From a candy-colored pastry shop to Michelin-starred dining rooms, top restaurants run by celebrity chefs dot the Golden State. And even if you don’t know these chefs from the TV shows and appearances that have made them stars in the U.S., you can taste the delicious results of their unique cooking styles. Here are 14 chefs sharing their great food and love for the Golden State’s amazing ingredients.
Charismatic Austrian-born Wolfgang Puck fused chef and celebrity before there were Food Network mega-stars. Spago, Puck’s signature restaurant launched in 1982, still wows the packed tables (where he stops by after the dinner rush). A snappy makeover by top interior designer Waldo Fernandez adds elegant but comfortably hip style.
But let’s not forget the food. Chef Puck’s signature way of bringing unexpected ingredients together in tempting ways hasn’t changed (example: Sonoma Lamb Rack Smoked with Local Rabbit Tobacco), but there is a refreshing new focus on seasonal offerings. Die-hard fans needn’t worry: the decadent smoked salmon pizza is still on the bar and lunch menus. Consider splurging on the unforgettable (and always changing) eight-course tasting menu focusing on ingredients from California.
Alice Waters, the first woman to win the James Beard Award in 1992, has often been touted as the visionary chef who took California cuisine in a bold new direction, introducing a celebration of locally sourced, seasonal ingredients. In addition to her well-established Berkeley restaurant, Chez Panisse (opened in 1971), Chef Waters has also made a lasting impression on schoolchildren in the region and beyond: her “Edible Schoolyard” project, started at a middle school in Berkeley over two decades ago, and dedicated to teaching children the value of eating healthy, organic, locally-sourced foods, has been a template for similar projects all over the country.
Waters is also the Vice President of Slow Food International, an organization dedicated to preserving and promoting regional organic crops; its “Ark of Taste” includes foods from all ecoregions throughout the world. Needless to say, Chez Panisse’s cuisine focuses on these concepts and much of its cuisine is locally sourced. Prix-fixe dinners are worth the splurge; there’s also a café with a lunch menu (the prix-fixe option is always a great deal for the amazing food).
Even though Curtis Stone has been a chef since the age of 18, he decided to wait for 20 years to open up his first restaurant. In the interim he was quite busy, though—he cooked at some of London’s envelope-pushing restaurants, and has a laundry list of television credits, including The Celebrity Apprentice, Iron Chef America, Top Chef, and Take Home Chef.
In February 2014, Chef Stone decided to take the plunge and open his own restaurant, debuting Maude in Beverly Hills. (It’s named after his “dear granny.”) It’s quite a concept: each month, one item serves as “inspiration” for Maude’s 9-course tasting menu; dining is an intimate experience, to say the least, as the “tiny little restaurant” (as dubbed by Chef Stone) seats no more than 25 guests at a time.
Diners may recognize Egyptian-born Michael Mina from his appearances on shows like Hell’s Kitchen with Gordon Ramsay, plus appearances at food events, but it’s his outstanding Japanese-French-California fusion dishes such as hamachi sashimi with blackberry and purslane or duck breast with figs and forbidden rice that make him a true star. And they have earned his Michael Mina restaurant, in San Francisco’s Union Square, a coveted Michelin Star too.
Mina graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, and has a total of 20 restaurants throughout the country, including five Bourbon Steak restaurants. But this elegant San Francisco establishment is his original flagship, so keep your eyes open to see if Chef Mina is in the house—that’s if you can take your eyes off the endless dishes offered as part of the incredible, nine-course chef’s tasting menu.
Focusing on innovative Italian food with a fresh, modern twist, Chef Williams won her current job at this fancy-night-out Beverly Hills destination, part of the Four Season Los Angeles complex, by competing for it on TV. Trained at the Global Culinary Academy in San Francisco, Chef Williams cooked under Wolfgang Puck at Spago and at Postrio in San Francisco before taking the reins at Culina, where she admits that when it comes to creating new recipes, she sometimes dreams them up in her sleep. Sweet dreams, indeed.
The restaurant offers a “live” crudo bar menu (settle in at the bar to watch just how fresh the preparation is) and on-point dinner service in a sleek, sexy space that doesn’t feel at all like a hotel eatery. Allow time for drinks in the intimate outdoor area with flickering fire pit; you’ll wish you could transport it “as is” to your own backyard.
This seafood-centric chef (born and raised on a ranch in Oregon) has a string of popular restaurants in Southern California; he has even branched out and opened a Searsucker in Austin, Texas. But first try this appealing location in San Diego’s trendy Gaslamp District for outstanding local seafood cooked in the New American style, all paired with locally brewed craft beers. All in all, it’s a lively, super-social atmosphere—a little bit like walking into a cool party with incredibly tan and beautiful people lounging on couches.
In addition to seafood, there are plenty of offerings from the ranch and farm, too—including duck fat fries and rib-eye steak with cognac and horseradish. Searsucker also makes a great lunch or brunch choice, especially on a sunny Socal afternoon. You might never want to leave.
Chef Lahlou’s elegant, upscale restaurant in San Francisco’s Outer Richmond District has earned a Michelin star for its creative California twists on traditional Moroccan dishes, including duck confit basteeya, couscous with figs and shelling beans, lamb shank with prunes and saffron over barley, and desserts like black sesame cake with hibiscus-plum soup. Adventurous cocktails combine ingredients like wild arugula, turmeric root, and tequila or strawberry, Fresno chile, and vodka for truly unique, exciting drinks.
Lahlou, raised in Marrakesh, Morocco, came to the Bay area at age 20 to study economics. Missing his native cuisine, his studies gave way to cooking, and he opened his first restaurant in Marin County, north of San Francisco in 1996. In 2008, he went up against Chef Cat Cora on Top Chef –and won. Two years later, Chef Aziza was awarded its first Michelin star.
Though he isn’t a star on a food show, Chef Keller’s fame is almost unsurpassed in the food world, simply based on the brilliance of his food and the quality of his dining experience, both epitomized at this Yountville institution. With three Michelin stars, The French Laundry is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that should be on any fine-diner’s bucket list. The tasting menu is sublime, with changing seasonal dishes as well as Chef Keller’s signature “oysters and pearls” (oysters and caviar in sabayon).
If you can’t snag a reservation (tables fill up months in advance), visit Chef Keller’s neighboring Bouchon Bistro for impressive French-influenced food in more casual surroundings. The menu highlights classic bistro fare, such as steak frites, soupe à l’oignon, escargots à la bourguignonne, and confît de canard.
Just driving through town on the way to wine tasting? Stop by Chef Keller’s Bouchon Bakery for a perfect macaroon or buttery slice of quiche.
Insider’s tip: One way to spot Chef Keller is at top food and wine festivals, such as the star-chef-studded Pebble Beach Food & Wine.
Along with her partner Mary Sue Milliken, Feniger has been feeding her fans in Los Angeles for more than three decades—first at City Café, then at various Border Grills, and most recently at Mud Hen Tavern, a reboot of their acclaimed “STREET” restaurant. Chefs Feniger and Milliken have also co-authored several cookbooks throughout their partnership, with recipes that feature prominently at their L.A. restaurants.
But it might be through TV that people across the country know Chef Feniger—she and Milliken appeared on more than 300 episodes of one of the Food Network’s first shows, Too Hot Tamales. Cheffeniger also competed on Top Chef Masters and has appeared on Cutthroat Kitchen.
Chef Tanya Holland is Oakland’s answer to all the Michelin-starred magic across the bay in San Francisco. Her restaurant, Brown Sugar Kitchen, gets plenty of accolades for its unique and high-level takes on southern cuisine, especially the fried chicken.
Holland herself has an equally unique pedigree—first, graduating the University of Virginia with a degree in Russian Literature, then ultimately attending the La Varenne Ecole de Cuisine in Burgundy, France. She’s also worked as a wine importer, restaurant manager, food stylist, and line cook at New York’s Mesa Grill under Chef Bobby Flay. The author of two cookbooks, she appears on many television shows, including The Food Network’s Melting Pot series.