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Big Sur + Monterey Restaurants

Big Sur Bakery and Restaurant
Highway 1 (half mile north of the Ventana Inn and Spa)
Big Sur , California
Tel: 831 667 0520

Hidden behind a gas station, this comfort food spot's only view is of a pretty cactus garden (and, okay, a big Shell sign pointing into the sky). But the old-school wooden architecture gives the place an unpretentious charm that mirrors a down-to-earth approach to cooking. Lunchtime pizzas come right out of the wood-burning oven; our favorite comes with chicken, pesto, and sausage. The dinner menu has five changing entrées, mostly grilled or wood-roasted free-range meats (the crispy-skinned, juicy roast chicken is a standout). The adjoining bakery serves to-go sandwiches worth stopping for, fresh-made bread, muffins, and old-fashioned jelly doughnuts.

Closed for dinner Sundays and Mondays.

Big Sur Roadhouse
Highway 1 (across from Ripplewood Resort)
Big Sur , California
Tel: 831 667 2264

If you've spent the day hiking and you'd rather not change clothes for dinner, head to this family-run roadhouse. There's not much in the way of decor: Plain wood tables, linoleum floors, and a small fireplace are about it. The Cal-Latino menu whipped up by young owners Marcus and Heather Foster, however, has spice to spare. Chips and fiery-hot homemade salsa hit the table as soon as you sit down; starters like calamari with pasilla-chile remoulade, and entrees like adobo-marinated steak with peppery potatoes and grilled onions keep the buzz going. Only beer and wine—no harder stuff—is served, but it hardly matters: A cold Corona makes the perfect chaser.

Closed Tuesdays.

Cantinetta Luca
Dolores Street between Ocean and Seventh streets
Carmel-by-the-Sea , California
Tel: 831 625 6500

Breaking ranks with the intimate French restaurants that for decades have defined the Carmel dining scene, Luca serves stellar trattoria-style Italian cooking in a big, buzzing dining room. The salumi and pastas are made in-house (try the Bolognese) and make an ideal lunch while shopping downtown. But the best dishes come from the wood-fired oven: Try any of the crispy-thin pizzas or family-style meat and fish dishes, particularly the pan-roasted lemon-garlic chicken. Because the menu is so big and many of the dishes so appealing, it's easy to over-order. Take it easy: Portions are huge. The bar scene hops at sunset, when local luminaries show up to swill wine. If you're looking for a quiet dinner, Luca may not be a good fit, but the food is some of the best in town.

Open daily noon to 2:30 pm and 5 to 10 pm.

Flying Fish Grill
Mission Street at Seventh Avenue
Carmel-by-the-Sea , California
Tel: 831 625 1962

Seafood's the thing at this tiny Cal-Asian spot, down a flight of stairs from street level. The space feels Japanese, with low ceilings and lots of dark wood, but the menu goes further: Beyond the usual seared ahi tuna and tempura you'll find almond-crusted sea bass with a rock-shrimp stir-fry (the house specialty) and steamed halibut cooked in parchment with Chinese spices. The fact that owner Kenny Fukumoto works the floor every night means the service is terrific—a rarity in this resort town.

L'Auberge Carmel
Monte Verde at Seventh Avenue
Carmel-by-the-Sea , California
Tel: 831 624 8578

Chef Christophe Grosjean took over the reigns from Walter Manzke in 2008, but the culinary wizardry that made L'Auberge one of the Central Coast's top tables remains. Some say that the food is even better now. Grosjean's technique is firmly rooted in French technique but tempered by a California sensibility and a lush earthiness that plays on the seasons. Heady Asian perfumes make cameos here and there, as in a corn soup with scallops, Thai curry, and tapioca pearls. The cooking has a lush earthiness that plays on the seasons. Main courses may include Sonoma duck with huckleberries, chanterelles, and gnocchi; or pork loin with glazed pork belly, Fuji apples, and hazelnuts. Light eaters beware: your only choices here are the chef's dégustation ($150) or a multi-course prix fixe with choices (starting at $69). If the white-glove silver service in the tiny main dining room seems too forced for low-key Carmel, try the bistro menu in the clubby room next door. And if you just can't bear to leave after dinner, book a room at the adjoining inn.

Open daily noon to 2:30 pm and 5 to 10 pm.

La Bicyclette
Seventh Avenue and Dolores Street
Carmel-by-the-Sea , California
Tel: 831 622 9899

Styled after a French country café, La Bicyclette serves hearty European comfort food in a tiny 30-seat dining room, perfect for a romantic evening without any pretense. Meals are presented family style at heavy pinewood tables; plan to share. The three-course menu begins with a seasonal salad, perhaps heirloom tomatoes with blood-orange vinaigrette, followed by a copper tureen of soup for the table to share. Entrées may include pan-roasted chicken or a simple filet mignon with gorgonzola sauce. Chocolate mousse is the house-specialty dessert and comes in a big bowl with two spoons. The wine list is huge; the grands vins are stored at the sister restaurant, Casanova, and when you order one, the waiter hops on a vintage bicycle parked out front and rides up the street to fetch it—hence the name of the restaurant. The food doesn't break any new ground, but dinner won't break the bank, either: Three courses run about $30.

Open daily 11:30 am to 10 pm.

Bernardus Lodge
415 Carmel Valley Road
Carmel Valley , California
Tel: 888 648 9463

The long-running star of the Monterey Peninsula's food scene, Marinus uses ingredients from the backyard (the adjacent inn grows much of its own produce) or from organic growers just down the road. Seasonality is the chef's watchword. Mesquite- and oak-grilled prime beef (the house specialty), game meats, and just-picked vegetables figure prominently on the French-California menu, although chef Cal Stamenov frequently changes the choice of dishes. Service is formal but never stuffy, and tables are spread well apart from one another (unlike at other area restaurants). The encyclopedic wine list features some exceptional vintages, including many from Bernardus, the restaurant's sister winery. The dining space, with its vaulted wooden ceilings, massive wood tables, and roaring limestone fireplace, manages to feel expansive and cozy at the same time.

Open daily 6 pm to 10 pm.

Montrio Bistro
414 Calle Principal
Monterey , California
Tel: 831 648 8880

Formerly the Monterey firehouse, Montrio is the sexiest dining room on the peninsula, with cool metal sculptures, high ceilings, and a good-looking crowd of bon vivants hanging around the always-lively bar. The ambitious New American menu is extensive and diverse, with dishes—Caesar salad, crab cakes, steak, and salmon—prepared with imaginative if sometimes heavy flourishes. (The sides, like Cheddar cheese–jalapeño corn bread and foie gras–truffle french fries, easily overpower the more delicate mains.) Service is erratic, tables are close together, and the decibel level climbs high on busy nights, but the energy here is undeniably appealing.

Nepenthe & Café Kevah
48501 Highway 1 (29 miles south of Carmel)
Big Sur , California
Tel: 831 667 2345

Perched 800 feet above the Pacific on a spectacular promontory (once owned—at separate times—by Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth), this place has been a major tourist draw since it opened in 1949. The view is far more dramatic than anything else here: The dining room is casual and utilitarian, with an open-truss ceiling and lots of crowded tables, and the food is standard and overpriced (burgers and sandwiches at lunch, steaks at dinnertime). The vistas from the wall of windows, though, are truly showstopping—and if you'd rather avoid the clamorous main dining room, you can grab lunch downstairs at Café Kevah, an order-at-the-counter outdoor café with the same views as the main room. The adjoining gift shop has an unexpectedly good selection of regional books and home furnishings.

Nepenthe open daily 11:30 am to 10 pm. Café Kevah open March through the first week of January 9 am to 3:30 pm.

701 Lighthouse Avenue
Pacific Grove , California
Tel: 831 655 3311

Chef Ted Walter and his wife, Cindy, have stacked up an impressive number of awards for their humble little restaurant in Pacific Grove, the seaside town just northwest of Monterey. You'll find hearty meat dishes like rack of lamb and duck confit on their menu, but their real passion is—yes—fish. Sustainably caught fish, to be exact, expertly seasoned and subtly flavored. A sure bet is the sole served with a pancetta-portobello vinaigrette—or, in crab season, the Caribbean-style bouillabaisse. The casual, welcoming dining room, with butcher paper–covered tables set close together, makes you feel like you're at a big dinner party.

Sierra Mar
Post Ranch Inn
47900 Highway 1
Big Sur , California
Tel: 831 667 2800

Jutting off a 1,200-foot cliff above the Pacific, Sierra Mar's dining room looks like something out of a James Bond film—all glass, slate, and wood, and swirling sea to the horizon. The visuals are tough competition, but chef Craig von Foerster's daily-changing Euro-Cal menu ain't too shabby, either. His choices have included Thai-spiced prawns with green-papaya salad, a trio of foie gras, and saffron seafood soup (a California adaptation of the Provençal classic). A few dishes can be on the overwhelming side—the flavors of a rib-eye steak with Cambazola cheese and onion compote, for example, seem to be fighting each other—so when in doubt, order light. For maximum romance, book a corner window table, come just before sunset, and ask for the superb reserve wine list. Oh, and book a room at the adjoining Post Ranch Inn, while you're at it.

Stokes Restaurant & Bar
500 Hartnell Street
Monterey , California
Tel: 831 373 1110

Located in a historic 1833 adobe house with thick plaster walls, quarry-tile floors, and wood-beamed ceilings, Stokes is the handsomest dining room in Monterey. Chef Brandon Miller's Mediterranean-style cooking leans primarily toward France and Italy with a daily menu that focuses on seasonal produce—organically grown, of course—and regional seafood. He cures his own salumi; when you see sausage on the menu, order it. In summer you might find duck prosciutto on melon, drizzled with a balsamic reduction, or fried green tomatoes with horseradish rémoulade. Typical entrées include duck breast with root vegetables and a tangy pomegranate sauce. From fall through spring, look for pasta with clams and sausages. At lunch, go for any of the pizzas from the wood-fired oven. Some dishes overreach, but in a town known for fish and chips, we applaud Stokes for taking some culinary risks. On a cold night, book a table by the fire in the lounge or Captain's room; otherwise, reserve one of the comfy booths in the newer, window-lined main dining room.

Open daily at 5:30 pm.

Information may have changed since the date of publication. Please confirm details with individual establishments before planning your trip.