There’s something quintessentially California about a road trip—jumping into the car and heading wherever the road may lead. The journey may involve golden beaches, lush vineyards, or majestic mountains, but one thing is for sure; it will definitely include some incredible food.
“To me, a road trip is all about the music you play in the car and the food you eat along the way,” said Esquire food and drinks editor Jeff Gordinier on a recent episode of the California Now Podcast. As the author of Hungry: Eating, Road-Tripping, and Risking It All with the Greatest Chef in the World, and the creator of three culinary road trips for the 2020 California Visitor's Guide, Gordinier knows his way around a roadside restaurant. Listed from north to south, here are seven of his favorite stops for an epically delicious California road trip.
The Charter Oak, St. Helena
Owned by Christopher Kostow, chef at the Michelin-starred Restaurant at Meadowood, The Charter Oak is all about simplicity. You won’t find fussy preparations or even garnishes—just incredible meats and vegetables cooked in a roaring hearth oven and served family style in a rustically beautiful dining room.
State Bird Provisions, San Francisco
State Bird Provisions puts a modern twist on dim sum in a casual, contemporary space. “Carts roam around the room,” Gordimer says, “so you pick what you like.” Depending on the day’s selections, that could mean anything from guinea hen dumplings with aromatic broth to spicy dungeness crab with kimchi.
Duarte's Tavern, Pescadero
This beloved, family-owned institution got its start as a barbershop and saloon in 1894, and is known today for its excellent pies (don’t miss the olallieberry), artichoke soup, and Portuguese-style fish dishes. The space has an old-timey vibe, with wood-paneled walls and a worn, wooden bar.
Pie 'n Burger, Pasadena
Gordinier adores this 1963 diner for its unpretentious attitude and juicy burger, wrapped in paper and topped with Thousand Island dressing. While the pies are also killer, breakfast is Pie ‘n Burger’s best-kept secret. “They make their own hash browns from scratch,” Gordinier says, “crunchy on the outside, fluffy inside.”
The Stand Natural Foods, Laguna Beach
Vegan long before it was cool, The Stand has been a hippie haven for plant-loving beachgoers since the mid-1970s. Order at the walk-up window, then grab a patio seat to enjoy fresh juices, flavor-packed vegan soups, and the signature avocado sandwich stacked with alfalfa sprouts and guacamole.
El Maguey, San Juan Capistrano
This casual Mexican spot makes a mean mole sauce, Gordinier says, along with authentic eats like lengua (beef tongue) marinated in spicy green tomatillo sauce, and adobo-marinated steak topped with chorizo. Sit at a patio table and you’ll also enjoy a great view of the San Juan Capistrano Mission.
Jeune et Jolie, Carlsbad
Gordonier is smitten with Jeune et Jolie’s “sexy-cool” dining room, swathed in blush pink and rosé hues. (Where else will you find a restaurant that plays music on a vintage reel-to-reel tape player?) The crowd is young, the energy is lively, and the “Michelin-star quality” French cuisine features artfully presented local seafood and seasonal produce.