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10 Great Central Coast Restaurants

Sample the incredible bounty of this region—from Santa Barbara all the way to Pacific Grove

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The Lark

Named for the overnight train that served Santa Barbara from 1910 to 1968, the Lark restaurant showcases the Central Coast’s seasonal bounty. Located in the Santa Barbara Fish Market building, in the heart of the city’s Funk Zone, the innovative restaurant combines a farm-to-table ethos with a family-style approach. During most months, the outdoor courtyard seating is as convivial as the tables in the dining room. The menu of small plates is organized by their ingredients’ places of origin (farm, ranch, or ocean): crispy Brussels sprouts include sweet medjool dates as well as spicy serrano chilies; pickled fennel and compressed Granny Smith apples accompany the grilled Kurobata pork belly; and passion-fruit vinaigrette and fried avocado enhance the flavor of Japanese hamachi collar. Larger platters are meant to be shared, and restaurant regulars often choose one or two (the Baharat spiced cauliflower and Israeli couscous is a favorite) along with several smaller plates. Pro tip: While it’s tempting to fill up on the herbed popcorn that’s delivered to your table the instant you’re seated, slow down, order a craft cocktail, and make sure you save room for the main event.

Paradise Café

Since 1983, food lovers in the know have headed to Santa Barbara’s renowned Paradise Café. Housed in an early 20th-century brick and stucco building with a relaxed atmosphere, the café’s oak wood grill is fueled by Santa Maria live oak—also known as California live oak—a wood that’s essential for the area’s regional style of barbecue. The flavors brought out by the oak in steaks, pork chops, roast chicken, shrimp and sausage, ahi tuna, rainbow trout, and salmon keep added seasonings to a minimum, so fresh ingredients remain the focus of the menu. The crowd favorite, the half-pound signature Paradise Burger, is grilled over oak, topped with Tillamook cheddar cheese, and placed on an onion roll—and best enjoyed with a glass of Paradise syrah, sourced from local vineyards. If you sit on the patio, give the historic mural more than a glance. It features Leo Carrillo, an old-Hollywood actor best known for his role as Pancho in the television series The Cisco Kid; he is locally beloved for his involvement in preserving and conserving California open spaces.

Bibi Ji

This stylish wine bar, bottle shop, and all-day restaurant is the brainchild of two food and wine world forces: Jessi Singh, the chef from San Francisco and New York City’s acclaimed Babu Ji, and James Beard Award–winning sommelier Rajat Parr. Opened this year, Bibi Ji, which takes its name from an Indian term of endearment, pays tribute to the women in the cofounders’ lives who cultivated their love for food and hospitality. The seafood-focused menu with Australian and Indian influences changes regularly, depending on what’s available at the Santa Barbara farmers’ market. Oysters are accompanied by pickled green mango butter, sea urchin is featured in the uni biryani dish with fried rice, and the seafood coconut curry can include prawns or vegetables. The presentation is almost so pretty you don’t want to disturb it, but let that moment pass and dig in. Pair your meal with any of the limited-run, small-keg draft beers; the rotating new beers in the beer fridge; wine from the bottle shop—or surrender to the experts and let them do the pairing for you. Whether you sit indoors or outside, the California spirit blends with Singh’s and Parr’s beloved India, making the restaurant what the owners call a “good-time place.”

Sama Sama Kitchen

Growing up in Indonesia, chef Ryan Simorangkir says he only craved kid’s food. But as an adult, he fell in love with the local street food of his home country and began to cook from family recipes. After attending Pasadena’s Le Cordon Bleu school, he opened Sama Sama Kitchen, co-owned with chef Tyler Peek, where he celebrates Indonesian cuisine in a warm, casual setting (the name means “you’re welcome” in Indonesian). The menu features renditions of traditional Indonesian street fare, like the signature wings, hot chicken bao, or crispy Brussels sprouts. Salads are also a highlight here, including the crispy duck salad, green papaya salad, and market gado-gado. Pan-seared octopus becomes rich with leek and chili oil, as well as rendang remoulade. The black pepper tofu and broccolini may sound simple, but with garlic, scallion, ginger, and chili, it’s a dish that many return to over and over. Don’t skip dessert. Try the banana doughnut fritters or black sesame tres leches with spiced rum milk, and you’ll wonder if you should order an extra to take home.

Hitching Post II

You can’t leave the Central California Coast without filling up on Santa Maria barbecue. This regional style of barbecue dates back to the 19th century, when ranchers held Spanish-style cookouts, grilling simply seasoned top-block sirloin and tri-tip over a native local oak species to add a smoky flavor to the meat. That deep fragrance of red oak hangs in the air as you enter the Buellton Hitching Post II. Opened in 1986, the restaurant has roots in a sister restaurant, Casmalia Hitching Post, which opened in 1952. While the menu is varied, it’s the authentic Santa Maria barbecue, especially tri-tip, that draws crowds. Black-and-white images of generations of horsemen hang on the walls in the simply decorated room that may look a little familiar if you’ve watched the film Sideways, which included many scenes shot inside the restaurant. But the best action is behind the window to the kitchen, where owner Frank Ostini and chef de cuisine Bradley Lettau collaborate at the indoor barbecue. Pro tip: Pair your barbecue with Hartley Ostini Hitching Post wines, crafted by Ostini and friend Gray Hartley.

Full Of Life Flatbread

The heart of this Los Alamos restaurant is the 22-ton stone behemoth of an oven that owner Clark Staub built in 2003. Almost every dish at Full of Life Flatbread owes its smoky flavors to it, and all diners share space with it, as it takes up a sizable chunk of the wood-paneled dining room. Guests can watch the thin pizzas bubble in the oven. Flatbreads to try: the popular cheese and herb (sauceless, with garlic oil, whole milk mozzarella, Grana Padano, and fresh herbs), smoke-dried tomato and mushroom (including caramelized onions), nitrate-free pepperoni and peppers (which has ember-roasted pasilla peppers), or Coachella Valley date and bacon (with walnuts, blue cheese, and smoked leek sauce). If the weather is good, choose a glass of local wine, sit outside on the yawning front porch with your flatbread, and slow down.

Big Sur Bakery

You might drive right by the Big Sur Bakery as you make your way along the wild coastline that artist Francis McComas once called the “greatest meeting of land and sea.” But if you do miss it, turn back. This casual roadside bakery and restaurant—which used to be known as “that place behind the gas station”—is a can’t-miss destination for its freshly baked bread and pastries, as well as sit-down meals. At breakfast, lunch, and dinner, perfectly seasoned dishes emerge from the wood-fired oven. Chef Michelle Rizzolo has devoted herself to making the best chicken anyone’s ever had—and you should absolutely order it. But there’s also delicious pizza, homemade meat balls, grilled octopus, and desserts you won’t want to share. Big Sur Bakery is also a community hub, where locals drop by to have a scone and a cup of coffee, and catch up with friends. Pro tip: Go early for freshly baked pastries. Get more than you think you’ll need. You’ll eat them all and you won’t regret it.

The Sushi Bar at Treebones

Before glamping was a phenomenon, there was Treebones Resort, its yurts set on redwood platforms with views of the Pacific Ocean. But the swanky yurts at Treebones aren’t the only reason you should stop here. The Sushi Bar at Treebones Resort is the local go-to spot for sushi. The two-seating nightly omakase experience offers an elaborate tasting menu, served against the backdrop of a spectacular sunset over the ocean, visible through the windows behind the chef. The sushi chef thoroughly guides you through the dishes. While the freshest catch is always the star of the menu (which can include scallops with black garlic and yellowtail nigiri), even vegan diners will have plenty to enjoy with sushi options that highlight produce from the on-site organic garden. Pro tips: Only open from March through November, the Sushi Bar offers same-day reservations for off-property guests; with very limited seating, you need to be fast on the phone dial. Even better, since overnight guests receive first priority when they book their yurt, your odds of dining here improve if you stay over, too.

Nepenthe

A fictional medicine for chasing away sorrow mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey gives this restaurant and shop its name. Perched high above the Pacific and in the shadow of the Santa Lucia Mountains, Nepenthe offers miles-long views of the coast. It’s certainly served its purpose as a lure for poets, artists, travelers, and vagabonds since it opened in 1949—and part of the pleasure of a stop here is listening to fellow diners who are old-timers tell “I remember when” stories. Enjoy it all from a seat on the laid-back patio, or inside the main building, designed by a student of Frank Lloyd Wright and made of native materials to blend with the landscape. Three of this restaurant’s dishes are so beloved that the staff is asked daily for recipes: the Ambrosia burger (where quality of ingredients and temperature of the grill are essential), Lolly’s Roast Chicken Dinner with fresh sage stuffing, and the raspberry-boysenberry-strawberry Triple Berry Pie. Even the simplest menu items take on a best-ever taste here, and you wonder if it’s the food, the atmosphere, the view, the company, or all of it wrapped together in an iconic California package that can’t be found anywhere else.

Crema

Brunch lasts nearly all day at Crema in Pacific Grove, and you need that time to explore the array of separate quarters in the restaurant’s converted Victorian mansion. Investigate the historic photos, antique furniture, and artistic decor in the downstairs espresso café and wine bar; grab a spot with friends in the garden courtyard or in the dining room upstairs; or keep to yourself in the studious Peacock Room. Once you’ve found your favorite nook, enjoy fizzy and floaty drinks, rich egg dishes, golden waffles, or house favorites like the bacon cheddar biscuits that are football-size and accompanied by honey butter. As the day progresses, Crema is a favorite stop for friends to get together, often over games of Jenga, Battleship, Scrabble, and Yahtzee—all available to borrow from the espresso bar. Pro tip: The goblets of fruity sangria and the Micheladas served with a slice of country bacon are as good in the morning as they are in the afternoon.

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