Flanked by Oscar de la Renta and across from Christian Louboutin, Marché Moderne no doubt holds its own as a fashionable location. (Louboutin himself has dined on its enclosed patio, along with Harry Winston CEO and president Frédéric de Narp and members of the Bulgari family.) Situated in the “penthouse” section of Costa Mesa’s South Coast Plaza, the sleek French bistro attracts a chic international crowd, along with a steady stream of SoCal regulars (some as often as five days a week).

“People who are interested in couture come from all over to shop,” says Claude Koeberle, an Orange County-based winemaker, whose Soliste is among Marché Moderne’s selections (all displayed on brand-new iPads, or “wine pads”). “The clientele of Marché Moderne clearly reflects that—very beautiful, well-dressed people. Lunch is a big deal for them.”

The idea of having a top-notch restaurant in itself is somewhat of a “big deal” for the region, which Koeberle refers to as a “culinary Siberia.” The Los Angeles Times hailed Marché Moderne as “probably the best bistro in Southern California,” while Zagat gave it a “Top Food in Orange County” nod in its 2011 guide. Discerning diners from both counties make the trek for power lunches and private dinners; Bruce Willis, Sylvester Stallone, Antonio Banderas, artist Bill Viola, and The J. Paul Getty Trust president and CEO James Cuno are among the notables who’ve been spotted. Says Koeberle, “There are very few quality restaurants [locally]; Marché Moderne really shines on its own.”

Much of the appeal can be attributed to the dedicated, down-to-earth (and delicious) sensibilities of co-owners Florent and Amelia Marneau, the husband-and-wife team who opened the restaurant together in 2007. Both restaurateurs pride themselves on being extremely hands-on; each can be spotted daily in the open kitchen, with Florent serving as head chef and Amelia, the resident pâtissière, who also runs the front of the house. “There are a lot of Orange County restaurants that are run by big corporations, and we are exactly the opposite,” says Amelia. “We wanted the restaurant to feel that way and be very welcoming.”

Anton Segerstrom, partner of South Coast Plaza, says that they hit the mark. “Typically with a successful restaurant, there is a desire to clone it and build an empire, so it’s wonderful to see such an old-fashioned concept,” says Segerstrom. “When you come in, Florent greets you and is making your food, and Amelia comes over to tell you about her latest creation. That’s very special and rare in today’s restaurant world.”

The culinary couple first met in 1994 at now-defunct Newport Beach restaurant Aubergine (which, coincidentally, was owned by Tim and Liza Goodell, who also ran Troquet in what is now the Marché Moderne space). Florent then spent a decade as Pinot Provence’s executive chef, while the Le Cordon Bleu-trained Amelia became pastry chef at The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel. Not long after marrying in 2000, the pair began laying out plans for their own eatery. “It was a natural evolution that took many years,” says Florent. Adds Amelia, “It was a true challenge to find the perfect location.”

The next challenge was settling on the perfect name (which means “modern market” in French) and designing French-fusion cuisine to brilliantly reflect its moniker. Today, French favorites like coq au vin and duck leg confit populate the menu alongside more unusual fare like roasted Spanish octopus—all served with a “Bon appetit” by the knowledgeable staff. Also popular are themed weeks around delicacies like bouillabaisse (for Bastille Day) and choucroute. Says Amelia, “People are always asking, ‘When are you going to put those back on [the menu]?’ It really helps us even out the business throughout the year.”

The effort has paid off, with income increasing annually. Special events constitute between 15 to 20 percent of overall revenue, and the Marneaus’ talents are often tapped for in-store events around South Coast Plaza (from private VIP luncheons inside Louis Vuitton to cocktail parties at Tourbillon). In November, the restaurant will debut a Champagne and caviar bar in tandem with a complete revamping of its terrace, just in time for holiday shoppers to take a well-deserved rest.

“The amount of energy being created sometimes by people shopping can be overwhelming, but it’s good,” says Florent. “Even two or three years down the road, it [still] feels like a new restaurant.” 3333 Bristol St., #3001, Costa Mesa, 714-434-7900

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