John Steinbeck, a native of Salinas, wrote about Monterey in novels like Tortilla Flat and Cannery Row as it was in the 1930s and ‘40s—a beautiful place, but also gritty and hard; much of the work to be had was in the fish canneries or the fields. These days the canneries are long gone, and while Monterey County’s fertile inland valleys are still known as the “salad bowl of the world” for their agricultural production, its coastal towns are a tourist mecca best described as “California chic.”
For food and wine lovers, the menu possibilities are as eclectic and enthralling as the scenery. With sea and field literally at their backdoors, many eateries focus on fresh, local ingredients of the highest quality. From quaint hole-in-the-walls in the northern outpost of Moss Landing to cliffside dining above the clouds in Big Sur, area restaurants offer peerless cuisine amid poetic beauty.
Located in the charming, history-rich town of Pacific Grove, Passionfish serves a daily dinner menu highlighting fresh, innovative seafood sourced from small local farms and farmers markets. Opened 18 years ago, the restaurant was among the forerunners of the sustainability movement in the area, and owners chef Ted Walter and his wife, Cindy, remain zealous advocates for the cause. Beautifully prepared, seasonal dishes, from smoked trout ceviche tostaditas and Dungeness crab salad to shrimp mousseline ravioli and duck confit, make this warm and welcoming spot a favorite dinner routine for locals and out-of-towners alike.
Though located in one of the oldest houses in Monterey and said to be inhabited by ghosts, there’s nothing of dust and cobwebs about Restaurant 1833. The uber-popular establishment, with its air of fun and mystery and its equally supernatural cuisine, always attracts a crowd. Each of the seven dining rooms in the beautiful adobe structure presents a unique and tasteful décor inspired by the house’s storied past, including “Hattie’s room,” where a practical-joking socialite who died in the house in 1948 is said to salt guests’ wine. Signature menu items run the gambit from truffle chicken and salt-crusted dorade to wild mushroom and prosciutto pizza. The restaurant’s spirits—that is, the wine-and-cocktail variety—are expertly curated and crafted, with a particularly impressive selection of absinthes.
Top of the World
Dining at Sierra Mar is like settling a fine linen tablecloth over a bird’s wing and taking flight. Situated on a cliff 1,200 feet above the Pacific, the restaurant overlooks a limitless expanse of blue water and Big Sur sky. Sierra Mar is on the grounds of the famous 39-room Post Ranch Inn and is open to the public for lunch and dinner. On par with the scenery, the restaurant’s unconventional cuisine and award-winning wine list provide a snapshot of the Big Sur coast. Order from the daily prix-fixe menu or the tasting menu for dishes like venison tenderloin with wild Big Sur berries and buckwheat or Monterey red abalone with escarole, squid ink and brown butter.
Casual Elegance on the Green
Golfers and non-golfers alike enjoy dining on the green at Poppy Hills Golf Course in Pebble Beach. At restaurant Porter’s in the Forest, chef Johnny De Vivo’s imaginative touch makes every menu item unique, giving clubhouse fare a creative and artisanal twist. Breads, bacon, butter, kimchi, pickles and even ketchup are made in-house, and most ingredients are regionally sourced. Try the pulled pork lettuce wraps with pickles, kohlrabi slaw, mustard seeds and chili paste, or the forest burger made from organic ground chuck with onion marmalade and horseradish. The cocktail list is similarly farm-to-table, featuring seasonal specials like the refreshing “lavender fields lemonade,” which combines house-made lemonade, house-made lavender simple syrup and vodka.
Jeninni Kitchen + Wine Bar, tucked away in a quiet corner of Pacific Grove, has a friendly, casual ambiance—it’s the kind of place where you linger over a cup of espresso or glass of red wine long into the evening. The menu changes daily according to locally harvested ingredients, offering up an exotic array of dishes inspired by the southern Mediterranean. Small plates like the crispy octopus or lamb meatballs meet Spanish-style charcuterie and entrees like brick-seared chicken, risotto manchego and paella. (To miss out on the eggplant fries is a sin!) A superb wine list, representing local as well as international vintages, rounds off the recipe for a memorable dining experience.