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, listed south to north, to get you started.
1. Coasterra, San Diego
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 one you get from Coasterra Modern Mexican on the city’s Harbor Island. The menu offers creative twists on Mexican classics: ceviche with bay shrimp and blue crab, or fresh-shucked oysters with fire-roasted cocktail sauce. But it’s easy to get distracted from your food: Every table in this sleek, multilevel dazzler has a view that will have you Instagramming throughout your meal, especially if you’re there at sunset. (More: Coastaterra)
2. George's At The Cove, La Jolla
This acclaimed San Diego restaurant is actually three dining destinations in one. The centerpiece is the fine-dining spot California Modern, with its spacious, contemporary interior, combined with Chef Trey Foshee’s award-winning, locally sourced fare. Upstairs, relax with handcrafted cocktails and vistas of turquoise-blue La Jolla Cove at the Level2 bar. Or take in panoramic ocean views while digging into spicy, marinated grilled fish tacos at George’s rooftop Ocean Terrace, which was once named one of the world’s “hottest rooftop restaurants” by Travel+Leisure.
3. Studio, Laguna Beach
Ocean views, architecture, and California-inspired French cuisine all come together at Studio, perched atop an oceanfront bluff at Orange County’s 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. Fresh seafood is the centerpiece, but the menu also highlights organic produce from local farms and the restaurant’s own gardens and fruit trees. Struggling to choose between the seared swordfish with spicy lentils and the king salmon with heirloom carrots? Don’t worry: You can indulge in the tasting menu and sample it all.
4. The Lobster, Santa Monica
Just steps from the 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 a decade 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 while enjoying Chef Collin Crannell’s grilled Yucatan or California spiny lobster. Other seafood choices include pan-roasted rockfish, espresso barbecue Columbia River king salmon, and an extensive raw bar. Afterward, make your way down the pier for a gentle spin on the solar-powered Ferris wheel—especially beautiful at night. (More: The Lobster)
5. Catch American Seafood, Santa Monica
It’s a two-for-one at Catch, located at the historic Hotel Casa del Mar: It’s a chance to scope out the dynamic Santa Monica beach scene out the windows while also dining on locally caught seafood and produce from Santa Monica’s famous farmers market. 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. (More: Catch American Seafood)
6. Geoffrey’s Malibu
From the Pacific Coast Highway, Geoffrey’s looks pretty unassuming. But step into the sleekly sophisticated dining room, and then out to the terrace, and you’ll be wowed. Designed by famed architect Richard Neutra, Geoffrey’s offers a seamless blend of ocean views (all the way to Santa Catalina Island), lush landscaping, and head-swiveling celebrity sightings. 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. Another great waterfront option? Duke’s Malibu, which honors pioneering surfer Duke Kahanamoku. (More: Geoffrey’s Malibu)
7. Copa Cubana, Ventura
Authentic Cuban cuisine meets harbor views at Ventura’s Copa Cubana, where you can watch boats glide in and out of the Ventura Harbor marina as you dine on arroz con pollo or ropa vieja alfresco. Music is an essential part of the experience here, with bands playing blues, laid-back rock, or Latin music taking to the stage during weekend brunch hours. If you’re in more of a comfort-food mood, the adjacent 805 Bar—which shares a kitchen and an owner with the Copa—specializes in gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches, along with soups, salad, and mac ‘n cheese.
8. Santa Barbara Shellfish Company
Stroll the entire length of Santa Barbara’s historic Stearns Wharf and you’ll get a nice reward: first-rate seafood in an unpretentious setting. The site of the former buying station for shellfish, the Santa Barbara Shellfish Company is a longtime local favorite, replete with weathered lobster buoys hanging from the roofline. Grab a table on the deck or nab a counter seat to 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 seasonal favorites such as fresh local Dungeness crab or spiny lobster. (More: Santa Barbara Shellfish Company)
9. Windows On The Water, Morro Bay
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 Central Coast ingredients. 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 (which could be from nearby Hearst Ranch). 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. (More: Windows on the Water)
10. Sierra Mar, Big Sur
Looking westward from this dramatic building—cantilevered down a stretch of Big Sur coastline—Sierra Mar at Post Ranch Inn gives you the feeling of floating above the ocean. Reclaimed woods, slate floors, and floor-to-ceiling windows lend an understated, natural elegance. 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. (More: Sierra Mar)
11. Nepenthe, Big Sur
This cliff-topping restaurant on Highway 1 in Big Sur belongs on anyone’s bucket list, offering views of the coast that can only be beaten if you’re a seagull. The mellow, family-owned restaurant was first opened by Lolly and Bill Fassett in 1949 and today you can still enjoy Lolly’s signature dish, the roast chicken with sage stuffing, along with the famous Ambrosia Burger or a variety of vegetarian entrees. Take in the view from the unfussy patio, or step inside the main building that was designed by a protégé of Frank Lloyd Wright. (More: Nepenthe)
12. Sam’s Chowder House, Half Moon Bay
Thanks to the folks at Sam’s Chowder House, about an hour south of San Francisco, you don’t have to travel all the way to Maine for great lobster and chowder. Exhibit A: The Today show named the lobster roll at this waterfront spot in Half Moon Bay one of the five best sandwiches in America. Settle in along the deck, or snuggle up by the fireplace, to dine on California king salmon prepared in a pomegranate reduction, or local rock cod served with Brussels sprouts from nearby Giusti Farms. Shellfish fans may have met the ultimate dish: a lobster clambake featuring a full Maine lobster, mussels, and clams. (More: Sam's Chowder House)
13. Nick's Cove, Marshall
Set above the shallows of Tomales Bay, Nick’s Cove Restaurant and Oyster Bar feels like a secret retreat, about two hours north of San Francisco. Order a craft beer and some fresh local oysters, then settle onto the deck to watch sandpipers and egrets dabbling in the water. Or, relax in the main dining room, which feels like a stylishly worn hunting lodge. Locally sourced entrees include Tomales Bay clam chowder, butter-roasted California halibut, and decadent Dungeness crab mac & cheese. Make a weekend of it with hikes in Point Reyes National Seashore and a stay in one of Nick’s Cove’s rustic-chic cottages. (More: Nick's Cove)
14. Spud Point Crab Company, Bodega Bay
Surrounded by bobbing fishing boats, squawking gulls, and clanging riggings, Spud Point can’t help but serve fresh-as-it-gets seafood, including an award-winning chowder. A scenic two-hour drive north of San Francisco, via Highway 1, this authentic spot serves the 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, but it doesn’t have to be: the view from your picnic table is all you need.
15. Little River Inn, Mendocino County
Overlooking a rocky cove in Mendocino County, the Little River Inn has been offering romantic getaways since 1939. But it also makes a worthwhile detour just for lunch or dinner: The 1853-era main building houses the inn’s elegant-yet-relaxed restaurant, known for fresh seafood like a sole meunière using petrale sole caught by fishing boats in Noyo Harbor, just up the coast. For a more casual dining option, tuck into Ole’s Whale Watch Bar, a local favorite thanks to its tasty craft cocktails and own incredible views. (More: Little River Inn)