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.
Jeninni Kitchen & Wine Bar is southern Mediterranean bistro in downtown Pacific Grove that Thamin Saleh opened in the Holman Building in 2012. Saleh is of Palestinian descent and hails from Jenin, on the West Bank. He and his chefs have sprinkled Jeninni’s seasonal roster with many Middle Eastern spices, including za’atar, dukkah, and chermoula, which are all defined in a glossary at the bottom of the menu. Warm Bread Plate comes with house-made filone and pita and a choice of dips, perhaps none better than charred zucchini and spreadable smoked trout. Mejadara is a dish Saleh grew up on, a mix of lentils and basmati rice, topped with yogurt and crispy fried onions. Bucatini hosts bay scallops, corvine, olive oil and chile. Also garlic, tomato sauce and parsley. In fall, you might find pumpkin saffron soup with pepitas, pepita oil and yogurt. Shawarma pork buns are an evergreen hit, with pork belly marinated in a dozen spices, roasted, seared a la plancha, and served in fluffy bao with cucumber, yogurt and pickled Fresno chile. Saleh is also a seasoned wine pro who’s assembled a compelling beverage program that includes cocktails like the Jeninni Spritz.
MUST ORDER DISHES: Bucatini, Delicata & Chickpeas, Mejadara, Pumpkin Saffron Soup, Shawarma Pork Buns, Warm Bread Plate, Wine
7. Katy’s Place
Katy Curry founded Katy’s Place in 1982. Randy Bernett took over in 1989 with minority partner Gytha McFarland, with key contributions from longtime chef Francisco “Pancho” Ruiz, who’s tenure dates to 1985. The space is filled with farm-chic kitsch, including cow statuettes and decorative plates. The patio is pleasant in warm weather. A big part of the restaurant’s reputation rests with California’s definitive corned beef hash, which combines juicy cubes and shreds of peppery, well-spiced brisket, crusty red potatoes, shaved mushrooms, grilled onions, parsley, and a pair of fried eggs. Katy’s eggs Benedict features a grilled English muffin piled with thin-sliced smoked ham, three poached eggs and an ocean of “glorious Hollandaise.” Miss Audrey’s buttermilk pancakes are fluffy, nearly inch-thick wonders that taste best when studded with melting banana slices, topped with sliced bananas, and served with maple syrup and whipped butter. My father also raves about Katy’s pecan waffles.
MUST ORDER DISHES: Corned Beef Hash ‘n Eggs, Katy’s Eggs Benedict, Miss Audrey’s Buttermilk Pancakes
Gaston Georis’ restaurant on a Carmel side street celebrates the cuisine of French impressionists. The space captures a village feel, complete with facades, rooftops and mural of a mustachioed bicyclist riding a wire between rooftops. A second room houses animal statuettes, a marble counter, and a wood oven with blackboard diagrams of cow and pig on the side. Wood-fired breads – Francese, baguette and sourdough boule – come with soft butter and herbed olive oil. In fall, root vegetable salad is a great starter, with beets cut different ways, carrots, radishes, mixed baby lettuce, Point Reyes blue cheese, candied hazelnuts, and buttermilk dressing. Escargots also benefit from the wood oven, with creamy snails served in shells with garlic parsley butter with crushed hazelnuts. Le Marmite Dieppoise, aka “mariner’s stew,” treats mussels and Petrale sole to a savory bath with leeks, fennel, cider and cream.
MUST ORDER DISHES: Le Marmite Dieppoise, Root Vegetable Salad, Wood-Fired Breads, Wood-Fired Escargot
Brittany native Yann Lusseau and local Anne Parker Johnson opened a bare bones Monterey bakery in 1996, expanded in 2002, and completed the triumvirate in 2009 with a Ryan Ranch location. Their two-story Fremont Adobe location dates to 1847 and once housed John Charles Fremont. Now, the space has a short porch with small tables, and a few more tables indoor, but it’s mainly about the pastry cases and charming décor. Some of my favorites included the Pithivier, a slice of browned pastry that was firmer at the ends and filled with terrific almond cream; and the Lemon Bichon, seashell shaped, crisp and caramelized at points, and slightly tangy. buttery brioche sports granulated sugar on top of the supple bun and a filling of rich, flecked vanilla custard. Their Croissant has flaky outer shell, and a soft, airy center. Their Almond Croissant is arguably the best in the land, with a crisp exterior lined with almond scales and an almond cream filling. You may also find seasonal gems like the marionberry streusel with croissant dough, oat and almond crust, and sweet tart berries.
MUST ORDER DISHES: Almond Croissant, Brioche, Lemon Bichon, Marionberry Streusel, Pithivier
Chef Ted Walter, sustainable seafood champion, has run this popular Pacific Grove cafe with wife Cindy Walter since 1997. Their corner space contains two-toned tan and cream walls, wood tables, and black-and-white photos of majestic sealife like whales, stingrays and fish. A seasonal menu and smaller printout of Nightly Additions means you may not find any dishes I’m writing about in this summary. Spicy seafood stew loads rockfish, halibut and sturgeon in flavorful tomato cilantro broth. Dungeness Crab & Avocado Salad comes dressed with spicy ginger vinaigrette mixed with soy sauce and olive oil. Flaky rockfish luxuriates in miso carrot vinaigrette and cashew dust and arrives with tiny arancini and Vietnam-influenced jicama citrus salad. The dessert menu may include a pyramid of silky Meyer lemon panna cotta dressed with bright yellow lemon curd and tiny lemongrass meringues.
MUST ORDER DISHES: Dungeness Crab & Avocado Salad, Rockfish, Spicy Seafood Stew, Meyer Lemon Panna Cotta