The mall issue: Irvine Spectrum Center
Irvine Spectrum. (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times / November 16, 2011)
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mon.-Thurs.; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Fri. and Sat.; 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sun.
What you'll find: More than 130 merchants, anchored by Nordstrom, Macy's and Target, with a mix of smaller shops, including Forever 21, Urban Outfitters, Claires, H&M, Lululemon, White House/Black Market, Tommy Bahama and Bonjour Chaton (full of Hello Kitty merchandise). There's an Edwards 21 theater, a 108-feet-tall Ferris wheel, a carousel and multiple restaurants.
Vibe: Energetic, young, fun. The outdoor space is reminiscent of a bazaar in Spain, stuffed with busy kiosks and jostling crowds. Domed tile roofs on some of the buildings, palm trees, bird of paradise plants and five fountains add to the exotic ambience — and in fact the mall was designed to resemble the Alhambra, the 13th century citadel overlooking Granada, Spain.
Known for: Great date-night place, whether the date involves couples, groups of friends or parents and kids. Start with dinner at one of the 12 full-service restaurants (the newest, Paul Martin's American Grill, opened Monday), catch a flick, play some games at Dave & Buster's, then cap it off with a comedy show at the Improv.
Survival strategies: Valet, valet, valet. On a recent Sunday afternoon, two public lots and the parking garage were full — and this was before the holiday shopping season. A valet fee ($8 or $9, depending on the location) can help you keep your sanity; four valet stations are positioned around the mall. And bring a hat. On a sunny day, you'll be glad you did.
Holiday cheer: Orange County's only outdoor ice rink, open through Feb. 20. Check http://www.skatespectrum.com for hours and pricing. (Tip: The cost of season passes goes up as of Monday.)
For kids: The giant Ferris wheel and carousel. I smiled at a list of rules for kids of all ages posted prominently near the food court (No throwing things, no walking or standing in big groups that block the way and no unaccompanied minors after 10 p.m.)
Pleasant surprises: Free WiFi in the Oasis Food Court and a new 41 Olive, where I scored a lovely blood-orange olive oil.
Impressions: The shopping is almost secondary to all the fun stuff to do and see. People- and dog-watching (and there are leashed dogs aplenty on a weekend afternoon) are enough. But add movies, a candlelit meal and margaritas at Javier's (upscale Mexican fare) or dim sum at the new Capital or fresh California-style cuisine at Paul Martin's, a spin on the carousel — and you just may forget the Christmas gift you came to pick up. As a companion pointed out, "It's not just a shopping center; it's a disposable income center."