Welcome to our annual Top 5 countdown, where our SAFII writers tell you what impressed them over the past year! Here, we have Greg Nagel’s Top 5 Restaurants – enjoy, and dig in!
Greg Nagel’s Top 5 Restaurants of 2018:
5. 18 Folds
I’m not sure which is more entertaining: Nibbling on chicken feet over a fresh local craft beer, or watching various giggling kids roll down the fake grass hills outside in the park? Dine inside, or ask for a picnic blanket to sit in the park and dine on meat-stuffed dumplings or, my favorite, the 18 Folds noodles with an ooey-gooey sous vide egg on top. The beers are sourced within a 10-mile radius, so you know they’re good. 430 S. Anaheim Blvd., Anaheim, (714) 386-5768; 18finc.com. 
Laguna Beach quickly became my favorite place to dine in 2018, with chef Greg Daniels planting his roots at Harley. The space is like a home away from home, complete with books on the shelf, a crackling-wood flame in the kitchen, and staff that is just as warm. Dining out can be a fun and adventurous experience, but at Harley, I feel as if I’m part of the journey. The obvious choice here is seafood, but I’ve never been disappointed with any of the chef’s duck plates. 370 Glenneyre St., Laguna Beach, (949) 715-1530; www.harleylagunabeach.com .
3. The Blind Pig
Rancho Santa Margarita doesn’t have many destination restaurants, but an evening at the Blind Pig is totally worth a Lyft. Here, a totally insane Taco Tuesday and $8 tiki drinks can be found at the same time. Bartender Ryan Autry is one of the county’s best, as he effortlessly plays his bar, his booze and his customers like a fiddle. I can’t wait to visit the Blind Pig’s new Yorba Linda location in 2019! 31431 Santa Margarita Pkwy., Rancho Santa Margarita, (949) 888-0072; www.theblindpigoc.com. 
2. Farmhouse at Rogers Gardens
There aren’t too many places that check all the boxes of what true California cuisine is all about. It’s fun to see chef/owner Rich Mead get to play in a sandbox of the freshest local organic and biodynamic farm-raised food he can get his hands on. The team he assembled to back him up is just as passionate, knowledgeable and full of smiles as he is. It’s no wonder a reservation is so difficult to land at the al fresco eatery. 2301 San Joaquin Hills Rd., Corona Del Mar, (949) 640-1415; farmhouserg.com. 
1. El Mercado Modern Cuisine
With so many places I consider second homes, it’s tough to come up with a No. 1 , but El Mercado is where I stumble to on my birthday, so that must make it a fave, right? I’m not sure if it’s the constant flow of Mezcal sipped from thistle glasses; the gorgeously plated food; or whatever bartender Cesar Cerrudo is mumbling while shaking, stirring and lighting all the things on fire, but Mercado is my place of discovery, where despite all of my years on this planet, I can still explore something new. 301 N. Spurgeon St., Santa Ana, (714) 338-2446; www.mercadomodern.com .