Fresh Seafood to Chic Hideaway Hotels: The Ultimate Central California Road Trip
Take a culinary trip to these must-visit spots on California’s Central Coast.
Food-obsessed travelers tend to romanticize culinary epiphanies in faraway places: eating Hokkaido scallop at a Ginza sushi spot in Tokyo, fresh anchovies on a sun-dappled deck on the Amalfi coast, cuttlefish in the bustling Boqueria market in Barcelona. But with summer here and international travel still iffy, it’s the ideal time to dive into the pleasures—piscine and otherwise—of California’s central coast. Restaurants new and old have reopened, the fishing industry is bouncing back, and boutique hotels are cropping up along the 101 and Highway 1, making a seafood sojourn easier than ever.
To maximize views, meals, and city stops, set aside three to five nights, bookend your trip south in Santa Barbara and north in Santa Cruz, and you’ll never have to drive much longer than three hours. Hug the coast on the 101 and Highway 1 as much as you can to soak in the spectacular views, always ask the servers for what’s local, and if you see Santa Barbara urchin on the menu, order it. It’s the most perishable, delectable, and exquisite seafood on the planet and a regional specialty prized the world over. Here are a handful of can’t-miss spots to get a summery seafood fix like no other.
Santa Barbara Saturday Fishermen’s Market
To score the absolute freshest fish, make time on a Saturday morning to visit the market in Santa Barbara harbor where local fishermen sell rock crab, live urchin from legendary local purveyor Sea Stephanie Fish, and other regional delicacies.
Modern spins on Indian food and a wine list heavy on local and global natural wines make this restaurant from Alejandro Medina and celeb somm Rajat Parr a must-hit spot. Order the decadent uni biryani for the table.
For a taste of genteel Santa Barbara with a side of exceptional seafood, hit this breezy oceanside Italian restaurant with postcard-perfect views of the waterfront. Sit on the patio and tuck into pastas starring local Hope Ranch mussels, urchin, and crab while watching classic cars cruise under the palms on Cabrillo Boulevard.
Palihouse Santa Barbara
This chic Mediterranean-revival inn in Santa Barbara’s charming Presidio neighborhood has a romantic interior courtyard and a well-stocked honor bar for late-night tipples, and it puts you within walking distance of Bibi Ji and other restaurants and bars.
In the formerly sleepy town of Los Alamos, Daisy and Greg Ryan have created a dynamo of deliciousness with their little Franch (that’s French + Ranch) bistro: There’s the prix fixe menu with halibut crudo, peppery steak au poivre, and ice cream with hazelnuts from Greg’s family farm; weekend barbecue popups; and now a late-night smash-burger menu. But it’s the briny little crêpe topped with uni and caviar that sets the tone.
Bar Le Côte
This brand-new restaurant from the Bell’s crew combines California coastal cooking with Spanish influences in a convivial space in downtown Los Olivos. Think whole roasted fish, seafood towers, and tender grilled octopus.
Boasting two acres of firepits, comfy outdoor furniture, and rooms with private patios and hammocks, the new Hotel Ynez is the latest property from the folks behind nearby Los Alamos’s Skyview motel. If you grow tired of seafood, opt for cook-your-own barbecue for two on the patio.
You’re going to want to ease into the day with a hearty, hippie breakfast—and this is the spot. With locations in both Cambria and Cayucos, the beyond charming and good-hearted Hidden Kitchen cooks up satisfying savory and sweet gluten-free blue corn waffles, tacos topped with Niman Ranch bacon ends, turmeric smoothies, and more.
Aggressively, deliciously smoked salmon, albacore, and shrimp are the draw at this Cayucos institution. Put a cooler in your car and bring vacpacked fish home to keep those vacation vibes going for days.
Local forager Spencer Marley conducts this inspiring and immersive tour on the beach in Cayucos that’s both primer on the botanical bounty of the sea and the tastiest little ramen pop-up around: Marley wraps up the session with an alfresco lunch simmered in just-picked kombu broth.
White Water Cambria
Perched above scenic Moonstone Beach, this stylish new lodge channels Scandinavian and hippie California vibes in a low-key but luxe fashion. Think Block Shop prints and a chill lobby lounge with elevated nibbles and natural wine.
H&H Fresh Fish
This family-run business in Santa Cruz Harbor sells sustainably caught local rockfish, squid, steelhead, and yellowtail. With paella rice, top-shelf condiments, Peruvian aji, and more, it’s a one-stop shop for setting up a seafood feast in your vacation rental.
The Sea Pearl
Just a ten-minute walk from the Santa Cruz Harbor and the excellent H&H Seafood, this quaint and tidy beach bungalow in Santa Cruz’s Seabright neighborhood has a kitchen and a little grill ready to support your culinary creativity.