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Restaurants recs for road trip down Central Coast with 2 kids?

Hello chowhounds! We are taking a road trip with our 3 year old and 6 year old girls next month with stops in Monterey, Pismo Beach and Santa Barbara and would greatly appreciate some restaurant recommendations.

Both girls are well-behaved, eat a wide array of foods (so no need for a kid's menu), and don't need any special accommodations (e.g., no high chair necessary). The younger one does have a peanut allergy, so I usually avoid Thai restaurants. Also, DH has a lactose intolerance, so we avoid French restaurants given the heavy cream.

We eat at a wide variety of ethnic restaurants and have also taken the girls to more upscale American restaurants (think white tablecloths but folks are still in business casual or even jeans). We try to eat right when the restaurant opens at 5:30 or earlier if we go with the kids to a place that doesn't offer a kids' menu. They know to keep their voices low in such restaurants, but I'm also hyper conscious of ruining other diners' meals. I know I hate it when I hear whiny obnoxious kids at upscale restaurants--it distracts from my dining experience. I've paid good money for the meal and babysitting for my own kids! But that's another thread for another time.

We try to avoid chain restaurants, though I'm assuming we will have to hit an In-N-Out at some point on our road trip when we're in the middle of nowhere. Since this is a coastal road trip, it might be nice to have a lot of seafood, as our suburban city doesn't have good access to quality seafood. I would prefer to avoid ethnic fare, as I'm assuming none of these cities will have ethnic fare as "authentic" as what we can get in the SF Bay Area. What are these areas known for? Budget is wide open. Since it's a road trip and we're not flying anywhere, I'm happily spending our funds on the food. Of course, given the fact that the 2 kids are with us, we are not going to any Michelin-starred places this time around so I assume we're not going to the super expensive places.

In Monterey/Carmel/Pacific Grove, DH and I have enjoyed Passionfish several times (on nearly every trip down!) but it is quite cramped and I'm not sure I've ever seen young kids there. Yet I'm willing to do it at opening if there aren't other recommendations.

In Pismo Beach, we ate with friends at Giuseppe's and enjoyed the food. It also seems perfectly kid-friendly with its Italian menu and more casual vibe. The other places we visited in Pismo Beach/Avila Beach/SLO on our last kid-free visit aren't as appropriate for kids.

We haven't ever been to Santa Barbara so any and all recommendations would be appreciated. Thank you!

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  1. I can't figure out how to edit my reply, but let me add that I found a few Santa Barbara threads recommending Julienne (but is in inappropriate to bring our kids there?), Wine Cask (sounds like a great lunch option in the courtyard!), and Scarlet Begonia or Jeanine's for breakfast. Though now I'm tempted to make the trek to Solvang for the amazing Danish pancake breakfasts!

    glbtrtr: if you see this, thank you so much for all your posts on Santa Barbara options!

    5 Replies
    1. re: smiles33

      Solvang is a must do with children: yummy aebleskivers and danish pastries- Solvang Bakery is my favorite! There is a horse drawn trolly, a park in the middle of town, Nojoqui Falls park south of town, Classic Organic Farm to go pick your own berries etc and Quicksilver minature horse farm- and even Sunny Fields park outside the city limits, but just a 4 minute drive!

      On the way down- Avila Beach exit- Avila Valley Barn. Tractor rides, animal farm, roasted corn, all the fruits and vegetables one could want, fudge kitchen- its all there! The cutest, well run veggie patch on the Central Coast! Keep going into town and the beach itself is wonderful- playground on the sand on the west end of town. The Port San Luis Pier is alive with people, fresh fish and the enormus seals that bask in the sun under the pier- stear clear but enjoy!

      1. re: OldJalamaMama

        Thanks for the activities recs! I thought I read somewhere Solvang was a massive tourist trap and DH hates crowds, so I had planned to skip it. But he's willing to deal with almost anything for good food--a true chowhound, right?

        Our friends strongly recommended taking our kids to some farm place near Pismo so I'm guessing Avila Valley Barn is the same place? Cool.

        Thanks again.

        1. re: smiles33

          Both Santa Barbara & Solvang can be busy with tourists....Summer is the busiest- Fall is a bit less crazy, and actually a FUN time to visit!

          Solvang: try Cecco for Italian lunch/dinner, right next to Hans Christian Anderson park/surrey cycle rentals- Panino located there as well- great lunch spot!

          Google Jalama Beach- if the weather is good, its a wonderful day trip- fantastic burgers, as w
          ell as a full menu served.

          San Luis Obispo has a awesome childrens museum- located right near the Mission- the city is built around the Mission and there are many choices within walking distance- including a cool Frittes only restaurant whose name escapes me...


          1. re: OldJalamaMama

            In SLO give NOVO a shot. Sit outside if the weather is good. The setting can't be beat for ambiance. Food is quite good and is children firendly.

          2. re: smiles33

            Avila Barn can't be beat as a kid and foodie friendly stop. If you want to get the kids an ice cream treat( assuming they arent also lactose intolerant) I really like going into Avila proper and getting a scoop at the Hula Hut(they carry doc Bernstein's) and then eating it wile walking out on the pier. I enjoy getting a coffee at joe mama's and doing the same thing in the morning. Not sure if you are a small baked good breakfast person but I think joe mama's has fantastic scones as well. Another fun option near Avila barn is gopher glen - a you pick apple place if you like that sort of thing. I hear the prices are better than the barn but the barn is definitely more of an experience. Have fun!

      2. For Monterey, I recommend both Il Vecchio and 1833 (with Il Vecchio getting the edge IMHO), plus there is Montrio Bistro as well. For breakfast, First Awakenings has never failed me.

        1. In Santa Barbara, I would recommend Santa Barbara Shellfish Company. Last restaurant at the end of the SB Pier. You can sit outside or in, good shellfish selection, clam chowder, etc. Great views and you can take the kiddos to the Ty Warner Sea Center (also on the pier). If you like sushi, Arigato is wonderful. Patio seating available as well. If the kids don't like sushi there are many options for them. Arigato is only open for dinner and they don't take reservations, but if you get there at opening (5:30pm) you should have no problem getting a table.

          I would highly recommend The Hungry Cat for fantastic seafood, but it's not cheap and the menu may be somewhat limited for children. Padaro Beach Grill in Carpinteria is great for kids - beautiful views of the beach, outdoor dining and a very safe (and fun!) play area for the children, where they can run around, play in the sand boxes and you can relax and enjoy a nice local brew, if you're so inclined.


          1 Reply
          1. re: sbkat

            Wow, so many great ideas for food (and activities!). Thank you all. I'm off to do some research and will report back next month after our trip.

          2. Thanks, I' do continue offering some of our own favorite standbys, so here goes again.

            ---Madonna Inn is a visual delight of pink, twinkle light, copper clad, wood carved and kitsch for kids and adults - San Luis Obispo - food is good and desserts are worth a trip - a surprising quality place and a good stop along the way
            ---Gopher Glen Apple Farm off See Canyon for apples - height of the season still and getting ready for fall pumpkins - Jonalicious are my all tim favorites right now
            ---Mo's in Pismo for messy, yummy BBQ (Philthy Phil's) with a must stop at HotLix down the street for crazy bug filled hot candy suckers and fancy flavor salt water taffy.
            ---Solvang Is not really a tourist trap at all but a reasonably intimate, cozy and almost "authentic" Danish experience - there is valid Danish cultural history here -more of a carefully controlled theme town, than a hokey artificial catchall only for day tripper tourists - hope you can hit it on a weekday
            --Our grandkids like the Sea Center on Stearns Wharf too and getting a burger or fish outdoors and watching the pelicans and the birds at the end of the wharf. Then McConnells for icecream - always a must on every visit.
            ---Los Alamos off Highway 101 is getting rave reviews for several new spots and a delightful small historic town main street - have not been there myself, but it is definitely on the list of backyard places to visit. Sounds like it would be worth a detour on your trip down - others can provide the names of the places to eat there - a Flatbread place and I think "Bell Market Garden".

            2 Replies
            1. re: glbtrtr

              glbtrtr! Thanks for dropping by and adding more suggestions. I like the McConnell's suggestion!

              This is our planned itinerary for now. We are trying to balance great meals with some lighter fare since we don't normally eat so many consecutive meals in restaurants:

              Early dinner in Carmel at Mundaka (love the tapas menu!)

              Breakfast at Tico's in Marina (we've eaten there before thanks to other Chowhounds' recs--love their eggs benedict!)

              Pit stop for lunch in Paso Robles at Artisan (as we're en route to Santa Barbara)

              Dinner at Hungry Cat in SB (sbkat: Thanks again for the rec! DH said the girls can split a burger and I know they love all kinds of cheese so we can get the cheese plate, too!)

              Breakfast at Santa Barbara Fish House

              Pick up fixings for a picnic lunch from DePalo and Sons deli in Pismo and head to the beach/somewhere to relax

              Dinner at Giuseppe's

              Breakfast/brunch in Pismo Beach TBD (our friends are from the area and presumably will have ideas)

              Lunch somewhere on the road (not sure how late we'll eat breakfast/brunch)

              1. re: smiles33

                I would trade Scarlett Begonia for breakfast over the FishHouse when in Santa Barbara, though breakfast is hard to get too far wrong,but Scarlett Begonia, or Anderson Danish Bakery or even a Cajun Kitchen would make it more of a special dining event.

                But neither are near the beach/wharf like FishHouse. (I actually did not know the FH was even open for breakfast) Yep, just checked and here is the menu: http://www.fishousesb.com/fishouse/br... Hope you can give a good eggs benedict report there too.

                Hungry Cat Pug burger was long a favorite and easily enough for two youngsters. And we also enjoyed the tapas at Mundaka in Carmel even better than what we got on our tapas crawls in Barcelona. Sounds like you have done a terrific job getting this all planned out ahead of time and hope you come back with a full report -- esp for the child-friendly aspects because this is a question that comes up from time to time and it does take a different awareness about a place than just for a pair of adult diners.

                Enjoy your trip. McConnells recently added Salty Caramel which is what it says it is and a new local favorite, but my own favorite remains Brazilian Coffee Chip.

            2. FWIW, I have seen children of all ages many times at Passionfish. Perhaps I dine earlier than you do, and yes, it shouldn't be too crowded at opening, particularly if you go on a weeknight. Satisfies your seafood criterion, obviously.

              1 Reply
              1. re: susancinsf

                Good to know! We usually go around 7, which is probably a bit late for most kids to eat dinner.

              2. Totally forgot to mention one of my new favorite places in SB - Olio Pizzeria. Opened about a year ago. In the same plaza/square as Arigato and Scarlett Begonia. Their menu is fabulous and their food execution is lovely. More than just pizzas - fantastic tapas, antipasto and great wines and beer. Perfect for kids and adults. Also, I remembered you mentioned lactose intolerance for DH, so may I offer an alternative to McConnell's. Spoon, on State Street has wonderful gelato - right across the street from Arigato, Olio and Scarlett.

                No web site for Spoon, but a link to Yelp and reviews here:

                1. Take the kiddos and your picnic fare to spyglass park :) its close to the deli and usually not crowded. Has an awesome little park overlooking the ocean, but no beach access unless you're a crazy surfer who doesn't mind scaling a cliff for a good wave (like my dad lol who took me to the park and told me of his night surfing exploits when I was a kid). We always take a sandwich and some fruit there to enjoy lunch before we get on the road. Have fun!

                  6 Replies
                  1. re: emarie527

                    My favorite road trip park is Oso Flaco Dunes off Highway one just north of Guadalupe - a long board walk over the lake to view the ducks and a stunning wildflower strewn board walk out to the roaring ocean with an observation platform. Picnic tables available with restrooms half way in a sheltered area. Some okay Mexican restaurants and markets for picnic stuff in Guadalupe itself, but alas the venerable Far Western Cafe Saloon has finally closed and moving to its new digs in Orcutt.

                    1. re: glbtrtr

                      UPDATE: We did the trip and things changed a bit from my original plan as we ended up not going out for breakfast at all. Basically, we ate so much from our dinners that we just weren't hungry in the morning! We also added a late lunch in Monterey, instead of a pit stop at a local restaurant closer to our house.

                      In general, my girls were well-behaved, as I expected, but I did have to remind my 3 year old not to get too excited and raise her voice. They were always the only children in the restaurants, so these don't seem to be child-friendly places upon first impression. Yet some places--like Artisan in Paso Robles--actually had an unadvertised children's menu (they offered buttered pasta and chicken tenders with fries!).

                      My biggest challenge is that we usually don't eat so many consecutive meals at restaurants and we also usually eat smaller portions. Since we were staying at hotels, we didn't take leftovers so it meant that I over-ate rather than waste food. I know, not a good move, but it meant I ordered far less than usual. We usually like to get multiple appetizers and entrees, and this trip we almost always stuck to just 1 entree each. I hate feeling limited like that, but alas, it was just too much food!

                      Without further ado:

                      1) We ate a late lunch at Lou Lou's Griddle in the Middle in Monterey after heading to the Aquarium before lunch instead of after lunch. Found the rec in a quick iPhone search of Chowhound. All I can say is WOW, what HUGE portions! I thought I had a good appetite but I just couldn't finish my meal. I had an amazing fresh Dungeness crab salad while DH LOVED his sand dabs. The girls shared chicken strips, fries, and the "welcome" plate with cheese, fruit, and salad. We would definitely go back. We lucked out and didn't have to wait for a table since we arrived around 1 pm on a Thursday. Since this is a hole-in-the-wall diner on a pier, having kids there was totally fine.

                      2) We had our dinner at Mundaka in Carmel with the girls. Pushed the dinner later to 6:30 as we were still full from Lou Lou's but couldn't do it any latee since my 3 year old is usually in bed by 7:30. Best choices were the squid (amazingly executed--truly the best squid we've ever had) and the ravioli. I found the albondigas and clams, potatoes bravas, and marinated olives just ok. The wait staff were SO friendly to the girls and made me feel much less awkward about having kids in there. It was much smaller and quieter than I expected, so I did feel very uncomfortable when we first walked in. The irony is that another couple actually couldn't stop staring at us repeatedly throughout the meal. Initially, I suspected they were annoyed as my 3 year old kept talking in a loud voice despite my trying to hush her. But as they left, they remarked how amazed they were at how well-behaved our girls were and how they, too, have young kids but they would never bring them to such a restaurant. Whew, I was so relieved the staring wasn't because we ruined their date night! So that was a nice surprise and a testament to the fact that not all diners will be annoyed/judgmental when they see young kids at "adult" restaurants.

                      3) The next morning, we still weren't hungry so instead of heading to First Awakenings in Pacific Grove, we fed the girls some yogurt and pastries from the hotel's continental breakfast and headed out to Paso Robles. Artisan was great, especially since they have an unadvertised children's menu (as I mentioned earlier). DH had the salmon over quinoa with green beans, the girls got pasta with butter and parmesan and chicken strips with fries, and I loved my meatballs, hen of the woods, ricotta gnocchi, piave, and guanciale. The only surprise was that we learned my 3 year old (who has a known peanut allergy) also is severely allergic to sesame seeds (which accented the green beans on DH's plate). She loves green beans and ate quite a bit of his quinoa, too (but we don't think quinoa is an allergen). So we had to stop at urgent care after she had swollen lips and massive hives around her mouth! She's ok and we're scheduling follow-up testing to confirm the allergy.

                      4) We had a so-so dinner at Hungry Cat. I was still full from Artisan, sadly, so I skipped the amazing raw bar options. Maybe if I had indulged in those I would have had a better impression? My diver scallops were only ok and the girls split a hamburger with blue cheese that was too thick and overcooked ("worst burger I've ever had" per my DH). Yet he loved his dish, house-made chorizo and clams, sofrito, black kale, and grilled bread.

                      5) Since we had a terrible time in Santa Barbara (long story short, disappointing hotel experience, rainy weather, etc.), we only stopped at the butterfly preserve before heading north to Pismo Beach. Yeah, we basically drove down just to eat at Hungry Cat. Anyhow, we arrived in Pismo Beach earlier than expected and ended up meeting our friends for lunch at Zorro's, a local Mexican place. I really liked my chile verde enchiladas. DH did not like his shrimp enchiladas--he basically picked the shrimp out and just ate those. My eldest has chicken tenders (yes, again--clearly, she's not as adventurous as I thought) and my youngest loved their spicy salsa and ate my rice/beans.

                      6) We had dinner at Giuseppe's, after a generous snack of roasted artichokes and Italian meats from the DePalo deli. Sadly, Giuseppe's doesn't take reservations so we arrived at 5:30 and didn't get seated until 6:45. I'm torn re: whether it's worth the wait. Most young kids don't like to eat after 7 pm and my 3 year old clearly was too full from the snacking to eat her cheese pizza (which I ended up taking back to our hotel since we have a mini fridge and microwave). I loved my gnocchi, especially since so few restaurants make them. I literally polished off the entire plate! DH thought his cioppino was only ok (solid B grade, it was basically thick tomato sauce, not a broth, and the seafood wasn't cracked well so he had to really work to extract the meat, so it's not even close to Taditch Grill's cioppino which was cracked in such a way as to make it easy to extract and a real broth). As mentioned earlier, DDs barely touched their cheese pizza but really liked the bucatini with meatball. Giuseppe's is kid-friendly, as they even brought crayons to the table (though there isn't a kids' menu).

                      So that's my TR. Let me know if you have questions and thank you all for the suggestions!

                      1. re: smiles33

                        Thanks for reporting back. I hope your daughter is on her way to a quick recovery and the results you receive are encouraging.

                        I am sorry to hear your dinner at Hungry Cat was not up to snuff. The raw bar is definitely a must have there, too bad you weren't up for it. Agreed, the clams and chorizo is a signature item that continues to be a solid item on their ever changing menu.

                        I've never been a huge fan of their pug burger - just not my style. I will say that the first bite or two is usually delicious, but I'm more of a traditional Cali burger gal. I'm curious to ask you how you requested your burger temp. My DH loves the Pug, and will order it medium-rare and I will give them credit; they are good at nailing their temps.

                        Too bad about your hotel issues and the lack of stellar weather while in SB, which probably was the first ill weather to speak of in nearly a year!

                        I hope that overall, you had a wonderful trip. Again, thanks for reporting back.

                        1. re: sbkat

                          We asked for medium since my 3 and 6 year olds were eating it, but I would have requested medium rare if it had been for me. They each took a few obligatory bites but they mostly ate the fries that came with it and the oyster crackers that Hungry Cat serves in a bowl before the food arrives (instead of bread--I found that weird!).

                          The weather was a disappointment but we were prepared as we knew November would be unpredictable. We had a FANTASTIC time at Pismo Beach this morning, though, when the sun came out. We also hit Artisan in Paso Robles again on the drive home and managed to try several items off their Sunday brunch menu. I absolutely loved my chanterelle mushrooms, brioche, bacon, soft poached egg and greens. DH had the short rib hash and fried eggs (a little too heavy before a 3.5+ hour drive). The girls shared an order of beignets and each had an order of buttered pasta. Our 2 friends who joined us had the burrata, tomato and pesto sandwich and the short rib hash. We also split the salmon tartare appetizer which was also amazing--the salmon itself was clearly the star, but I was pleasantly surprised by the complex flavors due to additional ingredients beyond just the standard capers (which were still delicious). For instance, we were delighted to learn from the waitress that the bright notes of lemon were from preserved lemon zest and I think someone asked which pickled vegetable was perfectly diced into tiny pieces (brunoise?) but I can't recall what the answer was.

                          All in all, the road trip ended wonderfully. When we got home, DH and I had a simple dinner of an Italian combo sandwich (Grandpa DePalo's Grinder which had a delicious tapenade) we purchased earlier from DePalo and Sons Deli in Shell Beach.

                          1. re: smiles33

                            next time in Monterey, try the Fishwife in Seaside, just off Fremont. Nice selection of freshly caught fish in a variety of preparations. Small casual and intimate. Very friendly staff. Their sister Taqueria (Turtle Bay) is right next door on the corner.

                            Sounds like you all had a good time!

                            1. re: toodie jane

                              We actually went to a Fishwife near Asilomar a few years ago and were sorely disappointed given the very long wait. Is the Seaside location much better?