Newport Beach is the epitome of affluence in Orange County: huge homes on the lazy harbor, sappy surf crashing on the beach, and tanned teens munching on frozen bananas and Balboa bars (ice cream dipped in chocolate and icing). Still, there’s an air of nostalgia about the city that gives it an unexpected depth.
Watch the ’00s youth motivational drama The OC and the sitcom Arrested Development – both based in Newport Beach – and you’ll start to get a sense of the sunny, slightly surreal vibe of this Orange County enclave in the middle of the two shows.
Centered around the largest small yacht port in the United States, Newport Beach is one of the wealthiest cities in the country. Along the harbor’s seven islands, huge homes vie for the waterfront access, which has been a refuge for Hollywood stars and big bosses, with John Wayne (whose former yacht “The Wild Goose” is available for cruises), Cyndi Lauper and Roy Disney (Walt’s brother) all former residents.
These days, tech executives have moved into the old homes of the stars (you’ll definitely need the money to live, with studio apartments starting at $2 million), but you can easily see the continued appeal of Newport Beach – the unique harbor, the miles of golden sand, the most prestigious shopping district in Southern California, and the curious nostalgia that sets it apart from other upscale coastal Southern California cities.
You’ll find it in the Balboa Fun Zone – home to lots of Mardi Gras games and restaurants, an 80-year-old Ferris wheel (also where Ryan and Marissa of The OC shared their first kiss); frozen bananas, a local specialty; or a family-run ferry that takes cars back and forth through the calm harbor waters.
The Cannery Village neighborhood, centered around the old cannery (now a restaurant) and Blue Water Grill, also offers another slice of this area’s working-class history as a shipbuilding hub. Across the road, Lido Quay Village is an upscale waterfront shopping area with superb fine restaurants and an exotic feel exuded by local perfumers.
Hire an electric Duffy boat (named for its inventor who is also the current mayor of the city) to infiltrate it. You can drive around the harbor on your own (guided tours are available on YouTube), or hire a guide like Carolyn Clark (newportatyourfeet.com) who will energetically lead you on a star-studded housing adventure, or point out where Hollywood thinks Newport Harbor in the 1917 version of Cleopatra can impersonate the Nile.
Afterwards, pick up a frozen banana and stroll down to the beach at the eastern end of the peninsula, where Newport Beach’s famous surf spot, Wedge Surf, sees surfers and surfers coming in from all sides when the waves are high. But the summer highlights don’t stop there: if you visit before Christmas, check out the Christmas Boat Parade in Newport Beach. It’s both jaw-dropping (like Arrested Development) and a little goofy (like The OC). A fascinating combination.
The recently opened luxury Lido Hotel (3300 Newport Boulevard) on the site of the old City Hall is the first hotel to open on Newport’s Balboa Peninsula in over 50 years. With a Cape Cod-style aesthetic, this boutique hotel offers a central pool with private cabins for rent, an on-site spa and the only rooftop bar in the city. The shop is airy and laid-back, with a mix of nautical elements and soaring champagne-colored mermaid murals inside. The attached Crew Coffee & Cremerie Cafe, besides the obvious, is where you can get imaginative ice cream like tequila basil or roasted bananas.
The Newport Beach Hotel (2306 W. Oceanfront) – which bills itself as “Newport’s closest hotel to the beach” – has earned a reputation for excellent customer service and great value for money. Maritime stripes and sailboat cushion prints abound, but they don’t suffer much at this down-to-earth boutique hotel. A continental breakfast and borrowed bikes and surfboards are included in the competitive room rate at no charge. It’s all about the ocean view house, but if you don’t get one, then turn right around the corner of the building and sink your feet into the warm sand instead.
Restaurants, bars and cafes
Part of the Lido House Hotel, the gorgeous and cozy Mayor’s Table (3300 Newport Avenue) is quickly becoming one of the city’s best places to eat (and if you’re hungry as a horse for breakfast here, a hot chicken and pistachio butter waffle is a must). Of course, it’s at dinner that the food really comes……. The moment of fire, though the simplicity of the plate will leave the taste buds long in the tooth. With a sustainable seafood theme, must-order items include Dungeness crab stuffed doughnuts and veal steak with creamed corn.
Dad’s Donut & Bakery Shop (2501 W. Victory Boulevard) is Newport Beach’s nostalgic doughnut and sandwich shop. While the doughnuts and sandwiches here are baked to a name, everyone knows that this is where you come primarily to satisfy your Balboa Bar or Frozen Banana “taste of Newport Beach”. Just order an “everything” frozen banana and you’ll be served a chocolate-dipped delicacy of almonds, peanuts and rainbow sprinkles, a refreshing and gorgeous classic.
On the corner of Balboa Pier, you’ll find the original Ruby’s Diner (1 Balboa Pier), which was converted from a converted bait shop. The chain is now a familiar sight along the Southern California coast, and despite the brand’s history dating back to 1982, the classic 1950s-style restaurant vibe is strong. As you might expect, what’s on offer here is a beef-heavy menu where you can sit back and sample their milkshakes for a delicious nostalgia. At this Ruby’s, it’s important to note that there are often people waiting for a seat and there are no toilets, although orders from the takeaway window can be filled quickly.
The Cannery (3010 Lafayette Road), a Newport Beach stalwart since 1973, is a luxurious seafood restaurant set in the harbor’s old cannery with a beautiful interior. In addition to serving an extensive seafood platter, grilled Maine lobster and thick-cut steak, there’s also a sushi bar. The coolest way to get to the cannery is by boat and the restaurant has its own dock for diners to use.
The Beachcomber (15 Crystal Cove) is an atmospheric breakfast or brunch (or romantic dinner at sunset) located on the beach at Crystal Cove State Park. Dishes include heartwarming huevos rancheros, Mahi Mahi spring rolls, and short ribs with walnut gravy salad ravioli stew. If that wasn’t enough, they would raise a flag and announce happy hour. Of course, this restaurant is so popular that without a reservation, you’d be better off finding a table without a big stall by 11am (don’t forget to check out the website for parking suggestions). After dinner, you can wander through the Crystal Cove Historic District, a cluster of cabins that reminds you of California beach communities in the 20s and 30s.
Fashion Island (401 Newport Center Drive) is tailor-made for the vast wealth of Newport Beach, where there’s less of the mall bustle and more of the outdoor shopping bustle. Stroll under palm trees and fountains; check out high-end department stores like Neiman Marcus; buy a brand new Tesla Model 3 at a Tesla store; or blend in with the locals in Tommy Bahama’s high-end Hawaiian print shirts. When you’re done shopping, find a spot to sit down and stare at the koi pond while you think about bankruptcy.
A’maree’s (2241 West Coast Highway) is the boutique you’ll find in Newport Beach – with its high ceilings, floor-to-ceiling windows and marina-side views. There are super plush brands like Junya Watanabe, Rick Owens and Dior (though choose to change regularly), so have your bank account ready to go just in case. That said, there are a few shelves on the right side of the store and you might be lucky enough to get a bargain with a low price tag.
Yokishop (2429 West Coast Hwy #102) is a clothing store run by Jeff Yokoyama, a designer known for his “Maui & Son’s” brand and collaborative work with Stussy, who sells a range of cool surf and Hawaiian-inspired brands, including his own, at the Yokoyama store in Newport Beach. At the heart of this store is influencing the apparel industry’s new environmental consciousness by using recycled clothing in its designs.
Lido Village Books (3424 Via Oporto #102) is an independent bookstore that has been a local institution for decades in the Lido Village shopping district. What it offers is the quintessential indie bookstore experience: a quiet space where you can browse books and get advice from enthusiastic readers and owner Dan. The bookstore, which is modeled after a traditional Parisian bookstore, has also recently been expanded and renovated. Find a good book and take it for a stroll on a shady waterfront seat.
Island Home (313 Marine Avenue) on Balboa Island is a great destination for gift shoppers. Entering from the austere storefront, an Aladdin cave of ornaments and household items unfolds before you. Keep in mind that this is Newport Beach, so the price point is still higher than you might expect for a sandalwood gift candle, but you’ll really feel like you’re taking home or giving a piece of the Newport Beach lifestyle.