Crystal Cove State Park is my favorite place to go in Orange County when I need to get away from Orange County.
Well, the modern version of it, any way.
Hiding in plain sight right off Pacific Coast Highway (sandwiched between the bustling Laguna and Newport beaches), the rare expanse of rolling green hills spilling down into cozy beach coves is like a step back in time; it’s one of the last remaining examples of pre-development open space and natural coastal habitats around.
Over the years, the 2,400-acre park and its many amenities have fulfilled all sorts of summer needs.
When I wanted a day hike with an ocean view, I just parked on a side street near the top of the hill and moseyed my way down Bommer Ridge. When the urge for an overnight backpacking trip took hold but I didn't have time to drive to one of my spots in the Eastern Sierra, I instead hoofed it into Crystal Cove’s backcountry wilderness area from Los Trancos parking lot.
A few times, I've even parked at one of the public parking lots hidden along the coastal side of the highway and spent all day frolicking on a secluded pocket of sand beneath slowly crumbling bluffs.
This summer, though, I was on the hunt for food — more specifically, a mellow beach with quality concessions, the kind of place I could spend an afternoon snacking and getting golden under the sun then stick around for a sit-down, sunset-view dinner.
As it has for me so many times before, Crystal Cove provided. And over the past few months, I have grown obsessed with the burgers, pork chops, crab stacks and Tiki drinks at The Beachcomber Cafe at Crystal Cove.
The versatile full-service restaurant and bar, plus its neighboring express beachside burger stand, are the official food providers of the Crystal Cove Historic District, which encompasses 46 beachfront cottages nestled at the end of a cozy creek-formed canyon inside the Crystal Cove State Park.
The cottages were originally constructed in the early 1900s by families who vacationed on the longtime Irvine Company land, but the semi-private seaside colony was sold to the State of California in 1979 — the same year that each structure was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Today, 29 of the cottages have been fully restored to their 1940s heyday, including 24 that are available for nightly rentals and one, built right where the main dirt path hits the water, that opened in 2006 as The Beachcomber Cafe.
Like Crystal Cove State Park itself, The Beachcomber Cafe has something for everyone. After one sun-filled beach day, a few friends and I retreated to the thatched-roof Bootlegger Bar in the back of the cottage and gorged on Hawaiian-style mahi mahi spring rolls and a gurgling, rum-filled Tonga Lei, which for the $29 price tag comes with drunken hibiscus flowers, plunks of dry ice and banana leaves in a branded ceramic cauldron.
The drink — part of a new lineup of Tiki cocktails that hark back to the days when Crystal Cove stood in for the South Pacific in early silent films — easily sated all three of us and made the hike back to the parking lot a little more manageable.
On another visit, I had a date meet me for dinner as I finished up a solo beach day and we sat in the patio in our flip-flops watching the sunset while sipping from oversized Mason jars of boozy tea and eating decadent main entrees from executive chef Carlos Olivera, like a maple-glazed Korubota pork chop (worth the $26 price tag) and bacon-wrapped, fist-sized diver scallops (with the tender-springiest of centers).
Other times, it’s the Beachcomber Express that’s comforted my hunger, with quick-serve treats perfect for taking back to the sand, from the juicy hand-formed Kobe cheeseburger to a grilled Mexican-style corn on the cob (Tajín and everything!), each made to order in a tent on the boardwalk that does double duty as a beach-chair and fire-pit rental center.
I’ve gone to the Beachcomber and only ordered a basket of perfectly puffy beignets. And I’ve walked away from my beach towel to salute a flag with a martini glass printed on it as it makes its daily 5 p.m. run up the Beachcomber flagpole, an ode to the cottage’s original owner, who used his house as a gathering place for locals.
In so many ways, The Beachcomber Cafe at Crystal Cove, like its surrounding neighborhood, feels untouched by time.
The food and drinks might reflect modern tinges with their global sensibilities, but under the watchful guidance of the nonprofit Crystal Cove Conservancy, The Beachcomber Cafe, the Bootlegger Bar and the entirety of the historic district are merely trying to maintain a slice of the past that is increasingly slipping away — a time when Orange County was still proper grazing land for sheep, when open space did not need such intense preservation and the coastline was dotted with dozens of quaint beach communities just like Crystal Cove, where good food and good friends converge on the sand.
The Beachcomber Cafe is at 15 Crystal Cove, Newport Beach. For more information, call (949) 376-6900 or visit thebeachcombercafe.com.
SARAH BENNETT is a freelance journalist covering food, drink, music, culture and more. She is the former food editor at L.A. Weekly and a founding editor of Beer Paper L.A. Follow her on Twitter @thesarahbennett.