California Fool’s Gold — Exploring Irvine, Orange County’s City of Innovation



Irvine Skyline
Irvine skyline

For a while now Irvine has shared the top spot on my poll (see the end of the post to vote) but I’ve put it off because of the time required to explore such a sprawling, distant city. There was also a time when most of my blog’s non-Los Angeles fans were Irvine residents, which intrigued me. All of my business conducted there in the past involved getting lost several times and this time would prove to be no different.

Dead ends in Irvine

Irvine – the Dead End Capital of Orange County


Irvine is a large (170 km2 – the largest city in the county, area-wise), planned, suburban city near the center of Orange County but generally considered to be part of the South County region. In 2008, named Irvine the fourth best place to live in the country. It has topped the FBI’s list of safest American cities with populations of over 65,000 for the last eight years.

Pendersleigh & Sons Cartography's map of South County
Pendersleigh & Sons Cartography‘s map of South County

When I told people that I was writing about Irvine, most people expressed the view that — because it’s a planned community — it’s an awful, boring place. Now some of the world’s great (or at least interesting) cities are planned communities: Brasília, Islamabad, Kyoto, New Delhi, and Washington, DC. I’m not going to suggest that Irvine is on the same level as those cities but there’s something uniquely attractive and Utopian about planned cities (I know I attempted many ambitious ones whilst playing Sim City). At the same time, there’s a lot that’s inhuman about them – which can be attractive to if you’re into artifice. But even if one considers Irvine to be the blandest, most sterile place on earth, where there are people there is life or, as a girl from Tustin recently said when we were discussing Irvine, “Well, people like me come from places like that.”

Irvine master planners  Aerial view of West Irvine

                      Irvine planners                                                                Aerial view of West Irvine


Pendersleigh & Sons Cartography's map of Irvine

Irvine is neighbored by Tustin to the north, Santa Ana to the northwest, Costa Mesa to the west, Newport Beach to the southwest, Laguna Hills onto the southeast, and Lake Forest to the east. San Diego Creek is the city’s primary watercourse and its largest tributary is Peters Canyon Wash. Most of Irvine is situated on a broad, flat valley between Loma Ridge in the north and the San Joaquin Hills in the south although the northern annexations of previously unincorporated Orange County is characterized by its hills, plateaus, and canyons.

While Irvine is undoubtedly safe, its completely planned character and restrictions seem to have effectively stifled most unofficial, unsanctioned expressions of culture and individuality. Every neighborhood (subdivisions euphemistically referred to as villages) has its chosen, specific character and the same sorts of strip malls, commercial centers, churches, schools, and parks designed to make them self-contained and cut down on unnecessary commuting. People have come up with joking mottoes for the city including “Irvine: We Have 62 Different Words for Beige,” “Where Bland is in Demand,” “Sixteen Zip Codes, Six Floor Plans,” “Sorry, I Thought This Was My House,” and “City by the Beige.” It’s widely referred to as “The Bubble.” In 2011, the OC Register ran a story titled, “Breaking News: Non-beige homes approved in Irvine.”

A side effect of this is that it’s hard for the casual explorer. How to prioritize visiting one neighborhood over another? The overall effect is very samey (in spite of the attempts at varied village identities) and center-less. Few buildings rise above two stories and from the street I continually couldn’t see much besides trees, walls, and rooftops. Few things caught me eye and piqued my interest.

Irvine tract
View of Irvine from jet pack

Since it’s so spread out and mostly flat, the best way of exploring Irvine might be by bicycle — or jet pack. There are 454 km (282 miles) of bike lanes and 71.6 km (44.5 miles) of off-road bike trails. The city is also served by Metrolink’s Orange County Line. Additionally, since 2008, Irvine has offered four bus lines as part of its appley, sorry, aptly-named iShuttle bus service.

Irvine iShuttle
Irvine’s iShuttle (image source: So Cal Metro)


There are a few taller buildings. The tallest building in Irvine (and the third tallest building in Orange County) is the 20-story Park Place Tower, completed in 2007. The previously tallest building in Irvine, the 19-story Jamboree Center, was completed in 1990. The third tallest skyscraper is the 14-story Opus Center Irvine II, completed in 2002. The fourth tallest structure is the 17-story Waterfield Tower, completed in 1987. The Irvine Marriott is also 17-stories and the 2600 Michelson is 16 stories.
As with everywhere, there is culture in Irvine, though it seems to occur in a controlled manner in pre-determined locations. Finding it was a challenge but one I relished undertaking. After all, when the OC Weekly trots out its annual “Best of OC” lists, Irvine always takes a lot — maybe most — of the honors.

First a bit of history…


Ranchos of Orange County, California

Ranchos of Orange County, California

Archaeological evidence suggests that the area now occupied by  Irvine has been inhabited for between 12,000 – 18,000 years. Around 2,000 years ago the Tongva arrived from the Sonoran Desert to the east. Spanish explorer Gaspar de Portolà arrived in 1769 and claimed the land for Spain. In 1821, Mexico gained independence from Spain and secularized the Spanish ranchos. Portions of three of the ranches – Rancho Santiago de Santa Ana, Rancho San Joaquin, and Rancho Lomas de Santiago – would later become Irvine Ranch.

Irvine Ranch
Map showing Irvine Ranch


In 1848, the Mexican-American War ended with Mexico’s defeat and California was admitted to the Union in 1850. In 1864, a calamitous drought convinced Rancho San Joaquin’s owner, the extravagant Jose Andres Sepulveda, to sell 200 km2 to Benjamin and Thomas Flint, Llewellyn Bixby, and Irish immigrant James Irvine (whose portion was by far the largest). In 1866, the group purchased the 190 km2 Rancho Lomas de Santiago. In 1868, lands of Ranch Santiago de Santa Ana were divided among the group, which founded Irvine Ranch as a sheep operation. Irvine Ranch’s lands included those of modern-day Irvine as well as most of Newport Beach (aside from Newport Bay), Crystal Cove and Laguna Coast wildernesses, and more surrounding land.

James Irvine house, built in 1868
James Irvine house, built in 1868 (image source: Irvine Historical Society)

Irvine commissioned a home to be built in 1868. It was ultimately demolished in 1961. Today, the oldest building on Irvine Ranch (built around 1877) is home to the Irvine Historical Museum and the Irvine Historical Society (established in 1977). Today the building is the oldest wooden home between Anaheim and San Diego.

In 1876, after another devastating drought, James Irvine bought his partners’ interests. Irvine died in 1886. In 1887, the Santa Fe Railroad (actually the San Bernardino and San Diego Railroad subsidiary) extended its line south to Fallbrook Junction and a station was added on Irvine Ranch. In 1888, Orange County split from Los Angeles County. Irvine’s son, James Irvine, Jr, incorporated his father’s holdings as The Irvine Company when he inherited it on his 25th birthday, in 1892. He later began shifting the ranching focus from sheep to cattle. He also oversaw the diversification of the ranch’s agriculture by planting olives, citrus crops, and lima beans. Irvine also began subdividing some of the land and allowing tenant farmers to work it.


Irvine Service Station
Irvine Service Station (source: First American)

Around 1909 a town arose around the new stop named Myford (“Irvine” was already taken by a stop and town in Calaveras County, named after another Irvine in the family), after Irvine’s son when houses began to appear. A blacksmith’s had been built in 1888. In 1889 a barley warehouse was constructed, as was Myford’s first school. The Irvine General Store was added in 1912 after proprietor Kate Munger finally convinced Irvine to allow her to do so over his objections that working was unladylike. In 1913, the Irvine Hotel was built behind the general store.

The Irvine Hotel
The Irvine Hotel (source: First American)


In 1912, a drifter named Joe Matlock asked Irvine Ranch resident William Cook for work and was told that there was none. He later returned and tied up Cook’s thirteen-year-old daughter and attacked his sixteen-year-old daughter. He then retreated to Tomato Springs (now Portola Springs) and a posse was formed to pursue him. The next morning he forced a rancher at gunpoint to feed him. When the posse caught up with him, Matlock killed deputy sheriff Robert Squire after shooting him six times. Three other deputies were shot and wounded before Matlock was felled, most likely by his own hand. Unrecognized, his corpse was paraded around Santa Ana before his identity was discovered. It turned out he was the son of a onetime Eugene, Oregon mayor. He was buried as Ira Jones to save his father from embarrassment.


Railroad passing through Myford
Railroad passing through Irvine with bean packing plant (source: Dissent the Blog)


In 1914, after the death of William Irvine (the Irvine that the Irvine in Calaveras County was named after), that town was renamed Carson Hill. Soon after, the residents of Myford renamed their town Irvine. By the 1920s, the Venta Spur of the railroad shipped citrus from the many then-new processing plants in what’s now Northwood to the rest of the county. (The plants began to close in the 1970s and the line was finally abandoned in 1985 and converted to a bike trail in 1999. Another railroad spur, the Irvine Industrial Spur, is also currently being considered for conversion to bike path.) A second school was built in 1929 and the original school became a community hall. The second school was later destroyed by arson.

Irvine Ranch Historic Park Avocado Grove
Irvine Ranch Historic Park avocado grove
Irvine Ranch Historic Park buildings -- tenant housing
Irvine Ranch Historic Park buildings — tenant housing?


The Marine Corps Air Station El Toro circa 1947
The Marine Corps Air Station El Toro circa 1947

During World War II, 4,000 acres of lima bean fields (Irvine was once the world’s largest producer of the legume) government for the establishment of the MCAS El Toro and the Tustin Marine Base. The loss of land to military bases, the loss of farmers to the war and the resultant changing tax base marked the end of Irvine’s agricultural period. James Irvine, Jr, died in 1947 aged 80. At that time, Myford assumed the presidency of the Irvine Company and began allowing for limited urban developments of select areas.

Jamboree Road
Jamboree Road

In 1953, Irvine Ranch hosted the Boy Scouts’ third National Jamboree in what’s now Newport Beach. Jamboree Road, which connects Orange to Newport Beach, was thus named in honor of the event. On 11 January 1959, Myford Irvine commit suicide by shooting himself with a .22 revolver, first in the abdomen and then the head.

Aerial view of UCI Campus

After Myford’s unexpected suicide, the University of California asked The Irvine Company for 4 km2 on which to build a new campus. Most of the land was basically donated (sold for $1) and an additional 2 km2 were purchased for a larger amount. University of California Irvine (UCI) opened in 1965 and is the second newest of the University of California’s campus, after the one in Merced. The UCI campus includes many of Irvine’s most interesting attractions. There’s Aldrich Park, Anteater Recreation Center, Beall Center for Art & Technology, Bren Events Center, CAC Gallery, Irvine Arboretum, Irvine Barclay Theatre, Room Gallery, The Hill, University Art Gallery, and the University Club. In 1967, famous photographer Ansel Adams photographed the campus, designed by futurist architect William Pereira — best known for designing LACMA and later, San Francisco’s Transamerica Pyramid. (Click here to see a slide show of both Adams’s photos and recreations called In Ansel Adams’ Footsteps).


Nowadays UCI is joined in the field of academia by Brandman University, Concordia University, Irvine Valley College, the Orange County Center of the University of Southern California, and satellite campuses of Alliant International University, California State University Fullerton, University of La Verne, Chicago School of Professional Psychology-Irvine, and Pepperdine University.

Ray Watson (in black hat) on the Irvine Ranch (source: Raymond L. Watson Papers)
Ray Watson (in black hat) on the Irvine Ranch (source: Raymond L. Watson Papers) 

In the 1960s, Irvine Ranch employee Raymond Watson and the UCI’s consulting architect, William Pereira, drew up plans for a 50,000 population City of Irvine to surround the new school. The small agricultural town (formerly Myford) that had grown up around the train station and post office was re-named East Irvine. The early “villages” (again, Irvine’s designation for neighborhoods) included Culverdale (now Westpark), El Camino Real, NorthwoodTurtle Rock, University Park, and Walnut. They were all incorporated along with Irvine on 28 December 1971 with a combined population of about 10,000 people. Science-Fiction fan and idealist Pereira was quoted as saying of the planners’ approach “An ounce of farsighted planning is worth a pound of urban renewal a generation hence.”

William L. Pereira
William L. Pereira amongst renderings


Watson described each of the villages as “a series of pearls, each special in its own way.” Although obviously a booster of his planned community, the neighborhoods are all close to numerous recreational features like lakes, parks, and open spaces as well as schools and shopping centers. A few, like Turtle Rock, are named after the natural features around which they are built.

Nowadays other villages include College Park, Columbus Grove, Deerfield, El Camino Glen, Greentree, Harvard Square, Heritage Fields, Irvine Groves, Irvine Spectrum (yes, the big mall is a village), Laguna Altura, Lambert Ranch, Northpark, Northpark Square, Oak Creek, Old Towne Irvine, Orangetree, Orchard Hills, Park Lane, Parkside, Planning Area 40, Portola Springs, Quail Hill, Racquet Club, Rancho San Joaquin, Rosegate, Shady Canyon, Stonegate, The Colony, The Ranch, The Willows, Turtle Ridge, University Hills, University Town Center, West Irvine, Windwood, Woodbridge, Woodbury, and Woodbury East.

Entrance to an Irvine Village
Grand entrance into one of Irvine’s currently-under-construction villages

Entry into each village is marked by triumphal arches with unused seating areas, towers, gates, or sections of walls that monumentalize the mundane – the same way Irvine does its shopping centers. This kind of architectural practice isn’t unique to Irvine. I’ve seen many mid-century apartments with Polynesian elements billed with names like “The Sleepy Lagoon” or mock Tudor complexes named things like “Cavalier Arms Manor” or what have you. I often amuse myself with the hoity-toity names of banal strip malls… but Irvine does it on an almost Disney/Vegas/Dubai scale with a lack of whimsy that suggests to me a completely straight face.

Wild Rivers in Irvine  The Marketplace - Irvine
                                       Wild Rivers                                                            The Marketplace – Irvine
The population of Irvine surpassed the planned 50,000 figure in its first decade of existence and surpassed 62,000 by 1980. That decade witnessed the formation of several new institutions. The Ayn Rand Institute was founded in 1985, three years after the founder of Objectivism’s death. Rand had earlier founded The Foundation for the New Intellectual but it was dissolved when the ARI was founded. A year after the ARI was established, the water park Wild Rivers opened on the site of the former Lion Country Safari, a drive-through zoo. Following the expiration of its lease with The Irvine Company, it closed in 2011 but after a sale, is set to reopen in 2014. In 1988, the Irvine Company opened The Marketplace, a mall that straddles the border of Irvine and Tustin. It was designed by my least favorite architect (nothing personal), Ricardo Legorreta. Legorreta also designed the Camino Real Hotel in Mexico. Angelenos are probably more familiar with his brutalist/post-modern hybrid structures in Downtown‘s Pershing Square.

1990 saw Irvine’s population pass the 100,000 mark. A sort of downtown was constructed to serve the surging population, the Irvine Spectrum Center.



Moroccan minaret at the Irvine Spectrum
Moroccan minaret at the mall – a muezzin makes the call to shop five times a day


Come at me, bro - Irvine Spectrum


Before there were similar outdoor mall/ersatz downtowns like Fairfax‘s The Grove, Glendale‘s The Americana, Monterey Park‘s Atlantic Times Square, or San Gabriel‘s The San Gabriel Square and there was The Irvine Spectrum Center. The first part of it opened in 1995 when most suburbs were still in love with indoor malls. The final phase was completed in 2006. As with Irvine’s villages, different areas of the mall have different architectural themes. There’s also a merry-go-round, a Ferris wheel, and in winter, an ice skating rink.

Irvine Spectrum Ferris wheel

Irvine Spectrum merry-go-round



Intro to Evil Twins (including tacky “Asian” music)

The other big news of the ’90s was the so-called Han Twins Murder Conspiracy. In November 1996, Jeena Han supposedly conspired to murder her twin sister, Sunny. The Han sisters were born in South Korea and moved to Orange County when they were twelve with their mother, Boo I. Kim. Kim was a cocktail waitress and compulsive gambler who left the girls to fend for themselves sometimes for days at a time. After being sent to live with an uncle, they became co-valedictorians at their high school in Campo. After high school, however, their lives both went pear-shaped, culminating in a sensational series of events covered on an A&E documentary, Sister Against Sister: The Twin Murder Plot (1999), The Investigators episode “Evil Twin” (2001), the Snapped episode “Jeena Han” (2005), and the pilot episode of the Investigation Discovery show, Evil Twins. Meanwhile, the sisters have reconciled and many mostly Korean-Americans (including Sunny) have attempted to secure Jeena’s freedom — some apparently chalking up the whole affair to so-called “K Rage.”

Orange County Great Park hot air balloon
Orange County Great Park hot air balloon 

After a decline in Irvine’s growth in the 1990s, it once again increased in the 2000s. In 2003, the 19 km2 of land occupied by the Marine Corps Air Station El Toro (until 1999) was re-annexed by Irvine. It is currently being transformed into Orange County Great Park which will when completed, be Orange County’s largest municipal park. Since 2007, visitors can visit and board a hot air balloon that climbs 500 feet into the air.

High profile crime returned to Irvine in 2000 when the Biofem, Inc’s chief executive, James Patrick Riley, was shot in the face at the firm’s offices by a masked gunman who sped away in a van that turned out to be owned by Dino D’Saachs. Phone records showed that D’Saachs had spoken with one of Riley’s co-workers, Larry Creed Ford, that morning. After the police questioned Ford about the crime he commited suicide at his home in the Woodbridge village. A suicide note professed his innocence but added that there were things of interest to the police in his home. Upon investigation, the authorities discovered vessels buried in his yard containing C-4 and assault rifles. His refrigerator contained 266 bottles and vials of pathogens including Clostridium tetani and Clostridum difficile. It turned out that the company was close to developing a new female contraceptive and also had ties to South Africa’s biological weapons program. Suffice to say, it was all very odd. (Read a much more in-depth account here).


Pao Fa Temple
Pao Fa Temple (image source: Anita L.)

Pao Fa Temple (寶法寺), one of the largest Buddhist monasteries and temples in the US, opened in 2002. It was founded by Taiwanese abbot, Venerable Jen-Yi (真一法師), on advice he received from Venerable Master Hsuan Hua of the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas back in 1990.

The Islamic Center of Irvine
The Islamic Center of Irvine (source: Tashfeen B.)

The Islamic Center of Irvine was founded in 2004. It’s one of the largest Muslim congregations in California. A con man from Tustin, Craig Monteilh, claimed to have spied on the congregation on behalf of the FBI. The story was covered on PRI’s This American Life episode, “The Convert.”

The most recent population estimate, that of the California Department of Finance, estimates it to be 223,729. One time Irvine resident Zack De La Rocha (of Rage Against the Machine) once raged against Irvine, stating that it was “one of the most racist cities imaginable. If you were a Mexican in Irvine, you were there because you had a broom or a hammer in your hand.” De La Rocha moved there in 1971 when the population was barely over 10,000 and the racial demographics were very different. Today Irvine is a fairly diverse city with a population that is roughly 45% non-Latino white, 40% Asian, 9% Latino, and 2% black.


Irvine Global Village
Performers at the Irvine Global Village Festival 

The most celebrated cultural event in Irvine is the Irvine Global Village Festival, which takes place every annually and celebrates the ethnic diversity of Irvine’s populace. It began in 1998 as the Multicultural Festival and took its current name in 2001.

Irvine Fine Arts Center
Outside the Irvine Fine Arts Center
Artists' Tales - Erin Dunn
Artists’ Tales – Erin Dunn exhibit

Inside the Irvine Fine Arts Center
Inside the Irvine Fine Arts Center


I actually started my exploration of Irvine at the Irvine Fine Arts Center. It opened in 1980 and offers both exhibition and education spaces. On the day that I visited the exhibit was titled “Artists’ Tales” (although the sign above the entrance said “Artist’s Tales.” It was a group exhibition featuring installations, video art, drawings, paintings, mixed media pieces, dioramas, sculptures and more from Erin Dunn, Kristi Kent, Nathan Margoni, and Siobhan McClure. In a classroom, adult students were busy making their own art.

Heritage Park in Irvine
Heritage Park 

After I left the Arts Center I strolled around Heritage Park, on which it is located. There was a multitude of Canada Geese and other species of goose as well as a large variety of ducks, and therefore an astonishing amount of guano to dodge. Heritage Park is a community park and includes the Heritage Park Community Center.

Heritage Park Community Center
Heritage Park Community Center

The center is home to swimming pools, soccer fields, tennis courts, racquetball courts, grills, play areas, basketball courts, concession stands and (with reservation only) bounce houses.

Northwood Community Park - Irvine
Northwood Community Park soccer fields

Whatever criticisms one might have of Irvine, it is decidedly not park-poor. In addition to Heritage Park, there is Alton Athletic Park, Colonel Bill Barber Marine Corps Memorial Park, Deerfield Community Park (which includes a nine-hole Frisbee golf course), Harvard Athletic Park, Harvard Skatepark, Hicks Canyon Park, Jeffrey Open Space Trail, Lakeview Senior Center, Las Lomas Community Park, Lower Peters Canyon Community Park, Northwood Community Park, Oak Creek Community Park, Portola Springs Community Park, Quail Hill Community Park, Rancho Senior Center, Turtle Rock Community Park, University Community Park, Windrow Community Park, Woodbridge Community Park, and Woodbury Community Park.

Northwood Gratitude and Honor Memorial - Irvine
Northwood Gratitude and Honor Memorial

Northwood Park includes the Northwood Gratitude and Honor Memorial – the first war memorial erected in the country before the wars in question were over. In 2010 it listed the names of over 5,700 Americans who’ve died in the current military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq. It’s updated with the names of more deceased soldiers yearly and I stopped by. Other public spaces not part of Irvine’s parks department include the aforementioned Aldritch Park in the UC Irvine campus, the San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary, and William R. Mason Regional Park.

There are also, by design, neighborhood parks (as opposed to the aforementioned public, community parks) for the various villages including Alderwood Park, Blue Gum Park, Brywood Park, Canyon Park, Carrotwood Park, Chaparral Park, Citrusglen Park, College Park, Comstock Park, Coralwood Park, Creekview Park, Dovecreek Park, Flagstone Park, Hoeptner Park, Homestead Park, Knollcrest Park, Meadowood Park, Orchard Park, Pepperwood Park, Pinewood Park, Plaza Park, Presley Park, Racquet Club Park, Ranch Park, San Carlo Park, San Leandro Park, San Marco Park, Settler’s Park, Silkwood Park, Sweet Shade Park, Sycamore Park, Trailwood Park, Valencia Park, Valley Oak Park, Willows Park, and Woodside.

Irvine has three public libraries: Heritage Park Regional Library (the collection of which is largely focused on business), University Park Library (the collection of which includes a substantial Chinese collection), and Katie Wheeler Library. Most of UCI’s libraries are open to the public as well.

Katie Wheeler Library
Katie Wheeler Library

On the day of my visit, I checked out the latter. Katie Wheeler was the granddaughter of James Irvine and the library is a replica of the home in which she grew up. I tried to glean what I could from the book Irvine Ranch – different by design: images 1960 – 2000 but couldn’t dally because I still had much ground to cover and the December day was short.

Irvine Improv
The marquee of the Irvine Improv

There aren’t many proper music venues for a city of Irvine’s size. There’s the whimsically-named Verizon Wireless Amphitheater (opened as Irvine Meadows in 1981) and performers sometimes pop in at Bacchus’ Secret Cellar Wine Shoppe and Bar but that seems to be about it. Irvine Barclay Theatre & Cheng Hall and Irvine Valley College Performing Arts Center both feature a wider array of performing arts. As far as proper theater there’s New Swan Theater. As far as dinner theater, there’s the annual Madrigal Dinner at UCI’s Claire Trevor School of the Arts. For comedy, there’s the Irvine Improv.

Emily Sassy Lime from Sadie Shaw on Vimeo.

There are of course there are a few musicians (and other performers) to whom Irvine was a birthplace. Amy Yao of the first all-Asian-American band, Emily’s Sassy Lime is a native, as is singer/American Idol contestant Mishavonna Henson, actor/comedian Nicole Parker, singer Rebecca Black, No Doubt guitarist Tom Dumont, “reality” star Shallon Lester, and actor Will Ferrell. Irvine is also the hometown of bands such as Christian rapcore band East West, post-hardcore band Thrice, and rock band Young the Giant.


In TV Land, the city is served by Irvine Community Television (ICTV), a station whose motto is “For You, About You” and which airs on Cox Communications channel 30 (and online).

There are a couple of cinemas of note in Irvine. Edwards University Town Center 6 is hardly an art house but does show lots of foreign, limited release, and independent films. In 2012 the OC Weekly named it Orange County’s “Best Indie Film Theater.”

Edwards Irvine Spectrum 21 & RPX

In contrast, is the Edwards Irvine Spectrum 21 & RPX. When it opened in 1995 it was the largest theater in the western US and during its construction, Edwards referred to it as “The Big One.” Its screen number was chosen with the express purpose of showing every film currently in wide release. If you’re like me and you like a bargain (and can wait out opening weekend hype), Woodbridge Dollar Movies 5 shows second-run films for a dollar.

Irvine has been featured in many films, if often not, I assume, playing itself (I assume because I’ve only seen five). Films that have been partially or wholly filmed in Irvine include: All That I Need (2005), Anokha (2004), Beneath the Surface (2007), Bill Fillmaff’s Secret System (2006), Care of the State (2005), Changing the Taste of Mud (2005), The Chase (1994), Confessions of a Peep Show Junkie (2006), Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972), Corey Holcomb: The Problem Is You (2004), Creator (1985), Deconstructing the Family (2007), Defending Your Life (1991), Demolition Man (1993), Depth Solitude (1997), Devo: Live (2004), Dino Adino (2004), Entering the Student Body (2005), Fuckin’ with Dave Pounder (2003), Girl with an Accent (2005), Gleaming the Cube (1989), Gohar-e shab cheragh (1998), The Golden Arrow (2003), Harmony Heights (2006), Heart Like a Wheel (1983), How 87 Learned to Smile (2005), Imaginary Girls (2004), Invisible Light (2003), Iron Man (2008), Jihad: Searching for Answers (2007), Kiss the Girls (1997), L.A. Proper (2008), Lies & Exaggerations (1998), My RV Life (2006), Ocean’s Eleven (2001), Pablo Francisco: Bits and Pieces – Live from Orange County (2004), Planet Earth (1974), Planet of the Apes (1968), Poltergeist (1982), A Promise (2005), Rage Against the Machine (1997), Raspberry & Lavender (2004), Reign Over Me (2007), Rhapsody (2006), A Scanner Darkly (2006), The Shadow Man (2006), Silent Movie (1976), Sublime: Stories, Tales, (1987) The Informant! (2009), Things You Don’t Tell… (2006), Tiger (1997), View from the Top (2003), Waiting for Isaac (2006), and You, Me and Dupree (2006).


One of the most organic expressions of culture in Irvine is the variety of dining establishments. At first, I thought, given Irvine’s reputation, that I should patronize a chain restaurant. However, it soon became clear that whatever else one may think of it, the restaurant scene is huge and fairly diverse, and colorful. A lot of Irvine’s cultural festivals highlight both Irvine’s diversity and cuisine, including the Greek Festival, the Indian Food Festival, and the Irvine Korean Cultural Festival.

North American cuisines are represented mostly by American and Mexican restaurants. European cuisine is mostly represented by Italian cuisine although there are also French and Greek restaurants. South America is represented by Brazilian and Peruvian eateries. Asian and Pacific Island cuisines are the most heavily represented and with the most variety. The cuisines of Afghanistan, Canton, China, Hawaii, India, Korea, Pakistan, Persia, Sichuan, Taiwan, Thailand, and Vietnam are spread throughout the city.

University Shopping Center Irvine
University Center in Irvine

After walking around the University Center shopping area I settled on Ray’s Pizza, primarily because there was an empty table with an unused electrical outlet with which to charge my phone. The service was friendly and the pie was decent. As I charged my phone I thought it might be nice to end with a visit to a dive bar, surprised as I’d been by the variety of local eateries. The bar scene, however, proved to be much less vital. Most of the public drinking in Irvine seems to go down in coffee bars, gastropubs, sports grill and bars, tapas bars, tea houses, wine tasting rooms and not proper saloons so I’ve combined both eateries and drinkeries in the following list:

A & J Restaurant, AIOLI- Freshly Crafted Food, Agora Churrascaria, All Spice Cafe, All That Barbecue, Alton Cafe, Ameci Pizza & Pasta, Amy’s Cafe, Andrei’s Conscious Cuisine & Cocktails, Annapoorna, Anthill Pub & Grille, Anyi’s Deli & Catering, Apple Spice Junction, Arirang BBQ House, Arriba Cabo Grill, Asia Noodle Cafe, Asian Tapas, Ayame Temaki Sushi, Bakery 290’s, The Balcony Grill & Bar,Barbeques Galore Cooking Experience, BB Pho, BBQ Chicken, BC’s Cavern on the Green, BCD Tofu House, Bella Pizza & Calzones, Bene’s Pizza & Pasta, Berkeley Dog, Bernardo’s Deli, Bistango Restaurant, Bistro 24, Blaze Pizza, A Bite Truck, Boiling Point, Bon-Appetit Salads, Bon Epi Patisserie & Café, Boudin SF, Brandywine Commons, Britta’s Cafe, Broadcom Connections CafeCafe 949, Cafe 19000, Cafe Brasserie, Cafe Matinee,Cafe O Deli, Café Espresso, Café MedCalifornia Fish Grill, California Grill Truck, California Teriyaki Grill, Capital B.B.Q. & Dim Sum Express, Capital Seafood, Caspian Restaurant, Cecy’s Koldrest Cafe, Cento & Fanti Gourmet Market, Cha For Tea, Chae Bahn Restaurant, Chakra Cuisine, Champagne French Bakery, Charlie Kabob, Checkers Sandwich, Chef Chen, Chef Hung Taiwanese Beef Noodle, Chef Kitchen, Chef Yen’s Chinese & Thai Fusion, Chicago’s Best, Chicken Dijon, China Garden, Chinez Chinese Restaurant, The Chippy Fish & Chips, Chong Qing Mei Wei Szechuan, Churrolicious, Class 302, Clay Oven Cuisine Of India, Cookie Creations, Corner Cafeteria, The Counter, Cravings Pizza & Pasta, Crystal Cove Cafe, Crystal Jade, Cucina Enoteca, Curry House, Curry House CoCo Ichibanya, Cyber A Cafe, Da Luau Hawaiian Grill, Dae Myoung Ok Korean Restaurant, Daily Grill, Daphne’s California Greek, Darband Persian Cuisine, Delicias Peruanas, Doore Korean Restaurant, Dumpling & Noodle House, Edamame, Egg Roll House, Einstein Bros Bagels, El Cholo Cantina, El Taquito, El Torito, El Torito Grill, Elements 102, Elements Cafe, First Class Pizza, First Sandwich, 5 Guys Burger and Fries, The Flame Broiler, The Flip Truck, Flipped Out Burgers and More, Four Sea Restaurant, Franco’s Pasta Cucina, Fuji-Kan Japanese Restaurant, Fukada, Fukada 2 Go, The Funnel Factory, Gatten Sushi Junior, Gen Grill, Gen Korean BBQ and Yakitori Bar, Gen Sushi, Gina’s Pizza & Pastaria, Ginzaya, Global Cafe, Go Squared Takoyaki & Taiyaki, Golden Bowl, Greek Islands Cuisine, The Grille, Gulliver’s, Guppy House, Gus’s Grill, Gyro King, Ha Long Vietnamese Cuisine, Hamada-ya, Harry’s Deli, Heartbeat Cafe, Hen House Grill, Home Town Deli, House of Kabob, House of Shabu Shabu, I-Tea Cafe, India Cook House, Inka’s Restaurant, Inwood Terrace Restaurant, Ippo Sushi, Irvine Halal Meat & Produce Market, Irvine Marriott Sushi Bar, Islands Restaurant, Izakaya Wasa, Jalapenos, Jamboree Cafe, Jamboree Kitchen, Jan’s At Four, Java Hut Express, Kaju Soft Tofu, Kate Kennedy’s Cafe & Catering, Kaya Restaurant, Kimera, Kitima Thai Cuisine, Knowlwood Restaurant, Koba Tofu House, Kochee Kabob House, Kogi, Koko’s Cafe, Korea House, Korean Sweets Cart, Kula Revolving Sushi Bar, Kyo Bahn, La Pho, La Sirena Grill, Larry’s Catering & Deli, Las Fajitas Grill, Layer Cake Bakery, Lazy Dog Cafe, Le Diplomate Cafe, Liang’s Kitchen, Lori’s Kitchen, Lucca Cafe, Luna Grill, Lunar Restaurant, Main Street Pizza and Cafe, Maizuru, Makino Sushi Seafood Buffet, Matisse Bistro, The Melting Pot Restaurant, Meritage Resturant & Wine Bar, Mesa Commons, Mezzanine At the Towers, Mi-Nong Tofu Restaurant, Mick’s Karma Bar, Mimi’s Cafe, Misasa, Mitsuwa Marketplace, Miyako, Mizuki Restaurant, MJ’s Cafe, MJ Cafe Express, Mm… Muffins, Mokkoji Shabu Shabu Bar, Momo’s Grill, Moon Palace, Mother’s Market & Kitchen, Mr Sandwich, Mugen Japanese Cuisine, Mun-chee5, Mustard Cafe, NY’s Upper Crust Pizza, Nalu’s Island GrillNatraj’s Tandoori, New York Pizzeria, Newport Corporation Cafe, Niko Niko Sushi, Nordstrom Cafe Bistro, Northwood Pizza, OC DinDin-A-GoGo, O Fine Japanese Cuisine, Oak Creek Cafe, Oceanic Fish Grill, Octopus Japanese Restaurant, Oh! My Meal, Oliver Cafe L Lounge, 101 Noodle Express, Opah, Organic To Go, Oriental Seafood Noodle House, Pada Sushi, Pah Restaurant & Bar, Palazzo Cafe, Palm Cafe Food Court, Panfiniti, Panini Cafe, Pan of Asia, Papa Chinos Express Deli, Papaya Thai Bistro, Paradise Cafe, Paris Baguette, Paul Martin’s American Grill, Peter’s Grill, Phans55, Philly’s Best, Pho 99 Restaurant, Pho Ba Co, Pho Company, Pho Factory, Pho Ha Noi, Pho Kobe, Pho Saigon Pearl, Pho So 1, Pho Tasia, Phoenix Grille, Pholicious, Pick Up Stix Fresh Asian Flavors, Pieology Pizzeria, Pippin Commons, Pita GrillPizza & Chicken Love Letter, Pizza Villa, Pizzetta Company 77 Mobile Pizza Unit, Posch Restaurant, Prego RistoranteRachael’s Cocina, Ranchan Ramen, Rebel Chef’s Deli & CateringReynolds Sandwich, Rolling Sushi Van, Rubino’s Pizza, Sagami, Salad Republic, Sam Woo Restaurant & BBQ ExpressSanaya Indian Cuisine, Sandwich Club, Sandwich King, Sandwich Plus, Seabirds Truck, 17 Cafe Ramen, Sexy Burger, Sharky’s Woodfired Mexican Grill, Shik Do Rak, 6ix Park Grill, Sobahn Express, Spice Thai Express, Spicy City Chinese Restaurant, Sports Grill, Spudrunners, Starwok Express, Steelhead Brewing Company, Stonefire Grill, Strawberry’s Cafe and Bakery, Stuffers 101 Sandwiches & Catering, Subs and More, Sushi Boy, SWSH Shabu Shabu, SW Seafood and BBQ Restuarant, Taco Factory, Taco Rosa, Tacos & Co, Taiko Japanese Restaurant, Taro, Tea Station, Tender Greens, Teriyaki Cal Plus, Terrace Cafe, Terrazza Cafe, Thai & Chinese Express, Thai Bamboo Bistro, Thai Cafe, Thai Kitchen, Thai Ritz Cuisine, Thai SpiceThanh Restaurant, TJ’s Woodfire PizzaTokio Grill, Tokyo Table, Tomikawa Sushi Bar Restaurant, Tommy Pastrami, Tortillaz Healthy Mexican Grill, Tri Village Northern Chinese Cuisine, Trimana, Triquest Cafe, Tummy Stuffer, Tuscany Mediterranee Grill, Twisted Noodles Fusion, UCI University Club, Veggie Grill, Villa Fresh Italian Kitchen, Village Market, Waffle-icious, Wahoo’s Fish Tacos, Wasa Sushi, Wasabi, The Wheel Of Life, Wood Ranch BBQ & Grill, Yard House, Yasai Japanese Grill, Yen Sushi & Roll, Yu’s Garden, and Zov’s.

At the end of the day (literally), after cruising around (and getting lost) a bit more, I headed back to LA County, trying to collect my thoughts about one of the most challenging communities for me to do so. While Irvine certainly isn’t too high on the list of places I’d love to live, it’s a more interesting place than often given credit and, if one has the time, worthy of exploration. Till next time and…

UCI Pedestrian bridge
A UCI pedestrian bridge – dedicated on 4-20, 1985 and commemorated with an historic plaque

(Considerable credit for the historic information in this blog is owed to historian Jim Sleeper for his writings about early Irvine history)

To vote for any communities you’d like to see covered in California Fool’s Gold, name them in the comments. If you’d like a bit of inspiration, there are primers for:

Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, essayist, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking paid writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in generating advertorials, cranking out clickbait, or laboring away in a listicle mill “for exposure.”
Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LAAmoeblogBoom: A Journal of CaliforniadiaCRITICSHidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft ContemporaryForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County Store, the book SidewalkingSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistCurbedLAEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRWWhich Way, LA?, at Emerson College, and the University of Southern California.
Brightwell is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on AmebaDuolingoFacebookGoodreadsInstagramMubiand Twitter.

Art Prints

12 thoughts on “California Fool’s Gold — Exploring Irvine, Orange County’s City of Innovation

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