Mesa, behind the LAB, recently opened in October 2018. They have over 20 beers on tap!
Honestly, I might have made the mistake of going to Bootleggers last. I had already had 3 flights of beer at Gunwhale and Barley Forge, and the selection at Bootleggers looked really good. So I did what anyone else would do, I ordered another flight and shared it with my friends. While the El Chango is one of their most popular beers, I enjoyed the Mint Chocolate Porter the most. What can I say – I’m a sucker for mint chocolate anything. It tasted like they turned a Thin Mint Girl Scout cookie into a beer!
Central Costa Mesa Activities
There are two main attractions in Central Costa Mesa – The Triangle and the Orange County Fairgrounds. The Triangle, and that section of Newport Blvd., is where you’ll find some nightclubs and dive bars – as well as a premier bowling alley.
The fairgrounds is much more family friendly and has activities at all times of the year. You’ll find events like the Orange County Marketplace, car shows, robotics competitions, and my favorite – the Orange County Fair.
The Orange County Fairgrounds is also home to the Pacific Amphitheater which hosts concerts during the summer.
Pro tip: Concert tickets during the OC Fair also include same day fair tickets!
Read more: A Day at the Fair
Eastside of Costa Mesa
What distinguishes the Eastside from the other neighborhoods is that it is mostly known for the restaurants which serve some amazing food & drinks. Most of these restaurants are casual, but you won’t feel out of place if you are more dressed up.
The Country Club
The decor lives up to its namesake. As soon as you walk in the door, you’ll feel like you’re at the 19th hole at a country club. It is a fun place to get brunch and dinner. Despite being on 17th Street, which is quite busy, the patio was surprisingly quiet.
The banana foster pancakes were as good as the banana foster I had in New Orleans. However, what stole the show for me was the Bloody Mary. I ordered it “club style” which is served with bacon, lime, olives, jalapeño, and a pickle. It was nearly a meal unto itself!
Here are some other options for dining on the Eastside: The Crack Shack (fried chicken), Playa Mesa (Mexican, open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner), Pie-Not (fast casual Australian pies), and Eat Chow (American).
While you’re in the area, you have to go to Sidecar Doughnuts. These doughnuts are as good as Voodoo Doughnuts!
SoCo and the OC Mix
SoCo and The OC Mix isn’t a neighborhood of Costa Mesa, instead it’s an outdoor shopping mall with boutique stores and other restaurants you should consider eating at. It has a nice combination of features from South Coast Plaza & the anti-malls of SoBeCa. Honestly, I’m surprised that this isn’t part of the South Coast Metro area because it’s so close – but it’s not. Perhaps the people in charge thought there was already enough in South Coast Metro and excluded SoCo.
Inside the OC Mix is a collection of vendors with each one selling clothing, crafts and food; however, the restaurants is what makes SoCo worth visiting. Get some coffee at Portola Coffee Roasters – a craft roaster with brew to order coffee and espresso. After you have your freshly brewed coffee, head over to ARC (rustic American), Pueblo (Spanish tapas), or Taco Maria which is heralded as one of the 10 best tacos in the United States! You can’t go wrong with any of these choices.
If you’re looking for entertainment, check out LCA Wine. About once a month they host a show called “Lord of the Strings”. It’s a very intimate venue with good music and wine tasting.
Visitors’ Map of Costa Mesa
My Thoughts About Costa Mesa
I really can’t say enough good things about what there is to see, do, and eat. I highly recommend, at the very least, stopping by if you’re in the area. Several of my friends saw my pictures on my Instagram stories and have already asked me when I want to go back to some of these restaurants. Hopefully they’ll be okay with doing a “ramen crawl” as I’d love to share which noodle house is the best one. Keep your eyes open for my full review of the Avenue of the Arts Hotel, and possibly where you should go for the best ramen in Costa Mesa!
Disclaimer: I was hosted for the weekend by Travel Costa Mesa, but all thoughts and opinions are my own.
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6 thoughts on “Local’s Travel Guide to Costa Mesa”
Costa Mesa getaway for this Oregonian – yep, I need some warm weather about now!
Not to mention the best frozen bananas are right down the way on Balboa Island! Nice article pointing out highlights – looking forward to the ramen reviews!
What an incredible tour. So many gems you uncovered for someone like me who should know that area. I think a trip to Bootleggers should be put on the calendar soon!
Costa Mesa is incredible…and there’s so much more that I only alluded to!
Wow, looks epic. This post is giving me serious wanderlust. And it’s on my bucket list, would like to get there within the next couple of years.
I visited Costa Mesa for work last year. Will definitely have to check out the breweries next time!