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Costa Mesa

This Orange County town spoils both foodies and shoppers

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Although it was named after its topography—“coastal tableland”—Costa Mesa has become better known as a center for Orange County sophistication. Centrally located between San Diego and Los Angeles, the town (also home of summer’s OC Fair) combines a vibrant arts scene, renowned shopping, and a burgeoning foodie culture, all a mile from the Pacific Ocean. 

Even if you play at the beach (or shop) by day, make time for a show at night in the acclaimed arts and theater district. At the center of the performing arts scene is the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, the home stage for the American Ballet Theatre’s Gillespie School of Dance, the Pacific Symphony, and the Philharmonic Society. It’s also the only place you can see a Broadway show in Orange County, and will be the home, starting in 2021, of the Orange County Museum of Art expansion site. Even if you can’t snag tickets to a performance, you can take a free, behind-the-scenes tour or browse the more than two dozen pieces of public art in and around the theater complex. Adding to the city’s stage offerings is the summer concert series at the Pacific Amphitheater and the South Coast Repertory, which produces Tony Award-winning plays, features upcoming playwrights, and creative children’s theatre.

As much as there is going on in the performing arts, Costa Mesa’s visual arts scene is every bit as vital. Even without seeking art out, visitors to the City of the Arts (as the city is known) are treated to vibrant, often whimsical murals, painted on the sides of restaurants, shopping centers, and homes—even utility boxes are transformed into canvasses. With your appetite for such creations whetted, you may feel compelled to visit a few of the Costa Mesa’s more than three dozen art galleries, including the renowned Martin Lawrence Galleries.

If you’re more inspired by shopping bags than sculptures, head to South Coast Plaza, a destination mall with more than 250 designer retailers (including big names such as Hermès, Baccarat, Gucci, and more), an indoor carousel, and rotating art exhibits. Looking for something less mainstream? Try The LAB Anti-Mall, and its sister site, The CAMP. The indoor/outdoor retail spaces host a number of unique shops and restaurants with local and handmade goods (LAB stands for “Little American Business). Both are great locations to visit if you’re traveling with furry friends, thanks to several restaurants with dog-friendly patios. Beer lovers will enjoy the Costa Mesa Beer Trail, offering craft pours brewed right in the city. And serious foodies need look no further than Michelin-starred Hana re sushi bar at The LAB for destination dining.

To refuel, browsing the local, and seriously diverse, foodie scene is a not-to-be-missed activity in itself. The aforementioned South Coast Plaza is not a bad place to start—either in the complex or across the street are such culinary hotspots as Vaca and The Hall: Global Eatery (both are efforts from Bravo TV’s Top Chef finalist Amar Santana) and award-winning Ross Pangilinan’s Terrace by Mix Mix. Also high on many visitors’ lists: Habana for Cuban specialties, Memphis Café for Southern fried chicken, and Anjin (hidden in a nondescript strip mall) for worth-the-wait Japanese-style BBQ prepared on your table's grill.

Shoppers and foodies alike can find common ground at the retail-meets-restaurants destination SoCo Collection and The OC Mix. Set aside ample time to explore the many small pop-up food and cocktail purveyors, as well boutiques selling unique jewelry, fashion, and home goods. Start your day with an Eggslice sandwich or a pitaya bowl from Birdie Bowl & Juicery, then shop your way through the more than 20 different retailers. Grab lunch at another local Michelin-starred eatery, Taco María, helmed by two-time James Beard Award-nominated chef Carlos Salgado, then head to a chocolate macaron class at The Pastry School, where master pastry chef Stéphane Tréand can teach anyone how to craft irresistible modern and traditional French pastries. (No judgment if you only go for a scoop of their house-made gelato.) 

Get your second wind with a cup of fresh brew from Portola Coffee’s flagship coffeehouse, sample wine and olive oil at We Olive & Wine Bar, or try a bone broth latte from Farm & Culture Co. Once you’ve shopped ’til you’ve dropped, end your day with a glass of wine and a briny dozen at Shuck Oyster Bar, or head over to ARC or The Guild for some late-night cocktails and tasty wood-fired pizza or burgers.

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