Merriam-Webster defines it as, “a meal usually taken late in the morning that combines a late breakfast and an early lunch.” That is why brunch is and always will be my favorite. It is the weekend-only meal with the leisurely pace that feels more like a reward than nourishment.
When my husband and I first moved to Orange County over a decade ago, we were excited by the opportunity to explore a brand new city and uncover its culinary offerings menu-by-menu, dish-by-dish, and bite-by-bite. Back then, with only one infant to distract us, we had time on our side and countless neighborhoods to discover one by one. Much to our dismay, we came to realize very quickly that other than predictably bad strip mall offerings and fast-casual franchise chains, the mom-and-pop, specialty gems that we treasured in our former Bay Area city was few and far between in our little corner of our new home county.
I’m grateful to report, however, that all has changed tremendously over the last decade. Orange County has rapidly evolved into a hotbed of inventive and fresh cuisine, with talented chefs and tastemakers operating stellar dining spots with discriminating patrons eager to become loyal followers. The confluence of culinary creativity stoked by a rapidly growing and ethnically diverse and affluent crowd has given rise to incredible entrepreneurialism.
Whether it be pop-ups or gourmet food trucks and farm-to-table experiences, along with the drive to local, sustainable and personable fare, Orange County has put itself on the map with chefs who once rolled the dice that OC consumers wanted something better and something more. They were right.
My list of the 8 Best Breakfast & Brunch Restaurants in Orange County has been years in the making, since I moved here. These restaurants have stayed true, first and foremost, by serving delicious food created consistently and thoughtfully. Secondly, they all have impressed me with great service; whether it’s kind and knowledgeable servers and owners, or going a little bit out of their way to make things pleasant. These two characteristics may seem glaringly obvious, but it’s not always encountered in practice. So, here we go.
8. Pop’s Cafe
In the heart of downtown Santa Ana is Pop’s Cafe, an old-fashioned 50’s diner that’s been a neighborhood staple for many years. I’m a crispy shredded hashbrown kind of girl and Pop’s serves one of the best hashbrown dishes in OC. With a friendly staff, more outdoor seating than indoor, and regulars customers on the daily, Pop’s Cafe ranks as one of my top spots for breakfast or brunch in Orange County because they serve huge portions of reasonably priced, classic American breakfast dishes that will consistently keep your belly satisfied and your wallet lined.
7. Memphis Cafe
The best way to explain why you need to visit Memphis Cafe in Costa Mesa is to simply read the menu. Southern Eggs Benedict. Stuffed French Toast. Buttermilk Fried Chicken & Waffles. Down Home Gumbo. Established in 1995 and serving breakfast & brunch from 8am-3pm daily, Memphis Cafe is less than a mile away from ritzy South Coast Plaza, but the moment you are seated – whether it’s at the cozy, dimly lit tables inside the restaurant or the outside tented patio which my family prefers – you feel a world away. On my most recent visit, Chef Diego Velasco’s Stuffed French Toast, filled with vanilla scented cream cheese and generously covered in caramelized cinnamon apples and toasted hazelnuts, had my teenager speechless even as my husband devoured his favorite Pork Chop & Eggs, accompanied with green chili grits and those decadent caramelized apples. These are just a few of the incredible creole-inspired dishes that awaited my family and me on my first visit here years ago and what keeps us looking forward to returning over and over again.
A&J was already a well established, extremely popular Chinese restaurant when we first visited in 2004. Located in an otherwise unremarkable strip center desperately in need of a facelift, it is surrounded by a seemingly random but surprisingly successful set of Asian restaurants, boba tea houses, and bakeries that have withstood the test of time and fickle customer preferences. If you are familiar with Chinese restaurants, they often share a few comically stereotypical characteristics: long lines, small chairs, round tables, spartan service, neglected restrooms, loud conversations and “Cash Only” signs. Thankfully, A&J underwent a much needed, but remarkable facelift a few years ago; remarkable in the sense that it significantly tidied up the place while leaving it wholly recognizable to its loyal regulars. Most importantly, the menu and the quality of the dishes remained completely intact. Their famous Spicy Beef Soup, Scallion Pancakes, Fried Pork Chop Noodle Soup, Dan Dan Noodles, Ja Jiang Mian, Cucumber Salad in Hot Garlic Sauce, and Thousand Layer Pancake are all terrific, just to name a few favorites. Expect parking to be a challenge, but even when you see a long line outside, it’s worth the wait as the queue moves quickly courtesy of fast service. Over the years, newer restaurants with trendy names, fancy architecture and millenial servers have cropped up – many of which are worthwhile with their twists on traditional dishes. But the great thing about A&J, and the main reason I’ve listed it as a pick for the best breakfast & brunch in Orange County, is that it has stayed true to itself for what I imagine to be at least two decades, and will remain so for hopefully another two decades more.
5. The Original Pancake House (Aliso Viejo)
Yes, this is a national chain but not all branches of a chain are created equal. The OPH in Aliso Viejo might as well be its own mom-and-pop shop for their service and consistency has kept us coming back regularly year after year. My kids have grown up dining at the Aliso Viejo location and will request it on the weekends when we can afford to wait a significant portion of our mornings with the hungry wait-listed crowd. Once we finally get called and sit down, it’s like we’re at home. My favorite order is the Potato Pancakes with sour cream and homemade apple sauce, and my husband’s go-to is the classic Eggs Benedict. If you’ve never tried their homemade whipped cream, it’s worth ordering on the side just to spoon into your mouth or dolloped on each bite of a pancake after it’s been dipped in maple syrup. Heavenly!
4. Ecco Pizzeria & Bar [CLOSED]
Known for their “soulful Italian food and true Neapolitan Pizza” as well as dinner entrees and late-night dining, Ecco in Costa Mesa’s The Camp does a wonderful job with their weekend brunch menu that is quite extensive and unique. Our typical routine after we are seated and greeted, is to put two orders of their Parmesan Garlic Fries in before anything else; Ecco knows how to fry a fry. My kids are guaranteed to share a Margherita Pizza and fight over my Amaretto Waffle which always compels me to order one (or more) of the many egg dishes and frittatas they offer. Combining fresh, seasonal ingredients in an impressive selection of hearty and traditionally Italian fare is what makes Ecco one of my favorite places for breakfast and brunch in Orange County.
3. Crema Cafe & Artisan Bakery
Located on a quaint street in downtown Seal Beach, Crema Cafe is an European-inspired cafe serving fresh breakfast and brunch favorites on one side, and delicious artisan baked goods and pastries on the other. When I walk in I feel like I’ve been transported to Paris. Owner and chef Tarit Tanjasiri once told me that it was his mission to bake the perfect croissant, just like the ones he would devour on his many trips to France. Mission accomplished! After polishing off our plates, including what is undeniably the best Avocado Toast I’ve ever had, it’s impossible to leave the cafe without bringing home a box of the scrumptious, handcrafted pastries and breads that Crema is so famously known for.
2. Plum’s Cafe
Tucked into the corner of a busy Costa Mesa strip mall, Plum’s Cafe serves breakfast, brunch and lunch all day with an extensive menu inspired by the flavors of the Pacific Northwest. Chef/Owner and Oregon transplant Kim Jorgenson hit it out of the park with savory dishes such as the popular Eggs Benedict and Alderwood Smoked Salmon Hash, and pair many of their dishes with thick slabs of Oregon Pepper bacon or links of perfectly seasoned Apple-Maple sausage. But, I have a sweet tooth and will never tire of their many sweet specialties like the Famous Dutch Baby (which takes an extra 25 minutes to bake to predictable perfection), or the decadent Chocolate Banana Waffle or fruity Northwest Berry Waffle. And then, there is my favorite: Raspberry Pancakes with fresh berries and vanilla cream, doused in delicious, slow-pour and warm maple syrup. One bite into these fluffy, thick and cake-like pancakes, you will immediately wonder when your next visit will be so you can run back for more.
1. Break of Dawn
I cannot in good conscience compile a list of top spots for the best brunch in Orange County and not mention what is undeniably my number one pick: Break of Dawn. I go into extensive detail explaining why I love this Orange County breakfast gem here. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with a few images of my family’s and my favorite menu items at Break of Dawn, created and perfected by the talented and brilliant owner and chef Dee Nguyen.