Epic exploration trip for a possible move to the West Coast
So, I'm taking a three week trip to drive between Seattle and LA - I work in the food business and I'm a foodie... and I'm thinking of moving from the East Coast to some where out there on West Coast - I'm looking for suggestions for towns/cities in which I should spend some time (please tell me why when you make a suggestion :-) and specific places to eat or wineries to visit - I'll be on my own, so restaurants that have bars to eat at will be much appreciated... I'll post this same message on other relevant boards as well! Thanks in advance!
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Northern CA: Trinidad, Arcata, Eureka, Ft. Bragg, Mendocino, Gualala
Central CA (S of SF, N of LA): Santa Cruz, Monterey, (Salinas), Carmel, Cambria, Cayucos, Morro Bay, Avila Beach, Shell Beach Pismo Beach (Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo), Santa Ynez, Los Olivos, Santa Barbara, Carpinteria
As a resident of Santa Cruz, I'll say that one disadvantage of your idea of a smaller coastal town is that it will naturally imply that your access to really good restaurants beyond the typical Californian/Italian/Mexican blend is dramatically reduced, which a lot of the other responses don't seem to consider. There just isn't a large population of Chinese, Vietnamese, Indian, Turkish, Ethiopian, Korean etc. to support establishments that have interesting menus and very good execution. Sure, there are gems here and there, but they are the exception.
IMO, if your heart is set on smaller coastal city (and I understand why - I do enjoy living in Santa Cruz!) then a person who cares deeply about food should think carefully about access to one of the large metropolitan areas to get all those things you normally can't get. For example, Monterey to, say, Cupertino is 90 mins, whereas from Santa Cruz it's 40 mins ("without traffic"). That's a pretty big difference if you're considering just going for dinner. The latter is do-able (I do it on a semi-regular basis) while the former I find pretty tough.
To me, then, all the Norcal places listed above are just too remote for my taste, as are a lot of the central CA spots. Santa Cruz works OK but you could do better. Santa Barbara to the western edge of the real urban portion of the Valley is about 90 mins and even further to all the good stuff in LA proper.
My inclination would be to try something close to the edge of a big city, like maybe Ventura/Oxnard, San Clemente, or Half Moon Bay (might be a good choice - easy access to San Mateo/Milpitas/Redwood City yet retains a small town feel). Anyways, those are my suggestions as someone who's lived this life for more than a decade.
Good luck with your search!
Reluctant to reply as I’m moving to the area myself. Take a look at Sun Luis Obispo. It has a Mediterranean climate that makes it enjoyable year round. In addition to area wineries, Paso Robles is nearby to the North and you are not too far from the Santa Barbara wineries to the South. The city has a very good cultural scene constantly going on. To the point if you come here and are bored, it’s your own fault. To recommend a specific restaurant with a bar to eat at, try Korberl Blue.
I would concentrate on the wider Paso Robles and Santa Barbara areas in Central California - both emerging wining and dining areas either as destination tourism, or for affluent local consumption. The curious new development of Orcutt and the hidden sleeper Baywood Park are also worthy of note too to perhaps be also considered if one wants to get in on the ground floor.
As an aside, when doing a one-star restaurant train tour in Switzerland, I came across Georges Wenger in the most remote and hard to get to out of the way spot in the Swiss Jura town of Le Noirmont, yet his cuisine put this obscure little place on the culinary map and people traveled from all over just for the experience --- It was on the train line and just barely allowed one to have a mid-day meal between train schedules --- in my fantasy life I would love to see that sort of a destination restaurant in this California central coast area.
(Hee, hee, the sadly undeveloped potential of the former Wm Randolf Hearst hunting lodge Hacienda on the Hunter-Liggett military reservation begs for a new proprietor to turn this into such a overnight stay dining destination. http://www.liggett.army.mil/sites/mwr... and http://gocalifornia.about.com/cs/hear...)
The day trip train from Santa Barbara to San Luis Obispo allows if one is lucky a 50 minute turnaround time which is not enough to make the very nicely evolving Historical Railroad Plaza area in San Luis Obispo to be a proper day tripper dining destination but the potential is there. The day tripper SB-SLO trains allowed a longer midday stop in Oceano which would then be the dining destination of choice for this type of venue.
(PS: Lordy, as a long-time native Californian never dreamed I would be saying this about Paso Robles but there you have it --- remembering back when Jasper's in a converted church was "fine dining" in PR for the Lake Naciomento crowd!)
PPS: Julinne in Santa Barbara has added a very nice bar area for dining - used to be a few stools and a counter, now it is a far more commodious area with view into the kitchen as they turn out their very memorable dishes. The clustering of exceptional food purveyor spots around Julienne off State Street in downtown SB are also worthy of note: C'est Cheese and Handlebar Coffee to name two.
Coastal towns north and south of the Bay Area with more than average culinary interest:
Philo / Boonville / Anderson Valley
I suppose Mendocino and Carmel as well, but they're too touristy and twee for my taste.