Restaurants without walls, California's outdoor farm-to-table experiences bring the freshness of fields, orchards, and artisanal foods directly to your table. Chefs harvest bountiful ingredients on property and prepare simple but beautiful dishes for guests to savour on site—often right on the beautiful farms, vineyards, and ranches where some of the ingredients were harvested. These special experiences not only deliver amazing meals in unforgettable settings, but also a chance to see and learn firsthand how California’s farmers, ranchers, and artisanal food purveyors make the most of the state’s fertile land.
You can credit Santa Cruz-based chef and environmental artist Jim Denevan for the prevalence of pop-up farm-to-table dinners. Denevan founded a series of migrating meals, which he named Outstanding in the Field, in 1999, before farm-to-table was even a phrase in our vocabulary. At the time, he had one goal: to make a lasting connection between the public and the farmers, ranchers, and winemakers—and their hard-working crews—who grow California’s incredible produce. The results have done that—and more—creating magical marriages of food, place, and people. Picture a seemingly endless picnic table, set for dinner with tablecloths, place settings, and fresh flowers. Now put that table in the middle of a beautiful orchard in bloom, or a field on a coastal ranch in view of the sea, or a handsome vineyard amid sun-burnished hills. For guests, these events start with tours of the farm or ranch property, followed by multicourse meals prepared by celebrated chefs in the region, with ingredients that may have been sourced on site. Farmers and producers sit with diners to share stories about their work, and soon the entire table is talking about food and community. The remarkable event that started here in California has mushroomed to include events in nearly every state, but the new ones here, like ones at Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival south of Palm Springs, continue to sell out weeks and even months in advance. Check the schedule and make reservations as soon as you know your travel dates.
Think Dalai Lama meets Alice Waters. At Wildsoul Enchanting Gatherings, founder Ben Crosky calls attention to his favourite Bay Area locations with a health-and-wellness-focused trifecta: yoga, farm tours, and creative culinary experiences. Through a series of on-site yoga classes followed by meals cooked from foods harvested from local farms, Crosky aims to “strengthen the ties between creator and consumer.” Sessions typically include a 90-minute outdoor yoga class, an hour-long farm tour, and a multicourse meal using ingredients sourced from neighbouring farms. Learn about the history of apple orchards-turned-vineyards in Sonoma County’s Anderson Valley, or sample the blue cheese from Cowgirl Creamery in Point Reyes Station, north of San Francisco. Choose from locally sourced breakfasts, wine-pairing dinners, and other events in evocative and inspiring surroundings.
Chef Adam Navidi, a leader in Southern California’s sustainable food movement, had an interesting idea: Grow his own produce on a 25-acre/10-hectare farm in Brea, about 30 miles/48 kilometres southeast of Los Angeles, to bring fresh, local food to his catered events. And so began Future Foods Farms. Chef Navidi’s massive, all-organic aquaponic greenhouse is a symbiotic relationship of aquaculture (used to raise fish) and hydroponics (growing plants in water without soil). During Navidi’s weekly tours and tastings (6 p.m. and 7 p.m., Saturdays in September), guests are treated to drinks and hors d’oeuvres while touring the new-wave farm and learning about Navidi’s food philosophies. Family-style tables are arranged in the greenhouse amongst the crops, and the celebrated chef—who has cooked for the likes of Jack Nicholson and Andre Agassi—creates multi-course feasts based on what’s in season. For an offsite alternative, check the farm’s website for dates for Chef Navidi’s pop-up restaurant, Oceans & Earth, on the farm grounds.
Situated on a stretch of land in Hopland, close to Anderson Valley’s noteworthy wine country, sits the under-the-radar rural escape for citified urbanites called Campovida. The working farm and winery—with a 13-acre/5-hectare certified organic garden, four bee hives farm, two vineyards, and a hops barn—offers tours and retreats for those looking to unplug and get their hands dirty. Guests can work in the fields, tending to the more than thousands of herbs, vegetables, and flowers onsite, then enjoy chef-prepared farm-to-table dinners at a family-style communal table overlooking the ground’s trellised grapes, espalier apples, heritage roses, and pear orchards. Some might call it the real-life garden of Eden.
Right off the coast in the romantic seaside town of Carmel is a 500-acre/202-hectare, all-suite property in California’s Santa Lucia Mountains known as Carmel Valley Ranch. Despite a sprawling golf course and luxurious spa, the resort’s farm is as popular an amenity as anything else on site. The ranch offers a number of farmstead experiences, including a signature bee session, where adventurous guests can go behind the scenes of the onsite apiary—home to 60,000 honeybees. Weekly farm tours with organic farmer Mark Marino lead to hands-on gardening breakouts and impromptu “chicken chats.” Other onsite artisans teach classes in soap making (featuring lavender from surrounding fields), and lessons in how to make Monterey Bay sea salt with resident “salt guy” Bob Kirkland. Guests can enjoy the fruits of their labour at monthly garden parties. They can also sip Pinot Noir from the property’s vineyards, included as part of the resort’s dinner series.
A second-generation farm built on the idea of producing the best tasting fruits and vegetables on the market, Capay Organic dates back to the early days of the organic foods movement. Over the years, the Capay family has introduced new crops and techniques, becoming next-gen pioneers in sustainable cultivation of varied crops, including cherry tomatoes, ambrosia melons, and even sweet-smelling sweet pea flowers. Farm tours and activities for the whole family are also a hallmark at Capay Organic. Hop on a tractor and listen to a farmhand talk about what’s in season. Get your hands dirty and help harvest produce, then take it home with you. Spread out a picnic beneath a shady tree to soak in the view of cultivated fields, orchards, and golden hills in the distance. At the farm, July means the annual tomato festival, and September brings Capay Crush, a harvest grape celebration. Check Capay’s calendar for seasonal farm dinners and sign up for “Meet the Farmer” dinners at such nearby Sacramento restaurants as Grange at the Citizen Hotel.
The brainchild of San Francisco entrepreneur Iso Rabins, Forage SF was launched to support local food purveyors and artisans by helping monetize their businesses. The popularity of Forage’s underground markets led to the creation of Wild Kitchen, a roving underground supper club. Each meal highlights a different foraged ingredient from the local landscape, like mussels, moon snails, and edible mushrooms. Eight-course dinners feed up to 100 guests at a large communal table. Whether at a houseboat in Sausalito or the rooftop deck of a hip loft in San Francisco’s SoMa (South of Market) neighbourhood, the meals are meant to inspire conversation about food, community, and sustainability.
Forage SF also offers seasonal classes and guided walks, focusing on wild foods, medicinal plants, and edible flowers in the Bay Area. Classes are typically held in San Francisco’s Presidio and other urban parks, and are great whether you’re a novice or veteran forager.
The Marin Agricultural Land Trust, known to locals as MALT, provides unprecedented access to the farms and ranches of West Marin. Otherwise off limits to the public, these celebrated establishments, most of them situated in rolling coastal hills about an hour north of San Francisco, open their gates for occasional tours and tastings led by MALT members and educators. A day with MALT might mean a burrata cheese-making workshop with SF Milkmaid Louella Hill, an Italian Harvest dinner at Moore Ranch in Nicasio, moving cattle across the pastures at Stemple Creek, or a field-to-fork supper at Fresh Run Farms in Bolinas showcasing the culinary talents of chef Sarah Hodge from Cowgirl Creamery. Some events, like sheep-shearing and nature-oriented experiences, can be great fun for families. Farm tours and food events sell out far in advance, but sign up for MALT’s e-newsletter, and you’ll be the first to know about these coveted gatherings.
Perfect for out-of-towners and locals alike, Harley Farms’ tours and field-to-fork dinners set the scene for country-style romance. A restored Victorian hayloft on farmland halfway between San Francisco and Santa Cruz transforms into a backyard restaurant awash in candlelight and brightened with freshly picked flowers. Chefs prepare a five-course seasonal meal with ingredients from the property, including some of the world's finest goat cheeses made with milk from the farm’s resident herd. Guests are invited to bring their own wine, beer, or other beverages. And while children are welcome to frolic on the farm with baby goats during the day, evenings are reserved for adults only. Perhaps a date night is in your near future? Just know you'll need to book well in advance, as these intimate events fill up fast, and up to a year in advance. Watch the farm's website closely for details, typically posted in November.
Nestled high in the mountains above the beaches of Santa Cruz, Love Apple Farms is the exclusive produce provider for Michelin-starred Manresa restaurant in nearby Los Gatos. At Love Apple, it’s all about top-notch crops and impeccable farming practices—and not usually about tours and tastings. But at special seasonal dinners, farm tables are arranged among garden beds for alfresco dining as evening falls, with (on fog-free nights views of Monterey Bay in the distance. Past menus have included such mouthwatering dishes as fresh green peas with lemon oil and coconut-pearl tapioca, and main courses such as braised lamb shanks with polenta, mustard greens, and triple-cream. Prior to the meal, guests meander through garden beds with a resident farmer, who sheds light on Love Apple’s organic and biodynamic practices.
Shining a light on the diverse crops and artisanal foods that come from the Sierra Foothills, Local Roots tours take you to vineyards, nut and fruit orchards, and groves of olive trees, all aiming to open your eyes—and your mouth—to the region’s bounty. You’ll discover a cornucopia of fresh fruit, produce, nuts, and wine produced in this Placer County region. As you drive from stop to stop (four or five per 4-hour tour) guides share local insights and stories, as well as plenty of samples. Chat with farmers and growers while you snack on fresh cheese or unpeel a just-picked Mandarin (one of Placer County’s signature crops). Travel to different sites in a cushy “executive” bus, with time out for a gourmet lunch. Local Roots tours are offered weekends; check the website for various tours and when they are scheduled (season varies depending on crops).