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Until recently, Irvine, California has only existed as a blip on our family road-trip map — between the freeway drive from Los Angeles to San Diego. We’d see high-rise buildings, malls and hotels whiz by. Nothing to draw us in. Nothing to motivate us to stop. Recently however, we decided to put a little time into investigating the area when the Hotel Irvine challenged us to stay in Irvine for a couple days, as their guests, so we could discover those family-friendly activities that prove transformative for families looking to unplug and connect with the more exotic aspects of a city.
Soccer called my first-born away, so we had a rare opportunity to spend time alone with our nine-year-old son Knox. What this really means is: it was going to be a much quieter trip.
The hotel: Hotel Irvine
Hotel Irvine has a lot of space. It boasts the largest number of guest rooms in Irvine, 536 — and 16 of those are suites. It has 50,000 square feet of indoor/outdoor meeting space so when we arrived in the lobby on a Friday afternoon, there was a throng of excited, fledgling real-estate speculators waiting to learn how to score their fortune from a TV show host teaching them at his conference. Posters, goodie bags and crowds of people lined the vivid lobby. Orange chairs and matching sofas, wavy carpet designs and circular, stellar lighting gave off a hipster vibe. It all felt new and shiny in a retro sort of way.
Our room on the 14th floor offered views of the city skyline reminiscent of the East Coast but with bundles of bushes and trees offering a patchwork carpet of green. Clean, cream colored lines defined the workspace desk and chair, extending from the console holding the flat-screen TV. It was the wall of windows, though, that created the wow factor.
Just below us, on the 12th floor, Club 12 is a private perk for those who like a little more TLC than the average traveler. For an additional fee, guests have access to a 2,000 square foot private area with complimentary breakfast and a welcome home happy-hour.
A Club 12 concierge is available to answer questions, book events and make your stay even more comfortable. A balcony wraps itself around the club with plenty of cozy seating to gaze over the high-tech city.
There are computer work-areas and two 60-inch flat-screen TVs to catch the game in style with your buddies after the day-long meetings. Or, for your nine-year-old son to watch YouTube reality TV videos of other families. Everyone was easy going and no one seemed to mind. After 8pm, they put out a plate of dessert. Of course, Knox insisted we sample them so we could accurately report our findings. He’s so thorough. The night we went, it was a chocolate cake and that seemed to do the trick.
We ate dinner, the night we arrived, in the hotel restaurant, aptly called EATS. A laid-back, retro vibe that reminded me of an old-fashioned diner. I was impressed with the paper straws. It’s nice when the place you’re eating is thinking about the environment. We started with the Grilled Castroville Artichoke and I have to say, it was one of the best, if not the best (who really remembers these things?) artichokes I’ve ever eaten. Grilled just enough to make the leaves crisp at the edges but perfectly moist and meaty on the inside.
I could have munched on this dish all night but my husband and I also also ordered the Anti-Burger, a house-made vegan patty which we loved so much, after we told our waiter, he brought out Chef Jeff Moore so we could tell him ourselves.
Chef Moore thanked us for the compliment and then came back after we had our dessert sample platters (yes, we each ordered one so we could tell you that you must try the bread pudding, OMG, but it’s seasonal so you might have to beg but it’s worth it!) with the recipe for the vegan patty.
We couldn’t have felt more welcome. As we lingered over desserts and tea, we could see a circle of wine-drinkers sitting around a cozy firepit just outside the glass wall of the restaurant. I learned the hotel offers various activities throughout the week and on this Friday night it was a Fireside Wine Chat with a sommelier talking about various varieties as attentive students sipped away.
Outside the Hotel Irvine, is a very diverse cultural population with half of people identifying as non-Caucasian and mostly of Asian origins, so if you like variety and authentic cuisine the Diamond Jamboree is a great place to explore. We walked around and tried to find something two hyper-vigilent, self-described 90% health-freaks and a nine-year-old boy would agree upon. We all settled on Tokyo Table so Knox could get California Rolls and we could get something a bit more exotic that also grows out of the ground. Tokyo Table has tables and booths divided by pony walls around a large room.
The vibe is as electric as the neon sign bearing its name over the service area window where diners could see into the kitchen. Knox got his rolls and even some teriyaki chicken and applesauce so he was happy.
Howard ordered the Stone Bowl which was prepared at our table (video below) and I got the ramen soup.
It was all very satisfying and reasonably priced. Every dish we ordered averaged $10. Outside, a large line of mostly Asian hipsters snaked its way out of 85ºC Bakery. We were moderately interested but it was late and we had a nine-year-old who gets cranky when he hasn’t had enough sleep.
The best place we ate was definitely Andrei’s Conscious Cuisine and Cocktails — which is part gourmet restaurant and part charity. The wine list is extensive. The cocktails have a refreshing, creative edge and the food is organic and locally sourced. The story behind the establishment is a sad one. The restaurant is named after Andrei Olenicoff, a young man who, when diagnosed with a retinal eye disease in his 20s, responded by embracing the healthiest lifestyle possible in order to extend the time he’d have with full eyesight only to lose his life in a tragic car accident. The full story is also included in the video below. The Olenicoff family opened the restaurant in Andrei’s honor and donate 100% of the proceeds to various charities. Take that in for a second. All of the money they earn is donated. Wow. And let me tell you, the people working there seemed super upbeat and happy. Like jumping up and down on a fluffy cloud kind of happy. I ordered the Mediterranean Platter which included humus. The balance between sesame seed and tahini was perfect and there must have been other secret ingredients but I didn’t ask. Howard is half Persian (I swear) and I spent part of my childhood living in Israel, so when I say they had the best hummus we’ve ever eaten, it is a bells ringing overheard and streamers floating through the air kind of statement. Up until this point, we were trying out the vegan thing to improve our health. Or just stay healthy. But when confronted with that slice of feta cheese among the dolmeh, I decided not to resist.
Howard ordered Andre’s Cheeseburger because it had wagyu beef and he had heard good things about this Japanese breed of cattle and opted to put his veganhood on hold too for the afternoon. I had the fish tacos and it was flakey and sauced just with enough of a kick. Everything was extraordinary. Truly. It made me wish we lived closer so I come more often.
Everything about this restaurant made us feel good about eating and drinking here. The food, the cocktails and the dedication of the family to carry on such a worthwhile legacy and make Andrei’s senseless death have meaning.
The thing that made me realize Irvine was much more special than I had ever considered was when we visited the San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary, one of Southern California’s largest coastal freshwater marshes and only a five minute drive from the Hotel Irvine. The San Joaquin Marsh is two-thirds the size of New York City’s Central Park, in fact, Irvine is adjacent to more than 20,000 acres of permanently preserved open space and rare natural habitats. There are networks of trails around the marsh for hikers and bikers to explore within this city sanctuary.
When we arrived at the gates of the San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary, it felt as if we had dropped into a secret world. We could barely see the tops of the skyscrapers above the marsh grass and wildflowers. The 300 acres of wetland provides a home to more than 200 species of birds and has 12 miles of trails to walk around the various sized lakes. The area is more than just a beautiful face. It’s gorgeous on the inside too and helps bring beauty to the rest of the area. Maintained by the Irvine Ranch Water District, their website explains, “The wetlands are a critical component of IRWD’s Natural Treatment System, as they naturally clean urban runoff from San Diego Creek and help to protect the environmentally sensitive Upper Newport Bay. After interacting with the bulrush and other plants for seven to ten days, up to 70 percent of the nitrogen is removed. The cleaner water is returned to the creek to continue its journey to Upper Newport Bay and the ocean.”
We had a wonderful time walking and running around the tree and bush-lined paths, listening to the strange looking bird calls, some resembling their ancient pterodactyl cousins, and just breathing.
Sometimes it’s really the little things that make the biggest difference. Admission is free and the park is open everyday from dusk to dawn.
We decided to also explore Pretend City Children’s Museum, where kids can dress up and pretend to be workers in 17 interactive exhibits by circulating through the various rooms into real-life businesses. Upon entering the “city,” the kids receive a time-card divided into sections representing the “jobs” they must complete. Staff members stamp their time-card every time they complete one of those “jobs.” Each “job” comes complete with costumes kids can wear that they’ve seen adults wear executing the same tasks. Knox dressed up as a doctor for one and a Trader Joe’s cashier for another. He engaged in the marine biology station, which was wet and wild with kids running around discovering the world beneath the ocean. After getting all the slots stamped on his time-card, a staff member instructed him to go to the “bank” and collect his paycheck so he could go back to Trader Joe’s as a customer. The possible skill sets to be learned from these activities were boundless. There’s also a section for free, unstructured play with giant foam blocks and a stage to put on your own show. Kids under one are free and the rest are $13.75. Knox was probably on the verge of being too old for this as most of the attendees that day were in the toddler playset.
A few minutes away from Hotel Irvine is the Irvine Spectrum Center. We had heard about this ferris wheel where riders could see miles from the top and since I’d never been, we decided to stop and check it out. Our brief afternoon stop turned into a night time departure as we kept discovering place after place to keep us entertained. The ferris wheel was fun but it was a real treat at night with thousands of LED lights creating hypnotizing patterns.
I got to sneak into a couple stores after the boys discovered Dave and Buster’s, a Vegas style arcade, complete with a restaurant and bar, that will immediately put everyone in the family under its spell. It was funny to see popular arcade games from the 1980s also represented. The boys loaded up a game card and attacked as many games as they could while I tried on a couple things next door.
We finished off our stay in Irvine at my kid’s favorite place — no matter where we go — the swimming pool.
It wasn’t a hot day but the large pool was heated and the hot tub was bubbly and warm. It was the first time we traveled with only one of our boys, instead of both, and it was definitely one of the more relaxing and quiet times we’ve spent. Another surprising discovery like the city of Irvine.