Quick Escape: Carless in Costa Mesa

In Orange County, you'll find art, entertainment, shopping and fine dining just a walk away

When I lived in Manhattan in my 20s, I loved being able to walk to restaurants, shops, museums, and the theater. Few places in motor-mad Southern California allow for that ambulatory lifestyle, but Costa Mesa’s South Coast Metro area is an urban oasis amid suburbia’s sprawl. On a recent romantic weekend getaway, my husband, Paul, and I walked to diverse ethnic restaurants, stunning artworks, an award-winning theater, and one of America’s highest-grossing shopping centers.


My husband, Paul, and I checked in to the Westin South Coast Plaza. We parked the car in the hotel garage and didn’t move it all weekend. From our room, we could see the San Bernardino Mountains by day. At night, we looked out on the lights of cars on the road, grateful we weren’t among them. 1-714-540-2500; westinsouthcoastplaza.com

Dining out

Our first night, we enjoyed a simple supper in the Westin’s Lobby Lounge, which features a waterfall flowing behind a glass wall. The place was filled with people meeting for a post-conference drink or pretheater meal. Because we didn’t have to think about driving home, we were able to relax as we munched on grilled chicken with artichokes and vegetarian pot stickers. 1-714-540-2500; tinyurl.com/westinoc

The specialty at Din Tai Fung, South Coast Plaza’s branch of the famed Taiwan-based chain, is soup dumplings: tiny packets of dough encasing pork and delectable broth. “How do they get the soup into the dumpling?” I asked. “The soup starts in gelatin form,” said foodie Paul, biting into crisp mustard greens enlivened with ginger. “When the dumpling is heated, the gelatin melts.” Go early—there’s often a line. 1-714-549-3388; dintaifungusa.com

Saturday evening, we ambled through a park-like area of grass, petunias, and sycamores to Vaca, the superhot Spanish restaurant helmed by Top Chef finalist Amar Santana. Among pink geraniums on the patio, we feasted on chicken fritters, Catalan spinach with pickled raisins, and roasted beef marrow, which we carefully scooped from a giant bone. “Just imagine you’re a Neanderthal getting through the winter,” Paul joked. 1-714-463-6060; vacarestaurant.com


We strode across the Unity Bridge, which spans Bristol Avenue, to the 51-year-old South Coast Plaza, “a shopping resort,” according to Werner Escher, the executive director of domestic and international markets who died in 2017. It has two carousels, 30 restaurants, a world-class palm collection, and valet parking, in addition to more than 250 stores (my personal weakness: Massimo Dutti, Zara’s slightly more sophisticated sibling). As Paul and I chatted over macchiatos at Antonello Espresso Café, we saw everyone from kids in T-shirts to young hipsters in trendy leggings to women wearing face veils for modesty. 1-800-782-8888; southcoastplaza.com


The Tony Award–winning South Coast Repertory (SCR) is part of a complex that includes the Segerstrom Center for the Arts and the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall. Strolling past a bevy of bougainvillea, we headed for a performance at the smaller of SCR’s two theaters, the 336-seat Julianne Argyros Stage. Get SGR’s current season at 1-714-708-5555; scr.org

Art Scene

A hedge of office high-rises borders Isamu Noguchi’s sculpture garden California Scenario. In this hidden retreat, we climbed the gentle rise to Forest Walk, where we sat on a bench backed by redwoods. We looked out over a rippling stream seeming to signify the Golden State’s rivers, and a succulent garden representing its deserts. “The scent of these redwoods reminds me of our first trip to Yosemite,” I told Paul, who’d introduced me to his favorite national park. A collection of granite rocks creates The Spirit of the Lima Bean, an homage to the farmland that Henry Segerstrom and his family had transformed into today’s minimetropolis. Free. tinyurl.com/jcx60cq