Another day, another accolade for California cuisine. Maybe it’s that we boast more square miles than most states. Maybe it’s because chefs aspire to travel to California and create world class cuisine. Maybe it’s because the produce comes from our backyard and things like “organic,” “fresh” and “local” are the norm. Or maybe it’s because the food here just tastes better. Whatever the reason, we’re loving all the California food love.
Seems like just yesterday we were thrilled to see California dominate OpenTable’s “Top 100 Hot Spot Restaurants in America” list (a whopping 22 featured restaurants reside in the Golden State).
Today, we present Conde Nast Traveler’s “America’s Best Food Cities: Readers’ Choice Awards 2014,” where California claimed a total of five cities, four in the Top 10.
When going over the list of the five cities we couldn’t help but notice how perfectly the towns are laid out along the coast, putting the wheels in motion for a delicious idea…start in Santa Barbara and head north to Healdsburg for a flavor-packed tour of California.
Here’s a look at California’s five ‘best food cities,’ presented from south to north—the ultimate foodie road trip!
#18 Santa Barbara
Begin your culinary journey in coastal Santa Barbara. Described as “part upper-crust beach retreat, part college town,” Santa Barbara likely lands on the list for its booming wine scene (and with great wine comes great food). “Bouchon (not of Thomas Keller’s empire) serves up California-inspired French fare, while Public Market, which opened in 2012, brings together a wealth of regional, artisanal purveyors, including Belcampo Meat Co., Flagstone Pantry, and Crazy Good Bread Co.” But good food doesn’t have to be expensive or gourmet. Don’t miss out taqueria La Super-Rica. According to Traveler, “It was Julia Child’s favorite spot for Mexican food. If it’s good enough for Julia, it’s certainly good enough for the rest of us.”
Next, continue up the coast to Carmel-by-the-Sea. This tiny hamlet along 17-Mile Drive packs a big culinary punch. Says Traveler, “Fine dining is abundant, catering to the golf crowds and San Francisco weekend trippers; our readers enjoy Aubergine at the L’Auberge Carmel, a Relais & Châteaux property, where the daily changing eight-course tasting menu takes advantage of seasonal ingredients and a 2,500-bottle wine cellar.” While most people come to Carmel-by-the-Sea to relax and either retire to their hotel or leave town early, if you’re looking for late night eats, head to Brophy’s Tavern, a delectable gastropub that stays open until 11 pm.
#4 San Francisco
Once you’ve taken in the seaside towns of Santa Barbara and Carmel, you’ll be ready for some City vibes. We were shocked to see that San Francisco didn’t even get a mention on the OpenTable list, so fourth seems a bit more fitting. Traveler points out that “conscientious cooking has long been the zeitgeist in the Bay Area; the American obsession with local and seasonal ingredients radiates from here.” And then describes a newer wave of restaurants focused on bold flavors and progressive techniques, “Newer to the scene is the ascent of the marathon tasting menu…chefs like Daniel Patterson at Coi, Corey Lee at Benu and Josh Skenes at Saison. On the other end of the spectrum are casual spots like chef April Bloomfield’s Tosca Cafe and State Bird Provisions.” Also mentioned, and rightly so, are the many bakeries. So be sure to start your morning off with fresh-baked deliciousness from the likes of Tartine, Craftsman & Wolves or B Patisserie, before heading north towards Wine Country.
With a happy, full belly, cross the Golden Gate Bridge, wind through Marin County and make your way to Napa. It should come as no surprise that a region home to two 3-Michelin Star rated restaurants (French Laundry and Restaurant at Meadowood) would be high on the list. But in Napa, gourmet comes in many shapes and sizes. Says Traveler, “High-end food takes on a more relaxed air at places like the newly remodeled Solbar in Calistoga, Napa’s upscale pizza and salumi haven Oenotri, and certainly the French Laundry’s siblings Ad Hoc and Bouchon. Wine country also appreciates a good burger—witness the ongoing love of the tavern fare at Goose & Gander and the cheeseburgers that have drawn crowds at Gott’s Roadside for the past 65 years.”
After you’ve explored the delectable wonders of Napa, cruise back west towards Sonoma County (stopping at wineries along the way, of course) and end your journey in the charming town of Healdsburg. “This beautiful and fun-loving town is shaping up to be Sonoma County’s darling,” wrote Traveler. “Healdsburg is filled with quiet, charming inns; excellent farm-fresh food; and a small but bustling city center.” Healdsburg burst onto the national restaurant scene in 2002 when New York Chef Charlie Palmer opened Dry Creek Kitchen in Hotel Healdsburg. The legacy of fine dining in Healdsburg continues today with restaurants like Campo Fina, Mateo’s Cocina Latina, Spoonbar and, local favorite, Scopa, “This unpretentious Italian spot gets the ‘keep it simple’ thing just right with starters like grilled romaine doused in anchovy-garlic dressing—wonderfully salty and lightly warmed. Wood-fired pizzas have thin, blistered crusts that rival the real thing in Italy.”
We’re ready to rent a convertible, gas up the car and head up the coast. Who’s with us?