Just back from a rainy/foggy weekend on the Central Coast. Thoughts ...
Bouchee (Carmel by the Sea) - A very strong showing. The menu is organized by "petite assiettes" and "grand assiettes" under categories of "Land" and "Ocean." We stayed with the small plates, which worked out beautifully. I started with a seared prawn salad in a vinaigrette of tangerines and roasted almonds. My companion with raviolis filled with a parsnip puree. I then went on to Monterey Bay red abalone, my companion with foie gras with poached pears. We shared a sorbet/ice cream sampler of pineapple guava, tangerine, and oak - yes, you read it right, an ice cream made from the extract of the bark of an oak tree - delicious and not just a novelty. Wine pairings were well chosen by the sommelier. Service was warm - a little spotty, though. Room was really nice.
Jocko's (Nipomo) - When you drive north on 101, you go right through Nipomo (a few miles after Santa Maria). Jocko's is famous for their red oak fire pits, on which they grill a range of cuts including their famous Spencer Steak. The "small" (priced at $20) is 14 oz. - more than enough. This may be one of the best steaks I've had. The steak had a carmelized exterior with plenty of flavor inside. Service is friendly, but the room fairly shabby - an homage to tradition, I would guess. You come here for the steak, not for anything else.
Trattoria Mollie (Montecito) - On Coast Village Road, this place just rocks. The owner, Mollie, is a "larger than life" who cooks Italian with utter passion. I love the simple dishes which are made to perfection. We had an insalata mista (perfect dresssing), pasta carbonara, and pasta amatriciana - all so expertly and subtly prepared. We were told Mollie is famous for her meatballs. We'll try them next time.
Casanova (Carmel) - I should have known when I read the moniker, "Carmel's Most Romantic Restaurant." We got a thumbs up from a local and went anyway. To start off, this restaurant has a fixed price menu, meaning, you have to have three courses (which you choose, of course). I was annoyed by that since we wanted to have some small dishes. For the mains, I ordered duck in a cherry sauce - my companion, a seafood pasta. The dishes were adequate, but over-presented with all of these copper pots and accessories, which didn't really relate to preparation. The server had no clue about the wine list (which the restaurant also brags about). Prices not cheap.
Hope this helps.