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Heaven Can Wait

If money can't buy happiness, then why is Newport Beach so much fun?

Bruce Schoenfeld
Posted: January 25, 2001

 
 
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Heaven Can Wait

If money can't buy happiness, then why is Newport Beach so much fun?

By Bruce Schoenfeld


Newport Beach, Calif., is insistently, overwhelmingly pleasant. It may well be the most pleasant place in the United States. There are no bugs and there's no visible pollution, crime or poverty: They have all been essentially eradicated, at least as far as I can tell. There is a modicum of traffic, but only when too many Jaguars and BMWs take to the roads. "Like living on the Love Boat," a transplanted Easterner I know once sneered. But I notice he's still here.

After ambling past the million-dollar bungalows of Balboa Island, longing after the fresh produce at the high-end grocery stores, or simply soaking up the California sun at the Four Seasons pool, it's all you can do to make yourself ever go home. And if you manage to include a meal at Tim and Liza Goodell's Aubergine -- which can compete with any restaurant from San Francisco to Mexico -- you may never leave. Only the real-estate prices can scare you off after that.

In fact, other than the high cost of just about everything, Newport Beach seems pretty much perfect; one reason why its residents tend to be conservative. They have plenty to conserve.

With pink tulips in flower boxes and red bricks in the sidewalk, even the strip malls are lovely. I found myself eating breakfast in one, right beside a supermarket parking lot. The restaurant had the curiously inviting name of Pacific Whey Baking Company, and advertised "rustic breads, glorious pastries, delightful lunches and exquisite coffees." It appeared to provide all of this and more, while occupying no more than a sliver of space in the mall.

I ate an omelette of fresh basil, tomatoes and spinach, washed it down with fresh orange juice and thought myself in paradise -- until the bill came. With a side dish here, a cup of tea there and an appropriate tip, it approached $20.

Yet you're paying for history, too. From the time Henry Huntington extended the Pacific Electric Railroad to Newport Bay in the early 1920s, Newport Beach has served as a retreat for the famous and the wealthy. In this part of the world, that means entertainers. John Wayne, whose name graces the nearby Orange County airport, lived here. So did George Burns, Shirley Temple and Roy Rogers.

Today's residents are more likely to be retired businessmen, though many of them were wealthy enough to retire before 40. Most have the leisure time and the inclination to be active. Since the sun shines all day long, they golf and kayak, they bike and sail, and they stay fit. People look 10 years younger than they really are.

But the most popular athletic activity here appears to be shopping. In South Coast Plaza, located minutes away in the neighboring town of Costa Mesa, and the locals' favorite shopping spot, Fashion Island, Newport Beach can boast two of the top destination malls anywhere. So many visitors come from out of town to shop here that several of the top hotels -- the Four Seasons, the Westin, the Marriott and the Doubletree -- were purposefully constructed facing one mall or the other, all miles from the nearest beach.

I spent an unhurried morning exploring Fashion Island and an afternoon with the power shoppers at South Coast Plaza. By my unscientific reckoning, it was the equivalent of three sets of tennis, an hour of sea kayaking or two circumnavigations on foot of Balboa Island.

The lure of Fashion Island is its outdoor campus setting. Anchored by Bloomingdales and Neiman Marcus, and decorated in season by one of the world's largest Christmas trees, it offers amateur sociologists the prototypical southern California experience. Where else can you watch toned and tanned shoppers in tank- or halter-tops roller-blade into trendy boutiques, purchase an array of merchandise, then roll on out?

South Coast Plaza is also impressive, combining the sheer consumer-goods bulk of, say, Minnesota's Mall of America with the allure of every hot designer or fancy brand name you've ever heard of. Imagine New York's Fifth Avenue writ large, with baby strollers instead of cars. You can start with stores by Baccarat, Bally, Cartier, Chanel, Christian Dior, Fendi, Georg Jensen, Hermès, Lalique ... and go on for most of the day, and that's just naming them, let alone visiting them. Then after working up an appetite, hungry shoppers can choose from 35 different restaurants.


For the complete article, please see the Jan. 31, 2001, issue of Wine Spectator magazine, page 84.

Restaurants

Aubergine
508 29th St., Newport Beach
Telephone (949) 723-4150
Open Dinner, Tuesday to Saturday
Cost Prix fixe only, $65, 75 or $90 per person
Credit cards Visa, MasterCard, American Express

Tim Goodell's menu can only be described as complex, but he pulls off dish after dish with a minimum of fuss. Plates like a confit of veal heart with slow-braised veal cheek and horseradish cream have antecedents in traditional French cooking, but they've certainly taken some hairpin curves along the way. Don't panic; you're in steady hands. Desserts are especially exquisite -- Goodell is a former pastry chef -- and the wine list runs the gamut from Corsican Pinot Noir ($7 by the glass) and Mia Klein's underrated Selene Merlot '97 ($60) to traditional choices like Domaine Leflaive Montrachet '95 ($489) and a smorgasbord of classified-growth Bordeaux.

Pacific Whey Baking Company
2622 San Miguel Drive, Newport Beach
Telephone (949) 644-0303
Open Breakfast and lunch, daily
Credit cards Visa, MasterCard

Egg dishes, soups, sandwiches, including upscale Mexican constructs, all done with care and flair.

Pascal
1000 N. Bristol St., Newport Beach
Telephone (949) 752-0107
Open Lunch, Monday to Friday, dinner, Monday to Saturday
Cost Entrées $23-$29
Credit cards Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Discover

Pascal Olhats' Provençal restaurant is hidden away in a nondescript shopping center, but you'd never know it from the elegant feel inside. It is the kind of place that inspires loyal regulars, such as Peter Ueberroth, who headed the group that bought Pebble Beach a year ago. The Pebble Beach crowd would feel right at home at Pascal: It's a place for ties and colorful summer dresses, tables of eight for special celebrations, and romantic two-tops for young-at-heart retirees. The hearty French food includes sweetbreads with morels, rabbit with mustard sauce, and a well-stocked cheese cart with 15 varieties.

Pavilion
Four Seasons Hotel, 690 Newport Center Drive, Newport Beach
Telephone (949) 759-0808
Open Breakfast, lunch and dinner, daily
Cost Entrées $22-$27
Credit cards Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Diners Club, Discover

Rather what you'd expect, including the occasional ascot. No surprises on the menu, and white tablecloths, constantly full water glasses and perfectly acceptable food on the table. The pasta tends to be overcooked, the way Italian-American restaurants served it a decade ago, and the wine list recounts the usual suspects (Beringer, Phelps, Silver Oak, Cloudy Bay), though they're rather less expensive than they could be.

Pinot Provence
Westin South Coast Plaza Hotel, 686 Anton Blvd., Costa Mesa
Telephone (714) 444-5900
Open Breakfast, lunch and dinner, daily
Cost Entrées $19-$27
Credit Cards Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Diners Club, Discover

Joachim Splichal's family of French restaurants rarely goes awry, though the number of outlets now exceeds a dozen. Pinot Provence isn't the prettiest of them -- indoor dining is dark, and the courtyard, though charming, is small and close -- but Splichal's continental comfort food fits right in with the conservative Newport Beach mindset. Who can argue with lamb ragout with braised white beans and root vegetables, served with amiable, professional care? And the wine list is a dinner companion of its own.

Accommodations

Four Seasons Hotel
690 Newport Center Drive, Newport Beach
Telephone (949) 759-0808
Fax (949) 759-0568
Web site www.fourseasons.com
Rooms 192
Suites 93
Rates $320-$750

The tirelessly helpful staff and the tranquility of the public spaces transforms what could be just another dull chain-hotel into something special. The pool is small and the industrial-park setting ordinary, but the Four Seasons quality shows through in the details. Fresh flowers are ubiquitous, and the concierge is a true concierge, in the European sense: Ask how to get to an off-site restaurant and you'll get a hand-drawn map, accompanied by written directions.

Radisson Newport Beach
4545 MacArthur Blvd., Newport Beach
Telephone (949) 833-0570
Fax (949) 833-0187
Web site www.radisson.com
Rooms 331
Suites 4
Rates $139-$169

This Sheraton-turned-Radisson is so close to John Wayne Airport that you can almost hear the boarding announcements, but it provides a serviceable budget option for travelers who want a full-service hotel. There are tennis courts, a pool, a concierge, and perfectly good rooms at a rack rate about half that of the Westin's, and you're miles closer to Balboa Island and the beach. Just ask for a room away from the runways.

Westin South Coast Plaza
686 Anton Blvd., Costa Mesa
Telephone (714) 540-2500
Fax (714) 662-6695
Web site www.westin.com
Rooms 375
Suites 17
Rates $270-$450

You might as well be in Kansas for all the access you have to the beach, but Kansas never saw shopping like South Coast Plaza. A recent renovation has spruced up what already ranked as one of the better Westin properties, and the accessibility to one of America's great shopping malls can't be beat. Just off I-405, it's a favorite for Angelenos who exercise their platinum cards by day and relax with vintage Champagne at the Pinot Provence bar by night.


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