Where to Stop on the Drive from San Diego to Mendocino
Here’s all the food and drink pitstops that will make your California coast journey as fun as the destination.
If you’ve been living here for a while, it’s easy to take California for granted, to let its astonishing natural beauty and rich cultures melt into the monotone of your day-to-day routine. But this summer it’s time to wake yourself back up to the state’s technicolor majesty. Gas prices are coming down and electric car charging stations are increasingly available, the kids are out of school, lockdowns are lifted, and outdoor seating remains—now is the time to hit the road and remind yourself of just how many awesome things you can get to without crossing state lines.
The best way to do that is by cruising the coastal route, taking the 101 and/or PCH as they split and come back together and then split again, sliding back and forth between beach towns and wine country, forests and farms all under the salty caress of the Pacific Ocean breeze. Whatever your destination, the journey can be fun as hell too, with outstanding stops for coffee, snacks, meals, and drinks all up and down the coast, both within the major cities and in smaller towns along the way. To make that journey as fun as possible, here are the 13 best places to stop for food and drink on the road from San Diego to Marin County:
Camino Capistrano, the charming main street of small South OC town San Juan Capistrano, has become a premier food destination over the last few years, and the opening of Ramen Shack late last year put a lovely cap on that title. Chef Keizo Shimamoto went viral about a decade ago for creating the Ramen Burger, but Ramen Shack is no gimmick—Shimamoto is a true rameniac, who has eaten thousands of bowls all over Japan, and has run several excellent and successful ramen shops in New York and Southern California. Ramen Shack is outstanding, one of the best new bowls of ramen in Southern California, with several iterations of Shoyu or Tonkotsu broth, a vegan option, and Shiimamoto’s infamous Green Curry Ramen.
How to order: Walk in, or order for pickup online.
Prospect Coffee Roasters
Food is fuel, they say, but for a long drive you really need the high-octane stuff—coffee, and a lot of it. Between LA County and Santa Barbara—and probably farther—the best place to grab some essential energy is Prospect Coffee Roasters, an eight year-old family-owned roaster and cafe just a few blocks outside of downtown Ventura. The standard drinks are precisely executed, with top-tier milk texture and well-pulled espresso, and they also have a rotating seasonal selection of fun drinks like an Espresso Tonic, Lemon-Cardamom Cold Brew Soda, and a Caramelized Fig Latte. If you need beans for your final destination, this would be a great place to snag some.
How to order: Walk-ins only.
Bob's Well Bread
The bakery that Bob and Jane Oswaks built out of a 1920s gas station is no hidden gem anymore—on any given weekend there is likely to be a line down the street—but the surge in popularity is well-earned, and has taken nothing away from Bob’s Well Bread’s rustic charm and unimpeachable product. The menu is simple and hearty, and prominently features their baked goods like grilled bread for both versions of their Eggs in a Frame, house-made English muffins for the Breakfast Sandwich, and an excellent little ficelle for their lunch sandwiches. Take a loaf of sourdough for the road, and don’t miss their pastries either—the Kouign-Amann may be the best on the West Coast.
How to order: Walk in or order online through their website for either their Los Alamos or Ballard locations.
How to order: Order takeout online or call at 805-929-3686.
There are a ton of restaurants on the narrow strip of Pismo Beach between the 101 and the sand, but perhaps none is so beloved as Splash Cafe, who make some of the best, richest clam chowder around. It’s won all sorts of national awards, which means you should probably get at least a cup, but it also means that their other menu items sometimes go overlooked. That’s a bit of a shame, because the rest of the seafood-focused menu is also excellent—fish sandwiches, clam strips and chips, and seafood tacos are all hits. If you need a quick sugar infusion, pop around the corner to Old West Cinnamon Rolls and take dessert on the road.
How to order: Walk in, or order for pickup from a slightly limited menu via ChowNow.
There Does Not Exist
If you were picking a brewery based on vibes, you could do a lot worse than There Does Not Exist, with its philosophical name and logo (it’s the logic symbol for “there is” with a slash through it), intricate can art with a heavy metal bent, and its airy minimalist taproom. And if you were picking a brewery based on the beer itself, you could also do a lot worse than There Does Not Exist. Brewer Max Montgomery is a veteran of Firestone-Walker, and his West Coast bona fides show through in TDNE’s crisp beers. There are plenty of hoppy options, and they are outstanding, but the lagers steal the show, clean and bright with all the refreshing carbonation and subtle nuance of the best light beers.
How to order: Walk in for beers to drink in the taproom or take away, or visit their online shop for shipping.
From the highway, Taco Temple in Morro Bay may look like a generic beachy taqueria, the kind of place where there are separate sections for tacos and “street tacos.” It is that, but it is also more—Taco Temple has a crazy “California Fusion” menu of Cajun, Caribbean, and Mexican flavors. The options run mostly through tacos, tostadas, burritos, and salads, with a focus on Cajun-spiced seafood and huge portions. But it is the specials board where Taco Temple sets itself apart, with a constantly rotating selection of local fish for their tacos. You may walk up and find local snapper, sea bass, or sole in the tacos that day, or maybe local wild salmon or lingcod to grace the top of your taco salad under a generous slice of their signature crema “Temple Sauce.”
How to order: Walk in or call 805-772 4965 to order in Morro Bay. Online ordering is available for their newer SLO location.
Cregor’s Liquor & Deli
There are plenty of lovely wine country restaurants in Paso Robles, the kind of place you can swish a local Rhône-style red blend around in your mouth for double-digit seconds before anyone looks askance at you. Cregor’s is not that kind of place—it’s a liquor store with a deli counter, and an exceedingly casual one at that. What it does have is a big Santa Maria-style grill out front, placed so that when they fire that thing up the oak smoke catches the breeze and wafts for blocks down the street. Follow your nose like a cartoon character to windowsill pie and snag one of their outstanding tri-tip sandwiches, with some killer spicy salsa to dump on top as you go. And if you want to pick up some fine wine while you’re here without leaving this laid-back cowboy ethos, slide down the street to the winery Herman Story, the home of big-bodied roughneck reds, and some damn good wine too.
How to order: Walk-ins only.
Big Sur Bakery
If you’re driving into Big Sur, you’re probably driving to Big Sur—it’s not exactly on the way to anywhere from anywhere, which is part of what makes it such a beloved California escape. Another part of what makes it so beloved is the Big Sur Bakery, an intensely seasonal roadside bakery in a restored bungalow with a huge wood oven. During the day they crank out incredible pastries like ham and cheese croissants, pan au chocolate, and resplendent fresh fruit strudel, along with some straightforward and excellent breakfast and lunch classics, and the best coffee drinks for miles around. At night, the seasonal produce takes a star turn through that wood-burning oven, as do locally sourced proteins and some fantastic pizzas.
How to order: Walk-ins only for pastries and lunch.
Cat and Cloud Coffee
If you took our advice and stopped for coffee in Ventura, you should be about ready for another jolt right around the time you slide into Santa Cruz. Lucky thing, then, that Cloud Cat is a fantastic local roaster, with four jaunty pink and aqua cafes scattered across town. The vibe is decidedly lighthearted, high energy, and fun, but don’t let that fool you—their coffee program is as serious as they come, from sourcing and roasting right down to their impeccable espresso drinks and lovely single-origin-brewed coffee. The only things on their food menu are Avocado Toast and Overnight Oats, but both are well-executed and bold takes on the classic third-wave coffee dishes, a perfect aesthetic partner for their drinks.
How to order: Walk-ins only.
Maybe your road trip hasn’t felt enough like an adorable indie travelogue, or maybe your weekend in Santa Cruz could use a little less surf hippy energy and a little more of a trendy academic bent. In either case, Bad Animal is the answer. The combination natural wine bar/bookstore/event space just outside the heart of downtown charges right up to the edge of hipster stereotype without tipping over, thanks to their legitimately excellent tastemaking. The wine list is as perfectly curated as the books, diverse and funky and fun, with local selections and wine from abroad. The food fits the mold too, seasonal and interesting, ranging from a light wine-friendly snack board to a rotating pasta and a hearty vegetarian stew. And regardless of how you feel about the vibe; a new book, a glass of funky red wine, and a ricotta toast with peaches and radicchio is a pretty unbeatable combination in the crisp salty Santa Cruz air.
How to order: Walk-ins only for food and wine; books available through their website.
Avatar's Punjabi Burritos
Burritos are top-tier road trip food, delicious and filling and portable and quick. No surprise, then, that Punjabi Burritos are too—curried vegetables with Basmati rice, chutney, pickles, and tamarind sauce all rolled up together in whole wheat paratha; Indian in flavor but fusion in form. The effect is impressive, retaining all the punch and depth of flavor of great Indian cooking and also the sheer density of a good burrito. They are exceedingly accommodating when it comes to dietary restrictions, happy to go plant-based or fat-free or low-carb or just about anything else your picky travel partner could request. Avatar’s has three locations around Marin County, two burrito stands and one sit-down Indian fusion restaurant, but if we had our way Indian burritos would take over every Chipotle location along the highway.
How to order: Walk in or order pickup over the phone at 415-381-8293 for Mill Valley. Other locations available for phone pickup as well.
Fog Eater is a newish vegetarian cafe run by two women chefs, blending hearty Southern classics with the best seasonal NorCal vegetables. They use all organic produce from within local Mendocino and Sonoma counties for dishes like Fried Oyster Mushrooms with mashed potatoes and gravy, and the Crabbie Cakes made from tofu and local seaweed. You’ll also find local natural wines and beers, as well as wine cocktails on the menu. They’ve since expanded to the Fog Bottle Shop, where you can grab a bottle of organic wine or house-made snacks to go. We can’t think of a better souvenir.
How to order: Walk-ins only, reservations only accepted for parties of six or more.