Salmon at Passionfish
Photo by Michelle Magdalena
With its proximity to the ocean and the freshest catch of the day, along with locally sourced produce and wineries galore, Monterey Bay offers plenty of food for thought, from the latest restaurants dishing out creative menus to family-owned eateries cooking up classic comfort foods.
By Peter Fish
IF YOU WANT NEW, SMART, AND SAVVY ...
Seventh & Dolores Steakhouse
The first sign that Seventh & Dolores Steakhouse is a truly singular addition to the Carmel-by-the-Sea neighborhood is its chic, airy interior — the eatery, which opened in summer 2017, is a burst of bright modernity among its quaint gingerbread-house surroundings. But it is Executive Chef Todd Fisher's menu that elevates Seventh & Dolores (or, for the initiated, simply "7D") from hip new kid on the block to raved-about culinary destination. It all starts with sourcing the best meat possible: 7D is, as of this writing, the first and only steakhouse in the country to be partnered exclusively with Niman Ranch, the purveyors of sustainable, all-natural meats known nationwide for their strict standards and top-quality products.
The centerpiece of the 7D menu is a selection of these fine steaks, all of which have been dry aged for 28 days to further enhance the flavor and tenderize the meat. Steaks can be dressed up from a menu of toppings and sides, such as blue cheese crust and bone marrow–roasted mushrooms. Consider bone marrow 7D's secret weapon: Given their readily available supply of bones, Fisher often opts to use this tasty fat in place of butter or olive oil. It's part of the magic that makes 7D's burger so wildly popular: Dry-aged meat is dressed with bone marrow and fat trimmings, then cooked all the way through (sorry, no bloody burgers here) until it is rich and caramelized.
In the mood for something more rare? Fisher's personal favorite, the steak tartare, comes in three variations. Try them all by requesting the Tartare Trio on 7D's secret menu. Top it all off with a 7D Martini (gin with blue cheese–stuffed olives wrapped in seared steak) for an unforgettable night out. "Whether it's a special event, a birthday, an anniversary, or just a Friday or Tuesday, for that matter, we believe in creating celebration," Fisher says. "It's what we got into this industry for, and it's the experience we're trying to create daily."
— Elizabeth Limbach
Venture to this oceanfront eatery hailed for its farm-to-table dining and stellar sustainable seafood program (Pacific rockfish tacos, pan-seared butterfly trout, sautéed mussels), shareable plates (poké mini tostadas, sweet chili shrimp, grilled sweet potato avocado toast), and noshes from the ag-rich region (wild mushroom salad, seasonal roasted vegetables). Oh, and the view!
Cultura Comida y Bebidas
Traditional Oaxacan fare with a Californiaminded emphasis on local ingredients takes center stage. Inventive brunches (blue corn pancakes, anyone?), family-style dinners (mole and oak-roasted steelhead trout stand out), and a late-night happy hour (street tacos and draft brews, please) keep locals and visitors coming back for seconds and thirds.
Lalla Oceanside Grill
The contemporary California grill on Cannery Row serves breathtaking floor-to-ceiling views of Monterey Bay. But about the food: Mexican street tacos, Big Little Sliders, flatbreads, and robust pastas featuring such gems as baconwrapped shrimp & spinach noodles make things memorable.
IF YOU WANT HOMEMADE INFLUENCES ...
Carl Alasko speint decades wishing the Monterey Bay had a traditional Roman-style eatery like the trattorias he frequented when living in the Eternal City in the 1960s and '70s. These family-run neighborhood restaurants centered on simple, delicious food made from scratch — a cooking style Alasko brought home with him. Eventually, he decided to take matters into his own hands, opening Il Vecchio in Pacific Grove in 2011. "People didn't go to a neighborhood trattoria for really nice crystal — nobody cared," Alasko says. "All they cared about was what came out on the plate, and at a reasonable price. And that's how it started."
Still notably affordable, Il Vecchio's menu is stocked with satisfying, home-style Italian dishes prepared with freshly made pastas and sauces. Good flavors can't be rushed, Alasko says: "It all has to start from scratch." To capture the Roman essence, Alasko enlisted the help of his daughter, who visited Pacific Grove with a chef from one of her favorite trattorias in downtown Rome. By the time the Italian collaborators headed back overseas, Il Vecchio was the real deal. Il Vecchio is where Italians go to eat on the Monterey Bay, which tells you everything you need to know.
One of the flagship dishes is a true Roman classic: pasta alla carbonara, generously studded with guanciale (smoked pork), egg, pecorino, and black pepper. Other standouts include delicate gnocchi with sage butter and the Ragu d'Agnello con Pappardelle, a succulent marriage of wide-cut pasta and deeply braised, browned lamb slow-cooked in red wine. Every dish is topped with a green dollop of high-quality, rich extra-virgin olive oil for an added kick of Italy. "When you taste it, it has a flavor to it," Alasko says of the restaurant's meticulous, authentic preparation style. "It doesn't have that commercial flavor."
PACIFIC GROVE, ilvecchiorestaurant.com
— Greg Archer
Flying Fish Grill
This welcoming, dimly lit arena with Asian décor features headliners like fresh abalone, salmon, and lobster. All that and an abundant variety of clay pot dishes teeming with luscious noodles and broth filled with seafood, beef, or vegetables.
This small, but mighty family-run European bistro with a menu updated weekly puts a creative spin on cooking techniques rooted in tradition. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner await and everything from wood oven–fired pizzas and housemade linguine to wild salmon and short ribs braised in cabernet make themselves known in stunning presentations on the plate.
An innovate seafood restaurant full of soul and family influence and revered for its sustainably harvested food (striped bass crudo, 12-Hour Lamb Breast, arctic char) and a belief that cuisine can be presented as art.
PACIFIC GROVE, passionfish.net
IF YOU WANT DINING WITH A VIEW ...
Following Portola Hotel & Spa's $6 million lobby renovation project, the destination reopened last year to reveal a striking new look and an exciting new restaurant-bar, Jacks Monterey. The inviting space comes alive with design features that echo the impressive beauty right outside the hotel's doors. The signature arboretum feel — replete with natural light pouring in from above and towering live trees — is now accented with a mélange of artistic textures and colors: plush, stylish chairs; handsome woods; geometric tiles; dangling light fixtures; modern bar stools; and an expansive modern fireplace that stretches across one wall. And sweeping views of the sparkling Monterey Bay.
Chef Danny Abbruzzese has ensured that the plates coming out of Jacks' kitchen are as distinctive and memorable as the setting. His style is California cuisine at its best and most inclusive: By drawing from the many cultures that make up the Golden State and its food history, Abbruzzese has created a fresh West Coast menu infused with global influences. Not to be missed are the hot, buttery cast-iron skillet rolls (exceptional when slathered with the accompanying creamy artichoke and pecorino cheese dip); the organic asparagus served with crispy shallots, a farm egg, and vinegar; the refreshing Strawberry Fields Forever salad; and the brightly flavored Diver Scallop Three Ways. The sustainably sourced menu is best enjoyed when ordered aplenty and shared among friends with craft beer from the brewery next door, Peter B's, or a local wine from the restaurant's awardwinning wine program.
— Elizabeth Limbach
Lucia Restaurant & Bar
Reimagined and creatively cultivated meals make dining among the idyllic Bernardus Lodge vineyards a memorable experience.
CARMEL VALLEY, bernarduslodge.com/wine-cuisine
Destination eatery with stunning views from atop a Big Sur bluff. Steaks, fish, bountiful baskets of fries, fresh breads, and a signature Nepenthe Burger stand out. Come by sunset and watch the view.
BIG SUR, nepenthe.com
Stillwater Bar & Grill
Fresh, upscale restaurant with views of the Pebble Beach greens and the blue seas beyond. From bar food and fully imagined meals to an extensive wine and cocktail list and craft beers.
PEBBLE BEACH, pebblebeach.com/dining/stillwater-bar-grill
IF YOU WANT COMFORT FOOD ...
Two poached eggs meet sautéed spinach, fresh tomatoes, the finest prosciutto, and Basil's signature Hollandaise sauce between two freshly made buns. If you think you can top this Poached Egg Sliders experience, we'd like to see you try. Sunday brunch stands out here, but comfort foods like the local Monterey abalone or goat liver-pear paté are shareable and memorable gastro experiences to Instagram about.
Lamb bam! Go for something memorable and filling at Melville's, like the lamb burger, and you may marvel at just how much tender meat, specialty sauce, and perhaps even some local cheese gets packed between a homemade roll. Those who prefer to cry "fowl" turn to the luscious duck sandwich. Meanwhile, the $3 beers of the week compete with $6 weekly wines and hearty appetizers like the pork polenta and mushroom quesadilla appetizers.
Red House Café
Nothing fails to impress here. Almost everything is prepared from scratch using a variety of locally sourced ingredients. Order Sophia's Nutella Panini for breakfast or dessert. The brioche bread, Nutella, sliced bananas, marshmallow cream — yes, you read that correctly — and fresh berries frolic wonderfully together for a playful party on your palate.
PACIFIC GROVE, redhousecafe.com
Fresh is best at Tarpy's, which recently celebrated its 25th year in a stunning 100-year-old stone building near the Monterey Municipal Airport. Bountiful appetizers (Corn Cob Sticks, Blistered Tomato Bruschetta, steak and eggs) are yours, but to indulge in Tarpy's spicy tuna tacos and relish its wonders of fresh poke, sesame seeds, and housemade specialty sauces within its homemade shell designed by the chef is to take comfort food indulgence to savory new heights.
Gusto Handcrafted Pasta & Pizza
Denis Boaro religiously watched his Grandpa Gino prepare pasta and sauces from scratch at their family-owned culinary shire in Northern Italy. These days, the inventive proprietor of Seaside's hip eatery shares it with the Peninsula. Pastas like the short rib ravioli and spinach fettuccini al salmon are distinctly original to the region. Three fresh pizzas to try: Quattro Formaggi, Burrata, and Triolese, the latter of which finds San Marzano tomatoes, mozzarella, smoked ham, Gorgonzola cheese, and local wild mushrooms resting beautifully atop an exquisitely prepared crust. Order two to share and indulge.
— Greg Archer