Monterey County should be more top of mind when it comes to food. The sprawling area, which encompasses almost 4,000 square miles, spans from Watsonville to the north and Ragged Point in south. In between, you’ll find Big Sur’s sweeping landscape, seafood-rich Monterey Bay, and ritzy Pebble Beach and 17-Mile Drive. Learn about 15 of my favorite food options in Monterey County.
Numbered establishments appear in alphabetical order instead of in order of preference.
Chef Michelle Wojtowicz, chef/husband Phil and partner Michael Gilson have turned this restaurant near Pfeiffer Beach’s purple sands into a dining destination. The rustic setting involves gravel patio and picnic tables and a homey dining room. Seasonal dinner is popular, but brunch is even better, based on my experiences. Swing by the pastry case on the way to your seats to snag glazed donuts capped with donut holes and flaky, circular croissants. From there, transition to full brunch. Big Sur Bakery’s oak-burning grill works wonders on their famed Three Egg, Two Cheese Breakfast Pizza topped with bacon. Fried Oysters, coated in a light dusting of rice flour and served with preserved lemon caper aioli, are also fantastic.
MUST ORDER DISHES: Glazed Donut, Ham and Cheese Croissant, Three Egg Two Cheese Breakfast Pizza, Fried Oysters
Chef Jason Balestrieri runs this ambitious Italian restaurant in Carmel-by-the-Sea, which features house-made salumi, an almond-burning brick oven, and house-made pastas. The space features exposed wood beams, high-tops and twin bars. Start with crusty house-made bread with roasted garlic and olive oil. Fro there, you’d be wise to raid the glass-fronted salume room to experience gamy wild boar prosciutto, bologna-like mortadella with black truffle, and sweet, soft, pistachio studded salame cotto. Pizza is also worth investigating, particularly Margherita with San Marzano tomatoes from Campagna, domestic mozzarella and fresh basil shavings. Cantinetta Luca also knows what to do with surprise deliveries. For instance, during my visit, a six-pound load of porcini mushrooms arrived through the side door, and Balestrieri roasted them with rosemary before finishing with olive oil and sea salt.
MUST ORDER DISHES: Salume, Margherita Pizza, Porcini Mushrooms
3. Carmel Belle
Carmel native Jay Dolata and wife Chloe debuted in The Doud Craft Studios in 2009. Carmel Belle has expanded and is now the star of an indoor courtyard lit by skylights, surrounded by clothing and jewelry stores and sporting a faux Spanish tile roof. The couple named Carmel Belle for the mythical chicken that graces their logo. Blackboard menus and flower topped wood tables host the breakfast and lunch options. Start your day with a customizable polenta bowl that should probably host roasted tomato, creamy goat cheese and poached egg. Later in the day, sandwiches and salads grab the spotlight. Slow-cooked Berkshire pork shoulder is particularly good on grilled ciabatta with red onion-currant chutney and aioli. They’ve also added a dedicated juice and coffee bar featuring Mr. Espresso beans. Better yet, the Dolatas still pile their counter with a mix of Parker-Lusseau croissants and house-baked goods.
MUST ORDER DISHES: Coffee, Hot Polenta Bowl, Pastries, Slow-Cooked Berkshire Pork
The former home of Chateau Julien dates to 1981 and spans 15.5 acres, 5.5 planted. In April 2015, Greg Ahn purchased the property, which has already bloomed, featuring an indoor-outdoor tasting room with African tribal hats, wrought-iron chandeliers, a 22-foot communal cypress table, and views of Carmel Valley’s hills. Folktale also dry-farms 182 acres in Arroyo Seco, which helps fuel six wines, including Brut, Le Mistral White Blend, and Chardonnay. A substantial barrel room ages Pinot, Syrah, Grenache and Chardonnay in French and American oak barrels. They’ve also curated some of the best tastes of Carmel in a deluxe platter that includes estate honey; candied pecans; soppressata and pork & duck pate from Salumeria Luca; Gruyere, Red Dragon Welsh cheddar with mustard seed, and French Pilota from The Cheese Shop; fruit like apples and strawberries from nearby Earthbound Farm, sliced Lafayette Bakery baguette, and Lula’s Chocolates.
MUST ORDER DISHES: Wine, Gourmet Platter
Jordan Champagne and husband Todd preach “pickle power” at Happy Girl Kitchen, their charming Pacific Grove market and café. Shelves and refrigerators house pickled vegetables, preserved fruits and other expressions of current and past seasons. Yes, they handle most of the heavy lifting in their on-site kitchen but they source some outside products, including kombucha from San Francisco’s Lev’s Original Kombucha, which pours from two taps. An orange two-lever La San Marco espresso machine helps fuel a Four Barrel Coffee program. Pastries might include lemon chia seed scones and NY crumb cake.
MUST ORDER DISHES: Four Barrel Coffee, Lemon Chia Seed Scone, Lev’s Kombucha, NY Crumb Cake, Preserves