When you come to California, come hungry. This is a state that really knows how to cook. Amazing and innovative chefs sprinkled with Michelin stars work with local farms and artisanal food purveyors to get the best hyper-local, hyper-fresh ingredients, then create magic on a plate. Where to dine? Choose from rooftop areas to waterfront showpieces and tucked-away surprises. They are all great.
The North Coast might just be the perfect place to eat. Few other places in the world can offer such a harmonious blend of chefs, farmers, fishermen and foragers working together with winemakers and brew masters to create culinary magic. With the ocean’s bounty to the west, sustainable farms and vineyards and artisanal food makers everywhere else, the North Coast naturally draws remarkable chefs interested in preparing ultra-fresh dishes that reflect what’s growing right now. Settings range from white-napkin finery to a chowder shack by the pier. Farmers’ markets here are friendly affairs, and they’re a great way to mingle with locals and sample the region’s bounty. Cheese-makers have a strong hold here, with sheep, goats and cows getting plenty of sweet grass in surrounding hills.
"Farmers’ markets here are friendly affairs, and they’re a great way to mingle with locals and sample the region’s bounty."
And of course, there’s the sea. Locally caught wild fish is a staple on just about every menu, as well as seasonal crab and one of the world’s most valued foods, abalone.
Northern California was the wellspring of the craft beer movement, which can be loosely traced from Anchor Brewing in San Francisco to Sierra Nevada Brewery in the young-at-heart college town of Chico, and then to the world. Indeed, California craft brewers have changed the way we drink beer, turning it into a drink not just for sports fans but connoisseurs too.
"Indeed, California craft brewers have changed the way we drink beer, turning it into a drink not just for sports fans but connoisseurs too."
Get a taste for where the movement started with a visit to Sierra Nevada Brewing’s expansive tasting room/restaurant/brewery complex. Take a self-guided tour, or join a guided one, with offerings including a sustainability tour showcasing California’s largest privately owned solar installation, and an in-depth exploration (limited to 5 beer geeks) of the brewery’s inner workings. No tour is needed to cool off with a frosty pint in the trellis-shaded Taproom & Restaurant. Sierra Nevada Brewing has been the catalyst for other small-batch breweries to open in the area—and it helps that it’s a college town. Stop by the Handle Bar for a great selection of craft beers on tap.
Chef Alice Waters and her group of idealistic friends did not intend to spark a movement when they opened Chez Panisse in Berkeley in 1971; they just wanted to do things right—which meant using sustainably sourced, organic, seasonal ingredients. It’s hard to open a menu without seeing those buzzwords nowadays, but make no mistake: the iconic Berkeley restaurant—still going strong—was the first glimmer of today’s nation-sweeping celebration of ultra-fresh, hyper-local, farm-to-table dining. Sample it at the communal tables at Gather, also in Berkeley, or in Marin County at Farmshop (Larkspur), in Sonoma County at Zazu (Sebastopol), Farm House Inn & Restaurant (Forestville) and Terrapin Creek (Bodega Bay). Also in the East Bay, Oakland has emerged has a hotbed of innovative chefs and restaurants, like Commis and Haven.
In San Francisco, it’s almost impossible not to eat well, with Michelin-starred options ranging from Atelier Crenn to Zuni Cafe. Find some of the hippest places to dine along Valencia Street in the Mission District, with a head-spinning number of chic bars and restaurants and almost every type of global cuisine—plus awesome ice cream at Bi-Rite, Mitchell’s or Cream. Little Italy and the Jackson Square neighbourhood have more great finds, like Bix and Michelin-starred Quince.
Napa Valley offers not just great wines, but amazing food too. Thomas Keller’s multi-Michelin-starred The French Laundry, in Yountville, is the big deal in reservations—you might have better luck if you’re willing to go for lunch, or opt for Keller’s bistro fare at Bouchon. Or try Keller’s family-style comfort food at Ad Hoc, also in Yountville. In Saint Helena, three-starred The Restaurant at Meadowood offers impeccable cuisine in elegant wine-country splendour, and Press showcases local meats and produce from its own farms.
But with all these new trends, there’s still something to be said for San Francisco classics: crusty Boudin sourdough bread (first baked here in 1849), the martini (debuted in 1850), Irish coffee (perfected in 1952 at the still-serving-them-today Buena Vista Café) and timeless steamed Dungeness crab dipped in melted butter.
Here’s a great food find, a classy food hall, where you can sample an array of handcrafted and sustainably made food products highlighting local farms and artisan ingredients. Find international cheeses at Counter Culture, then end on a sweet note with miniature cupcakes like vanilla cake filled with ollalieberry-lemon mousse at Enjoy Cupcakes.
Part of the Alma del Pueblo mixed-use development in the heart of town, the LEED-certified building also features a commissary kitchen that hosts cooking classes and winemaker dinners. Look for freshly baked country loaves at Crazy Good Bread Co., Thai- and Taiwanese-inspired handmade dumplings at Empty Bowl Noodle Bar, and fresh-off-the-boat fish at Santa Monica Seafood.
With the Pacific Ocean and San Diego Bay at its doorstep, San Diego defines waterfront dining. Travel the coast to get a taste—literally—of what the region has to offer along the edge of the sea.
Start in La Jolla with brunch at Brockton Villa—the Crab Ipanema Benedict egg dish won’t disappoint. Casual lunch? Anthony’s Fish Grotto (in town) serves creamy, chock-full clam chowder and crunch-perfect fish and chips. Also in town on the Embarcadero, there’s Sally’s Seafood on the Water and The Fish Market, two more places to try for fresh catch of the day with waterfront views. Across San Diego Bay, head to Harbor Island and Tom Ham’s Lighthouse (yes, it’s really housed in a lighthouse). Nearby, Island Prime makes the most of the view with floor-to-ceiling windows and an over-the-water patio. If you want tunes, try Humphrey’s Restaurant on Shelter Island; it presents quality live music in its outdoor amphitheatre. Slip away to peaceful Coronado, and relax at Mistral at Loews Coronado Bay Resort.
As the megawatt star when it comes to celebrities, L.A. naturally attracts chefs who want to make a big splash too. Well-known names like Wolfgang Puck, whose legendary Spago in Beverly Hills still attracts A-listers, offer amazing, innovative dishes, often in equally spectacular settings, even rooftops. Market-driven menus, focusing on California’s super fresh ingredients, are the norm at places like Chef Ben Ford’s airy downtown eatery, Ford’s Filling Station and ultra-fancy Patina, the Walt Disney Concert Hall’s star restaurant, where chef Joachim Splichal creates gastronomic showstoppers, like his signature Seasonal Glazed Vegetable Mosaic.
For all the dress-up options and celebrity chefs dotting the city, the international city of Los Angeles also offers awesome places to get authentic, reasonably priced ethnic food, especially in tucked away neighborhoods. Try incredible do-it-yourself barbecue at Kang Hodong Baekjeong in Koreatown. Dig into perfect ramen at Tsujita in Little Tokyo. Or order the green corn tamales, a local favorite, at El Cholo, an L.A. tradition since 1923.
In San Francisco, ingredient-driven menus reign supreme. With some of the nation’s best produce at their fingertips, chefs in the City by the Bay create edible magic, often changing menus nightly to reflect what’s freshest and tastiest that day. Many chefs work closely with local farms and food purveyors to get exactly the ingredients they want. Early morning trips to one of the city’s year-round farmers’ markets are part of the routine for these wizards of the kitchen. Special occasion restaurants, many sprinkled with Michelin stars, abound, like the smooth sophistication of double-starred Coi, Atelier Crenn, and Quince. Lively, crowded and trendy options line the streets of The Mission District, particularly along Valencia Street. But inexpensive options are easy to find, too: consider Clement Street for outstanding pho and other Asian foods, or track down food van gatherings sponsored by Off the Grid. And for one-stop you’ll-definitely-find-something grazing, walk (slowly) through the Ferry Building Marketplace, where permanent booths sell local delicacies like crusty sourdough (Acme Bread) and artisan cheese (Cowgirl Creamery), and sit-down restaurants, like Charles Phan’s celebrated Slanted Door, offer amazing food and waterfront views.
Foodies will find a little slice of heaven in Yountville. With more Michelin stars per capita than any other place in North America, this little village could keep you happily munching for days—if you didn’t care about calories. But who cares—this is what holidays are all about: beautiful settings and incredible food.
The man who really put Yountville on the culinary map is the incomparable Chef Thomas Keller. He may have a worldwide empire of restaurants now, but The French Laundry, which he took over in 1994, was a breakthrough, a true destination restaurant in Napa wine country. It’s still outstanding, earning a coveted three Michelin stars, and requiring bookings several months in advance. (Try for lunch and you may have a better chance.) Today, you can practically call the town ‘Keller-ville’: he has also opened his more relaxed but also excellent Bouchon, as well as the forget-the-calorie-counter Bouchon Bakery. Other amazing restaurants include Redd, Etoile, Bistro Jeanty and Bottego, where celebrity chef Michael Chiarello focuses on ultra-fresh Italian cuisine.
Also visit in-town tasting rooms; try Ma(i)sonry Napa Valley, sample wines from more than 20 vintner partners on the back patio of the historic stone building, and you’ll feel like you’ve slipped away to Provence. Wines are great, but if you want to switch things up, sip a poolside cocktail at the Dive Bar at Bardessono, an ultra-swanky (and LEED-platinum certified) boutique luxury resort. (Parties are held the last Thursday of the month, June to August).
The sun sliding below the western horizon, a blanket of city lights spreading at your feet, the Hollywood Sign glowing from its hillside perch—there’s nothing quite like sitting at a rooftop restaurant, club or lounge in the middle of Los Angeles. One of the best things about LA is the weather, and all those warm sunny days have an extra bonus: warm evenings and nights. So relaxing outside, perhaps at cushy banquettes around a swimming pool glowing with cool blue light, well, it doesn’t get much sexier than that.
To sample all that sultry fabulousness, consider taking the lift to the top of the Mondrian Hotel, in West Hollywood. Once there, you can relax at Herringbone, a restaurant from Chef Brian Malarkey, with all his signature couches and space making it look like you’ve wandered into the hippest living room on the planet—and one that serves great food and drinks too. Or, if you’re in the mood for short skirts, stiletto sandals and DJ-thumping music, head for the pool scene at Skybar.
Another ace option is The Roof on Wilshire, on top of the Hotel Wilshire in the heart of town. Relax on wrap-around banquettes to watch the skyline light up, and sip on one of the bar’s signature Mule-style drinks until the stars come out. Also in town you will find the Upstairs at Ace Hotel, with panoramic city views, including the profile of the towering San Gabriel Mountains. Tropical drinks are the thing here; if you get a little peckish you can order food from the Ace’s restaurant, L.A. Chapter, then bring it up to your rooftop seat.
If you want a wacky and unforgettable night, try to grab one of the spaceship-like waterbed pods alongside the pool at The Rooftop at The Standard Downtown. Expect to wait—this is a seriously hot spot—but there’s plenty of people watching to keep things entertaining.
Sure, you can get your fill of corn dogs and candy floss down on the boardwalk, but tucked into historic buildings in town, and in nearby communities, there are surprising finds, with talented chefs and artisan food makers tempting you to try their latest creations. First, let’s talk coffee. Warm up on foggy mornings with a rich, tasty brew at two local favourites, Santa Cruz Coffee Roasting Company and Lu Lu Carpenter's. For decadent pastries along with your java, try Kelly’s French Bakery, a happy find tucked among warehouses on the west side of town. For a lunch break from the beach, head to Zoccoli’s Delicatessen (we dare you not to love the hot tri-tip sandwich), and double-scoops of lively flavours (ginger snap or lemon poppyseed) at Penny Ice Creamery. Marianne’s is another favourite for ice cream, with innovative flavours such as spicy Mexican Chocolate or Northern Oregon Blackberry.
Hopefully you’ll have room for an amazing dinner. There’s a huge range of options—get fresh seafood and sunset views at Johnny’s Harborside and Crow’s Nest; or for Italian cuisine settle in at homey and charming Lillian’s (black truffle-stuffed gnocchi for grown-ups, classic meatballs for kids). La Posta, in the Seabright neighbourhood, features a fresh, market-driven menu.
The warehouse-filled back streets of the East Bay are attracting urban wine warriors who like blending and bottling in the middle of city buzz. More than 20 wineries dot Oakland and the nearby cities of Berkeley, Emeryville and Alameda; visit them on your own, or consider taking an entertaining guided tour by bike with East Bay Winery Bike Tours.
Oakland and surrounding cities are also enjoying a culinary renaissance as celebrated chefs open new establishments in up-and-coming neighbourhoods such as Uptown, Jack London Square, Grand Avenue and Glenview. Try sophisticated tapas at always-packed Bocanova, contemporary Japanese at Ozumo or charcuterie and craft cocktails at Adesso. Chicken and waffle fans flock to West Oakland’s Brown Sugar Kitchen, where chef Tanya Holland puts her creative twist on classic soul food dishes.
Oakland is becoming a hotbed of artisan food makers too, with soon-to-be household names like Numi Teas, Blue Bottle Coffee and Linden Street Brewers making the region home base for operations. Learn more about this new wave on a guided walking tour with Savor Oakland, focusing on food, culture and history. Wind down the evening and recline in Kasbah-like splendour at Layover.
When it comes to food, San José goes global. Enjoy a kaleidoscope of ethnic restaurants, including Ethiopian fare at Zeni (try to sit at one of the round tables in the back). American-style meat and potatoes get matched with rotating craft beers at local favourite Harry’s Hofbrau.
Star chefs have staked a claim in San José too; Michelin-star-nabbing Michael Mina oversees the kitchen at Arcadia, a steakhouse that’s a popular spot before or after shows at the nearby San Jose Center for the Performing Arts.
Downtown has a lively, open-late food hall, San Pedro Square Market, a great place for a quality grab-and-go meal. How about a ‘fusion’ hot dog from Calidog? A glass of wine from local vintners at Vino Vino? Check out Treatbot, the ice cream trike from the future, serving up karaoke and local ice cream flavours like the ‘408’ (caramel ice cream, fudge and Oreos). No sense goes un-served in the public market’s three halls: keep your nose peeled for the aroma of roasted coffee beans and wood-fired pizza. Also enjoy live entertainment and local artwork.
On sunny days (which are the norm here), take your food out to a table or bench in the adjacent plaza, bordered by the 1797 Peralta Adobe (the city’s oldest building; guided tours are offered throughout the year).
Given Mendocino’s Pacific-side location, it’s little surprise that restaurants here excel in seafood. Salmon, albacore, rock cod, Dungeness crab and abalone are some of the ocean delicacies you can enjoy at area restaurants, some with dress-up fancy ambiance, others kick-back-with-the-locals relaxed. For a special meal, consider Trillium Cafe for fresh seafood in farm-to-table preparations, (chock-full ling cod bouillabaisse, local wild king salmon with creamy pumpkin seed pesto). The Grey Whale Bar and Cafe, housed within elegant MacCallum House B&B, also features nightly seafood specials.
If you see people walking by with crumbs on their shirts, they have probably been to Goodlife Cafe and Bakery, where locals have been known to describe pastries, such as the seasonal huckleberry Danish, as ‘insanely good.’ Wholesome, organic and fair trade are all buzzwords here.
Insider's Tip: Want a really fresh catch? Consider booking space on a local fishing charter and see what you can snag.
Some of Big Sur’s most beloved restaurants are currently inaccessible due to the road closures, but there are still local favourites open to fuel your excursions around the area.
On the southern end, the last accessible point on Highway 1 is Salmon Creek just beyond Ragged Point, known as the “Gateway to Big Sur.” Due to current road closures, you can’t travel farther north from here, but for your journey back down the coast, grab a snack to go at the Ragged Point Inn’s Sandwich Stand—or stay for a romantic sunset dinner at their gourmet restaurant, where you’ll choose seasonal entrées from the daily-changing chalkboard menu.
On the north side, be sure to visit Big Sur Roadhouse at Glen Oak Big Sur, where Cajun-style seasonings mix it up with ultra-local ingredients (think gumbo made with just-caught seafood and you'll get the picture). The roadhouse's design is as intriguing as its food, with an airy interior accented with recycled and salvaged wood details, edgy modern art and inviting outdoor seating surrounded by redwoods.
For a signature “ambrosia burger” served with a world-class view, head to Nepenthe, where a huge deck overlooks the Pacific—nurse your fries and beer and stay until sunset. For a dress-up night out (and at Big Sur that generally means look presentable and don’t wear flip-flops), book a table at Post Ranch Inn’s restaurant, Sierra Mar (consider splurging on the nine-course Taste of Big Sur tasting menu), or settle into the rustic lodge-like restaurant at Ventana Big Sur, focusing on American cuisine made with local ingredients.