The peninsula's largest city, Monterey was the original political, economic, and settlement hub for the state. It's home to Steinbeck's famed Cannery Row, now a shopping and hotel district, and the excellent Monterey Bay Aquarium.
In the early 1900s, Italian, Japanese, and Chinese fishermen plied Monterey's waters for sardines. In one season, about 250,000 tons of the cannable creatures were taken from the water ― but the population crashed in the 1940s.
Today the bay is once again producing a bounty, with the rebounded sardine catch as well as squid, anchovies, rockfish, and mackerel. Brothers Johnny and David DiGirolamo grew up working in their family's restaurant, helping to serve fish their Sicilian father had caught. A U.S. Navy gunner in World War II, he returned to Monterey to marry a Japanese American nurse who had joined the Red Cross to escape internment camp. Both parents taught the boys to cook; now they run one of the city's most popular seafood eateries, Monterey's Fish House.
"We've always tried to do things thinking, 'How would Mom do it,' " says chef David. "We serve our mussels with marinara, which is very Italian, but they also have chili and sake, from our mother."
Monterey is full of culinary gems like the Fish House. Restaurants line Cannery Row, where packinghouses once distributed the bay's harvest across the country.
Visitors can try making dishes like lobster cream sauce and sautéed flounder at the four-year-old Culinary Center of Monterey. From the kitchen, you can see the sea ― a view that can't help but enhance the flavor of the food.
SEAFOOD IN MONTEREY
Culinary Center of Monterey. Take gourmet cooking classes in sleek kitchens overlooking the bay, or dine at Mary's at the Culinary Center, the school's restaurant. Classes (from $75) Wed-Sun; closed Mon. 625 Cannery Row; (831) 333-2133.
Duck Club Restaurant. High-end California cuisine and grilled seafood, served in a dining room overlooking the water. Breakfast daily, dinner Tue-Sun. In Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa, 400 Cannery Row; www.woodsidehotels.com or (831) 646-1706.
Monterey's Fish House. Humble structure on Del Monte Avenue near State 1 belies lively interior with outstanding fresh seafood dishes. Lunch Mon-Fri, dinner daily. 2114 Del Monte Ave.; (831) 373-4647.
Sardine Factory. Much-loved 34-year-old restaurant serves traditional Italian seafood as well as innovative dishes in a sprawling former cannery building. Dinner daily. 701 Wave St.; www.sardinefactory.com or (831) 373-3775.