For decades in Orange County, “dinner & a show” meant driving to South Coast Plaza, eating at Scott’s, then hitting the Segerstrom Center for the Arts. But eventually – even after 26 years – all good things must come to an end and evolve with the times. So, how does one replace an institution? The food better be out of this world, the service impeccable, and the atmosphere reflective of the local culture. Well, three years and $13 million later – after a complete tear-down and rebuild of the space- it’s safe to say those big culinary shoes have been filled with aplomb by Water Grill.
Established in 1989, the booming enterprise now features locations in Santa Monica, San Diego, and downtown LA (which is Michelin-star rated). Dallas is next. Water Grill’s foray into OC comes in the form of a stunning, huge, 500+ person flagship eatery. A fellow diner in his mid-40’s offers: “The most beautiful new restaurant to come to this area in a decade or more.”
The space itself is indeed magnificent. A happening patio area (with retractable roof for all weather conditions), houses individuals socializing amongst heat lamps and fire pits, as well as a massive outdoor bar. See and be seen. As you enter the main dining area through a long, dramatic outdoor corridor, elements of fire and water both come into play. Inside, impeccable details like stone pavers, brick arches, wood paneling, leather booths, unique lighting fixtures and nautical overtones create a warm, rustic, welcoming feeling. The soft lighting makes everything look better, or at least more romantic.
An open, glassed-in kitchen buzzes with excitement. The show is in full swing, and one mother is shucking oysters as if his life depended on it. A multitude of copper seafood bars beckon you, a few big-screen TV’s play overhead, a private dining room is available: every little detail is planned out and executed with aplomb.
It’s Monday, and the place is packed to the gills (excuse the pun). This is not a spot for a quiet, boring dinner. This is a happening scene, with people still lining up to be seated at 10:30pm. The seamless transition from rocking outdoor patio to elegant inside setting underscores a nimble ambiance – that delicate balance between casual and upscale dining, struck with a perfect, festive vibe. “We’re happy and happening, straddling the line between fine dining and a casual approach,” offers our server. An army of staff run about with inspired dishes, served with flair. It’s pricey, but you get what you pay for. Complimentary warm sourdough rolls, served with butter and coarse sea salt, keep your rumbling tummy company before the apps arrive.
The beverage program is solid and inventive; old standards with new twists. Two standout cocktails: the muddled blueberry lemon drop, and house margarita with added elements of cucumber, jalapeño and Old Bay seasoning. (Tip to the wine lovers: free corkage free, unlimited bottles – so bring your favorite vintages from home!). Even the ice cubes are rough hewn and hand-carved. Again, it’s the little things.
The seafood is as fresh as you can get. There’s even giant fish tanks right when you walk in, as a not-so-subtle reminder. We eat it all: from an iced shellfish platter, to Chilean sea bass lightly poached in butter, as delicate as a lace doily. Nothing is over-sauced. Chef lets the freshness of the product shine through. The focus is mostly on seafood – specifically shellfish- but there’s something for everyone with meat, chicken and veggie options. Highlights from our meal: the pan-seared salmon melts in your mouth. Plated over a bed of puréed cauliflower, oyster mushrooms and cannellini beans, with lemon chutney, and finished with brown butter hazelnut sauce, it’s savory and rich in taste, yet light and totally satisfying. The North American hard shell lobster is served steamed, de-shelled, and with a side of melted butter and coleslaw. Simple, classic perfection. Fresh crab legs, classic lobster rolls, creamy mac and cheese, a variety of oysters – the hits just keep coming.
In between courses, out come the hot towels with lemon. What a nice way to freshen up. Little “five star” touches like this happen throughout the night, such as a metal bucket discretely placed on your table, which you later use to toss away leftover oyster shells. Before we conclude our meal with divine homemade sea salt ice cream and caramel brioche bread pudding, we have a chance to chat with General Manager Daniel Williams. I ask Daniel, “With so many superb dining options in Orange County, how does Water Grill stand out?”
“Our success is that there’s something for everyone on the menu. We’re all about the product, showcasing the best seafood in the world. We fly in crab from Norway. People will drive hours to get that- no one else is doing it. So we’ve become a destination restaurant. Our location is central and our execution has been flawless. From business lunches to private events; people coming from the beach in shorts and sandals, to socialites wanting champagne and oysters; celebrations, intimate dates. That’s the beauty of the menu. We built the restaurant where different areas of the space would have different feels, from the patio to the various bars. We got rid of the white table cloths and stodginess, while keeping ambiance, style and service. Approachability is our main thing.”
In a town obsessed with being “on-point” and “on-trend,” you’ve just found it; the most on-trend, on-point, hottest-of-hot-spots. Water Grill is a seafood lover’s paradise, with approachable fine dining in a sophisticated, chill setting. Go fish!
Words by Jesse Stirling
Photos by Alandra Chavarria