HOME > Chowhound > California >


California Roadtrip Restaurants

Hi all, a friend and I are making a long awaited road-trip from Napa to San Diego, stopping where ever, whenever along the way to see and eat everything in sight. Both of us have a huge appreciation for good food, regardless of how much it costs, and if anything, enjoy cheap, hole-in-the-walls as much or more than your typical 5 star place. As an example, in NYC I probably got more enjoyment out of the $1 dumplings at dirty, cheap Jessica's Dumplings in Chinatown than I did from Momofuku Ko. Given our current financial situations, we most likely won't be stopping at the French Laundry type places (as if we could get a table), but would consider one or two nice meals over our 10 day trip. What we really want to know is what places are so amazing or so famous that we should pull off of the PCH, or even make a 30 minute detour to try. The only place we won't really spend time in is San Fran, since we've both been multiple times. So far I've heard Bovolo and the Hopmonk Tavern in Napa are great, but we're looking for suggestions everywhere. If you know of a great place, whether it be street food, a taqueria, or anything else, please let me know! Thanks!!!

  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
  1. yes, you should repost on the SF and LA boards.

    In Encinitas (N. SD County), two must stop places are Kaito for the real, authentic sushi deal and Yu Me Ya for izakaya and sake bar. Kaito is on Encinitas Blvd, about 5 minutes east of Hwy 101 and Yu Me Ya is on Hwy 101.

    For breakfast/brunch, The Naked Cafe in Solana Beach, just off Hwy 101 is very good.

    1. Here are some places that IMO are among the best for fast and easy stops for low cost / great food.

      For a cup of coffee and a great sugar rush by Sticky buns
      Old West Cinnamon Rolls
      861 Dolliver St
      Pismo Beach, CA 93449
      (805) 773-1428

      For some great sandwiches and a loaf of the best Jalapeño cheese bread on earth stop at House of Bread.
      House of Bread
      858 Higuera Street
      San Luis Obispo, CA 93401

      The Santa Barbara Chicken Ranch has flame broiled chicken. I ask that the chicken be well done or else it may be a little too juicy. There is something very very special about the combined flavors of their chicken plate with chips and that salsa they make.

      For pancakes go to Sambos -- nuff said.

      For fish and chips go to Harbor Fish Café. This is a classic beach hut fish house with some very fresh fish in a excellent batter fried in very clean oil. Another thing that makes this place so great is you can have one, two or three slices of fish and substitute the fries for some of their very good slaw or chowder. Better yet, try them all. The prices are a little higher here but the food is very good and the beach is right there..The fish taco is about $11 but it is very large and filling.

      Harbor Fish Café.
      3179 Carlsbad Blvd
      (between Oak Ave & Pine Ave)
      Carlsbad, CA 92008
      (760) 729-4161

      For breakfast lunch or dinner go to Juanitas Taco Shop in Encinitas. The breakfast burrito is just a simple egg, cheese and potato but it is so good because of the potato. For a little extra they will add ham. If you add the ham ask them to fry it crispy. Many menu items are good here. The shredded beef hard shell taco is very good and comes with lots of cheese. The “rolled tacos” should be tried also. The machaca and egg burrito is another one they do right. Put that green salsa on everything.

      Juanitas Taco Shop
      290 N Coast Highway 101
      (at C St)
      Encinitas, CA 92024
      (760) 943-9612

      1 Reply
      1. re: JeetJet

        Before stopping at Juanitas Taco Shop for stop at Panikin for some coffee.

        Panikin Coffee
        510 N Coast Highway 101
        (between Athena St & Basil St)
        Encinitas, CA 92024

        (760) 436-0033

      2. Monterey Seafood: Sandbar and Grill, Municipal Pier (mussels, sand dabs, calamari) casual, local. Massaro and Santos, Coast Guard Pier. Both have sites to check.

        Carmel: Highlands Inn (4 miles S) Drinks and apps at sunset...Great view. Dementra (sp?) downtown, Carmel Med/Greek food. Both places have sites.

        Big Sur: Nepenthe, ambrosia burger & breath taking view. $$$ Post Ranch, more jawdropping views and $$$$.

        1 Reply
        1. re: Gail

          I agree Nepenthe was awesome - patio lunch with fantastic view. i had goat cheese and nuts with a big glass of red much nicer than the burgers.

        2. Folks, we ask everyone to recommend places appropriate for the California board, which covers the state outside the SF Bay and LA regions.

          thehamburglar has also posted this question on the Los Angeles and San Francisco boards.

          For the SF Bay region (which covers the counties that touch the SF Bay), please follow this link

          For L.A. / Orange / Ventura / San Bernadino Counties, please follow here:

          1. Two great breakfast options OC, and SD, respectively are the Original Pancake House in Anaheim (their apple pancake is stunningly good), and, if you're willing to venture inland a little bit as you get toward San Diego, the Ramona Cafe, in Ramona, which has some of the best corn beef hash around.

            In Santa Barbara, I don't see how you can not go to La Super Rica (reportedly a favorite of the late, great, Julia Child), which is a superb, if divy, taco stand. (Lots of good stuff on the regular menu, but the specials tend to be excellent.)

            Lastly, one of my absolute favorite joints in the world is El Porvenir, in San Diego's Barrio Logan. This place has, hands down, the best carnitas burrito I've ever had. Absolutely tdf.

            Sounds like a fun trip. Please report back!

            La Super Rica
            622 N Milpas St, Santa Barbara, CA 93103

            Original Pancake House
            1418 E Lincoln Ave, Anaheim, CA 92805

            El Porvenir Tortilleria
            1786 National Ave, San Diego, CA 92113

            Ramona Cafe
            628 Main St, Ramona, CA 92065

            1. On my short list to try in Santa Cruz are Sri and Bonny Doon's tasting room / cafe.

              Nepenthe is sort of a dressed-up diner, but a great place for atmosphere.

              To me, Monterey (except maybe for the aquarium) and Carmel are irritating tourist traps.

              Sri Restaurant
              736 Water St, Santa Cruz, CA 95060

              Bonny Doon Vineyard
              328 Ingalls St, Santa Cruz, CA

              16 Replies
              1. re: Robert Lauriston

                Just the aquarium? The "17 mile Drive" is the best drive of California and Pacific Grove has those butterflies in... when is it? October? It has been a coulpe of years but two of my favorate breakfast are near here also. Wow! Now you got me looking into a trip to Monterey Bay.

                First Awakenings (Blue Berry Pancakes from scratch, Sonoran fritatta)
                125 Ocean View Blvd Ste 105
                Pacific Grove, CA 93950-3061
                (831) 372-1125

                Victorian Corner Restaurant (Excellent Breakfast, a 5 min drive from the Monterey aquarium)
                541 Lighthouse Avenue
                Pacific Grove, CA 93950
                (831) 372-4641

                1. re: JeetJet

                  Yeah, sure, there's beautiful scenery, but heading through Big Sur you'll get plenty of that. I just hope I never have to spend a night there again.

                  Speaking of Big Sur, this is one of the best places to eat between Monterey and Santa Barbara:

                  Sea Chest Oyster Bar and Seafood Restaurant
                  6216 Moonstone Beach Dr, Cambria, CA 93428

                  1. re: Robert Lauriston

                    Robert, the Sea Chest is charming in an east coast fish shack kind of way. I find they have too many rules...no credit cards, no reservations, no, no. Also, in most cases, the lines to get in begin at 5PM. and I don't care to eat during the early bird special hours. On the positive side, if none of the above bothers you, the seafood is good, cooked correctly, plainly the way I like it.
                    About Nepenthe, "a dressed-up diner". I think you need to go back for a recheck. It's like no di
                    ner I've been in. Maybe it had something to do with the unpleasant experience in Big Sur you mentioned above.

                    1. re: Gail

                      Maybe I was unclear. The food at Nepenthe didn't match the amazing setting. It was like what I'd expect at a diner or brewpub.

                      I love Big Sur. I find Monterey unpleasant and Carmel insufferable.

                      1. re: Robert Lauriston

                        >>"I find Monterey unpleasant and Carmel insufferable."<<

                        C'mon, Robert, don't hold back. Tell us how you really feel!

                        My perspective is a little different; I lived in Monterey as a kid, when Cannery Row held vandalized empty buildings and weedy vacant lots instead of outposts for Bubba Gump and Thomas Kinkade. While there's plenty of basis for your negative impression, the touristy side of things isn't the whole picture, either.

                        Given that the OP is going to be driving by the Monterey Peninsula anyway, there's no reason not make the most of what's available there. The Aquarium is a must-see, and the restaurant at the aquarium is a pretty good place for lunch. Well-prepared sustainable seafood - what's not to like?

                        If you want to avoid the tourists altogether, head up Prescott Avenue to the top of the hill and grab a sandwich at Compagno's Hilltop Market. No tourists there; it sits right outside the Presidio gate, and the vast majority of the patrons are military. Buster Compangno was making some of the best - and biggest - Italian deli sandwiches around 40 years ago. His son continues the tradition today.

                        Get the sandwich to go, head down the other side of the hill on Sunset Drive, and have a picnic on Asilomar beach in Pacific Grove. No crowds, minimal commerce, and the ocean usually has more going on than the bay. A few hours rockhopping and tidepooling is time well spent.

                        And if you're in PG in the early evening, there's a clear choice for dinner - Passionfish. Ed and several others mentioned it, but let's get emphatic here. QPV considered, Passionfish is one of the best restaurants anywhere. Especially the wine list. It's well conceived, fairly extensive, and priced just above retail with no "restaurant markup."

                        There's no doubt that you can find overpriced mediocre food in a variety of tourist traps in Monterey. But there's more to the town than that.

                        701 Lighthouse Ave, Pacific Grove, CA 93950

                        Portola Restaurant
                        886 Cannery Row, Monterey, CA 93940

                        Compagno's Market & Deli
                        2000 Prescott Ave, Monterey, CA 93940

                        1. re: alanbarnes

                          “Get the sandwich to go,… and have a picnic on Asilomar beach.” Now that is what California’s Pacific cost highways are all about -- knowing where to get the food and where nearby is best to enjoy it. You seem to know the aria so I want to ask a question. Is there a place nearby with a good selection of California wine and California cheese? Several times I have drove around Monterey and had to settle for that Albertsons but I would like a larger selection. I bet Carmel has a true wine and cheese shop. My spot in this world for meditation, reflection and inspiration about the contradictions of life is sitting on my trucks tale-gate while overlooking the opposing currents of The Restless Sea on The 17 Mile Drive. I have the spot, the tale-gate, blue-jeans, an ice bucket and wine glasses. All I need is the place to pick up some fine wine and cheese.

                          1. re: JeetJet

                            If you're in Carmel, The Cheese Shop has an amazing selection, including all the usual California suspects (from Point Reyes, Cypress Grove, Cowgirl, etc.). In Monterey, your best bet is probably the Whole Foods in Del Monte Center.

                            1. re: JeetJet

                              Nielsen Bros. Market, at San Carlos and 7th in Carmel has a great selection of wines.

                              1. re: PolarBear

                                Nielsen's also has a very nice selection of cheeses. Wine+cheese=one-stop shopping. It's a nice little store to check out while in Carmel, JJ.

                    2. re: JeetJet

                      We vacation regularly in the the USA from the UK. American breakfasts are the highlight for my husband but the one we had at the Victorian Corner restaurant was very disappointing. Good Cinnamon rolls from a hole in the wall near Cannery Row with a coffee to go was a better choice.

                      1. re: mrs.fraggle

                        The best breakfasts in the greater Monterey area are at Tico's in Marina.


                        1. re: Ed Dibble

                          We rv up in that area every summer as our stopover before Half Moon Bay. Good to know, thanks a lot for the rec!

                    3. re: Robert Lauriston

                      You've apparently never been to Point Lobos if you call the area a tourist trap. Driving through Big Sur won't give you the same experience at all. I hope OP makes a stop.

                      I heartily agree with Ed's assessment of Tico's as the best breakfast in the greater Monterey area!

                      Tico's Breakfast & Lunch
                      330 Reservation Rd, Marina, CA 93933

                      1. re: susancinsf

                        People keep trying to twist my comments about the city of Monterey and the town of Carmel into some kind of dis of the incredible natural beauty in the greater area, which you can easily enjoy without wasting time on the tourist traps.

                        1. re: Robert Lauriston

                          I must agree about Monterey and Carmel... eat in SLO/Cayucos/Cambria//Morro Bay and wait until SF to really eat. I have been to Monterey more than once and have never had a good meal, even in a non-chain like place. Beautiful scenery, pack a lunch/snack, enjoy the view, and motor on.

                      2. re: Robert Lauriston

                        Let me just say that I disagree with your assessment of the Monterey area.

                        In addition to the great natural beauty of Big Sur, the cities of Monterey, Carmel, and Pacific Grove (as well as Point Lobos), are also very beautiful.

                        The area, in addition, holds many attractions to Chowhounds. If a person explores the peninsula, he/she will find more than the tourist area restaurants (and ones like Sandbar and Grill and Cafe Fina are pretty good - and see Melanie Wong's recent post on the Fishhopper). For example, Passionfish in PG is rightly a board favorite for its extensive wine list, reasonable prices, and innovative preparations. It sounds like exactly the kind of place OP was asking about. It's well worth a dinner (or two).Other good places to eat in less touristed areas such as Red House, Citronelle, Taste Cafe, Stokes Adobe, and Tarpy's all get positive comments here - and that list is far from complete.

                        The Farmers' Markets in the area are great as well, particularly the one in downtown Mty on Tuesday afternoons. An amazing scene with great food.

                        I also appreciate the historical aspects of Monterey, where you can see numerous houses and other buildings that date from the period 1830-1860. There is even an 18th century Presidio Church. No collection of old places like this anywhere else in the West.

                        I don't think a trip down the coast of California is complete without a stop in Monterey or Carmel.

                      3. Taco Temple in Morro Bay

                        1. In the Paso Robles area, Villa Creek or Bistro Laurent. Further south, the Los Olivos Cafe or the Hitching Post (there are two, one in Buellton and one in Casmalia).

                          Hitching Post
                          3325 Point Sal Rd, Casmalia, CA 93429

                          Hitching Post II Restaurant
                          406 East Highway 246, Buellton, CA

                          Los Olivos Cafe
                          2879 Grand Avenue, Los Olivos, CA 93441

                          2 Replies
                          1. re: araknd

                            Do you prefer Hitching Post I or II?

                            1. re: GHF

                              I have only been to HP II in Solvang, so I can't really say I have a preference, but the food at HP II was excellent and the wine was also.

                          2. Also in Santa Barbara, a great, great , Great taco stand La Super Rica on Milpas, I believe, cheap and they sell beer. Awesome tortillas. Off the 101 only about 3-4 miles. You'll thank me.

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: Phurstluv

                              It's actualy about a half mile off 101 at 622 Milpas. Stick with the specials, however, if it's more traditional Mexican fare you want there's El Bajio just a block or so off the highway on Milpas.

                            2. San Diego's comparative advantages seem to be in Mexican (not considered, by those who should know, to be quite as good as LA -- but you won't be short of other things to eat in LA) and beer. Here's a Mexican post for starters (note many places are outside SD city limits):


                              When we did our Berkeley <-> SD roadtrip earlier this year, we went to Mariscos German for seafood tacos. The "marlyn" was particularly ace. Went to Neighborhood for a burger and beer; they were out of a lot of brews, but they had AleSmith Horny Devil so it wasn't all bad. Probably should have gone to Hamilton's, though.

                              McConnell's is an iconic ice cream parlour in Santa Barbara. While I prefer more modern styles of ice cream, those in our party who like the old school stuff put it up with the best ever.

                              We wanted to stop at the Big Sur Bakery, which has received some national press, but couldn't get the timing right.

                              1. Do you have any particular reason to go to San Diego? It's not exactly a culinary wasteland, but you'd do better to spend more time in Los Angeles.

                                4 Replies
                                1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                  I agree on your comment, I didn't find anything special about SD the time I was there (foodwise or in general), but my buddy hasn't been so we figured we'd head down. We'll probably spend a lot of time at the Zoo. At least everything looks pretty down there.

                                  Thanks for all the comments, everyone, they're much appreciated.

                                  1. re: thehamburglar

                                    I do have to say, tho, some good Mexican & taco stands down in SD. Usually the cheap hole in the walls are decent.

                                    1. re: thehamburglar

                                      Two places in San Diego that are certainly worth a visit are:

                                      Hodad's in Ocean Beach for Burgers . Great people watching and fantastic burgers,get onion rings instead of the spiced fries.

                                      Super Cocina
                                      3627 University Ave

                                      Fantastic authentic mexican food like your Mexican grandmother would make if you had one.
                                      Kinda funky location.

                                      Read the reviews

                                      1. re: Mission

                                        Nice call on Hodad's. That bacon burger is unbelievable. (Add a shake and you easily have enough calories to sustain a lumberjack for a week.)

                                  2. The Hitching Post in Buelton (Sideways notwithstanding) is excellent - the grilled artichoke is wonderful, the quail is great and the steaks are excellent. They fry their frys in beef suet. Dinner only. But it's a close call when you consider Jocko's, close by in Nipomo. Jocko's is VERY casual (the only place I've seen a bar fight with guys thrown out the door) but their steaks and chops are top notch. They only fire up the red oak pit for dinner, though.

                                    3 Replies
                                    1. re: TomSwift

                                      There is nothing like a Hitching Post bone in ribeye cooked over the wood pit out back.

                                      Gotta take slight exception to Tom's contention that Nipomo is close to Buelton, it's all relative to your driving experience.

                                      Here was our visit to the Hitching Post: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/87578

                                      1. re: ChinoWayne

                                        I don't understand how I missed you '05 post on The Post, Wayne. It's right on in every respect. One glass of wine vs. THREE Crown Royals? I hope Mrs. was driving that night.

                                        1. re: TomSwift

                                          Yes, she was, Tom. (Learned that lesson the hardway.)

                                    2. Post Ranch Inn (Big Sur)
                                      Nepenthe (Big Sur)
                                      Linn's (for the Olallieberry Pie - Cambria)
                                      Stonehouse at the San Ysidro Ranch (Santa Barbara)
                                      Stella Mare's (Santa Barbara)
                                      Picnic Items from Lazy Acres and picnic at Shoreline Park
                                      Holdren's or Rodney's Steakhouse (Santa Barbara)
                                      Brophy Brothers (Santa Barbara)

                                      1. I've always liked katy's Place in Carmel for Breakfast. Good service and good food is always worth stopping for. IMHO of course.

                                        1. Phil's Fish Market in Moss Landing is pretty good. I always take my mom there when I'm in town visiting. Just a little north of Monterey off the 1.

                                          The Whaling Station in Monterey is solid. It's a block up from the Aquarium. It's a Pisto place, so you're going to get generous portions. Steak and Seasfood joint, so a little pricey but not French Laundry status. The Pisto cut Filet is.... whooooa. I recommend haning out at the Bar and having dinner.

                                          Hitching Post. Awesome. Nothing more I can add that hasn't been said.

                                          Beachside Cafe on Goleta Beach in Santa Barbara is awesome. Total hang out at the bar for happy hour spot and have dinner. The view is unbelievable and the bartenders are top shelf guys. Stuffed Halibut with citrus beurre blanc is always a crowd pleaser.

                                          Chef Karim's in downtown Santa Barbara is a fun spot. You'll get 7 good courses, a little belly dancing and plenty of booze. $10 corking fee unlimited bottle size last time I went. Oh yeah, that means half magnums from SB Winery down the way, yeeeeha!

                                          The Palace, downtown Santa Barbara. Creole place, excellent. Been there for a long time. Is basically a venerable institution for SB dining.

                                          Epiphany, downtown Santa Barbara. My wife and I love this place. Good eats, I highly recommend.

                                          Super Cucas, Santa Barbara. My favorite Taqueria in SB aside from the breaskfast burritos made at the Cantina in Isla Vista.

                                          Roseville, Point Loma, San Diego. AWESOME. Try it, seriously.

                                          The Better Half Bistro, Hillcrest, San Diego. Small Creole place, great food. Always changing it up and trying new things. Bison ribs..... mmmmmm.

                                          Kitchen 1540, Del Mar, San Diego. Upscale place, solid food, worth a try.

                                          El Bizcocho, Rancho Santa Fe, San Diego. One of the best places in town in my opinion. Dabbling in some molecular gastronomy currently.

                                          The Farm House, North Park, San Diego. Tiny, tiny little place but very cool. French faire, well done. Changes around a lot. Gnocchi if they have it is sweeeeeet.

                                          Hane Sushi, Banker's Hill, San Diego. Probably the best Sushi in town. Newly opened. Nice spot with some unbelievable fish. Maybe a must visit location.

                                          3 Replies
                                          1. re: mjill

                                            Gleep. I wouldn't recommend any of those places in Santa Barbara except SuperCuca's which has the best rated burrito and I do love those carne asada nachos with a tall horchata. But sorry, the rest of the recs never get a glimmer from me. To each their own. Please keep checking the Santa Barbara entries for more considerations.

                                            1. re: glbtrtr

                                              Totally agree with you glbtrtr. Would also add that for the MB area that Phil's in Moss Landing started a downhill slide a few years back, we haven't returned since. Also would not have the Whaling Station on my short list, too many other good places, Passionfish, Monterey Fish House, and several in Carmel.

                                              1. re: glbtrtr

                                                What's wrong with the Palace? We haven't been in a couple of years but always remember the great cajun meal we would have there - spicy steaks with bearnaise and martinis were really good. They always had a line out the door, as well. No longer popular?

                                            2. I'd hearily second the recommendations for Passionfish in Pacific Grove and for Nepenthe (very good, if simple, food and great views. Not like any diner I have ever been in.). It may be out of your way, but I'd also recommend Teske's Germania in San Jose (very authentic German), and the Water Grill in downtown Los Angeles (the best fish restaurant I have ever been to). El Agave is also worth a visit in Old Town San Diego. Santa Barbara has an interesting Danish restaurant on the main street that I forget the name of and several other worthwhile places to eat. Brentwood (LA) has a very nice dim sum place on Wilshire called VIP seafood (easy to get to from Hwy 1). Gardens of Taxco in West Hollywood is a novel experience (no menus; they tell you the menu orally and you order your main course and all else is pre-set). Have a great trip.

                                              1. Passionfish (Pacific Beach)
                                                The Sea Chest (sit at the bar), Black Cat Bistro, Robin's (fish tacos) (Cambria)
                                                The Cass House, Hoppe's Bistro (Cayucus)
                                                I Cugini, Trastevere Trattoria Italiana, Pacific Dining Car (Santa Monica)