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Monday, October 10, 2022

The 40 Top Restaurants Along The Pacific Coast Highway

October 10, 2022

America has a rich culture of iconic scenic drives, from Route 66, which stretches from Illinois to California, to the Overseas Highway in Florida that takes drivers from Miami across an archipelago of tiny islands all the way to Key West. One of the most famous of these roadways is the Pacific Coast Highway. The Pacific Coast Highway (or PCH, for short) officially runs from Dana Point in Southern California all the way up to Mendocino County, per TripSavvy.

No road trip would be complete (or half as fun) without stopping along the way for tasty snacks and decadent feasts. Luckily, scores of hungry travelers have paved the way and created a market for restaurants to pop up in even the most far-flung stretches of the PCH. Whether you find yourself in the buzzy metropolis of Los Angeles, the quiet mountain hideaway of Elk, or a sun-soaked surf town in between, there's bound to be a restaurant nearby that's worth a stop.

Coastal Kitchen in Dana Point

Starting off at the southernmost tip of Highway 1 (another name for PCH) is Coastal Kitchen in Dana Point. This elegant-yet-casual restaurant is a stone's throw from the beach and serves up friendly bites in the day and more refined fare in the evening. The menu is broad enough to appease any kind of diner. Don't miss the jumbo lump crab cakes or the Parker House rolls, perfect for scooping up every last bite of sauce.

Pacific Coast Grill in Cardiff

Some restaurants are worth a stop for the view alone. In Cardiff, the highway winds its way up a tiny peninsula barely two blocks wide, and it's here that the Pacific Coast Grill sits perched on the shore. Grab a seat on the patio for supreme ocean views with a side of seafood. There's a solid range of locally caught fish, fresh sushi, and creative small plates for sharing (or not).

Bear Flag Fish Co. in Crystal Cove

Continuing North up the coast, the PCH reaches a few spots where the ocean is so close to the road it feels like the waves could touch your tires at high tide. One of the most picturesque towns in Orange County, Crystal Cove is made up of a series of emerald green coves with sparkling Pacific water. You can taste the fruits of the sea at Bear Flag Fish Co., a restaurant started by two brothers and their dad who had a love for fishing and wanted to share their catch with the world.

Crystal Cove Shake Shack in Crystal Cove

Not to be confused with the famed Danny Meyer burger chain Shake Shack, the Shake Shack in Crystal Cove is literally just a shack on the beach that sells shakes. This shack has existed in one form or another since the late 1920s, when little stands selling orange juice and shakes dotted the Southern California coastline. Now, you can get burgers, fries, and of course, over 30 flavors of shakes.

The Deck in Laguna Beach

If you have the time for a leisurely lunch, stop at The Deck in Laguna Beach. The eponymous deck sits perched above the ocean just off the main drag of Laguna Beach and serves a nice mix of locally-caught seafood, salads, burgers, as well as larger plates — like a New Zealand lamb with pan-seared polenta — if you need a break from fish. If it gets late, you can always book a room at the attached Pacific Edge Hotel to wake up to the sound of the surf.

Driftwood Kitchen in Corona Del Mar

Further up the coast in Corona Del Mar is another sensational beach-side restaurant where you can grab a table close enough to the ocean to taste the spray. Driftwood Kitchen serves coastal favorites like lobster aguachile and grilled octopus. If you really want to go hard, you can order the DK seafood tower, which comes with a Maine lobster tail, king crab leg, poached Mexican shrimp, oysters on the half shell, octopus ceviche, and tuna tartare.

Bandera in Corona Del Mar

For some Southern Californian fare that doesn't revolve around seafood, head up the coast to Bandera, a local favorite in Corona Del Mar. The main draw at Bandera is a huge wood-fired rotisserie, where the restaurant grills whole chickens and serves them with an ever-revolving seasonal side. They only make a certain amount of chickens per day, so arrive early if you want to get your hands on a bird.

Marche Moderne in Newport Beach

There aren't many Michelin-starred restaurants in Orange County, and only one is located directly on the Pacific Coast Highway. Marche Moderne started making waves when it opened its original location at South Coast Plaza. They serve elevated French cuisine that ranges from comforting-yet-elegant coq au vin to a five-course prix fixe tasting menu with expertly chosen wine pairings. If you only have time for a snack, splurge on some caviar and a glass of champagne.

Pizzeria Mozza in Newport Beach

Nancy Silverton has been bringing insanely great bread to Southern California since she started La Brea Bakery back in 1989. These days, she's helming a string of popular restaurants around Southern California. One, Pizzeria Mozza, is located right on the PCH in Newport Beach. The bulk of the menu features brick oven-fired Neapolitan pizzas with seasonal toppings, but the real star is Nancy's famous chopped salad with salami, provolone, and pepperoncini.

Bud and Gene's in Huntington Beach

There are plenty of places along the Pacific Coast Highway to eat on the beach, but eating on a pier directly over the water is a novelty rarely possible to experience. At the end of the Huntington Beach Pier is Bud and Gene's, a "sea-to-table" restaurant housed in the old Ruby's Diner that used to occupy this space. The menu is simple, yet satisfying. Expect seafood dishes and casual bites like burgers and chowder.

Captain Jack's Sunset Beach in Seal Beach

Nestled in the coastal wetlands of Seal Beach is Captain Jack's, an Orange County institution that's been serving crab legs by the pound since 1965. The menu is simple in the best way. There is a selection of seafood as well as prime rib, and all entrees come with unlimited side salad, rice, and bread. Go big with a surf and turf combo, and don't forget the loaded baked potato with everything on it.

Captain Kidd's in Redondo Beach

The best kinds of seafood restaurants are part market, where you can see the selection of fresh fish and decide what looks best to you before you order. Captain Kidd's in Redondo Beach is just that kind of place, located right on the wharf. You can get raw seafood to take with you to cook later, or grab a bowl of chunky clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl.

Superba in Venice

Up in Los Angeles, the highway winds its way through the city, briefly overlapping Lincoln Boulevard in between LAX and Santa Monica. Just off Lincoln is the superb cafe Superba, an all-day hangout with tasty food and laid-back vibes. Superba has a little bit of everything, from specialty cocktails with local flavors (like a prickly pear margarita) to fresh-pressed juices, as well as homemade loaves of sourdough and orange-zest-sprinkled cinnamon buns. Come for a coffee, stay for a leisurely bit of handmade pasta.

Night + Market Sahm in Venice

Also along this stretch of the Lincoln is Night + Market Sahm, the westside outpost of the Hollywood hotspot. Night + Market offers thoughtful and delicious Thai dishes that range from classic to inventive. The crispy rice salad — topped with a generous shower of toasted peanuts, cilantro, and chili — is a long-time favorite, as is their take on a fried chicken sandwich, which features a hefty topping of crunchy green papaya slaw.

Bay Cities in Santa Monica

It's hard to find family-owned delis so far away from the Italian-immigrant hubs of New York and Philadelphia. Luckily for Angelenos, Bay Cities Deli in Santa Monica has been slinging classic sub sandwiches for almost a century. They have enduring classics like The Godmother, which comes piled high with prosciutto, ham, capicola, mortadella, salami, and provolone, as well as specialties like The Spaniard, with serrano ham, gruyere, and juicy roasted tomatoes.

Tallula's in Santa Monica

The all-star restaurant group behind such favorites as Birdie G's and Rustic Canyon have opened up a new spot just off the Pacific Coast Highway in the Pacific Palisades area of Santa Monica. Just steps from the beach, Tallula's serves up elevated Tex-Mex cuisine with an emphasis on fresh and local produce and seafood. Their menu includes highlights like a jalapeƱo miso-glazed rock cod taco and garlic confit fingerling potatoes sprinkled with fresh lime and salsa macha.

Nobu Malibu in Malibu

Known far and wide as one of the best beachside restaurants in CaliforniaNobu Malibu is a favorite amongst foodies and celebrities alike. Chef Nobu Matsuhisa has created a menu with dozens of options for fresh sushi, as well as hot and cold appetizers, small plates, and larger fare like Wagyu steak. Reservations at this A-List haunt can be hard to come by. Your best bet is to walk in right when they open the doors for lunch.

Neptune's Net in Malibu

One of the most iconic restaurants along this glittering strip of Southern California beach is Neptune's Net. Even restaurants get movie cameos in Los Angeles, and Neptune's Net has been featured in TV shows and movies like "The Fast and the Furious." This casual seafood joint has things like fish and chips, grilled mahi-mahi, and New England clam chowder, all with an ocean view. If the restaurant isn't close enough to the water for your taste, you can always take your meal to go and have a picnic on the sand.

Carnitas El Rey in Oxnard

As the PCH winds its way out of Malibu it crosses the next major city — Oxnard. Cheap, great, no-frills Mexican fare can be found at Carnitas El Rey. They're known for — what else? — their carnitas, as well as fresh handmade tortillas. It's a casual counter spot, so don't expect any kind of ambiance, but for a quick pit stop meal along the PCH, Carnitas El Rey is perfect for a day of road tripping.

Field and Fort in Summerland

Once the highway ends up back on the coast, it's a quick jaunt until you reach Santa Barbara, but not before you pass through the cute town of Summerland. Just off the highway is Field and Fort, a cafe-slash-store that has antiques, home decor, and gardening supplies. The menu is hip and seasonal, with items like the burrata toast with romesco and date caramel or grilled summer squash sandwich.

Loquita in Santa Barbara

Once the road nears Stearns Wharf in Santa Barbara, there's a Spanish restaurant called Loquita that offers outstanding Spanish cuisine in a location that's equal parts sexy and charming. Hot pink bougainvillea branches spill over creamy white walls. Stop here if you want to linger over a pan of chorizo and chicken paella in between bits of serrano ham that's so tender it melts on your tongue. Wash it all down with a glass of house-made sangria.

Rib Line in San Luis Obispo and Grover Beach

In the sleepy surf town of San Luis Obispo is a restaurant right off the Pacific Coast Highway that serves some of the best barbecue this side of the Mississippi. A family-owned joint, Rib Line serves up southern classics like ribs and brisket and has a second location along the PCH in Grover Beach. No barbecue spot would be complete without the hefty helping of sides, like baked beans, coleslaw, and cornbread with honey butter.

Mersea's in Port San Luis

At the end of Harford Pier on the north side of San Luis Obispo Bay is a restaurant called Mersea's. Just a short drive from the Pacific Coast Highway, you can grab a great bite of seafood here while you watch fishing boats cruise in and out of the harbor. If the seas are a bit stormy, you can also sit inside, where there are portholes in the floor to give you a glimpse of the local harbor seals.

Sea Shanty in Cayucos

As far as charming California beach town restaurants go, you can't get more quintessential than Bill and Carol's Sea Shanty. Family-owned and operated since 1983, Sea Shanty is a Cayucos landmark. It's got kitschy, vintage decor, a wicked hat collection, and a huge selection of desserts, if you've worked up a sweet tooth by now. Try the Shanty Pie, a mint chocolate chip ice cream pie with hot fudge and a chocolate cookie crust.

Ragged Point Restaurant in Ragged Point

Heading north, once you leave the town of Cambria, you won't find much in the way of food for miles. By the time you're about ready to fill your gas tank (and your belly), you'll hit Ragged Point. It's a tiny little town with a single gas pump and an inn with a restaurant that offers a surprisingly decent selection with a heck of a view. Wander out to the cliffs to stretch your legs before hopping back in the car.

Whale Watcher's Cafe in Big Sur

As the Pacific Coast Highway winds north, the road juts out from the side of the cliffs in between towering evergreen trees and the glittering Pacific Ocean. Right across a particularly breathtaking drop is the Whale Watcher's Cafe, a casual establishment with panoramic views. Sidle up to a seat at the front window where you can catch glimpses of grey whales swimming by (peak season is December through April, per the Big Sur Chamber of Commerce) in between bites of shrimp scampi.

Sierra Mar in Big Sur

For culinary excellence in Big Sur, there's no better choice than Sierra Mar. The restaurant located at the Post Ranch Inn (where a room for the night will set you back about $1,600) is, as they put it, "culinary excellence in the sky." The entire restaurant has panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean with floor-to-ceiling windows. They serve a prix fixe seasonal menu that uses ingredients from the chef's own garden, as well as local meat, seafood, and fish thoughtfully sourced from elsewhere in California.

Davenport Roadhouse in Davenport

Just "two songs north of Santa Cruz" is the Davenport Roadhouse, a rustic inn and restaurant housed in what was once the town's only general store. The menu has a little bit of everything, from burgers and wings to salads and tacos. There are even a couple of items on the menu for your dog, if your furry friend came along on your road trip. After lunch, meander down to the old Davenport pier, which is now just graffiti-covered concrete pylons rising out of the surf and sand. 

Dad's Luncheonette in Half Moon Bay

Just before you start to enter the sprawling metropolis of San Francisco, there's a sleepy little town called Half Moon Bay.  Scott Clark, a former chef of Michelin-starred Saison, slings excellent counter-serve lunches to the weekend crowd and passing road trippers at Dad's Luncheonette. Built into an old train caboose, Dad's Luncheonette is the perfect stop for a top-tier sandwich or salad made with local ingredients and Rosalind Bakery bread.

Sam's Chowder House in Half Moon Bay

Nestled between the beach and the road at the north end of Half Moon Bay sits Sam's Chowder House, a Bay Area institution. If you're stopping here, chances are you're in the mood for chowder (of which they have both kinds, plus a gumbo). But if you're not, there are also two different preparations of lobster roll, a full oyster bar, salads, fish entrees, and a few options for the non-seafood lovers in the group.

Duarte's Tavern in Pescadero

One of the oldest restaurants on the California coast is Duarte's Tavern, a local establishment since 1894. As the story goes, a Portuguese immigrant bought the building for just $12 worth of gold, and it's been operated by a member of the Duarte family ever since. Grab a big bowl of the house special cioppino with house-made sourdough bread, and finish off your meal with a hot slice of olallieberry pie.

Gorilla BBQ in Pacifica

Before you really get into the hustle and bustle of San Francisco, make a stop in Pacifica. There you'll find Gorilla Barbecue, a takeout-only barbecue restaurant run out of an old train car. You can order a one, two, or three meat combo with your choice of sides. They have all the barbecue hits — cornbread, mac and cheese, coleslaw, beans, and corn on the cob. Grab your plate to go and head out to eat in the parking lot that has a terrific ocean view.

Lokma in San Francisco

Most of the great restaurants in San Francisco are on the trendy east side. The Pacific Coast Highway winds its way through the west side when it crosses through San Francisco, but fear not. This area has plenty of great dining options too. Lokma is a superb option for Mediterranean classics with a bit of California flair. If you're starting your day early, head in for breakfast, where they serve dishes like menemen (scrambled eggs with tomatoes, feta, and sweet peppers).

Breadbelly in San Francisco

In a town known for its bread, it can be hard to stand out. Breadbelly manages to attract diners from all over the city because of its awesome specialties served on house-made bread. Try signature snacks like the kaya toast served on milk bread, or the everything bun — a savory take on a morning bun with onion jam, cream cheese, and everything spice. Come early to avoid lines and sold-out favorites.

Lily on Clement in San Francisco

On the other side of Richmond is Lily on Clement, an upscale Vietnamese restaurant that's taking the city by storm and showing San Franciscans that Vietnamese cuisine is so much more than pho. This is definitely a stop for taking your time and ordering a glass of wine (which is paired expertly, by the way). If you don't have time for dinner, stop by for brunch where they offer fun versions of the classics, like French toast served with blueberry and boba syrup and duck liver butter.

The Marshall Store in Marshall

Once you cross the Golden Gate Bridge, you'll have miles of scenic coastline and forest to meander through before you reach another town. Once you start seeing signs for crab and oysters, pull over. The Marshall Store in Marshall is an oyster bar and restaurant that up smoked seafood, fresh oysters on the half shell (served five different ways), and other oceanic delights. We recommend taking some wild smoked king salmon with you on your way out of town.

Cafe Aquatica in Jenner

Further north, where the Russian River meets the sea, sits the town of Jenner. Of the handful of restaurants in Jenner, the one to stop at is Cafe Aquatica for its killer views and tasty, organic offerings, like a rainbow sandwich with avocado, greens, beets, shredded carrots, and pickles. It's a breakfast and lunch spot, so don't plan on stopping by too late. There's also live music on the weekends if you have time to linger a while.

River's End in Jenner

Another great restaurant in Jenner is River's End, a sun-soaked establishment with floor-to-ceiling views of the Russian River and Pacific Ocean. The vibe here is more elegant and geared toward those seeking a romantic, sunset meal with great wine and classic seafood dishes. Take in the sunset over appetizers and stay for a warming bowl of chowder. The restaurant also houses an inn next door, if you decide to make a night of it.

Frannie's Cup and Saucer in Point Arena

For a sweet little treat to get you through a long day of driving, what better place to stop than a quaint, small-town bakery? Franny's Cup and Saucer fits the bill, with a wide selection of both sweet and savory pastries, including cookies, bars, cakes, and pies, as well as coffee and tea drinks to wash it down. They're only open for breakfast and lunch, but on certain summer days, you might be able to catch one of Franny's Farmhouse pop-up dinners.

Queenie's Roadhouse Cafe in Elk

The Northern California coast has some must-hit food spots, but soon enough the towns become fewer and farther between along the Pacific Coast Highway. If you make it to Elk, you'll know it by the craggy, wildflower-covered cliffs that give way to rugged, sapphire seas dotted with storm-beaten rocks. Queenie's Roadhouse Cafe serves hungry locals and passing travelers alike. The meal to get here is breakfast (or brunch). Opt for buttermilk pancakes or huevos rancheros to start the day right.

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