When you come to California, come hungry. This is a state that seriously 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 aeries to waterfront showpieces and tucked-away surprises. It’s all good.
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 prized foods, abalone.
Northern California was the wellspring of the craft beer movement, which can be loosely traced from Anchor Brewingin San Francisco to Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. in the young-at-heart university 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 Americans drink beer, turning it into a drink not just for sports fans but for 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 options including a sustainability tour showcasing California’s largest privately owned solar installation, and an in-depth exploration (limited to 5 beer geeks at a time) 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 Co. has been the catalyst for other small-batch breweries to open in the area—and of course it helps that it’s a university town. Stop by Dunsmuir Brewery Works for a tall pint of some of their Good Boy Porter or Mount Shasta Brewing Co., in Weed, home of Weed Golden Ale and Mountain High IPA. Lassen Ale Works in Susanville is located in the Pioneer Saloon, a true landmark of the Old West, founded in 1862. Eight core beers are brewed on site, including Thompson Peak Pilsner and Almanor Amber, as well as seasonals. Outdoor imbibing rules at The Brewing Lair, a laid-back, dog-friendly brewery with cornhole (a bar game), slack lines and an outdoor stage that hosts frequent concerts.
Chef Alice Waters and her group of idealistic friends didn’t 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. Also 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 as 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 get 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 meets 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 artisanal 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 downtown, 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.
Traveling from south to north, start in peaceful Coronado, and relax at the Instagram-worthy Bluewater Grill, housed in the historic former Hotel del Coronado Boathouse that was built in 1887 as a chart house.
Casual lunch? San Diego Pier Café on the waterfront serves hearty cioppino and crunch-perfect fish and chips. Also downtown on the Embarcadero, there’s Sally’s Fish House & Bar 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, and Coasterra Modern Mexican’s 28,000-square-foot presence on the water, with views to match, is nothing short of a San Diego al fresco-dining mecca.
If you want tunes, try Humphrey’s Restaurant on Shelter Island; check the calendar for live music slated for its outdoor amphitheater. Also on Shelter Island is Bali Hai Restaurant, which offers Polynesian cuisine (seafood prepared with such ingredients as coconut milk, ginger, lime, tamarind and tropical fruits) as well as extensive vegetarian and gluten-free menus. In nearby Point Loma, check out Point Loma Seafoods, which specializes in homemade hickory-smoked filets served on hot sourdough bread and has been an institution since 1963. Two blocks away is Brigantine Seafood & Oyster Bar.
Finally, head up to La Jolla for brunch at Brockton Villa—the Crab Ipanema Eggs Benedict won’t disappoint. Right around the corner is George’s on the Cove, which Open Table has rated one of the 100 best al fresco restaurants in the country. The multi-level views are incredible, and what may be their signature offering—fish tacos on the terrace—has earned it a dedicated following.
As the megawatt star when it comes to celebrities, L.A. naturally attracts chefs who want to make a big splash too. Household 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 über-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 neighbourhoods. 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 favourite, 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 fine-dining restaurants, many sprinkled with Michelin stars, abound, like the smooth sophistication of triple-starred Quince, Benu, Atelier Crenn, and Saison, and the double-starred Coi, Acquerello, and Lazy Bear.
Or course, Michelin stars are not a prerequisite to having a memorable dining experience. Lively, crowded, and innovative options line the streets of the Mission District, particularly along Valencia Street. At Fisherman’s Wharf, where seafood is king, a bowl of cioppino (an Italian-American “catch-of-the-day” stew made with Dungeness crab, clams, shrimp, scallops, squid, mussels and fish) is an absolute San Francisco must. Scoma’s has been serving it up on Pier 47 for over half a century. Another long-time seafood favorite is Tadich Grill, near the Embarcadero. And the Union Square area has long been a destination for both high-end eats (Campton Place and Morton’s Steakhouse come to mind) as well as numerous more inexpensive options.
Inexpensive options are easy to find, too: consider the many Asian restaurants in the Richmond neighborhood, where along Clement Street you’ll find outstanding Vietnamese at Pho Hyunh Sang, and Burmese cuisine at Burma Superstar and B Star Bar. In the same neighborhood, there’s Jijime for Korean and Jiangnan Cuisine for Shanghainese. Visit the Mission for their famously cheap and gargantuan burrito joints, or track down food trucks serving up nearly every kind of food imaginable at gatherings sponsored by Off the Grid. San Francisco also has more than its share of excellent places to eat where the view is as good as the food.
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 Company) and artisanal cheese (Cowgirl Creamery), and sit-down restaurants, like Charles Phan’s celebrated Slanted Door, offer amazing food and waterfront views.
The sun sliding below the western horizon, a blanket of city lights spread out at your feet, the Hollywood Sign glowing from its hillside perch—these are memorable sights from any vantage point, but there’s nothing quite like taking them in from a rooftop in the middle of Los Angeles. One of the best things about L.A. is the weather, and sunny days offer an extra bonus: warm evenings and nights. So relaxing outside, perhaps on cushy banquettes around a swimming pool glowing with cool blue light—well, it doesn’t get much sexier than that.
For a sultry, see-and-be-seen experience, head to E.P & L.P. This West Hollywood spot is part swanky Asian restaurant (E.P) and part rooftop club (L.P.). Rub shoulders with the stars as you sip a spiked boba tea and gaze out at the glimmering Hollywood Hills. Those preferring a lower profile should retreat to the nearby Rooftop at the Palihouse. Lush greenery, stylish chairs, and chic lanterns complement 360-degree views and hibiscus cocktails. For a brush with the super exclusive, book a room at WeHo’s Petit Ermitage. Open only to hotel guests, the rooftop is pure magic with its saltwater pool, seasonal cocktails, and a butterfly garden so legit it’s recognized as a sanctuary by the National Wildlife Federation.
Another excellent option is The Roof on Wilshire, above the Hotel Wilshire in the heart of Downtown. Relax on wraparound 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 the Downtown neighborhood is Upstairs Bar at the Ace Hotel, with tropical drinks and views of the towering San Gabriel Mountains. A new addition to DTLA, The Rooftop at The Nomad serves tiki cocktails and inspired ice-cream sandwiches on the terracotta deck, which is dotted with lemon trees. Just a few blocks away is the literal pinnacle of the city’s nightlife: Spire 73, which sits atop the Intercontinental Hotel and is the highest outdoor bar in the Western Hemisphere. If you want a wacky and unforgettable night, try to nab one of the spaceship-like waterbed pods alongside the pool at The Rooftop at The Standard, Downtown LA. Or head to The Fonda Theatre, where rooftop guests can watch a live feed of the night’s performance.
California is undeniably the land of plenty—the largest agricultural producer in the country. And it doesn’t get much more farmer than the region surrounding Sacramento. This fertile acreage, with remarkable soil and abundant sunshine, means Sacramento has incredible access to the juiciest fruits, freshest vegetables, and an ever-increasing array of artisanal, farm-based products. Area chefs take advantage of the bounty by forming close relationships with farmers and sourcing ingredients that will end up on diners’ plates that very same night. Taste the results at favourite eateries including Ella Dining Room & Bar, Mulvaney’s B&L, Waterboy, and The Kitchen Restaurant.
"Be part of Sacramento’s annual Farm-to-Fork Celebration, a two-week affair that gathers farmers and chefs to showcase the best in food and wine."
Sacramento’s chefs also craft their seasonally driven menus by shopping at local farmers’ markets—more than 10 sprout up at different locations year-round. For a novel experience, join a Market-to-Plate Executive Chefs Tour, offered by Local Roots Food Tours. Walk with chefs as they shop, get tips on what to buy and how to prepare it, then relax with lunch made from the day’s bounty. Chef Oliver Ridgeway, who focuses on hyper-local sustainable ingredients at Grange, also offers market walks on Wednesdays, followed by a three-course lunch.
If you’re visiting in September, you’ll want to be part of Sacramento’s annual Farm-to-Fork Celebration, a two-week affair that gathers farmers and chefs to showcase the best in food and wine. To cap off the festival, celebrated chefs prepare an exclusive farm-to-fork meal at an iconic city landmark for hundreds of food-loving attendees.
Sure, you can get your fill of corn dogs and cotton candy down on the boardwalk, but tucked into Santa Cruz’s historic downtown buildings and in nearby communities are surprising finds, where talented chefs and artisanal food makers will tempt you to try their latest creations.
First, let’s talk coffee. Warm up on foggy mornings with a richly flavorful brew at two local favorites, Santa Cruz Coffee Roasting Company and Lulu 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. Or if you’d rather sip on a local craft brew while you enjoy one of the bakery’s gourmet sandwiches, take a seat at Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing, located in the same building; you can order from Kelly’s full menu there. Another solid lunch option is Zoccoli’s Delicatessen (we dare you not to love the hot tri-tip sandwich), and double-scoops of lively flavors (ginger snap or lemon poppyseed) at Penny Ice Creamery. Marianne’s is another favorite for ice cream, with innovative flavors 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 Italian Kitchen (black truffle-stuffed gnocchi for grownups, classic meatballs for kids). La Posta, in the Seabright neighborhood, features a fresh, market-driven menu, and downtown, Laili serves Mediterranean cuisine with an Afghan twist. Try one of their filet mignon kabobs for a satisfying grilled-meat fix, or one of their vegetarian- and vegan-friendly options, like pomegranate eggplant.
Insider tip: If you don’t want to limit yourself to just one restaurant, check out Abbott Square Market downtown. This indoor-outdoor food hall is housed in the city’s former jail, and is home to such purveyors as Pizzeria La Bufala, All Aboard (for lobster rolls, oysters, and chowders), and Poke It, which specializes in Asian and Hawaiian poke bowls. The adjoining Museum of Art & History is well deserving of a visit as well, and if you can, make it to either one—the market or the museum—during one of MAH’s First Friday events; the art-loving crowd spills over into Abbott Square’s bars and restaurants and at that point, all bets are off.
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 artisanal food makers too, with getting-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.
San Jose’s vibrant dining scene is one of the Bay Area’s best-kept secrets. In recent years, dozens of excellent restaurants, breweries, and wine bars have opened their doors in the so-called Capital of Silicon Valley.
San Jose serves up exceptionally elevated dining experiences. In 2018, Adega became the first restaurant in the city’s history to receive a Michelin star—one of only two Portuguese dining spots in the country to ever receive that honor. Three different prix fixe menus (splurge for the seven-course tasting menu) are offered daily at the family-owned establishment. Celebrity chef Michael Mina, a Michelin-star winner in his own right, works his magic at Arcadia, a steakhouse that’s a popular spot before or after shows at the nearby San Jose Center for the Performing Arts.
Think of a global cuisine and you’re almost sure to find it in San Jose. Enjoy a kaleidoscope of authentic international flavors, including traditional Ethiopian fare at Zeni Restaurant and homemade tarmosalata at Nemea Greek Taverna. With more Vietnamese residents than any city outside of Vietnam, San Jose is a hotspot for pho, bahn-mi, and banh xeo—all of which can be found at Grand Century Mall in Little Saigon. If American-style meat and potatoes is what you’re after, head to Harry’s Hofbrau for an old-fashioned buffet paired with specialty craft beers.
Downtown San Jose’s lively, open-late food hall, San Pedro Square Market, is a great place for a casual hang or a grab-and-go meal. How about a bowl of Nepali steamed dumplings from Urban Momo? 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 flavors 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, while enjoying 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 Peralta Adobe (the city’s oldest building; guided tours are offered throughout the year).
Alongside its outstanding eats, San José is making a name for itself in the craft brew scene as well. Following the Silicon Valley creed of “iterate, iterate, iterate,” Hermitage Brewing brews three or four beers almost every single day. Strike Brewing Company marries a sports bar feel (pretzels and ping pong) with upscale Belgian-style beers. At local favorite Good Karma Artisan Ales & Café, you can sip carefully crafted lagers alongside the best vegan food in the South Bay. Enjoy!
Given Mendocino’s Pacific-out-the-window 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’ve 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 trad 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.
To fuel your excursions in and around Big Sur, you’d be wise to begin at least one morning with strong coffee, local eggs, and house-made sourdough toast at Big Sur Bakery and Restaurant. The quirky restaurant—located behind the gas station in a rustic, funky building—also serves dinner, including superlative wood-fired pizza.
If you're driving from the south, 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.
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 (for dinner, consider the four-course prixe-fixe option), or settle into the rustic lodge-like restaurant at Ventana Big Sur, focusing on American cuisine made with local ingredients.
Just a few miles north of Ventana, be sure to visit Big Sur Roadhouse at Glen Oaks 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.