The food scene in California is a head-spinning array of almost every cuisine, with chefs creating globally influenced creations that celebrate the ultimate in fresh, locally sourced ingredients. But even in this bounty of restaurant riches, some chefs create meals and settings that are so magical, so completely perfect and unforgettable, that they should be on every visitor’s wish list. Here are some of California’s most amazing dining destinations, with most of them following the one constant mantra of locally sourced ingredients that change with the seasons. Choose from sophisticated city settings or elegant finds along country roads or the edge of the sea. Find one that fits your style and your travels, or make one (or more) a trip in itself—they are all different, and all worth it.
With the abundance of the Pacific directly to the west and the bounty of farmlands in all the other directions, the San Francisco Bay Area is rightfully known as having one of the nation’s hottest food scenes. It’s no surprise then that local chefs are dedicated to the three tenets of California cuisine: organic, local, and sustainable, and these seven Michelin starred restaurants celebrate that trio in stellar form.
First up, Berkeley’s Chez Panisse. Since 1971, Chef and farm to table pioneer Alice Waters has been the driving force behind this celebrated, and much lauded, restaurant. Here you can expect rustic, refined cuisine, expertly prepared using the freshest in season ingredients. How fresh? Much of the produce is grown at Petaluma’s Green String Farm, less than an hour’s drive from Berkeley.
Across the bay, some of the region’s finest restaurants can be found in San Francisco. Gary Danko has held the standard for high end dining at his eponymous restaurant since 1999. Dramatic, contemporary lighting sets the stage for an intimate experience that you will never forget. Save room for an end of meal visit from the legendary cheese trolley.
Downtown, celebrity chef Michael Mina serves up Japanese French California fusion with unparalleled sophistication at his eponymous restaurant. Insider’s tip: the Mina line of restaurants runs deep in the Bay Area, so you can also check out his expert oversight at Bourbon Beef, Pabu, and several others located throughout the region.
At Coi, in the city’s lively North Beach neighbourhood, chef Daniel Patterson dreams up artfully inventive plates with lesser known local ingredients, like a wintertime offering of live Santa Barbara sea urchin, Meyer lemon, radishes, and kohlrabi. Chef Joshua Skenes consistently impresses critics and diners at his seafood centric Saison.
For a visual feast that also happens to taste amazing, book a table at Atelier Crenn, where gifted chef Dominique Crenn creates magic on a plate. Micro greens, edible flowers and dabs of sauces and foams elevate dishes from just plain dinner to undeniable art.
About an hour drive south of San Francisco, executive chef David Kinch brings French and Catalan influences to his modern menu at Manresa, in Los Gatos. Produce is grown exclusively for the restaurant at Love Apple Farms in the nearby Santa Cruz Mountains and is harvested each morning for the night’s meal. In nearby Saratoga, ask for a tour of the glass encased 1,800 bottle wine cellar at Plumed Horse. Situated at the foot of the Santa Cruz Mountains, this classic is the gem of the Bay Area’s secret (and amazing) wine country. Contemporary California cuisine by chef/owner Peter Armellino is top notch.
It should come as no surprise that L.A. is the birthplace of the celebrity chef, where top notch cuisine and some of the industry’s biggest names are behind the best restaurants in L.A.
At Wolfgang Puck’s Spago, a perennial favourite in Beverly Hills, chef Lee Hefter and chef de cuisine Tetsu Yahagi present both classic and modern dishes served in the sleek black and white dining room and glassed-in patio with twinkling lights. Just be ready to gratefully accept the 5:30 or 10:30 reservation, or if walk in is more your style, grab a seat at one of the centrally located cocktail tables (first come, first served) where you’ll have eyes on the surrounding action. FYI, amiable chef Puck often visits the dining room during dinner time, so keep your eyes peeled.
Also located in Beverly Hills, Maude showcases the admirable skills of celebrity chef Curtis Stone (Iron Chef America, Top Chef). Every month, a single ingredient serves as inspiration for the 9 course tasting menu created by the popular Aussie chef. But make reservations as soon as you know your travel plans: no more than 25 diners are seated at a time.
On Melrose Avenue in Hollywood, Michael Cimarusti’s Providence has created one of the finest seafood restaurants in the country, putting his modernist techniques to good use with wild caught sustainable fish and eclectic L.A. flavours. At Lucques in West Hollywood, chef Suzanne Goin serves up California cuisine with a global twist (harissa is a staple on her menus). Her cooking looks effortless, a blend of elegant dishes and comfort food delivered to diners in silent screen star Harold Lloyd’s former carriage house.
In Santa Monica, formal service and fine French technique reign supreme at two Michelin star Mélisse, where chef/owner Josiah Citrin (a veteran of L.A.’s gourmet scene) focuses on the sublime (lobster, caviar), and the simple (lentils), all with outstanding results.
Receiving three Michelin stars is no easy task. In fact, there are only a handful of restaurants in the San Francisco Bay Area to achieve top honours. One of these standouts hardly needs introduction. The French Laundry, led by the incomparable chef Thomas Keller. Thomas Keller received the Insignia of Chevalier by the French Legion of Honour in 2011 for his contributions to French cuisine in the United States. Though chef Keller’s presence has gone global, The French Laundry is still his home base, serving California cuisine using French technique with only the most superlative ingredients. The nine course chef’s tasting menu changes daily but look for decadent combos, like caviar paired with smoked sturgeon, hen egg mousse, Persian cucumbers, garden dill, and horseradish crème fraiche. Many of these ingredients are sourced from the garden across the street.
Insider’s tip: Call to reserve a table as soon as you know your travel dates, and be flexible about days and times. For more availability, consider lunch reservations.
Another noteworthy destination is The Restaurant at Meadowood, located 20 minutes north of Yountville, in the well heeled wine country town of Saint Helena. In flawlessly elegant and leafy surroundings, chef Christopher Kostow takes the reigns, meticulously using ingredients that are sourced directly from the surrounding land and on-site garden for an experience steeped in a sense of place. For a real splurge, consider spending the night in one of the ultra luxurious bungalows at the 250 acre private estate.
Located in the ultra luxurious L’Auberge Carmel (of Relaix & Chateaux fame), Aubergine is just the type of restaurant you want to settle into after a day of exploring Carmel-by-the-Sea. With only nine tables in the main dining room, and a 2,500 bottle wine cellar focusing on French and Monterey County wines, intimacy and excellence are the undoubted stars of Aubergine, a James Beard Foundation Semifinalist. Chef Justin Cogley puts his signature touch on a finely crafted assortment of California inspired and locally sourced dishes. Two set menu options (a prix fixe with optional cheese pairing and a chef’s tasting menu) are offered nightly and change daily to showcase the best seasonal ingredients. Cogley’s savoury entrées pair perfectly with the sweet treats prepared by skilled pastry chef Ron Mendoza.
From five star French cuisine to casual farm to table fare, San Diego’s dining scene is varied and enticing. For a fine dining treat in the very elegant Grand Del Mar hotel, reserve a table at the award winning Addison, where Relais & Chateaux Grand Chef William Bradley cooks up artisanal ingredients under contemporary French influences. Elegantly presented dishes from the multi course menus arrive at a steady tempo and service is impeccable. For unbeatable views, opt for a waterfront experience at George’s at the Cove in La Jolla. Taste chef Trey Foshee’s irresistible potatoes with garlic, roasted chicken, and strawberry figs, the latter sourced fresh from nearby Chino Farms.
Equally indulgent is Bertrand at Mister A’s in Bankers Hill, an elegant eatery with bay and skyline views close to downtown. Toast a watercolour sunset from the wrap-around balcony and indulge in Wagyu beef consommé with foraged mushrooms. Over in the trendy Gaslamp Quarter, Searsucker makes its mark with classic American fare, set against a contemporary backdrop of distressed leather and exposed beam ceilings.
This retro resort town known for its mid-century modern style has shed its reputation for steak and béarnaise heavy menus in favour of more modern, local cuisine. At Matchbox Vintage Pizza Bistro, crispy, thin crust pies are fired up in an authentic wood fired masonry oven that sizzles at 800 plus degrees for perfectly charred crust. Not in the mood for pizza? Take in the views of Mount San Jacinto and Palm Canyon Drive while you enjoy classically prepared bistro dishes like porcini rubbed rib eye and wood oven roasted chicken.
Other worth destinations include Tinto in the Saguaro Hotel. Iron Chef Jose Garces creates creative tapas in a warmly rustic and inviting setting, great for a hot night when you want to eat lightly but well. Also consider Essence, the sophisticated restaurant of the swanky Two Bunch Palms resort and spa in Desert Hot Springs. Enjoy the mountain views as French born chef Cossi Houegban presents dramatic combinations, such as tempura fried Blue Lake green beans with crisp lemon and truffle emulsion.
Known as the nation’s farm-to-fork capital, the Sacramento area is home to nearly 8,000 acres of boutique farmland and boasts the largest certified farmers market in California. So it goes without saying that the city’s best restaurants are sourcing from some of the finest farms in California. For more than 20 years, the Selland Family has been promoting the local food movement, and nowhere is that better demonstrated than at The Kitchen. Executive chef Kelly McCown continues the culinary legacy of Randall Selland, with six-course seasonal menus including coconut milk soup with local crayfish and Valencia orange custard cake. At only one seating a night, it’s not easy to score a spot, but once you do, you’re in for a VIP experience.
Another Sacramento standout is Biba, focusing on authentic Italian dishes made with (you guessed it) ultra-fresh—and often locally grown—ingredients. The prix-fixe menus (lunch is a total steal) lets you sample dishes that are light years ahead of the usual spaghetti with meatballs fare; consider garganelli (fresh tube-shape pasta) with roasted butternut squash, shallots, prosciutto, and cream) or cotolette di pesce spada (crisp swordfish cutlets with oven roasted peppers).
Other local standouts showcasing farm-to-fork dishes are Grange (aim for the chef’s three-course offerings), swanky Ella’s Dining Room & Bar, and homey Mulvaney’s B&L, with a menu that changes daily to reflect the seasonal harvest at local farms.
When it comes to food, Santa Barbara means business. This romantic Central Coast city is home to more than 400 restaurants, offering visitors the chance to experience very sort of regional flavour. The area’s laidback luxury style means that you can enjoy world-class dishes without the pomp and circumstance. (Read: Leave that tie at home). Thanks to plenty of rich farmland, the ocean’s fresh bounty and exceptional wines growing on the surrounding hills, Santa Barbara offers incredible ingredients for its noteworthy restaurants.
Consider first Bouchon Santa Barbara (the product of celebrated restaurateur Mitchell Sjerven), where the motto is “as fresh and local as possible”. It’s a mantra you can see on the menu, highlighting fresh catch of the day from right off the coast, as well as produce and artisanal foods from local farms and food purveyors. Wine pairings featuring local vintages are highly recommended. The Palace Grill is another great choice for upscale dining; multiple presidents have enjoyed meals here.
Once frequented by Julia Child, La Super Rica Taqueria serves straightforward Mexican food in a bright little shop. Thanks to its cheffy reputation, a line starts forming right when the restaurant opens, with locals and tourists alike waiting for their taste the Especial. Just down the street sits one outpost of the family-owned local chain, Los Agaves.Try traditional Oaxacan there in a casual setting, or go upscale with the family’s sister eatery, Santo Mezcal, where you can sample the famous chile relleno in a hearty burrito.
A relative upstart of a neighbourhood, Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone is packed with shops, tasting rooms, galleries and restaurants. One of the best, The Lark, celebrates the Central Coast with New American–style inside of a stunningly beautiful converted fish market. For a less expensive but doughier affair, head to the neighbouring Lucky Penny. Under the same restaurant group as The Lark, Lucky Penny slings charred-crust pizza out of its wood-fired oven and pours craft coffee morning, noon and night.
In the most unsuspecting of places outside the South Gate of Yosemite National Park sits vine covered Erna’s Elderberry House, named for the elderberry bushes covering the surrounding grounds. The restaurant and adjacent Château du Sureau (French for elderberries) opened in 1984, when proprietor Erna Kubin Clanin followed a lifelong dream to create a spot for people with the 'simplest of tastes' who 'only want the best', as Oscar Wilde once said. The quote, which perfectly sums up the Erna’s experience, hangs over the kitchen door. You will enjoy sampling such decadent dishes as beef loin with chestnut mousse and sweet potato with bone marrow croquettes, which Chef de Cuisine Jonathan Perkins whips up for the rotating prix fixe menu. Savour each bite and allow yourself to be transported into food heaven. For an even greater Erna’s experience, sign on for a half day weekend cooking class or three day cooking school with nightly six course dinners that you help prepare. Oh, and you get to sleep there too.
A welcome addition to the mix of college eateries surrounding Humboldt State University in the town of Arcata, just north of Eureka. Here, Folie Deuce presents a hearty menu focusing on sustainable and organic ingredients. Think locally sourced American staples complemented with global flavours, wasabi steak with jasmine rice and Asian greens and Israeli spiced black cod with roasted farro. Once a month, the restaurant prepares a gourmet prix fixe menu that benefits the region’s public schools.
For dinner in an especially romantic coastal setting, venture north of Mendocino to the tiny village of Albion, and the deceptively simple Ledford House Restaurant. This is the kind of place you will probably want to relax in for hours, watching the sun go down over the ocean as you sip local wines and dine on Provencal style dishes. There’s plenty to keep you warm and well fuelled, and there’s nothing better than eating a hearty seafood stew or a rich cassoulet after a long hike along the ocean bluffs or in a redwood forest.
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 artisan food makers too, with soon-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.