From golden beaches to trend-setting cities, California has it all, but for a sleepier-but-stunning road trip, nothing beats the Golden State's Central Coast. This stretch is where time stands still, where vineyards and farms are the hot spots, and where rolling hills lead to crashing surf. It’s also a favorite destination of our Inspectors, who share a few tips and some of their favorite gems below.
Ember was at the forefront of open fire cooking in the Central Coast when they opened, and this Arroyo Grande charmer hasn't lost any of its spark. Its inviting industrial-rustic interior is the perfect setting for their heartfelt and down-to-earth cooking. You'll likely never tire of the contemporary menu filled with comforting favorites like bruschetta, made here with slices of house-made country sourdough with burrata atop an English pea purée & walnut pesto. There are plenty of mains, with staples like the grilled under-a-brick chicken, as well as not-to-miss features like the 50-layer lasagna. A blueberry cream puff filled with a honey chèvre mousse and sided by lemon buttermilk gelato is creative, yet classic.
After cutting their teeth at top New York City kitchens, Daisy and Greg Ryan settled in the Santa Ynez Valley. Their particular skill lies in blending phenomenal product (90% of products are sourced from within 20 miles), focused flavors and methods. This is cooking that tastes as good as it looks, and crowds keep coming for their unpretentious dishes. Wild snails drip with luscious garlic and parsley butter, while the Santa Barbara uni crêpe cake is layered with crème fraîche and caviar. Lamb en croûte may be next, served over Calabrian chili aïoli with asparagus. The meat is tender and the aïoli perfectly cuts through the rich, savory elements.
Desserts are equally worthy—from a buttery gâteau Breton to black pepper cookies laced with dark chocolate.
Inspector’s Tip: “Bob's Well Bread Bakery in Los Alamos is worth a stop for a pastry.”
Bar Le Côte
From Daisy Ryan and the folks behind Bell's in Los Alamos, this bright and cheery seafood spot is just down the road in Los Olivos. Slide in to one of the booths or banquettes and settle in for a meal that is an ode to the sea and is best enjoyed with shared plates. There are radishes with sea urchin butter to start and dry aged branzino as main dishes, but put those decisions on ice—literally—and order oysters or crab claws. Beef tartare is given a seafood crown with two fried oysters; add the saffron buns to your order for the perfect complement. Simple and focused desserts include olive oil cake with a strawberry sauce and orange marmalade, finished with whipped cream and a lemon cookie crumble. The wine list is worth a deep dive; they even have their own label.
Inspector’s Note: “The drive between Los Alamos and Los Olivos is one of my favorites in that area.”
Restaurant at Justin
Make your way through winding roads to land upon the lush retreat, nestled within the Justin Winery. This restaurant champions local product, sourced nearby and from the property's own 150-tree orchard, edible flower fields, vegetable and herb gardens and apiary. Whether your table is on the patio or in the dining room, expect to be enchanted by views of rolling hills and vineyards, and anticipatory service heightens the exceptional experience.
Chef Rachel Haggstrom and her team flex their creative skills on a single tasting menu with items such as beet canapé with chicken liver pate and a Cara Cara citrus geleé or "carrot top" and lamb saddle, with savory carrot cake and an oval of tender meat. As expected, theirs is an impressive wine list.
Executive Chef Kenny Seliger and Executive Sous Chef Ron Frazier take the now-classic Californian menu and give it a clever update (sweet parsnip cannoli, anyone?) at in bloom. Their cooking is confident and their dishes really come alive.
Suspend any decision-making by opting for the six-course tasting menu, offering the menu's best dishes in modified portions, or order a la carte. The perfectly executed branzino is a stunner, but it's ratcheted up further thanks to a brown butter sunchoke puree, kumquat slices, purple radish and a chili crisp sauce. Then, smoked chocolate mousse layered with raspberry jam, honey wafer and house made, torched marshmallow fluff is presented for a take on s'mores that will have you ditching the campfire in no time.
Nate's on Marsh
San Luis Obispo
This affable spot is just outside of downtown San Luis Obispo. It's no surprise that Nate's on Marsh feels very welcoming—it's set within a converted residence. Inside is just as darling with palm-printed wallpaper and a Western/equestrian theme. Nate Long is the consummate host and the service is exceptionally warm, though it certainly doesn't hurt that the menu is loaded with classics and riffs on favorites that will have you coming back for more. Try the La Scala salad, a blend of shredded iceberg, salami, artichoke hearts, sun-dried tomatoes, and crispy chickpeas, all tossed in a red wine vinaigrette, before tucking into hearty mains. Hand-cut pappardelle with Tablas Creek lamb ragu and walnut gremolata isn't fussy but it's fantastic.
It may seem impossible to be even more charming than its Solvang surroundings, but peasants FEAST doubles down, and delivers. This daytime-only café from Michael and Sarah Cherney spotlights the seasons on its sandwich-driven menu. There's nothing ho-hum about what's between the bread here. Instead, the cooking is all heart and the selections show off a unique creativity (cue the pastrami smoked salmon sandwich). A cup of soup is the ideal partner—the carrot soup finished with Calabrian chili oil is a gratifying choice. Specials always deserve a glance, since items like the delectable beet greens grilled cheese appear daily.
Dashing off to the next winery? Pop across the street to peasants DELI for picnic-ready rations.
Inspector’s Note: “Solvang is the most charming Danish town. It’s busy on the weekends, but the bakeries are a must.”
Hero image: Carl Perry/Bar Le Côte