Best New Restaurant of 2018
589 Lighthouse Ave., Pacific Grove (831) 204-9990, poppyhallpg.com
We thought we understood the culinary soul of California. But that was before chefs Philip Wojtowicz and Brendan Esons opened Poppy Hall. They treat laid-back ingredients – chicken, duck, rock cod, quail and the like – with Michelin star elegance. Even desserts (which may be as simple as chocolate pudding) are otherworldly. And all of this is served in a lively dining room, with a poppy mural on the wall. So it’s a party out front but all business in the back. The menu varies, they serve brunch on Sundays and host a popular donut pop-up. It is informal and eclectic, creative and comfortable, but the flavors are intense.
Best Outdoor Dining
Rocky Point Restaurant
36700 Highway 1, Big Sur (831) 624-2933, rockypointrestaurant.com
For hungry travelers driving down Highway 1, Rocky Point is the first sign of a place to stop for food – kinda like Mel’s Diner, only much, much better. Here you’re paying for the view, but it’s a tough one to beat. Though all indoor seats boast a good look at the ocean, if you’re here you better be eating outdoors. Between the sea, the sky and the mountains beyond, one can enjoy lunch, an early dinner or a sunset cocktail while truly immersed in breathtaking nature.
Best Place for a Business Lunch
2999 Highway 68, Monterey (831) 647-1444, tarpys.com
The setting is rustic chic without trying. The service is attentive and efficient, key for the lunch crowd. The food comes out fast, but not rushed, executed with precision. The location is strategic. The wine and cocktail lists are top flight. And – oh yes – the menu is stacked with clever comfort foods like buttermilk fried chicken, smoked brisket, blackened sea bass, Sriracha-glazed ribs, popcorn prawns and American Kobe burger with brie, bacon and lobster. Even Gordon Gekko would be impressed. Tarpy’s is an institution in the community and a perennial winner in this category.
Best Restaurant for Romantic Dining
California Market at Pacific’s Edge
120 Highlands Drive, Carmel (831) 622-5450, hyatt.com
The Central Coast offers no shortage of oceanfront establishments from which to enjoy an intimate meal and a drink, but reigning supreme is California Market at Pacific’s Edge. Perched on the cliffs above Highway 1, diners can enjoy a panoramic view of Point Lobos and the Big Sur coastline as they enjoy hand-crafted cocktails and Executive Chef Christopher Vacca’s entrees, like the Monterey Bay abalone, halibut and risotto surf and turf or plant-based tasting menu. All pair with an extensive wine list – and, if timed right – a sunset over the ocean.
Best Restaurant for a Special Occasion Best Restaurant | Cannery Row Best Wine List
701 Wave St., Monterey (831) 373-3775, sardinefactory.com
Some may say Sardine Factory’s success started when Clint Eastwood filmed parts of Play Misty for Me in the restaurant. Others may point to the famous abalone bisque served at Ronald Reagan’s inauguration. They’re wrong. Sardine Factory remains a destination thanks to the Mr. Belvedere-level service and the way founders Ted Balestreri and Bert Cutino dote upon guests. There’s the wine list that includes important vintages in a cool, dusty cellar. And the kitchen shows deep knowledge of the classics, as well as a deft touch as trends change. In other words, Sardine Factory was totally awesome then and is totally awesome now.
Best Restaurant More Than 10 Years Old Best Restaurant – Pacific Grove (tie)
701 Lighthouse Ave., Pacific Grove (831) 655-3311, passionfish.net
The kitchen at this longtime destination restaurant serves cushion-soft scallops, flaky rainbow trout, seafood that still hints of saltwater – and they do so with a commitment to sustainability that is as admirable as the cooking. But just when you think Passionfish is only about fish, they offer a rustic 12-hour lamb that dissolves with a touch of the fork, or black bean and goat cheese fritters so earthy and rich you may want another round of appetizers. The place is comfortable, with no sense of hurry. That it seems to always win the readers’ hearts – like, no duh.
Best Restaurant – Monterey County
Lucia Restaurant & Bar at Bernardus Lodge & Spa
415 W. Carmel Valley Road, Carmel Valley (831) 658-3400, bernarduslodge.com
Think about it this way. Harrison Ford was tops on the big screen in the 1980s. Bernardus Lodge is the culinary counterpart – and for more than just one decade. Since opening, Executive Chef Cal Stamenov has helmed the property’s restaurant – previously plural restaurants Marinus and Wickets that have since been remodeled into the singular Lucia. Stamenov marries old and new traditions: classic European gastronomy with a California flair. Enjoy a five-course tasting menu or choose a la carte selections, and save room for dessert from pastry chef Kelsey Larson.
Best Appetizers/Small Plates
700 Munras Ave., Casa Munras Garden Hotel, Monterey (831) 375-0176, hotelcasamunras.com
You’ve got a full house, so you decide to take your bosom buddies out to dinner. Ah, but one likes fish, another wants meat a third prefers salad – the bickering is bound to happen, that is unless you head to Estéban. Sure, there are entrees and big paellas of, well, paella. But the warm Spanish restaurant also features round after round of tapas and shared plates. They even have replaced happy hour with tapas hour. And, yes, you can be selfish and order a rib-eye, salmon or a hearty chickpea stew. But if greed is good, why not share the wealth?
Paris Bakery Café
271 Bonifacio Place, Monterey, (831) 646-1620 | 1234 Broadway Ave., Seaside, (831) 394-7798, parisbakery.us
There’s a dilemma here. You may have to wait in line. And while you wait, all those pastries, cakes, cookies and those ethereal French delights you can’t think of the right name for call out – an irresistible siren call comes from each and every item behind the counter. And then the golden loaves of bread catch your attention with that warm, stonehearth aroma drifting and lifting you. So forget Paris… psych! The decisions may come hard, but each one is the right one.
171 Main St., Salinas, (831) 784-1125 | 125 Ocean View Blvd., Pacific Grove, (831) 372-1125, firstawakenings.net
For two-and-a-half decades, this locals’ favorite has been serving up delicious breakfast and lunch every day. Eggs reign supreme here, and you can get them any way you can imagine – from omelets to eggs Benedict to frittata to burritos. An extensive menu offers other breakfast specialties, too, like pancakes, crepes, waffles and oatmeal with fruit. If you’re the type to eat anything for breakfast, try the creative burgers, sandwiches or salads. Kinda makes you want to forget about those days when you thought Pop Tarts were a reasonable start to the morning.
Best Brunch Best Server
Red House Cafe Anna Bautista
662 Lighthouse Ave., Pacific Grove (831) 643-1060, redhousecafe.com
We eat with our eyes first. (OK, maybe it’s smartphones first.) Most eyes at Red House Cafe are seduced before the food gets there because the brunch menu is so mouthwatering: smoked salmon on a potato pancake with creme fraiche, capers, red onions, fresh dill and poached egg; thick cut cinnamon brioche French toast with orange marmalade butter and berries; crab cake Benedict on a toasted croissant. The kitchen execution matches the eater anticipation, as does deft handling from the front-of-the-house team, starring the one and only Anna Bautista. The key to her service game, she says, is “knowing how to communicate with customers so they leave happy – and leave full.” It’s a living? It’s more than that for Bautista.
Best Cheap Eats Best Restaurant for TakeOut
Michael’s Grill & Taqueria
1124 Forest Ave., Pacific Grove (831) 647-8654
Michael’s is such a throwback, they don’t even have a website and will probably never need one – that’s so ’80s. Their house burrito is as big as a house; the blackened shrimp quesadilla is one of several preparations of shrimp not to be missed; and feeding a family here won’t break the bank. Tucked in the corner of Fairway Shopping Center, this dual Best Of winner has stood the test of time in a county with no shortage of fast-casual Mexican restaurants.
Best Family Restaurant
434 Alvarado St., Monterey (831) 375-1400, rosinesmonterey.com
Breakfast, lunch or dinner – whatever it is you’re craving and whoever it is you’re with, Rosine’s is there to serve you. With homemade soups, hearty meals and breakfast served until 3pm on weekdays, Rosine’s has consistently ranked as a local favorite for over 30 years by ensuring attentive, family-oriented service for diners of all ages. That’s more dedication than the baker in those ’80s Dunkin’ Donuts commercials. And for those with a taste for adventure – or a sweet tooth – Rosine’s extensive menu of cream cakes, cheesecakes, traditional cakes and specialty pies is sure to hit the spot.
Best Restaurant in a Shopping Center
101 Crossroads Blvd., Carmel (831) 625-5436, riogrill.com
If this were the ’80s, word on the street about Rio Grill would be that it is downright bad. That’s right: b-a-d. Keep in mind that back then, bad meant good – as in totally, totally righteous. The kitchen leans a little to California cool, a little more to the spicy vibe of the Southwest. So you can go from pumpkin seed salmon to chili-braised bison short ribs, without firing up the IROC-Z. The bar fixes some impressive cocktails, as well. So ditch the mall walk and head out to the shopping center.
Best Restaurant for Vegetarians
Happy Girl Kitchen
173 Central Ave., Pacific Grove (831) 373-4475, happygirlkitchen.com
“Where’s the beef?!” was the famous ’80s tagline for Wendy’s. But while some people clamored for more meat, others veered sharply away, especially after vegan John Robbins (ironically son of a Baskin-Robbins ice cream co-founder) published Diet for a New America in 1987. Despite the new interest, vegetarianism was still pretty niche – mainstream restaurants were slow to catch on. That’s evolved over the years and now vegetarian dishes are on nearly every menu and more vegetarian restaurants have sprouted up. There are still a low number of vegetarians in the U.S. – some estimate it’s only 3 or 4 percent – but there’s a growing number of “flexitarians,” people who eat mostly vegetarian. Luckily for Monterey County, Happy Girl Kitchen provides a welcome place for anyone not looking for the beef – even if it’s only a few days a week.
Best Food Truck
Various locations, Monterey County (831) 578-4467
Like an Autobot or an Insecticon from the cartoon series Transformers, seeing a favorite food truck parked and ready to serve can be transformational. The El Volcan truck is decorated with enough color to be spotted from the ISS and is no stranger to long lines after it engages its parking brake. They serve classic Mexican fare like al pastor, cabeza, chorizo, carne asada, all of which can be eaten in taco, torta or burrito form. In the kitchen, the cooks are known for their sizable portions that tend to flow out of tortillas like lava from a volcano.
Best Dining At A Golf Course
Edgar’s at Quail Lodge
8205 Valley Greens Drive, Carmel Valley (831) 620-8910, quaillodge.com
The view alone is worth a visit – picturesque meadows and manicured ponds against a backdrop of valley mountains – but if you happen to be a golfing foodie like Craig Stadler (the foodie bit is a guess) this is your personal jackpot. An award-winning wine list sets the stage, only to be followed by a mouthwatering menu with favorites such as the orange-Szechuan glazed duck breast or the black truffle brie burger. And the burgers are ground from sirloin.
Best Dog-Friendly Dining
Terry’s Lounge at Cypress Inn
Lincoln and Seventh, Carmel (831) 624-3871, carmelterrys.com
Carmel’s Cypress Inn is the prime pick for dining out with your prized pooch. The hotel and its restaurant, Terry’s Lounge, welcome dogs with open arms. The extra love for Spuds MacKenzie and his ilk here isn’t surprising, considering actress and animal activist Doris Day owns the boutique hotel. Grab a seat with your pup in the outdoor patio and dine on classic American cuisine. Dogs are welcome in the lounge inside too, where the bar is a throwback to Hollywood’s Golden Age, with cocktails drawn from the ’20s and ’40s.
Best Restaurant for Gluten-Free
Hula’s Island Grill
622 Lighthouse Ave., Monterey (831) 655-4852, hulastiki.com
Hula’s is a locals’ favorite for good reason – a fun atmosphere fueled by large, creative tiki cocktails, tons of affordable specials, and an extensive menu to please everyone. Not only are they gluten-free-friendly, they have an entire menu (apps and everything) dedicated to those abiding by the GF diet. Gluten-free burger buns are made in-house, tacos come with corn tortillas, or you can get any number of Hawaiian entrees on the list like “Jawaiian Jerk” pork, chicken or fresh fish. You couldn’t find that at Mr. Steak.
Best Seafood Restaurant
Monterey’s Fish House
2114 Del Monte Ave., Monterey (831) 373-4647, montereyfishhouse.com
Back when grunge music was still big and Forrest Gump won the Oscar for best picture, Monterey’s Fish House opened to serve home-style Italian seafood to the people in 1994. These days the very popular restaurant still has a line out the door every afternoon. People come back for its barbecued oysters, octopus, fish barbecued on an oak grill, and Sicilian pasta, which features an ocean of seafood including fish, clams, mussels, calamari, prawns and octopus.
Whaling Station Steakhouse
763 Wave St., Monterey (831) 373-3778, whalingstation.com
It’s all prime – that’s as in USDA prime, with enough creamy marbling that melts a rugged, opulent flavor into those thick slabs of beef. And they are justifiably proud of their selection of cuts, showing them off tableside so guests can choose. In addition to steaks (and non-red meat items), they are the only place around to sample a cushy and truly prime prime rib. And they take the care to prepare classic beef Wellington, too. When you hear someone at another table moan with pleasure, you can just tell the server, “I’ll have what she’s having.”
1244 Munras Ave., Monterey, (831) 372-2622 | 1868 Fremont Blvd., Seaside, (831) 899-2622 624 | Northridge Mall, Salinas, (831) 442-2622 chopstixboba.com
For cravings from hearty pho to refreshing boba, Chopstix has you covered whether you’re running errands in Monterey or shopping in Salinas. Their extensive menu offers a wide array of noodle and rice dishes, plus Vietnamese sandwiches and a full list for vegetarians. Highly affordable yet still bursting with freshness and flavor, Chopstix is a crowd-pleaser yet again.
663 Lighthouse Ave., Pacific Grove (831) 646-8424, pacificthaipg.com.
In the ’80s Asian fusion engulfed every subtlety in Thai-American food. Thank god it’s not the ’80s anymore. Thai food has evolved and in Monterey County, the cusine’s complex and recognizably balanced characteristics (sweet, sour, salty and spicy) shine best through the dishes served at Pacific Thai. Yes, there are some items that are decidedly fusion – like their teriyaki chicken and their Pacific Thai (penne) pasta. But the gems are in the lightness and vibrancy of their red and green curries and the freshness of their spicy Thai basil stir fry.
1107 Fremont Blvd., Seaside (831) 899-1125
The Zarape team won’t cough up the recipe to the carnitas tacos. But we’ll forgive them for many reasons besides the juicy carnitas: the similarly secret recipes for shrimp and fish tacos, the soothing menudo, very solid grilled torta sandwiches (like the off-menu carnitas-bacon combo), a robust and complimentary chips-and-salsa bar, and the wildly indulgent carne en su jugo, lovingly described as “liquid bacon” by some of its adherents. This taco shop can plays a whole-court game, like the ’80s Los Angeles Lakers.
Peppers Mexicali Cafe
170 Forest Ave., Pacific Grove (831) 373-6892, pepperspg.com
Peppers’ menu is colorful, much like the food of the ’80s. Except back then having reds (like Red Dye No. 40) and greens in food, meant it was processed and it may or may not cause health problems. Luckily, that’s not the case at Peppers. Colors on Peppers’ plates come from fresh produce (often locally sourced) and golden brown crispness. Those colors are combined on plates like swordfish fajitas, mushroom artichoke enchiladas and their “very spicy” chile verde pork. Also another update from the ’80s, they have a full bar that serves famously delicious margaritas. Get out of here with your tequila sunrise.
Ocean and Lincoln, Carmel (831) 622-7766 | 630 Del Monte Center, Monterey (831) 275-5555 | 120 General Stilwell Drive, Suite 110, Marina, (831) 274-2444 dametracafe.com
Tired of shopping ’til you drop and need a healthy yet delicious lunch? Or maybe you’re looking for a unique dinner date somewhere exciting yet beautiful? Dametra could be the answer you’re looking for, whether at one of their mall locations (Monterey and Marina) or the full-scale dining experience in Carmel. From spanakopita and gyros to lamb shanks and moussaka, you’ll be smashing plates in no time.
Yi’s Korean BBQ
1184 Forest Ave., Suite E, Pacific Grove (831) 658-0134
Pacific Grove’s dining scene is rooted in nostalgia. America’s last hometown boasts many longtime establishments that have become neighborhood gems. Yi’s Korean BBQ is a prime example, tucked away in the Forest Hill Shopping Center and a common fixture at local events and festivals. Peek into the bustling kitchen and you’ll spot owner Chong Ku Yi hard at work preparing Korean specialties like noodle stir fries, rice bowls and charred meats. Sorta makes you hungry like the wolf. Yi’s offers more than Korean cuisine too – Hawaiian favorites like Spam musubi and loco moco are locals’ picks too. (Just remember, Yi’s is closed on weekends.)
514 Lighthouse Ave., Monterey (831) 649-3474, crystalfishmonterey.com
Japanese food in the U.S. got its footing in the ’80s, meaning discovering the California Roll and the introduction of udon and tempura to American palates. Crystal Fish elevates these favorites and then some. They honor tradition with dishes like saba shio (grilled mackrel) and takowasa (raw octopus in wasabi). But they also have a playful side. See their quirky marketing techniques: Japanese KFC (aka fried chicken) and Dragon Ball Z (tuna, salmon and seaweed salad on top of crispy rice ball). In other words, they’re the best because they respect tradition, but also have fun in the process.
110 Central Ave., Pacific Grove (831) 324-4282, ilvecchiorestaurant.com
Inspired by Rome’s lively neighborhood trattorias, il vecchio shook up the scene in Pacific Grove when it debuted almost 10 years ago. Snag Italian food and wine at modest prices in a hip space with a laid-back atmosphere. Pastas are the house specialty, including classics like spaghetti with meatballs and pasta puttanesca. But the carbonara stands out from the pasta (brat) pack. It’s a proper preparation: housemade tonnarelli tossed with egg, guanciale pork cheek, Pecorino cheese and pepper. The chicken marsala is another favorite, and do yourself a favor and order the Tuscan-style short ribs – a frequent dinner special.
Aabha Indian Cuisine
3690 The Barnyard, Carmel (831) 250-5940 | 414 Alvarado St., Monterey (831) 641-7924 aabhaindian.com
Since opening in recent years, Aabha has warmed the hearts (and taste buds) of countless local diners. Their beautiful restaurants boast elegant ambiance alongside excellent food, whether you’re there for an array of lunch buffet curries or goat cheese lamb kebabs and tandoori lobster for dinner. For vegetarians, the yellow dahl is a must. With Indian music, crackling fireplaces and friendly staff, each visit is a delicious trip away.
867 Wave St., Monterey (831) 333-1200, bistromoulin.com
There’s something iconic about French food. Plenty of countries have rich food histories, but the French toque blanche hat has been seared into pop culture. Ten years ago, chef-owner Didier Dutertre debuted Bistro Moulin with a menu that transports you to a sidewalk bistro in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, a place perhaps frequented by Elliott Templeton or Larry Darrell from Bill Murray’s The Razor’s Edge. The gnocchi – Parisian-style with flour, not potato – is a must-order. Other favorites include decadent onion soup, escargots swimming in hazelnut garlic butter, and mussels steamed in fragrant white wine and served alongside crispy pommes frites.
Mission between Ocean and Seventh, Carmel (831) 624-8518, tommyswokcarmel.com
A longtime locals’ favorite for a reason, Tommy’s Wok ignores the ’80s standby General Tso’s chicken and features dishes like hot and spicy eggplant, tomato beef chow mein and Cantonese roasted duck. The soups are particularly mouthwatering, like chicken corn chowder, sizzling rice soup and Tommy’s seaweed soup. Classics like Mongolian lamb, orange chicken and sweet and sour pork can of course be found, too. This place goes big on flavor and short on pretense – exactly as it should be.
Best Restaurant – South County
The Cork & Plough
200 Broadway St., King City (831) 386-9491, thecorkandplough.com
Yes, King City is a long way from the Peninsula – not only south, but well east of Eden, to paraphrase some author. But there are many good reasons to hop in the Buick Regal (hopefully the Grand National edition) and head to The Cork & Plough. For one, the restaurant’s compelling menu. Another reason? They prepare everything from scratch, including routine condiments like ketchup. The dishes are not out there – think root beer-braised chicken, whiskey-soaked pork chops, oxtail and other sturdy fare. But if it requires several days of work to create a stock, they commit to it. And the results show. Clever cocktails, too.
Best Restaurant – Salinas
Gino’s Fine Italian Food
1410 S. Main St., Salinas (831) 422-1814, ginosfamilyrestaurantgroup.com
Red sauce joints like this are not the norm on the West Coast, but what a red sauce joint Gino’s is. And yet, that’s not all it is. From the delicate crepe wrappings on the manicotti and cannelloni to the rich carbonara sauce on the fettuccine and on to the plump, stuffed pillows of ravioli, there is something for everybody at this beloved South Salinas establishment. The calamari is crisp, the angel hair with tomato, basil, garlic and olive oil refreshing and light and the pizzas crisp and cheesy. If you need food to-go, the Gino’s take-out counter does a brisk business with a variety of family-style meals, trays of pasta, salads and more that will make you a family hero when you walk through the door at the end of a long workday. Mangia! You’re looking way too thin.
Best Restaurant – Pebble Beach
Roy’s at Pebble Beach
Inn at Spanish Bay 2700 17 Mile Drive, Pebble Beach (831) 298-5907, pebblebeach.com
The year 1987 brought planet Earth The Simpsons, Eazy-E’s first rap song, and the Inn at Spanish Bay. Come 1988, the world welcomed Rihanna, the concept of the World Wide Web and Roy’s Hawaiian Fusion Cuisine from James Beard Foundation Award Winner Roy Yamaguchi in Honolulu, Hawaii. Roy’s wouldn’t arrive in Pebble Beach until years later, but quickly became dominant in this category, thanks to yummers like misoyaki butterfish and the papaya-crusted pork chop.
Best Restaurant – Pacific Grove (tie)
223 17th St., Pacific Grove (831) 372-3456, fandangorestaurant.com
Fandango is steeped in history. The restaurant opened in 1983 and for more than 30 years has been in the hands of hospitality heavyweights – first Walter Georis, then Pierre and Marietta Bain. Fandango’s reputation for epicurean excellence spans generations of gastronomes. From the rustic building to the cozy atmosphere to the menu itself, Fandango offers diners a European escape. The menu samples cuisines from across the Mediterranean: Spanish paella, French meats, Italian pastas and North African lamb shank. You can go around the world right here in America’s Last Hometown.
Best Restaurant – Seaside
1901 Fremont Blvd., Seaside (831) 899-5825, gustopizzeriapasta.com
When Gusto owner Denis Boaro was growing up in the small town of San Zenone degli Ezzelini in Northern Italy, he would watch his grandfather Gino make pastas and sauces from scratch at his family-owned restaurant. Boaro has taken that traditional, from-scratch approach and brought it to his two restaurants on the Monterey Peninsula, which include Gusto, which opened in 2015. In the three-plus years since, Gusto has firmly established itself as the go-to fine dining destination in Seaside. You’d expect to see Capt. Frank Furillo settling in here after a long shift, if Hill Street weren’t so far away. With mouth-watering, handmade pastas and pizzas – it’s hard to choose between the two – Gusto keeps diners coming back for more.
Best Restaurant – Sand City
Sweet Elena’s Bakery
465 D Olympia Ave., Sand City (831) 393-2063, sweetelenas.com
To understand what makes Sweet Elena’s the sweetest, try the olallieberry pie. Or on second thought, don’t – unless you’re prepared to eat the entire thing. But wait! They sell 5-inch tart-sized versions to help mitigate this problem. It’s not your fault Elena Salcedo has been perfecting her recipes for over 20 years, and is attentive to the provenance of her ingredients, choosing organic flour and locally grown berries and apples. It’s not just dessert on offer here; try the salads, paninis or the best of all worlds, the vegetable galette, which lets you eat a savory meal – and still get some of that crusty perfection.
Best Restaurant – North County
7902 Highway 1, Moss Landing (831) 633-3038, wenchilada.com
Whole Enchilada is so much more than a Mexican seafood joint. It’s a cultural hub, where most any afternoon you’ll find a who’s who of community icons nomming down plates of crab and shrimp rellenos, crab salads, Oaxacan molé and more. Founded in 1979 by Ray and Janice Retez, the atmosphere is flirty and fun, the cocktails (cucumber margarita, anyone?) are well made and the food is hot and fresh, served by a knowledgeable staff that wants to make sure you’re enjoying yourself. Every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night, guitarists and singers stroll the restaurant, playing traditional Mexican tunes, while at the adjacent Moss Landing Inn there’s a live band playing most every night of the week. Why would anyone sit home when this place is around? Go on, go out. Eat. Dance. Drink. You’ve earned it.
Best Restaurant – Monterey
414 Calle Principal, Monterey (831) 648-8880, montrio.com
Get this: 48-hour bacon. That should be all we need to say. That Chef Tony Baker takes thick, broad slices and barely disturbs them with heat, but keeps it up for two long days to bring out a smoky, rough-hewn, elegant sweetness tells you a lot about this favorite spot. It’s like Joe Montana connecting with Jerry Rice, but much better. And even then, a seasonal and simple presentation of grilled peaches may be enough to take your mind off the bacon. And those are just starters. There is sustainable seafood, prime beef, duck breast, and more.
Best Resaturant – Fisherman’s Wharf
Old Fisherman’s Grotto
39 Fisherman’s Wharf, Monterey (831) 375-4604, oldfishermansgrotto.com
OFG was founded 35 years before the Doc and Marty debuted in Back to the Future. (And even longer before Stand By Me, Top Gun, The Princess Bride or Die Hard.) Way back then, former dishwasher-cum-community-icon Sabu Shake was channeling Doc Brown, who said, “Your future hasn’t been written yet. No one’s has. Your future is whatever you make it. So make it a good one.” Locals are grateful he did, every time a lightning bolt of baby scallop risotto with lobster salmon and prawns hits their tastebuds.
Best Restaurant – Marina
Salt Wood Kitchen and Oysterette
3295 Dunes Drive, Marina (831) 883-5535, saltwoodkitchenandoysterette.com
Salt Wood may be the new kid on the block, but already this slick spot has found quite the following among local foodies. Bask in a gentle sea breeze and slurp oysters or enjoy a number of sensational seafood selections like local sand dabs, cioppino and squid. (And don’t worry landlubbers, you’ll find fried chicken, a burger and short ribs too.) Salt Wood hooked a new executive chef earlier this year: Paul Corsentino, formerly of Sur House. As he settles in, look for Corsentino to give his own signature spin to the menu.
Best Restaurant – Carmel Valley
10 Del Fino Place, Carmel Valley (831) 659-4444, caferusticavillage.com
You could spend all day watching CNN’s Headline News repeat their half-hour segments and miss the real story: Cafe Rustica fusing Alsacian favorites, Tuscan flavors, a wood-fired pizza oven and even a take on Hungarian goulash to create Carmel Valley’s top restaurant destination. It’s hard to imagine more important news – the Berlin Wall coming down, perhaps? The menu is extensive, from escargot to pasta, lamb to flammekueche, spanning a part of Europe renowned for exquisite country cooking.
Best Restaurant – Carmel
Junipero between Fifth and Sixth, Carmel (831) 250-6295, labalenacarmel.com
Owners Anna and Emanuele Bartolini bring Tuscan tradition and Californian commitment to sustainability to la Balena. The seasonally driven menu changes frequently, of course, but handmade pastas are one of the staples and always a good choice. Other favorites include fried cauliflower, grilled octopus and porchetta. The fried chicken – available on Sundays and Tuesdays – rightfully has foodies wigging out.
Best Restaurant – Big Sur
48123 Highway 1, Big Sur (831) 667-2331, ventanainn.com
High up on the mountains of Big Sur, one has a magnificent view of the Pacific from this unbeatable location at the Ventana Big Sur. The setting is something from Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, yet with a cozy lodge feel. Not only is the venue top-notch: The wine list is award-winning and ingredients on each rotating dish come sustainable and local. From potato-crusted lingcod and smoked pork belly to meyer lemon tart and chocolate fondant, you can’t help but savor each oceanside bite.
Valley Kitchen at Carmel Valley Ranch | 1 Old Ranch Road, Carmel (831) 625-9500, carmelvalleyranch.com
Restaurants reference “farm to table” as often as possible. But Chef Tim Wood’s kitchen is surrounded by a resort ranch that produces its own honey, chickens, goat cheese, herbs, vegetables and such. The rest he sources from artisan producers, fishing boats and organic farms. But, he says, “At the end of the day it’s just food.” Yeah, sure. And Alf is better thanFamily Ties. Even staples like shrimp and grits involve wild-caught prawns and cave-aged cheddar. And his burger layers short rib, brisket, chuck and a thick slab of bacon, and requires 20 minutes to prepare. He credits the restaurant’s success to “just fighting the trends a little, but trying not to.” In other words, he plays on the edges, but never steps off.
jeninni kitchen + wine bar | 542 Lighthouse Ave., Pacific Grove (831) 920-2662, jeninni.com
Anxious about finding the perfect pairing for dinner? Fear not, worried winos, you’re in good hands at Jeninni, where owner and sommelier Thamin Saleh makes choosing a good glass (or bottle) an effortless endeavor – no Bartles & Jaymes here. Saleh has worked in wine for more than 30 years, with stints at many of our local legends of haute cuisine (Anton & Michel, Bernardus, Casanova, Pacific’s Edge). In 2013, he opened a spot all his own and Jeninni consistently lands on critics’ catalogs of best bets. Interesting food and unpretentious wine service are hallmarks of this spot anchoring the newly remodeled Holman Building. He’s also taken wine in a creative direction, with all sorts of spirited “cocktails” made from wines, not liquor.