The cuisine of California is too broad and ephemeral to be synthesized down to what celebrity chefs and restaurants now market as "Californian Cuisine," but there are certainly a few mainstays in the culinary genre – use of fresh, local ingredients; the food should be best devoured outside, either under the ethereal glow of sunlight peeking through vineyards misty with dew, or by the pale glistening shores of SoCal beaches. Everything else is left to taste and circumstance. The taco trucks of Malibu, the Southwest-style diners of Pacific Grove, the seafood shacks along the Central Coast; there’s Thomas Keller’s indomitable French Laundry with its parade of tiny, delicate, edible pieces of art; the French country-style vineyard restaurants which form their menus to best accompany top-selling Zinfandels; there’s taquerias, oyster bars, trendy vegan bistros, barbecue barns, rustic family bakeries, inventive frozen yogurt cafés, and almost every other kind of eatery left to imagine – all in the Sunshine State, as varied as its soaring landscapes. Hungry in California? You better be.
Just three hours from Sacramento, Mendocino County is a perfect one-day getaway. With miles and miles of ocean and exorbitant parklife, there's always something to do, and if there isn't, the famous Mendocino zinfandel ensures that there's always something to drink. Here you'll find eco-conscious inns and lodgings, restaurants which support local producers, and parks that show love to local musicians – they care about the land and the people on the land, because both are worthy of preserving, right down to the details. One of the finest examples of this culinary culture lives at Café Beaujolais, which offers an extensive wine list of both local Mendocino and French wines. Café Beaujolais has found a way to pack flavors both hyper-local and from a far à la française on a clean white dish. With the added perks of a drizzle of Spanish-imported olive oil and local line-caught fish, these plates will leave no visitor hungry.
Photo by Ken Lund/Flickr.
A mere 90-minute drive from LA and 50 minutes from Santa Barbara, Ojai is the place to go for a perfectly peaceful weekend retreat. Visitors to Ojai go to meditate up in the mountains, find a nice patio for a glass of Californian chardonnay, dive into Lake Casitas, or stroll through the local art galleries – this is a city that marches to its own heartbeat, and it's no wonder that its inhabitants have called it the "Shangri-La of Southern California." Not to mention their healthy food scene, which balances healthy soul-serving nutrition with gourmet flare. For example, Suzanne’s Cuisine serves dishes like locally sourced and organic miso-marinated butterfish with a Citrus Ponzu dipping sauce and Tobiko caviar in their garden patio, paired with a bottle of zinfandel. Fans of Cat Cora will be thrilled to find that one of "The Best Things She’s Ever Eaten" (as featured on the show The Best Thing I Ever Ate) are the scallops from the Ranch House, and you know what? She’s probably eaten enough scallops in her lifetime to form a suitable opinion, and Ojai came out on top.
Photo by pfly/Flickr.
With wine comes great food and with history, culture is cultivated. All four of those key elements pervade through the steep hills of Santa Ynez Valley. Acres of vineyards lay across the green expanse like quilted patchwork, and the local restaurants share the same enthusiasm for locally harvested, fresh produce. The history goes way back, back to the Chumash native Americans, but has seen both Danish and Spanish settlements folded into the fabric of time and space, producing a vibrant and unique food culture and local arts scene. For wine lovers discovering the area, Vino Vaqueros offers tours through Santa Ynez in the most classic way to see the valley – on horseback, with the fresh vineyard air breezing past, trotting through fields and trails and lush terrain. They specialize in Ride & Taste tours in association with Estelle, Fess Parker and Firestone vineyards – visitors get to choose the tour package they want to go on (some have prepared tapas pairings) and join the small private tour led by a seasoned professional through the ranch and vineyard before settling in for a tasting.
Tucked away in the expansive mountains and rolling hills of Sonoma Valley, just an hour north of San Francisco Bay is Sebastopol, a tiny, fertile town bursting with local art and liberal politics. A long history of apple and plum orchards has given way to sprawling vineyards and wineries nestled between the hilltops. The restaurants and cafés in the area all prioritize serving local, fresh and organic produce from the farms in surrounding areas, mainly because the proprietors and the diners all know: there is an abundance of natural, delicious food in the area and it is meant to be preserved and celebrated. To get really into the tradition of Sebastopol, travelers are strongly urged to hit the bountiful orchards. Gabriel Farms is a 14-acre family-run organic farm full of Asian pairs, Fuyu persimmons, lavender, berries, plums, and four varieties of apples. however, for a sit down place with a side of beer hall, venue and vintage shopping, the Aubergine After Dark and Vintage Emporium is a former 10,000 square foot former apple processing plant turned 6,000-square-foot vintage store and 3,000-square-foot restaurant, bar and venue. Offering a wide selection of classic American dishes and salads and local beers, the Aubergine is certainly not to be missed as a local hangout.
A purely Californian city that appears to have been lifted directly from Denmark, Solvang is a small town distinguished by its unique architecture, quirky little restaurants, rustic windmills and local businesses that owe their heritage to a migration of Danish-Americans from Iowa who established the Solvang settlement at the beginning of the 20th century. Located in the Santa Ynez Valley and next to Santa Barbara Valley, the area is well known for its wineries. In town, the city center is colored by over 150 independent shops and art galleries to wander around, as well as a dozen wine tasting rooms and a significant number of restaurants, cafes and bars. Perhaps the best bite of Californian Denmark is in Solvang Restaurant, which specializes in the Aebleskiver, which is a traditional Danish spherically shaped pancake, served with jam in a variety of flavors, or dusted in sugar.
Bodega Bay is a seafarer’s playground. With its miles and miles of beaches, annual seafood and fisherman’s festivals, diverse aquatic wildlife and fresh-from-the-ocean fish markets and restaurants, a weekend escape has never felt so free or tasted so good. Like most of its Central Coast neighbors, Bodega Bay is blessed with some of the best wine in the world and the combination of food and drink is never worked so magically as it is at Terrapin Creek Café, which specializes in upscale dining in a casual atmosphere. With their dog-friendly patio and sunny indoor dining room, the Terrapin Creek Café is a local favorite. They are committed to serving seasonal and local produce and high quality, responsibly sourced meats and work with Bay Area farmers. The final product is an artfully arranged, upscale plate of raw or cooked seafood and simple comfort food, paired with local hand-picked wines.
Somewhere between the golden gated San Francisco Bay and the undulating hills of California wine country is a little scenic 7,000-strong city fringed by colorful houseboats. Between the resplendent shoreline and the rocky hillside, this city dishes out more than its weight in fine restaurants. Historically a major fishing village, Sausalito still gets some of the freshest seafood on the coast, while its diverse array of gourmet chefs turn it out in every way imaginable – with the added edge of fresh and local ingredients. As a result, the citizens of Sausalito are blessed with restaurants like the Spinnaker, a waterside seafood joint that accompanies oceanfresh clam chowder with some of the best views of the San Francisco skyline. For an upscale treat, Poggio Trattoria uses organic property-grown herbs and vegetables and locally caught fish to create their delicate Northern Italian meals like shellfish roe pasta with prawns, bottarga, tomato, chili and basil. However, in Sausalito, whatever you may be craving, there’s almost certainly a restaurant to satisfy.
A tranquil and scenic slice of Sonoma Valley, Glen Ellen is an ideal spot for food and wine enthusiasts to come for some down time. Located in the heart of Sonoma wine country, there are a multitude of wineries for visitors to enjoy. And where there are wineries there are wine tastings and wine related tours too. One of the more beloved restaurants, the Fig Café, specializes in French country home cooking. The focus is on fantastic food and wine accompanied by great hospitality and friendly faces. Known as the local neighborhood cafe, The Fig Cafe is family friendly and BYO. Many of the menu items are locally produced and seasonal. For a taste of something utterly Sonoma, try Olive & Vine; while other international flavors can be found in the rustically elegant Glen Elegant Star.
Though it’s in San Diego County, only an hour outside of San Diego, the small town of Julian has a very different feel than most of Southern California. Its historic Main Street is lined with small shops and bakeries, and its mountainous landscape — whose cool air is a welcome relief from the SoCal heat — is a patchwork of gold mines and apple orchards. The proliferation and constant gardening of apples lends itself well to the pie culture around Julian. A restaurant that perfectly exemplifies the comfortable, simple flavors of the area is the Julian Café & Bakery, backed by decades of history and only one of the bakeries around Main Street famous for serving up the town’s best pie. Beyond the town, visitors shouldn’t miss out on the opportunity to hit Menghini Winery or any number of other San Diego County’s great wine makers.
Popularly known as Butterfly Town, U.S.A, for hosting thousands of monarch butterflies during their wintering period, Pacific Grove has an idyllic small-town charm to its streets laden with small Victorian homes, hinting at a deeply religious history. However, visitors passing by on the Pacific Coast Highway should make no mistake regarding its slumberous countenance – the gourmet game here is fierce, directly influenced by three factors. Like its neighbors, this So-Cal spot harbors an intense, time-supported culinary tradition; the heavy Victorian B&B presence has helped establish a competitive breakfast culture in town, while the town’s proximity to the Pacific Ocean means extremely fresh and enviable seafood. Check out Pepper’s Mexicali Café for their much-raved about Prawns Gonzalez with tomato, chiles, cilantro and lime for a hit of seafood. The Red House Café is a quaint, all-American restaurant that serves outta control Dungeness crab cakes and other gourmet small plates.
Eureka is an ideal location along the Lost Coast to stop, pack a picnic complete with a bottle of NorCal wine and a good book, and sit under a redwood forest for a few hours. Located 280 miles north of San Francisco, the scenic bay and gorgeous redwood-covered mountains proved panoramic beauty, while in-town, there’s a gorgeous old town strewn with Victorian architecture and tons of Gold Rush-era historical attractions to uncover. Another unique perk is that oyster fans don’t have to look very far for the fresh, succulent bivalves – the Humboldt Bay Oyster Tours offer two-hour boat tours around Humboldt Bay with a primer on the history of oyster farming and harvesting techniques as well as an opportunity to pull ‘em in and take ‘em home, and maybe see how the pros do it at the company’s own oyster bar. For a bite and a brew, visitors there shouldn’t miss the Lost Coast Brewery, housed in a gorgeous century-old building and nearly overflowing with craft beers brewed on location.
San Luis Obispo is both casual student hangout and Central California wine country; all beaches and vineyards sandwiching an adorable small town filled with Victorian houses sheltering hip record stores, yoga cafés, nostalgic toy shops and chic boutiques. There’s certainly a dish for every palate here, and everything else can be found on their famous Thursday evening farmers market located downtown. Try Californian ranch food at McClintock’s, on hip Higuera Street; and for a classier night of local wines and upscale international dishes made from fresh and local ingredients, Novo Restaurant and Lounge offers a truly romantic creekside atmosphere for that special occasion.
Pismo Beach in San Luis Obispo County is a picturesque beach town with colorful oceanfront streets lined with palms, vendors, boutiques, terracotta-roofed restaurants, independent cafés, frozen yogurt shops, quaint B&Bs and more. Small and sunny, Pismo Beach is a perfect home for beachside surf shacks and seafood joints that haven’t gotten a facelift since the ‘60s. One local favorite destination for clam chowder is the Splash Café. The bright blue muraled exterior and neon vintage sign draw lines around the block, all hungry diners waiting to be served up some of the world’s creamiest chowder in a bread bowl, topped with a fistful of shredded crab meat. However, if the line for the Splash Café is too long for visitors’ surf-induced hunger, the Cracked Clam, located five minutes away, offers a wide variety of various seafood options, like blue crab to oysters and even local abalone. For a taste of Central Coast seafood, head to the only place that really, earnestly, physically embodies the SLO life – Pismo Beach.
Perhaps the mecca of new American food and drink, Sonoma Valley is considered the "real wine country" by locals and other wine aficionados. Perfect for travelers looking for a country getaway with a passion for wine, there are 350 world class wineries in the area, which now defines the way of life. For those who appreciate a really good accompaniment, Sonoma Valley abounds with tons of acclaimed restaurants that showcase local and seasonal Californian cuisine with the abundance of local wines. They’re perfectly diverse, too – The Girl and The Fig focuses on "country food with a French Passion," with an antique bar that serves French aperitifs, cocktails and wines from an award-winning wine list. Foodwise, the restaurant serves delicate local flavors, like location-grown seasonal radishes with anchovy butter and grey sea salt. Another local favorite, El Dorado Kitchen is a boutique hotel and restaurant located in Sonoma Plaza which sources their ingredients from local farmers and offers casual, all-day dining and wine tastings.
No one is surprised that San Francisco is on this list. The Bay Area is home to 38 Michelin-starred restaurants at last count, while its significant tech industry helps cultivate a nerdy, super-meticulous coffee culture that attracts international barista champions (and, perplexingly, overstimulated fitness geeks replacing full meals with animal fat and coffee). All the wine is proudly Sonoma or Napa-hailed, while the city’s traditionally left-winged and liberal mentalities lend themselves well to serving up only fresh, seasonal and local ingredients. For a perspective-blowing meal, check out the deservedly hyped Atelier Crenn, which balances art and cuisine, resulting in stunning white chocolate orbs on black slates and carrot sorbet surrounded by dustings of quinoa and aloe. For a smaller, flakier bite and maybe a coffee, try the James Beard-winning Tartine Bakery & Café in the Mission District.
Deep in the heart of Sonoma County, Healdsburg is definitely a wine loving destination, where three wine appellations converge: Dry Creek Valley, Alexander Valley and the Russian River Valley. Visitors to Healdsburg need only get on a bike, or join a group tour (Wine Country Journeys organizes private and shared group tours with drivers and tour guides) to taste the fruits of the vine all day. And of course, it’s impossible to be a wine town without also being a foodie town – one stroll around the historic Healdsburg Plaza presents plenty of fine dining and wining restaurants, award-winning bakeries, specialized gourmet markets, and even an open kitchen for cooking classes. Some of the town favorites include Costeaux French Bakery, the hip-but-unpretentious Willi’s Seafood and Raw Bar and Zin Restaurant, which pairs homegrown and organic ingredients with homegrown and local wines.
There’s no way to overestimate the culinary tour de force that LA has been unleashing on the global food scene for the past few decades now. From highbrow to beachside casual; the mobile taquerias down in South Central to the glittering towers of LA Live bearing the names of Wolfgang Puck and Katsuya, the saying still stands – if it’s big in LA, then expect it in any North American mid-sized city in a matter of years. Surf-shack, K-town BBQ, Mexi-Cali comfort digs, vintage diners, dystopian duck-happy dude food, delicate Spanish tapas with a molecular spin, Californian country fare, hyper-inventive frozen yogurt joints and every single big celebrity chef you can even think of – LA’s got it.