I often get asked where people should go on a date night. One of the first places I always suggest is the Cellar in Fullerton. The intimate restaurant has a relaxed vibe and hauntingly great cocktails made by talented bartenders. Plus, the undergroud location means there’s a lack of cell service, making for an evening filled with uninterrupted conversation.
When I heard the Cellar’s owner, Ryan Dudley, had recently taken over Cafe Hidalgo, aboveground at the same location, I had a Scooby Doo-like hunch its bar program would soon rise. Seeing longtime Cellar bartenders Monica Lynch and Dustin Adams in the light of day at Hidalgo made me wonder if Dudley pulled this move so the Cellar staff could see the outside world and perhaps get a little vitamin D.
Cafe Hidalgo’s charm runs deeper than just the drinks and Latin cuisine. The 95-year-old Spanish colonial building it fronts inside the Villa Del Sol is still a favorite for al fresco diners seeking candlelit romance. Although the bar program changed swiftly, the transformation of the rest of the menu and décor will be subtle over the coming weeks.
A few tapas bites will remain, assures Dudley, such as the mound of ceviche Andaluz that is a plump pile of shrimp and salsa fresca into which you dip crispy chips. The addition of fresh honeydew and cucumber makes for some solid cocktail snackery. Overall, it’s super-mild, and some of the cocktails can add just the right amount of heat, if that’s what you crave.
The Strawberry Season resembles your average strawberry daiquiri, but it comes out swinging with some sticky agave, strawberry-shortcake vibes, lime, Italian cherry, and heat via habanero bitters. “More than 600 pounds of fresh block ice is broken down between the two restaurants,” Lynch notes as she pours the contents of her rosy steel shaker over a perfectly clear cube of ice, garnishing the drink with a fresh berry.
I’m a sucker for negroni variants, and Lynch’s Monte Negroni is a rustic take on the classic with mezcal, pineapple-infused campari, and Amaro Montenegro. The ingredients are akin to a three amigos party pack to which mezcal brings the smoke and booze, campari the flair, and Montenegro the 1970s vinyl records to spin. (For whatever reason, Amaro Montenegro reminds me of how a 1980s LA record store smells, complete with bitter orange incense.) Both cocktails are $12 apiece.
If you have room for a third, definitely give the updated sangria a twirl. According to Fullerton legend Corky Nepomuceno, “It’s just as potent as the old version. Anyone lamenting about bringing back the old sangria is talking out of their wallet, as the new price is $8. Fret not, for happy-hour sangria will only be $6.”
Cafe Hidalgo, 305 N. Harbor Blvd., Fullerton, (714) 447-3202; www.cafehidalgofullerton.com .