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 to get you started; restaurants are listed south to north.
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 panorama you get from Coasterra Modern Mexican restaurant, the third Cohn Restaurant Group offering on the city’s Harbor Island. (The other two are the successful Island Prime and C Level.)
Every table of this multilevel dazzler—with a special event space for up to 500 guests that actually floats above the water—has a view that will have you Instagramming throughout your meal, especially if you’re there at sunset. “Table 408 outside, right at the tip of the pentacle over the water—that’s my favourite table,” says chef and Cohn Group partner Deborah Scott. “When the sun begins to set, there’s a shell-like color lighting up the buildings downtown. And it keeps changing—it’s like a nonstop slideshow, with tankers and sailboats going by.”
Even after dark, the 28,000-square-foot, $15 million restaurant is an eye-catcher. Sit at Coasterra’s bar, order a Deb’s Coconut Margarita—made with Olmeca Altos reposado tequila, coconut cream, lime juice, and a coconut salt rim—and take in the restaurant’s sleek, contemporary styling. “I like minimalist design, and that’s what you see here,” says chef Scott, who had a strong hand in creating the space. “There aren’t any Mexican blankets or piñatas—it’s dramatic and open.”
Yearning for traditional Mexican fare? There are a few tacos and enchiladas on the menu, but most of Coasterra’s dishes are creative twists on Mexican classics. Ceviche gets an upgrade with Mexican shrimp and bay scallops, Pacific sea bass, lime, orange zest, roasted tomato salsa, and cilantro. Dipping sauces for fresh-shucked oysters include pickled onion-habañero mignonette and fire-roasted cocktail sauce. Classic surf and turf becomes a spectacular stacked presentation of a beef short rib topped with Oaxacan mole, a lobster-risotto cake, grilled asparagus, and a lobster claw.
All told, Coasterra serves up a hard-to-beat combo of sophisticated design, deliciously eclectic dishes, and a world-class view.
With Big Sur views that can only be beaten if you’re a seagull, this cliff-topping restaurant rightfully makes it onto everyone’s bucket list. At Nepenthe, located on Highway 1 between Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge and Castro Canyon, the views stretch down the coast and the Santa Lucia Mountains plunge in fog-cloaked majesty to the deep blue Pacific. Locals and visitors to the area alike flock here, drawn to the ultra-relaxed vibe first created by Lolly and Bill Fassett in 1949 (perhaps not coincidentally, the restaurant is still owned and run by the same family today).
At dinner, try the famous Ambrosia Burger, or the roast chicken with sage stuffing—Lolly’s signature dish—or a variety of vegetarian entrees. And, of course, there’s that sweeping view. Take it in from a seat on the patio—a wide-open space that is the epitome of unfussiness—or step inside the main building, which was designed by a protégé of Frank Lloyd Wright’s and hints at the master architect’s style of creating structures that are striking, yet at one with their environment.
The legacy of Big Sur’s Beat Generation and the hippie era live on at Nepenthe too—hang around the handsome bar or outside by the fire pit and keep your ears peeled for names like Kerouac and Miller and stories that start with “I remember when…” You can even take home a bit of Big Sur style: The Phoenix at Nepenthe gift shop, located just below Nepenthe and atop another establishment well worth a visit, Café Kevah, features handmade jewellery, ceramics and even instruments for that perfect drum circle.
High tide meets haute cuisine at La Jolla’s beachfront Marine Room, where you can witness a spectacular display as the ocean surf reaches for the restaurant’s panoramic dining room windows, a dramatic accompaniment to executive chef Bernard Guillas’ imaginative global cuisine.
Not surprisingly, fresh and local seafood is the star here, like the lilikoi-lacquered pompano with green tea noodles, or the monkfish wrapped in heirloom bacon. Meat options include free-range veal tenderloin and a lamb osso buco. The restaurant also hosts lobster nights, and special breakfasts are offered during the winter on days with high tides.
The views, the architecture, and the food: It all comes together at Studio, perched atop an oceanfront bluff above the Orange County coast at 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.
Catch of the day (and it really is that day) seafood is star here, but Chef Craig Strong also highlights organic produce from local farms as well as the restaurant’s own fruit trees and kitchen gardens, creating California-inspired modern French cuisine as spectacular as Studio’s setting. Struggling to choose between the seared swordfish with spicy lentils and the king salmon with heirloom carrots? Don’t worry: indulge in the tasting menu and sample it all.
Located just steps from the iconic neon sign welcoming you to 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 more than 10 years 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 for big views of the beach while enjoying Chef Collin Crannell’s grilled Yucatan or California spiny lobster. It isn’t all about crustaceans here: other seafood choices include pan-roasted rockfish from Morro Bay, espresso barbecue Columbia River king salmon, and assorted oysters from an extensive raw bar.
Afterwards, make your way down the pier for a spin on the solar-powered Ferris wheel—especially beautiful at night.
It’s a two-for-one at this waterfront restaurant, a chance to scope out the dynamic Santa Monica beach scene out the windows while you dine on locally caught seafood and grilled vegetables sourced from Santa Monica’s famous farmers’ market. Located in the historic Hotel Casa del Mar, Catch has a relaxed elegance that makes it easy to hang out with cocktails at sunset, then order dinner once the stars come out.
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. Or start your day with breakfast at Catch with tempting dishes such as lemon ricotta pancakes topped with fresh berries.
From the Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu, Geoffrey’s, with its simple lines and unassuming façade, hardly looks like the kind of place you’ll be posting about for days. But walk through the sleekly sophisticated dining room to your umbrella-topped table on the terrace, and we’re sure you’ll be Instagramming nonstop—if not for the views (big blue Pacific capped by far-off Santa Catalina Island), then for the celebs who like to dine here too.
Designed by famed architect Richard Neutra, Geoffrey’s is Southern California incarnate—a seamless blend of ocean, lush landscaping, and head-swiveling stars. Savor a crab Benedict and sip a mimosa during weekend brunches. 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.
Stroll the entire 2,000-foot/609-meter length of this city’s historic 1873 Stearns Pier and you’ll get a nice reward: a chance to enjoy first-rate seafood in an unpretentious, everyone’s-welcome setting. In a building that originally housed a buying station for locally harvested shellfish, the Santa Barbara Shellfish Company stands out as a longtime local favourite, replete with weathered lobster buoys hanging from the roofline.
If it’s a nice day—and that’s just about any day in Santa Barbara—grab a table outside on the deck and watch the sun set over the western mountains (Santa Barbara Harbor faces south). Or head inside to nab a counter seat, where you can 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 specials, or check out seasonal favorites such as fresh local Dungeness crab or spiny lobster.
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 local ingredients, especially organic ones.
With the Central Coast’s rich farming and fishing heritage, Windows on the Water has a great backyard when it comes to ultra-fresh foods. The kitchen only serves free-range and grass-fed meats (including from nearby Hearst Ranch), while the seafood is wild caught or farmed according to sustainable practices. 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. 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.
Sierra Mar at Post Ranch Inn gives you the feeling of dining at the very edge of the continent. Looking westward from the dramatic, contemporary building, cantilevered down a stretch of Big Sur coastline, you feel like you’re floating above the ocean. Reclaimed woods and slate floors lend an understated, natural elegance—nothing too flashy to compete with that incomparable view out the restaurant’s floor-to-ceiling windows.
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. For the full experience, try the nine-course Taste of Big Sur tasting menu, complimented by Sierra Mar’s award-winning wine list, for dinner. Prix fixe or tasting menus are also available at lunch.
Thanks to the folks at Sam’s Chowder House, you don’t have to travel all the way to Maine for great lobster rolls and New England clam chowder. Just head to this waterfront spot in Half Moon Bay, about an hour south of San Francisco, for seriously good seafood. Settle in along the deck, or snuggle up by the fireplace, to dine on local rock cod served with Brussels sprouts from Half Moon Bay’s Giusti Farms. There’s also California king salmon prepared in a pomegranate reduction. Shellfish fans: you may have met your ultimate dish, a lobster clambake featuring a full Maine lobster, mussels, and clams.
But let’s shed a little more light on the restaurants signature dish. The Today Show even named Sam’s lobster roll one of the five best sandwiches in America. Not bad for a West Coast chowder house.
Set above the shallows of Tomales Bay about two hours north of San Francisco, Nick’s Cove Restaurant and Oyster Bar feels like a secret retreat along a wild and beautiful coast. After a hike at nearby Point Reyes National Seashore, head up the coast to this remote charmer. Order a craft beer and some fresh local oysters, then settle into a seat on the broad deck to watch sandpipers and egrets dabbling in the water.
This area, known as West Marin, is a premier location for sustainable ranching and farming, and local ingredients are the stars at Nick’s Cove. Relax in the main dining room, dressed up to feel like a stylishly worn hunting lodge. Entrees make use of fresh fare raised at the region’s farms and food purveyors. Choose from Tomales Bay clam chowder, butter roasted California halibut, or decadent Dungeness crab mac & cheese (featuring local Spring Hill Cheddar and Point Reyes Toma cheeses).
Insider’s tip: Make a night of it and splurge on one of Nick’s Cove’s rustic-chic luxury cottages.
Sitting within the boundaries of the one of the world’s largest urban national parks—the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA)—the Cliff House boasts one of the most spectacular restaurant locations in California. Look to the south, and there are lines of waves rolling onto Ocean Beach, defining the western boundary of San Francisco. To the north, the vista takes in rugged headlands and the ruins of the historic Sutro Baths. And west, it’s nothing but water—a vantage point so “out there” that you can actually whale watch while you dine. It’s no wonder this place has drawn locals and visitors for more than 150 years.
Cliff House has two dining choices. In a renovated 1909 building, the casual Bistro Restaurant serves classic San Francisco cuisine, including a cioppino brimming with Dungeness crab. More formal (though still relaxed), Sutro’s offers seasonal specialities prepared with organic produce. Try ravioli filled with a decidedly Northern Californian combination: Dungeness crab and artichokes. For handcrafted cocktails, stop in at Zinc Bar, which has an 1889-vintage back bar that was carved in Paris. Or watch sunset from the Balcony Lounge overlooking Sutro’s.
Insider’s tip: Take a little extra time to visit the excellent visitor center at nearby Lands End Lookout, with details on natural and cultural history, and a nice gift shop.
Visit this tucked away eatery, in the morning, when the local fishermen hang out over coffee and donuts, and you’ll quickly realize that this is an authentic spot, not some gussied-up tourist joint.
Surrounded by bobbing fishing boats, gulls squawking and rigging clanging, this place can’t help but serve fresh-as-it-gets seafood, including award-winning chowder. It’s well worth a drive along the wild coast to get here—San Francisco is about 2 hours south via breathtaking Highway 1. Spud Point serves the absolute 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—and it doesn’t have to be: the view is all you need. Settle in at a picnic table outside and watch the sunlight dance on the bay while you enjoy your meal, or watch the fog roll in over signature Bodega Head. Note: Spud Point is open 9 to 5 daily.
Insider’s tip: Wildlife watchers, bring your binoculars. Bodega Bay is known as a terrific spot for birding. On clear days, drive to the top of Bodega Head for excellent whale watching, typically December through March.
Overlooking a rocky cove, the Little River Inn has been a go-to spot for secluded getaways along Mendocino County coast since 1939. About a 3½-hour drive north of San Francisco, the graceful Little River Inn makes a worthwhile stop even if you are just passing by. You would have to have a heart of stone not to feel romantic here—the resort’s 225 acres of forests and gardens are braided with hushed paths which open up to never-ending ocean views.
If you’re lucky enough to book a room here, you can choose from seaside rooms with whirlpool baths and cosy fireplaces. Bring binoculars if you reserve an ocean-view room. Your private veranda makes a perfect perch for whale watching and spectacular sunsets. Indulge at the inn’s on-site spa with seaweed body scrub. Golfers can play at the inn’s challenging course, the only one along the Mendocino Coast. For more wild adventures, arrange to go ocean kayaking or stroll along driftwood-strewn Van Damme State Beach, adjacent to the inn’s property. The 1853-era main building houses the inn’s restaurant, which, naturally in a location like this, is known for outstanding fresh seafood. Ask for pairings with local wines.