“Would you like a mimosa or champagne?” the server asks as you're seated at O'Neill's Bar & Grill inside the Arroyo Trabuco Golf Club in Mission Viejo.
“A mimosa, please,” you reply without hesitation. You know from the flier you saw earlier with the brunch buffet price that the drink would add only $4 to the $32.95 charge you're about to incur, so why not? In the courtyard, shaded by canvas umbrellas, there are about two dozen people who ordered the mimosa most likely under the same reasoning. Besides, what's a proper Sunday brunch without a little alcohol—about the only time it's socially acceptable to imbibe this early in the day.
As with other golf-club restaurants, O'Neill's exists so you can do just this. Here, it's not the dinners or the discounted happy hours that's the raison d'être; it's the Sunday brunch, the club's finest hour, the time it pulls out all the stops and calls to work everyone on the payroll. To the omelet-station guy, the crepe-station cook and the server who just topped off your half-drunk flute of mimosa with more champagne, Sunday brunch is prime time. This weekly event is so important to O'Neill's that when you make an online reservation, you're asked to provide a credit card number to secure it, something it doesn't require at any other time.
But because Arroyo Trabuco is tucked away in the leafiest part of Mission Viejo, and since the cost is kind of prohibitive, you notice a smaller crowd than you imagined. You're glad. Instead of being a dot among an ocean of tourists, as you were the last time you were in Vegas for a brunch buffet, being at O'Neill's feels as though you're an invited guest at a private party in a country villa.
Outside, between two garden hedges, a hired musician taps out Pharrell William's “Happy” on a keyboard. In the distance, a golf cart slowly putters atop a green hill. In the middle of this scene, a lake sparkles. It's a warm, beautiful day, and a sense of contentment commingles in the air with the rich smell of buttery omelets. You see it in the faces and hear it in the laughter that punctuates the genteel hum of conversation: Life, at this moment, couldn't get any better—and later, there will be chocolate-covered strawberries for dessert.
But first, you want an omelet. “Ham, peppers, tomatoes and spinach, please,” you tell the omelet cook, who's dressed in white and working a camp stove at one of four buffet stations, this one outside.
“Cheese?” he inquires politely.
In the meantime, you flip the cover on one of the many elegant chafing trays. You grab what your dining companion says is too much bacon. She only half believes you when you tell her, “This is for both of us.” To your plate, you add a plump sausage. The eggs Benedict, you skip. But then you see the prime rib, which is taken from a huge pink hunk, and you can't, on general economic principle, pass on it.
“Just a little piece,” you say to the attendant, but he carves off the equivalent of a Fred Flintstone portion. On your companion's plate, you notice half a waffle and a piece of dry-looking French toast.
At the opposite end of the courtyard, there are more covered chafing trays. You discover the seafood sliders consist of breaded patties you later determine to be some sort of crab cake. And what's this? An actual Kentuckian hot brown? You explain the concept of this open-faced turkey-breast-and-bacon sandwich doused in Mornay sauce to your date.
After she takes a forkful from your plate, she remarks, “Wow, that's really good!”
“So is this braised beef, the roasted potatoes and sautéed vegetables!” you say, your voice muffled by a mouth full of food.
Then the room starts to spin. And you realize you've lost count how many times the server has topped off your flute with champagne in the past half-hour. Judging by the fact the orange juice has long been diluted without even a trace of pulp in the glass, you guess at least a half dozen times. You struggle to focus as you squeeze some lemon onto the split-open snow crab legs, some muddy-tasting raw oysters and the gigantic shrimp cocktail that has been put out in an impeccable display.
By the time you order a crepe for dessert, you're officially sloshed. You ask for it to be made into a crepe Suzette, but the cook doesn't seem to know what that is. You complain to your companion, but she tells you it's probably good he just served it to you plain. You've had enough alcohol, she says; it's not even 2, and there's a wonderful afternoon of golf ahead.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.