When discussing the top food destinations of California, Los Angeles and San Francisco always seem to suck up all of the oxygen. But between the southern and northern hubs of the Golden State (apologies to San Diego and Sacramento) lies a vast expanse of farms, vineyards, and oceanside real estate, where you’ll encounter an endless array of culinary delights that are not to be missed. The best way to experience all this visual and edible glory is with an LA to SF road trip. Fill up your tank, download your podcasts, and prepare yourself for an epic adventure of sight and sumptuousness.
Ventura: Beyond the Valley
Heading out from Los Angeles, your GPS will likely inform you that heading up the 5 will be the fastest route to San Fran. While true, the ride is largely uneventful unless you happen to be a huge fan of cows and the smells they produce. If you have the time, heading north on the 101 is without a doubt the way to go.
The first leg of your journey will take you through Ventura County’s lush farmland which offers a bounty of Mother Nature’s riches including acres upon acres of lemon and avocado trees and strawberry fields that seem to go on forever. To get a taste of the impressive array of fruits and vegetables grown in the region, a trip to Moorpark’s Underwood Family Farms is in order. The family-friendly destination is notable for its pick-your-own produce program and Fall Harvest Festival which attracts over 100,00 visitors each year.
If you’re craving Mexican food, downtown Oxnard is the place to be. Regional specialties abound from the killer mole at El Oaxaco, to El Vero’s where Sinaloense seafood is the focus and an order of aguachiles is a must. But your best bet is going the Michoacán route with a stop at the always crowded Carnitas El Rey. Its namesake specialty, unspeakably juicy pork that has been simmering for hours in its own lard, is pure porcine perfection.
A few miles east, Casa Agria brews up some of the best IPAs and saisons (particularly those of the fruited variety) in southern California. Grab some cans and bottles to-go and head on over to the beach where it’s legal to imbibe in Ventura. On Saturday and Sunday, grab lunch or an early dinner at St. Buenaventura Park where the The Jolly Oyster serves up creamy, briny bivalves plucked from their Baja aquatic farm. Save some money and do the shucking yourself—then be sure to contribute to the massive wall of shells beside you.
Another weekend-only destination is Ventura Spirits which offers tastings and tours of the micro-distillery. Whether it’s their Strawberry Brandy or Wilder Gin made with purple sage, yerba santa, and other locally-grown botanicals, you’ll enjoy a taste of California with every sip of their unique offerings.
Santa Barbara: Live the Oprah Life
A few miles north of the Ventura County line you’ll find yourself in Montecito, the posh-without-being-snobby community that counts Oprah Winfrey and Ellen DeGeneres among its residents. It’s also where you’ll find Bettina, a recently-opened hot spot that serves up Neapolitan pizza with innovative toppings courtesy of chefs Rachel Greenspan and Brendan Smith, the former head baker at Brooklyn’s famed Roberta’s.
Switching gears to a Santa Barbara stalwart, La Super Rica is always worth braving the constant lines. The Julia Child-endorsed local institution is renowned for its legendary homemade tortillas packed with ooey gooey cheese, smokey strips of chiles, expertly spiced marinated pork, and other drool-worthy fillings. (If tamales are available, you’ll want those too.)
Santa Barbara and seafood are synonymous (uni and spot prawn aficionados can certainly attest to that) so it’s no surprise that Brophy Bros. is one of the city’s most beloved eateries. With a prime harbor location, the restaurant pairs freshly caught fruits of the ocean with a view of whence your meal came.
Keeping things cool, the arts community known as the Funk Zone has become the hub of Santa Barbara’s nightlife (and daylife, for that matter), packing in a multitude of notable restaurants, bars, and shops into a few bustling blocks. With the Santa Ynez Valley only a few miles away (we’ll get to that shortly) it’s no surprise that wine is the drink of choice here. While tasting options are aplenty, it’s hard to beat the selection at Les Marchands which offers an expertly curated selection of off-the-beaten-path wines available to-go in their shop or to sip on premise in their adjacent restaurant where you can enjoy light snacks or heartier farm-to-table fare.
At the edge of the Santa Barbara city limits, Cold Spring Tavern has been feeding hungry locals and travelers for over 150 years! Beginning as a stagecoach stop in 1868, this straight out of a John Ford movie throwback offers a portal to the Old West plus a dang good tri-tip sandwich.
Santa Ynez Valley: Great Danes—and Wine
At the northern edge of Santa Barbara, the Santa Ynez Valley is renowned for its stunning scenery and sprawling vineyards. Though it doesn’t get as much love as its grape-growing counterparts to the north, the area has exploded in popularity over the last few years, particularly since it provided the backdrop to the movie “Sideways.” Recruit a designated driver and wind your way up Foxen Canyon Road enjoying the scenery and budget-friendly tastings which are offered at several notable wineries including Zaca Mesa, Foxen, and Rancho Sisquoc.
Looking for an afternoon of food, wine, and revelry all in one location? A trip to the charming town of Los Olivos will cover the bases.
If you prefer hops to grapes, seek refuge in Buellton’s Firestone Walker Barrelworks. Entering the facility, adjacent to the brewery’s restaurant, is like stepping into a cathedral only with stacks of spirit and wine barrel-aged brews. The finished products, which are available for sampling, also happen to be heavenly.
It ain’t all about the drinking ‘round these parts as fans of Buellton-based Industrial Eats and The Hitching Post II can attest. The former features a rotating menu of small plates with an emphasis on using local ingredients. The latter is a local legend where Santa Maria-style BBQ is the name of the game. Steaks are the obvious choice, but don’t sleep on the duck.
If you’re spending the night or arriving early to the area, Paula’s Pancake House in Solvang serves up tasty, ultra-thin Danish-style flapjacks to match the town’s quirky Scandinavian aesthetics. A few exits north on the 101 is trending Los Alamos. On the main drag—which comprises a scant few blocks—you’ll find Bob’s Well Bread, a destination-worthy bakery specializing in small-batch artisan loaves (the Saturday and Sunday-only Pain aux Lardons is a masterpiece), sweet and savory pastries, plus a full cafe menu. Arrive early to snag the good stuff.
San Luis Obispo: Take It SLO
Welcome to the Central Coast which offers beachside towns aplenty and another round of in vino veritas. Though the Pacific blue zinfandels await, don’t skip over the seemingly one horse town of Nipomo, home to the wildly popular Jocko’s Steakhouse. The absolutely zero-frills favorite serves up the area’s best Santa Maria style BBQ at affordable prices (the open-faced steak sandwich is a particular bargain). Just be sure to plan your trip when the pit BBQ is ablazin’ and make a reservation well in advance.
If I were to make one hotel recommendation for this entire journey, the Madonna Inn is a no-brainer. Dripping with kitsch, you’ll have the option to Liberace it up in your choice of uniquely-themed, one-of-a-kind-rooms including multiple options with rock waterfall showers. Even if you don’t plan to spend the evening, walk around the joyful grounds and grab a drink at the bar located in the extremely pink Gold Rush Steak House for some colorful people-watching (cross your fingers it’s a ballroom dancing night) and a stiff martini.
No surprise, there are a number of terrific local seafood spots along the coast but a personal favorite is in Morro Bay which requires a short detour onto CA-1, better known as the Pacific Coast Highway. They’re you’ll find Dockside, which offers simple preparations of the day’s fresh catch right along the water. Continue up the PCH and follow your nose to Cayucos, home of Ruddell’s Smokehouse and its sinfully addictive house-smoked albacore and salmon tacos.
Make your way back inland to get in on the Paso Robles wine action. If zinfandels and petite syrahs are your jam, Turley has you covered. Definitely drop the extra $5 for the speciality pours, especially if you plan on buying a couple of bottles which will cover your tasting fee. While Turley represents Paso’s old guard, L’Aventure and Epoch (located in Templeton, on the way to Hearst Castle) are the relatively new cool kids in town. Both wineries are chic and modern with pricey (at least for Central Coast standards) tastings that are appointment only.
For a more relaxed experience, take a stroll around Tin City, an “industrial makers market” (translation: fancy strip mall) that’s home to tasting rooms for several local wineries, not to mention a cidery, brewery, and a few food options. At the edge of downtown Paso, the Herman Story tasting room is always a party. With bottles such as Smash City, Tomboy, and the infamous Late Bloomer, the winery gives off the impression it doesn’t take itself too seriously, but one sip of their spectacular big, bold reds, and you’ll realize that’s not entirely the case. Grab a bottle and walk over to rotisserie chicken specialist The Hatch where corkage is free for downtown wineries.
Monterey: Welcome to “Big Little Lies” Country
Driving up the PCH along the coast through Big Sur, Carmel-by-the-Sea, and Monterey is a bucket list experience with plenty of unforgettable, gob-smacking vistas. While the surroundings are spectacular, the food and drink ain’t bad either.
When in Big Sur, why not enjoy some cliffside dining? Sierra Mar, located in the swanky Post Ranch Inn, serves breakfast and lunch, but the pricey pre-fixe only dinner is the main attraction and worth the cost, especially for that million dollar sunset view.
For a more affordable option, the recently-opened Big Sur Smokehouse offers Kansas City and Texas inspired-BBQ imbued with local flavors served in a stunningly refurbished 19th century homestead. Everything is on point, from the meats to the house-brined pickles and homemade hand pies baked with fresh fruit.
Next stop is Carmel, home to Aubergine, the first restaurant on the Central Coast to earn a Michelin star. Expect an unforgettable dinner with a wish-you-could-forget-it price tag.
On to Monterey, where a meal at Montrio should be on the itinerary right alongside the aquarium. A converted firehouse, the bistro oozes with charm. Though the price is right for dinner, happy hour with save you some dough with a laundry list of snack and cocktail options below the seven dollar mark.
Need some sweet relief? Parker-Lusseu is the place to be for tasty pastries and Instagram-worthy cakes. It’s the type of place where you would potentially run into Mary Louise Wright, and then shriek at her for being a complete garbage person.
As you keep truckin’ up towards the college town of Santa Cruz, keep an eye out for the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it city of Capitola where you can enjoy the award-winning ales of Sante Adairius. Some of the world’s best saisons can be found here including classics like Saison Bernice and the apricot-infused West Ashley. If you enjoy your beers funky and complex, don’t miss it.
San Mateo: The Final Stretch
Just because San Francisco is on the horizon doesn’t mean you should skip over some of the culinary gems in bordering San Mateo County. As you continue north up the PCH, consider a pit stop in Pescadero to experience the glory of Duarte’s Tavern. With a storied history that dates back to 1894, this timeless icon, renowned for their creamy artichoke soup, is the well-deserving recipient of the James Beard Award for America’s Classics.
If dining in a historic train caboose is more your speed, chug on over to Half Moon Bay for a meal at Dad’s Luncheonette. Though the vibe reeks of nostalgia, Dad’s is only a couple of years old. The menu, courtesy of Saison vet Scott Clark, features fresh, casual fare including a maitake mushroom sandwich and mac & cheese topped with puffed wild rice and chives.
Say buh-bye to the ocean and head inland to San Mateo and its buzzy food scene. Suds and sausages take center stage at Wursthall where the modern German fare also includes chicken schnitzel, an Impossible kebap, and an artery-clogging spaetzle laced with 48-hour slow-cooked bacon (it’s meant to be shared but you’re likely to hoard it all for yourself). Beers are separated into local and European offerings and both lists impress.
Carbs also reign supreme at Pausa, which has earned a rabid following for its upscale, authentic, Italian fare. But taking the crown for the hottest spot in San Mateo is Michelin-starred Wakuriya. Reservations are a tough snag but well worth the effort for their elaborate, multi-course kaiseki dinner.
All right, San Francisco is in your sights, but there’s one more stop before you reach the finish line. For over two decades, Koi Palace in Daly City has been serving up some of the best dim sum in the country. Blending perfectly executed standards with non-traditional plates of multi-colored dumplings, durian sticky rice, and other inspired creations that bring the wow, this is the perfect spot to end your journey on a high note.
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