Sense of place: Between surf-centric Huntington Beach and posh Newport, the more suburban Costa Mesa never quite touches the coast.
At a glance: Strip malls, office parks, and car dealerships.
If you look a little closer: Hubs of creative start-up shops full of O.C. tastemakers in skinny jeans and flowy tops.
Birth of cool: The city’s first “anti-mall,” the Lab (2930 Bristol St.; thelab.com), opened 20 years ago. These days, a DJ spins tunes in the courtyard next to vintage clothing stores.
Next on the scene: The Camp (2937 Bristol; thecampsite.com), an alterna-mall across the street from the Lab, is especially good for lunch—from the pork bánh mì at East Borough ($) to the vegan chili of Native Foods Café ($).
Stop in a secret garden: Hidden between two office buildings, California Scenario sculpture garden, created by famed artist Isamu Noguchi, has areas devoted to the state’s varying geography: There’s a mini redwood forest, a tiny desert, and a little mountain stream. Though it was installed more than 30 years ago, few outsiders know about it, so it’s usually quiet. 611 Anton Blvd.
Fun on two wheels: At one of the OC Mart Mix’s newest stores, Nirve Sports, you can customize the cruiser bike of your dreams, complete with a decorated saddle, special tires (Hello Kitty treads, anyone?), and a basket with a liner that turns into a tote bag. The shop’s outer walls roll up to the ceiling, making it even easier to wheel a bike out the door. 3313 Hyland Ave.; 714/948-6199.
A department store with a green twist: Pop into Seed People’s Market, a one-stop shop for eco-conscious living at the Camp. Check out the handcrafted jewelry, organic cosmetics, reusable bamboo utensils, and wooden baby toys. 2937 Bristol St.; 714/708-2277.
Tacos go wild: Refuel at Taco Asylum, the newest and most-buzzed-about restaurant in the Camp. The menu lists nine tacos, and that’s about it—but they’re all delish. We like the chickpea purée with wild mushrooms and the short ribs with pickled red onions. Wash it down with a canned microbrew or Maine Root soda. $; 2937 Bristol St.; 714/922-6010.
A garden in a pot: Before you leave the Camp, stop by the shiny Airstream trailer near the parking lot, otherwise known as Organic Designs by Aggelige, and peruse the potted succulents and tillandsia air plants that perch on brightly painted wooden shelves or hang from a trellis. Choose from among the small, colorful recycled pots, each filled with three or more tiny succulents. 2937 Bristol St.; 714/662-7996.
But it’s not just shopping … 3 reasons why Costa Mesa calls itself City of the Arts
Segerstrom Center for the Arts. To mark its 25th season, this four-theater complex (with halls that seat 250 to 3,000 people) this year put together a calendar filled with the kind of Broadway shows, dance, and jazz performers you’d expect to see only in L.A. On the schedule for spring and summer: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and the touring production of American Idiot. From $20; 600 Town Center Dr.; scfta.org
South Coast Repertory. For years, celebrated playwrights like Donald Margulies and Richard Greenberg have tested their new plays in this intimate three-stage playhouse (the largest theater seats just 507) before heading to Broadway. This spring, the company will put on Sight Unseen, Margulies’s acclaimed SCR debut from 1991, and The Prince of Atlantis, a new play by Steven Drukman. From $20; 655 Town Center Dr.; scr.org
Detroit Bar. A top destination for O.C. music lovers, this nightclub has earned a reputation for hosting some of the region’s hottest up-and-coming bands (like Cold War Kids and Local Natives) before they get big. It also books more established indie rock, punk, and hip-hop bands passing through Orange County on national and international tours. From $5; 843 W. 19th St.; detroitbar.com