Orange County Restaurants and Shopping

There are literally hundreds of Orange County shopping opportunities; how do we simplify things to help you with your vacation planning? Let’s think first about what kind of shopping you’re likely to do. If you just need to buy some pain reliever or sunscreen, you’ll find plenty of stores to help you, even within walking distance of the Disneyland Resort, for example.

So you don’t need our help with that sort of thing, although one of the links you’ll see at the bottom of this page will make it easier to find that retail store you need.

The Old Spaghetti Factory at the Fullerton Train Station

Similarly, you may want to do some mall shopping—and we have plenty of regional malls—but most of the malls in O.C. are pretty similar to what you have back home. So we’re not going to concentrate too much on conventional malls and community shopping centers, although we will steer you to a good link or two that will help you in the event that you do need to get to Sears or J.C. Penny. Also, if you just want an air-conditioned place to hang out with friends or relatives, most of the malls will do nicely, and they are scattered around the county.

Vacation Dining

Of course shopping, walking and hanging with relatives burn calories, and you’ve gotta eat and drink at some point. Maybe you’d like to find an interesting nightclub. When it comes to dining (and imbibing), you’ll usually find good restaurants and clubs near the better shopping destinations.

Orange County restaurants range from fast food up to the finest dining establishments and trendiest hot spots. Whether you just want a decent, moderately priced restaurant for the family or are looking for a special evening where you expect to drop a bundle, you can find that pretty much throughout the county. You don’t need to be near the beach to find a great dining or nightclub experience.

We could give you 50 recommendations and there would be another 50 that we had to skip, that are just as good. Instead we want to give you some tools to forage for your own food. Check the shopping links provided in the following paragraphs for some specific recommendations that include dining options. However, if you’d like to go straight to some ideas for restaurants and nightclubs click here.

Vacation Shopping:

If your interest in shopping is for fun, and perhaps to acquire some souvenirs, then there are some great places to visit. Meandering through a well-designed shopping complex can be a fine way to spend time with relatives or friends, to break up your 3-day binge of bodysurfing at The Wedge, to escape Disney merchandise, or to find that special memento of your trip to Southern California. If you love antique shopping, there are some great stores for you.
We have a few malls with an entertainment or other specialty focus that meet the fun and novelty requirement, and we do want to introduce you to those cool shopping destinations—places that are different from what you might find elsewhere. For example, we understand that some folks deliberately choose Orange County as their vacation destination because of their desire to spend time at the world-famous South Coast Plaza mall in Costa Mesa. If that’s you, stay tuned as we’ll be covering that.

We also want to suggest several shopping districts in communities that might be worth a visit. These towns have an interesting atmosphere that will make your shopping, walking, dining and/or bar-hopping a very enjoyable experience.

Let’s talk first about some of the more interesting malls that could make for a nice afternoon or evening interlude.

South Coast Plaza, Costa Mesa

We might as well start with South Coast Plaza, perhaps the most well-known of the Orange County retail centers because it offers shops and merchandise you’d otherwise find on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. It lies just north of the San Diego Freeway (I-405), within easy driving or bus access from anywhere in the county. There are a few smaller centers clustered around it, some of which are pretty good in their own right.

You’ll also see some large office buildings, restaurants, and the Orange County Performing Arts Center in the immediate vicinity. South Coast Plaza has its own web site, but it also makes a more interesting appearance on, a site devoted to tracking the migration habits and societal interactions of celebrities and movie stars. Click on the photograph to the right for a trip to South Coast Plaza through the eyes of the Hollywood elite. Once there, at the bottom of that web page you'll find a link to the official web site.

This is a pretty big deal, so if you consider yourself a serious shopper, you probably ought to carve out at least a few hours to visit this, arguably the cream of the crop of O.C. shopping. And, you can stay within walking distance of the place! There is a Westin South Coast Plaza Hotel a couple blocks east of the center, and a Marriott Hotel another 2 blocks in that direction. You'll find a Holiday Inn roughly the same distance south on Bristol, just over the freeway overpass.

South Coast Plaza covered bridge

Fashion Island, Newport Beach

Another mall that is also targeted more towards the upper crust is Fashion Island in Newport Center. This center is surrounded by commercial buildings—offices, hotels, restaurants. Whereas most of South Coast Plaza is indoors, Fashion Island is largely an outdoor facility. It includes many restaurants, a movie complex and some interesting shops and special events.

Of all the specialty malls discussed here, this is the closest to the water. It lies just up the hill from PCH between Balboa and Corona del Mar. Within walking distance of this project are some of the ritziest neighborhoods in Southern California. At noontime you’ll see folks from the nearby office buildings on their lunch break. Check out Fashion Island here.

Irvine Spectrum Center

We’ll stay near the beach and talk next about the Irvine Spectrum Center. This is the entertainment-oriented mall nestled among heavy commercial development at the intersection of I-5 and I-405. (Have you noticed the trend where these large retail centers coexist peacefully with dense office development, here in Irvine, at Newport Center and at South Coast Plaza? Some of that is master planning, where the big-time commercial development is confined to a certain portion of the city.)

The Spectrum boasts a Ferris wheel, a Dave and Busters entertainment center, movies and all the other cool stuff you’d expect from a mall with a Ferris wheel This is the newest of the centers discussed so far. Parking can sometimes be a bit of a challenge at busy times of the week, such as weekend evenings. Here is a link to the Irvine Spectrum Center.

Orange County Marketplace, Fairgrounds

Next we have the Orange County Marketplace, aka the Orange County Swap Meet. When you think of a swap meet, you envision guys with radio parts spread out on a blanket or VW wheel caps. Now there could be a little of that, but the Marketplace instead markets to small businesses (and some larger businesses) as a means to market their wares and services in an inexpensive setting with about 20,000 visitors on a weekend.

Along with a certain percentage of junk, there are quite a few good products; locally produced items, furniture, cars, hot rod golf carts, sponges that absorb a million times their weight, etc. There is a tremendous variety of stuff for sale, much of which is pretty cool. There is entertainment, food and hundreds of sellers. They open the Marketplace every Saturday and Sunday on the Orange County Fairgrounds (a couple of miles from South Coast Plaza) except during the middle of the summer. Why do they take a bunch of the summer off? Because they hold the Orange County Fair for several weeks starting in late June and into August. Check out the Marketplace at this link.

Downtown Disney, Anaheim

There aren’t many things around the Disneyland Resort that are free, but Downtown Disney is the exception (although you might need to pay for parking). Offering Disney and non-Disney shops and restaurants, live entertainment and a very lively and fun atmosphere, you can spend a part of a day here even if you aren’t going into one of the parks. There is some free parking for 2 hours or so, but you may find yourself in a pay lot.

This is a great place to watch people because of the tremendous diversity of guests visiting Disneyland. The restaurants are typically a bit pricey but you pay for the atmosphere I suppose. You can also check out the shops and restaurants at the Grand Californian Hotel and the Disneyland Hotel. Click here to be whisked away to the Downtown Disney web site.

GardenWalk, Anaheim

The Disneyland Resort District has expanded over the past several years, after the construction of Downtown Disney and Disney’s California Adventure. One of the newest retail/entertainment districts is GardenWalk, along Katella Avenue east of Harbor Blvd. and west of the I-5 Freeway. This stretch of Katella has been given a major treatment, making it part of the Disneyland Resort and, in fact, it does represent one of the major entrances to the parks.

Bubba Gumps restaurant at GardenWalk

You’ll find popular restaurants like Bubba Gumps, California Pizza Kitchen P.F. Changs and Cheesecake Factory, a couple of nightclubs, bowling, 14-screen movie theatre and retailers like Ann Taylor Loft and Tommy Bahama. There is some pretty good name-brand shopping here, but that is probably not the primary emphasis in this new and growing center. But it is a great place for food, drink, movies and bowling (after you pick up that slinky new gown at Ann Taylor Loft, high-tail it over to the bowling alley!). They have a large parking structure also, so parking typically should not be a problem. You can walk to GardenWalk from Disneyland. Click on the photo above to hit the GardenWalk web site.

Here’s an idea: if you like to walk and shop, especially if you’re looking for a little exercise, stroll through GardenWalk and then amble over to the Harbor Blvd entrance to Disneyland. Walk left into the Resort past the Pumba tram area, across the main plaza entrance between the parks and on to Downtown Disney. This would amount to a couple of miles overall, but will burn off some of what you eat at the Cheesecake Factory. Now, if you’re a little more ambitious, you can walk from GardenWalk down to Fashion Island; that’s about a 20 mile round trip; make sure your stroller has good wheels!

The Block at Orange

Don't play in the freeway; this is the Orange Crush interchange!

Deep in the bowels of Orange County is a well-known intersection of three busy freeways. Interstate 5 comes down “diagonally” from the northwest, meeting the Orange Freeway (State Route 57) and the Garden Grove Freeway (S.R. 22). This happy interchange, involving all three freeways, is known affectionately as the Orange Crush. In the shadow of the Crush (only in the morning when the sun is in the east) is The Block of Orange.

The Block is mostly an outdoor facility (that’s a good thing here in Southern California, given how nice the weather is most of the time), and is very cool, with interesting shops and restaurants. The imposing Van’s Skate Park is the most unusual feature, but it’s backed up with a Dave and Buster’s entertainment center, the AMC 30-screen theatre complex, Old Navy, Hollister and a bunch of other high-value targets. As you can imagine from the tenants and features, you’ll see a lot of younger people here.

The Block is seen from the 22 Freeway at The City Drive offramp. The center was previously known as The City, before a major reconstruction and coolness infusion some years ago. The Block is also easily reached by driving west on Chapman Avenue from the 57 Freeway (by the way, realize that there are two distinct Chapman Avenues along the 57 Freeway; one is up in Fullerton and the other is here in Orange. If you were to guess that the Chapman family was important in north Orange County history, you’d be right.). Going east on Chapman a mile or two will take you to the antique shopping near the Historic Plaza in Orange. For a link to The Block at Orange, click on the Alcatraz Brewing sign below. (At the bottom of that new web page will also be a link to the Van's web site.)

Click here for more info on The Block at Orange.

Other Shopping/Dining Districts

There are many other spots around the County where you’ll find a clustering of shopping, dining and entertainment opportunities. Certainly a drive along the many miles of Pacific Coast Highway will turn up lots of fine places to stop. There are other large shopping centers that we’ve not discussed above because of limitations in space and both of our attention span. So do check out the links presented below for dozens of options for food and fun.

We do want to mention a small number of locales where the atmosphere or combination of activities is particularly noteworthy. Let’s start up north, since so far we’ve spent most of our vowels and consonants down further south.

Fullerton. In the late 1800s a bunch of farmers and small businessmen convinced George Fullerton, the President of the Santa Fe Railroad, to build a station near the intersection of Commonwealth Avenue and Spadra Road (now Harbor Boulevard). That meant a lot to their ability to ship their produce, and put the little town on the map. As you can guess, they named the city after their benefactor.

In recent years, downtown Fullerton has come to life with clubs and restaurants, shops… and a couple of tattoo parlors. All of this fun stuff is within easy walking distance of the Fullerton train station, which hosts Amtrak and Metrolink commuter railway stops. There actually were two train stations here at one time, and several years ago one was completely renovated and made into The Old Spaghetti Factory restaurant. Many of the other buildings are also quite old and charming, having been renovated and upgraded to earthquake codes.

Orange. Another great older town, built around a railroad station, is the city of Orange (yes, we have the city of Orange in the County of Orange). The old town was built around a plaza (sometimes erroneously referred to as the traffic circle) which does, in fact, have a traffic circle around the center plaza. But The Plaza is the preferred term. There are many historical buildings within blocks of each other, with many antique shops among the other businesses.

There are some great eating establishments in Old Towne Orange , but the emphasis would have to be on the antique shopping. So after you’re done buying antiques (they’ll ship for you) take a Metrolink train from the Orange station up to Fullerton for dinner.

San Juan Capistrano. Or, take the train down to San Juan Capistrano, where there is an even older historic section started hundreds of years ago around the Mission San Juan Capistrano. Known best for the annual return of the swallows from South America, the downtown district offers a variety of entertainment and dining options.

The theme in general is historic California and there are a great many buildings of interest. Of course, the building of greatest significance is the mission itself, one of a string of missions founded by Father Serra back in the 18th century. Check this link for a map of San Juan Capistrano. You can drive or take the train.

Huntington Beach. Another of the many worthy destinations is Main Street, at the pier in Huntington Beach. There are several blocks of entertainment, eating, drinking and shopping establishments. Jack’s Surfboards is just one of many stores offering beach-oriented apparel, products and souvenirs. There are over a dozen good restaurants and nightclubs.

Ruby’s is out at the end of the pier, and there frequently are merchants in booths along the walkways. There are events held regularly during the summer and, less frequently, throughout the year.

Pacific City is an exciting new open-air mall in the downtown area, not far from the pier. It will have over 60 upscale shops and restaurants by summer of 2016. The total size of the center is 191,000 SF and many of the stores are pretty unique.

Click here to fly to a page with great information on Main Street and the Pier at Huntington Beach.

Newport Beach/Balboa. Going south along PCH, you might consider stopping at a different Main Street, down near the end of the Balboa Peninsula. Actually there are restaurants and shops near the north entrance to the Peninsula (The Crab Cooker being one); keep your eyes open as you drive. The area around the Fun Zone and the Balboa Pavilion offers an eclectic array of shops. This is kinda touristy, but there are some good restaurants and clubs to be found. You could take the ferry over to Balboa Island, where there is another commercial district. Eat Lotsa Fish!
Laguna Beach. Don’t forget downtown Laguna Beach. Here there is a heavy emphasis on art galleries, but there are many shops for finding that special gift for the neighbor who is feeding your iguana while you’re on vacation. If you are in town during the summer, check out the Festival of Arts, Pageant of the Masters and the Sawdust Festival.

You’ll also find dining choices scattered around downtown. Laguna is home to a rather substantial population of craftsmen and artists of all types—sculptors, painters, hand-crafted products. Some of them live in interesting homes tucked in along Laguna Canyon Road, heading east from downtown. You’ll see some shops and restaurants along PCH both north and south of the downtown district but with less “density.”

Santa Ana (Hispanic) and Garden Grove/Westiminster (Little Saigon). These are two areas where you’ll find ethnic shopping and dining, right in the heart of Orange County. We’ve provided some details and links on our own Melting Pot page, so check that out if you’re interested in these commercial districts; the navigation button will take you there pronto.

Santa Clemente. We should not forget to mention the new 500,000-SF Outlets at San Clemente, which opened in late 2015 after 18 years in gestation. It is still leasing up as of late 2015, but offers over 20 stores by brands for which this is their first outlet store; Nautica, Cole Haan, Le Creuset and 2XU among other cool brands. Of course there will be dozens of the usual names. This posh center offers great views of the ocean.

OK, folks, we’re about out of words for this page. Check out some of the links. There is no shortage of options for shopping, dining and night-clubbing in Orange County.

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