16 Waterfront Restaurants
Courtesy of Sierra Mar at Post Ranch Inn

16 Waterfront Restaurants

Travel the California coast and you quickly discover that the waterfront dining is as varied as the state’s ocean scenery. From simple seaside shacks to lavish event restaurants, you’ll find caught-that-day seafood in settings ranging from flip-flop casual to all-dolled-up. But wherever you go, these restaurants share one common trait: world-class water views. Here’s a standout selection to get you started; restaurants are listed south to north.

Coasterra
Courtesy of Cohn Restaurant Group

Coasterra

Coasterra
Book a table at this San Diego waterfront knockout

Got a boat? That’s the only way you’ll get a better view of San Diego’s waterfront skyline and twinkling bridges than the panorama you get from Coasterra Modern Mexican restaurant, the third Cohn Restaurant Group offering on the city’s Harbor Island. (The other two are the successful Island Prime and C Level.)

Every table of this multilevel dazzler—with a special event space for up to 500 guests that actually floats above the water—has a view that will have you Instagramming throughout your meal, especially if you’re there at sunset. “Table 408 outside, right at the tip of the pentacle over the water—that’s my favorite table,” says chef and Cohn Group partner Deborah Scott. “When the sun begins to set, there’s a shell-like color lighting up the buildings downtown. And it keeps changing—it’s like a nonstop slideshow, with tankers and sailboats going by.”

Even after dark, the 28,000-square-foot, $15 million restaurant is an eye-catcher. Sit at Coasterra’s bar, order a Deb’s Coconut Margarita—made with Olmeca Altos reposado tequila, coconut cream, lime juice, and a coconut salt rim—and take in the restaurant’s sleek, contemporary styling. “I like minimalist design, and that’s what you see here,” says chef Scott, who had a strong hand in creating the space. “There aren’t any Mexican blankets or piñatas—it’s dramatic and open.”

Yearning for traditional Mexican fare? There are a few tacos and enchiladas on the menu, but most of Coasterra’s dishes are creative twists on Mexican classics. Ceviche gets an upgrade with Mexican shrimp and bay scallops, Pacific sea bass, lime, orange zest, roasted tomato salsa, and cilantro. Dipping sauces for fresh-shucked oysters include pickled onion-habañero mignonette and fire-roasted cocktail sauce. Classic surf and turf becomes a spectacular stacked presentation of a beef short rib topped with Oaxacan mole, a lobster-risotto cake, grilled asparagus, and a lobster claw.

All told, Coasterra serves up a hard-to-beat combo of sophisticated design, deliciously eclectic dishes, and a world-class view.

Always In Season: George's at the Cove

Always In Season: George's at the Cove

Always In Season: George's at the Cove
Chef Trey Foshee heads up a La Jolla standout

This acclaimed San Diego restaurant is actually three dining destinations in one. Take your pick of experiences, from fine dining in the main restaurant, California Modern, to more casual eats on the rooftop Ocean Terrace and at George’s Bar.

For Trey Foshee, executive chef and partner at this celebrated restaurant perched on the edge of the Pacific in the well-heeled village of La Jolla, the recipe for great food is simple. “It's a clichè, but it starts with the ingredients,” says Chef Trey. “You can't improve the quality of products through technique. But when they're exceptional to start with, you can elevate them even further.”

That simple yet essential ingredient for Chef Trey’s culinary philosophy is a key reason he works closely with local farmers like Mike Sanders, an avocado farmer at Rancho Santo Tomas, northeast of San Diego. This close relationship means he can find the best ingredients and get them from farm to table as quickly as possible. “A lot of our products don't ever see a refrigerator. They're picked that morning and served that day.”

"What's in season is constantly changing, so our menus do, too." -- Chef Trey Foshee

Another benefit of sourcing local produce is being able to visit the farms regularly. “It's great to see what's on its way in and on its way out,” says Chef Trey. “Plus, the dialogue we have with the farmers really influences our menus. What's in season is constantly changing, so our menus do, too.”

Honored as one of the “10 best foodie spots” in San Diego by USA Today, California Modern has a spacious, contemporary interior that, combined with Chef Trey’s and award-winning fare, makes it the “it” spot in the region for special nights out. (The fixed-price tasting menu is a splurge-worthy experience.)

Upstairs from California Modern, relax with handcrafted cocktails and vistas of turquoise blue La Jolla Cove at George’s Bar. Or take in panoramic ocean views while digging into spicy, marinated grilled fish tacos outside at George’s Ocean Terrace—named one of the world’s “hottest rooftop restaurants” by Travel+Leisure magazine. 

 

The Marine Room
Courtesy of the Marine Room

The Marine Room

The Marine Room
A surfside dining landmark since 1941

High tide meets haute cuisine at La Jolla’s beachfront Marine Room, where you can witness a spectacular display as the ocean surf reaches for the restaurant’s panoramic dining room windows, a dramatic accompaniment to executive chef Bernard Guillas’ imaginative global cuisine.

Not surprisingly, fresh and local seafood is the star here, like the lilikoi-lacquered pompano with green tea noodles, or the monkfish wrapped in heirloom bacon. Meat options include free-range veal tenderloin and a lamb osso buco. The restaurant also hosts lobster nights, and special breakfasts are offered during the winter on days with high tides.

Studio
Paul Hamilton/Flickr

Studio

Studio
Craftsman elegance and incomparable ocean views

The views, the architecture, and the food: It all comes together at Studio, perched atop an oceanfront bluff above the Orange County coast at Montage Laguna Beach resort. Walk into this modern Craftsman-style beach cottage—with its elegant wood details, vaulted ceiling, and windows opening to the Pacific Ocean—and you might start plotting how to move in permanently.

Catch of the day (and it really is that day) seafood is star here, but Chef Craig Strong also highlights organic produce from local farms as well as the restaurant’s own fruit trees and kitchen gardens, creating California-inspired modern French cuisine as spectacular as Studio’s setting. Struggling to choose between the seared swordfish with spicy lentils and the king salmon with heirloom carrots? Don’t worry: indulge in the tasting menu and sample it all.

The Lobster
Prayitno/Flickr

The Lobster

The Lobster
Dine on seafood while overlooking the Santa Monica Pier

Located just steps from the iconic neon sign welcoming you to Santa Monica Pier, The Lobster is a local classic that first opened in 1925 specializing in—you guessed it—whole, grilled, and steamed lobster.

After a storied history, The Lobster sat empty for more than 10 years before reopening in 1999, newly renovated and under new ownership. Today, gaze out of the contemporary dining room’s floor-to-ceiling windows, or from the expansive terrace for big views of the beach while enjoying Chef Collin Crannell’s grilled Yucatan or California spiny lobster. It isn’t all about crustaceans here: other seafood choices include pan-roasted rockfish from Morro Bay, espresso barbecue Columbia River king salmon, and assorted oysters from an extensive raw bar.

Afterwards, make your way down the pier for a spin on the solar-powered Ferris wheel—especially beautiful at night.

Catch American Seafood
Courtesy of Catch

Catch American Seafood

Catch American Seafood
Seaside sophistication in Santa Monica

It’s a two-for-one at this waterfront restaurant, a chance to scope out the dynamic Santa Monica beach scene out the windows while you dine on locally caught seafood and grilled vegetables sourced from Santa Monica’s famous farmers’ market. Located in the historic Hotel Casa del Mar, Catch has a relaxed elegance that makes it easy to hang out with cocktails at sunset, then order dinner once the stars come out.

Dining options include shellfish from both coasts, as well as local fish entrees such as a mustard-marinated California black cod with green and yellow pole beans. Or start your day with breakfast at Catch with tempting dishes such as lemon ricotta pancakes topped with fresh berries.

Geoffrey’s Malibu
Chris Bashaw/22nd Century Media

Geoffrey’s Malibu

Geoffrey’s Malibu
A taste of ocean-side glamour on the Malibu coast

From the Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu, Geoffrey’s, with its simple lines and unassuming façade, hardly looks like the kind of place you’ll be posting about for days. But walk through the sleekly sophisticated dining room to your umbrella-topped table on the terrace, and we’re sure you’ll be Instagramming nonstop—if not for the views (big blue Pacific capped by far-off Santa Catalina Island), then for the celebs who like to dine here too.

Designed by famed architect Richard Neutra, Geoffrey’s is Southern California incarnate—a seamless blend of ocean, lush landscaping, and head-swiveling stars. Savor a crab Benedict and sip a mimosa during weekend brunches. Catch a Malibu sunset while you indulge in the seafood paella at dinner. Then treat yourself to the maple blueberry cheesecake or an espresso flan as the stars twinkle over the Pacific. 

Santa Barbara Shellfish Company
Courtesy of Santa Barbara Shellfish Company

Santa Barbara Shellfish Company

Santa Barbara Shellfish Company
Casual dining on Santa Barbara Harbor

Stroll the entire 2,000-foot/609-meter length of this city’s historic 1873 Stearns Pier and you’ll get a nice reward: a chance to enjoy first-rate seafood in an unpretentious, everyone’s-welcome setting. In a building that originally housed a buying station for locally harvested shellfish, the Santa Barbara Shellfish Company stands out as a longtime local favorite, replete with weathered lobster buoys hanging from the roofline.

If it’s a nice day—and that’s just about any day in Santa Barbara—grab a table outside on the deck and watch the sun set over the western mountains (Santa Barbara Harbor faces south). Or head inside to nab a counter seat, where you can watch the chefs in action as the skillets flame up and the smell of fried scallops fills the restaurant. Scan the chalkboards above the grills for specials, or check out seasonal favorites such as fresh local Dungeness crab or spiny lobster. 

Windows on the Water
Courtesy of Windows on the Water

Windows on the Water

Windows on the Water
Morro Bay views and sustainable seafood

Overlooking landmark Morro Rock and the busy harbor at Morro Bay, Windows on the Water stands out for both its top-notch view and for creative dishes showcasing local ingredients, especially organic ones.

With the Central Coast’s rich farming and fishing heritage, Windows on the Water has a great backyard when it comes to ultra-fresh foods. The kitchen only serves free-range and grass-fed meats (including from nearby Hearst Ranch), while the seafood is wild caught or farmed according to sustainable practices. Start off with an appetizer featuring abalone raised in nearby Cayucos, then take your pick from Morro Bay halibut in an heirloom tomato salsa, or a balsamic-glazed (grass-fed) filet mignon. Watch the chefs working in the open kitchen—if you can take your eyes off the panoramas through the restaurant’s floor-to-ceiling windows.

Sierra Mar
Kodiak Greenwood

Sierra Mar

Sierra Mar
Edge-of-the-earth beauty on high

Sierra Mar at Post Ranch Inn gives you the feeling of dining at the very edge of the continent. Looking westward from the dramatic, contemporary building, cantilevered down a stretch of Big Sur coastline, you feel like you’re floating above the ocean. Reclaimed woods and slate floors lend an understated, natural elegance—nothing too flashy to compete with that incomparable view out the restaurant’s floor-to-ceiling windows.

Magical? Yes, and so is the menu, with many dishes drawing inspiration from the Big Sur region—such as Morro Bay oysters, Monterey red abalone, and cheeses from Monterey County’s Schoch Family Farmstead. For the full experience, try the nine-course Taste of Big Sur tasting menu, complimented by Sierra Mar’s award-winning wine list, for dinner. Prix fixe or tasting menus are also available at lunch.

Nepenthe Restaurant
Jongela/Flickr

Nepenthe Restaurant

Nepenthe Restaurant
Mellow on the coast since 1949

Here’s a classic throwback to Big Sur’s legacy of drifters and dreamers—Beat Generation author Jack Kerouac, celebrated playwright Arthur Miller, flower children, and off-the-gridders alike. At Nepenthe, located on Highway 1 in Big Sur, settle in at a table or along the counters on the deck for views that stretch down the coast, the Santa Lucia Mountains plunging in fog-cloaked majesty to the deep blue Pacific. The longer you stick around, the more you’ll learn about the influential figures of film, literature, and architecture who have helped shape the property, including the very deck where you can enjoy Nepenthe’s famous Ambrosia burger. Locals love this place, and they love to share their stories too, so keep your ears peeled.

At dinner, try the roast chicken with sage stuffing, a dish is named for Lolly Fassett, who, along with her husband Bill, established Nepenthe in 1949. On rare warm evenings the deck can be magical, but the restaurant interior has undeniable charms too. The Fassetts worked with Rowan Maiden, who studied with master architect Frank Lloyd Wright, to design the building, and Wright’s influence is clear, especially the use of local stone and coast redwood. But its unconventional angles give the building an eccentric and artistic flare—exactly what you expect in a place like Big Sur.

Insider’s tip: Stop in to see the collection of clothing, crafts, and jewelry from local and international artists at Nepenthe’s Phoenix Shop.

Sam’s Chowder House
JP/Flickr

Sam’s Chowder House

Sam’s Chowder House
A seafood favorite in Half Moon Bay

Thanks to the folks at Sam’s Chowder House, you don’t have to travel all the way to Maine for great lobster rolls and New England clam chowder. Just head to this waterfront spot in Half Moon Bay, about an hour south of San Francisco, for seriously good seafood. Settle in along the deck, or snuggle up by the fireplace, to dine on local rock cod served with Brussels sprouts from Half Moon Bay’s Giusti Farms. There’s also California king salmon prepared in a pomegranate reduction. Shellfish fans: you may have met your ultimate dish, a lobster clambake featuring a full Maine lobster, mussels, and clams.

But let’s shed a little more light on the restaurant's signature dish. The Today Show even named Sam’s lobster roll one of the five best sandwiches in America. Not bad for a West Coast chowder house. 

Nick's Cove
Mike Norquist

Nick's Cove

Nick's Cove
Serving the bounty from Point Reyes

Set above the shallows of Tomales Bay about two hours north of San Francisco, Nick’s Cove Restaurant and Oyster Bar feels like a secret retreat along a wild and beautiful coast. After a hike at nearby Point Reyes National Seashore, head up the coast to this remote charmer. Order a craft beer and some fresh local oysters, then settle into a seat on the broad deck to watch sandpipers and egrets dabbling in the water.

This area, known as West Marin, is a premier location for sustainable ranching and farming, and local ingredients are the stars at Nick’s Cove. Relax in the main dining room, dressed up to feel like a stylishly worn hunting lodge. Entrees make use of fresh fare raised at the region’s farms and food purveyors. Choose from Tomales Bay clam chowder, butter roasted California halibut, or decadent Dungeness crab mac & cheese (featuring local Spring Hill Cheddar and Point Reyes Toma cheeses).

Insider’s tip: Make a night of it and splurge on one of Nick’s Cove’s rustic-chic luxury cottages.

Cliff House
Ingrid Taylar/Flickr

Cliff House

Cliff House
A San Francisco landmark since 1863

Sitting within the boundaries of the one of the world’s largest urban national parks—the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA)—the Cliff House boasts one of the most spectacular restaurant locations in California. Look to the south, and there are lines of waves rolling onto Ocean Beach, defining the western boundary of San Francisco. To the north, the vista takes in rugged headlands and the ruins of the historic Sutro Baths. And west, it’s nothing but water—a vantage point so “out there” that you can actually whale watch while you dine. It’s no wonder this place has drawn locals and visitors for more than 150 years.

Cliff House has two dining choices. In a renovated 1909 building, the casual Bistro Restaurant serves classic San Francisco cuisine, including a cioppino brimming with Dungeness crab. More formal (though still relaxed), Sutro’s offers seasonal specialities prepared with organic produce.  Try ravioli filled with a decidedly Northern Californian combination: Dungeness crab and artichokes. For handcrafted cocktails, stop in at Zinc Bar, which has an 1889-vintage back bar that was carved in Paris. Or watch sunset from the Balcony Lounge overlooking Sutro’s.

Insider’s tip: Take a little extra time to visit the excellent visitor center at nearby Lands End Lookout, with details on natural and cultural history, and a nice gift shop.

Spud Point Crab Company
Don McCullough/Flickr

Spud Point Crab Company

Spud Point Crab Company
A father-son team serves off-the-boat seafood

Visit this tucked away eatery, in the morning, when the local fishermen hang out over coffee and donuts, and you’ll quickly realize that this is an authentic spot, not some gussied-up tourist joint.

Surrounded by bobbing fishing boats, gulls squawking and rigging clanging, this place can’t help but serve fresh-as-it-gets seafood, including award-winning chowder. It’s well worth a drive along the wild coast to get here—San Francisco is about 2 hours south via breathtaking Highway 1. Spud Point serves the absolute freshest of crab and king salmon, straight from the boats of owner Tony Anello and his son Mark. There are also outstanding crab cakes, and sandwiches featuring the catch of the day. Nothing fancy here—and it doesn’t have to be: the view is all you need. Settle in at a picnic table outside and watch the sunlight dance on the bay while you enjoy your meal, or watch the fog roll in over signature Bodega Head. Note: Spud Point is open 9 to 5 daily.

Insider’s tip: Wildlife watchers, bring your binoculars. Bodega Bay is known as a terrific spot for birding. On clear days, drive to the top of Bodega Head for excellent whale watching, typically December through March.

Little River Inn
Courtesy of Little River Inn

Little River Inn

Little River Inn
Innovative cuisine in a classic setting

Romantic getaways to this Victorian-style hotel along the Mendocino Coast get extra special when you include a meal. Sitting by the window, looking out at the inn’s lush gardens to a protected cove, you feel downright spoiled to be dining on local seafood and sipping on the North Coast’s award-winning wines. You don’t have to stay the night to dine here, but it sure is nice to know you can.

Classic preparations get a local nod, such as sole meunière using petrale sole caught by fishing boats based in Noyo Harbor, just up the coast. Other don’t-miss items include green lip mussels with wasabi mayo and fried calamari with Asian slaw.

Enjoy the relaxed elegance of the main restaurant, or head over to Ole’s Whale Watch Bar, a favorite hangout for locals thanks to its own incredible views.