San Francisco to Big Sur: A Coastal Culinary Adventure

A happy couple in their 30s enjoy ice cream in a coastal setting during their foodie road trip from San Francisco to Big Sur.

If you want a true culinary sampling of the Golden State’s coastal scene, there’s no better road trip than the one from San Francisco to Big Sur, California. You’ll start your tasty adventure in the buzzing city of SF, which attracts some of the most incredible culinary talents in the world. Then you’ll work your way through a range of quaint, historic and influential cities, like tech-savvy San Jose and beachy Monterey — each area offering unique flavors and charming neighborhood highlights. Finally, you’ll wind up in Big Sur's unique coastal landscape, featuring awe-inspiring redwood trees and cliffside restaurants with breathtaking views.

And the best part that ties these appealing destinations together? Their culinary hotspots provide one tasty throughline. So, allow us to whet your appetite with 15 mouth-watering recommendations and must-try grub stops for serious foodies. Ready to take a big bite out of the Cali coastline? Let’s dig in!

Making the Drive from San Francisco to Big Sur

Before searching Instagram for a vacay wardrobe to match the vibe of each cafe or restaurant, let’s review some tips for your trip. From the optimal time to go to which roads to take, here’s what to keep in mind when planning your trip so you can have the kind of trip you’re craving.

Best Time of Year for a Big Sur Road Trip

The California coastline offers a variety of scenic beauty within a reasonably comfortable climate range throughout all seasons, which makes it an appealing state to traverse throughout the year. Springtime may be rainy, but for some travelers, there’s something mysterious and romantic about a sleepy, overcast coastal town. As an added bonus, you may benefit from gorgeous views of wildflowers along the way. However, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention that the coastline can be subject to landslides during the wet season, which can mean road closures and undesired backtracking.

Low fog may be at play during “June gloom,” hindering your views but offering cooler temperatures than you’ll get in the drier late summer months. If you’re looking for that classic California beach weather — the kind that calls for floppy hats and flowy linen pants — the best time to take this trip is between September and November. During fall, some of the extreme summer heat will have mellowed out, but you can still expect mostly warm weather and blue skies. And for a chillier trip that calls for sweaters while still getting a strong dose of sunshine, wintertime may be just the season for your trek. No matter which season you prefer, the path you choose to take is another major consideration.

Recommended Routes for a Big Sur/San Francisco Road Trip

There are two primary routes from San Francisco to Big Sur. The first involves taking I-280 South through San Jose before crossing to Santa Cruz and eventually catching CA State Route 1 (CA-1), also known as the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH), where you’ll spend the remainder of your journey. This picturesque coastal freeway hugs the Pacific Ocean shoreline, so you’ll experience every curvature the coastline offers. It’s so long that if you haven’t scratched your travel itch after Big Sur, you could continue on for a road trip through Santa Barbara and even Los Angeles. This route offers unforgettable ocean views, as well as our recommended stops at various culinary hotspots. However, it can be a lengthy, winding path, so you may prefer to take the shorter route for your return trip.

The second route also takes you through San Jose but keeps you on the US-101 South for most of the journey. A quick glance at a CA state map will show that the US-101 travels from San Francisco to Big Sur in California’s agricultural towns. You’ll trade the coastline and ocean air for cows and fields of flowers. This route offers its own charm, such as mom-and-pop shops and roadside diners, so you may even discover some new gems on the drive. Pro tip: pack paper road maps because internet service can be spotty along the coast. If Waze or Google Maps cuts out, you’ll be glad to have physical maps with you for guidance.

15 Best Foodie Spots to Hit on a San Francisco to Big Sur Road Trip

Now that you know when and how you want to take your road trip, let’s get into the reason for your travels! What makes California so special is that many different cultures have flocked to its coastline, meaning you can find a world’s worth of flavors between SF and Big Sur. Looking for a taste of the real deal? Skip the tourist traps and check out these 15 foodie havens where you can sample authentic flavors and create lasting memories. Each one is easily accessible along the route from SF to Big Sur (following the PCH most of the way), so you won’t need to veer far off track to enjoy them.

1. Gospel Flat Farm Stand for Fresh, Local Produce in SF

Our first recommendation is a place so high on the list that it’s actually north of our starting point, in the unincorporated coastal community of Bolinas. We just couldn’t have you miss out on the incomparably charming Gospel Flat Farm. This organic, locally-owned farmstand features an endearing homemade sign and runs on the honor system.

Customers collect and weigh their own fresh produce, baked goods and other treats, and drop what they believe is a fair amount in a cash box. As if that wasn’t enough, we highly recommend not leaving until you have a loaf of their homemade sourdough bread in tow — it’s some of the chewiest and flakiest yeasty goodness you’ll ever chomp into. This quaint farmstand is the perfect place to begin your foodie road trip so you can stash fresh snacks for time in the car between your upcoming destinations.

2. La Taqueria for the World’s Greatest Burrito in the Mission

What would a Cali road trip be without authentic Mexican cuisine? Every flavor of SF resident — from tech startup gurus to church Sunday grannies — gladly waits in line to enjoy the mouthwatering dishes being served up at La Taqueria. An open-air kitchen means you can hear the carne asada sizzling and see the fresh ingredients before indulging in their unparalleled flavor. For an insider tip: order your taco “Dorado-style,” and they’ll melt cheese between two semi-fried tortillas, which will become your taco shell. This modest burrito hotspot has rave reviews from individuals and publications alike (with some hailing it as the best burrito in the world!), making it a must-hit spot on your culinary journey.

3. Swan Oyster Depot for No-Frills Seafood in SF

For a change of atmosphere, head to the affluent neighborhood of Nob Hill, and you’ll likely notice a line down the block at Swan Oyster Depot. Established in 1912, this unassuming, counter-dining restaurant is something of an institution in SF. You’ll rarely find one of its 18 seats empty because anyone who craves ultra-fresh oysters, shrimp, mussels and crabs knows Swan Oyster Depot is the place to go. They offer a daily-changing menu, often featuring rare oysters you’d be hard-pressed to find elsewhere. Plus, rumor has it there’s a secret menu, so it may be worth getting chummy with locals for the inside scoop and a seat at the table (well, counter in this case)!

4. Dad’s Luncheonette for a Unique Roadside Experience in Half Moon Bay

Looking for a casual eatery with deceptively inspired menu items? Check out Dad’s Luncheonette. The beauty is in the simplicity of this cafe-style spot, open exclusively on Thursdays through Sundays. The menu consists of only a handful of carefully curated items: hamburger sandwich, mushroom sandwich, homemade potato chips, mac & cheese, herb salad, soup of the week and sweet of the week. That’s it! And that’s all it has to be because Dad’s is the passion project of Scott Clark, former sous chef of Saison — a multi-Michelin Star restaurant. Put simply, Clark brings his culinary expertise to this roadside spot, focusing on locally sourced, organic dishes.

5. The Picnic Basket for a Charming Boardwalk Delight in Santa Cruz

You’ve landed in the funky and vibrant collegiate city of Santa Cruz, and everyone in your group is craving something different. One person wants a breakfast burrito, someone else is feeling a creative salad and yet another traveler desires a sweet treat like ice cream. Fortunately, we have just the place for a crew with varied taste buds such as these. Head to The Picnic Basket, a favorite among Cruzers and refreshingly not at all a tourist trap. With a focus on community, the restaurant lists the local farms from which it sources ingredients on the menu. Insiders would tell you not to miss the BLT but we say go for whatever stands out to you and choose your own destiny because you really can’t go wrong!

6. Pono Hawaiian Grill for Authentic Maui Cuisine in Santa Cruz

Escape to a tropical island in the middle of Santa Cruz at Pono Hawaiian Grill. This lively spot has a menu featuring California spins on classic Hawaiian dishes such as Spam-filled sushi, loaded Kalua pork fries and their popular “Island quesadilla.” With 15 craft beers on tap, live music and karaoke nights, it also has a fun, social atmosphere. You also won’t want to miss their signature poke bowls, made with the freshest ingredients and bursting with authentic Hawaiian flavors.

7. Captain + Stoker for Buzz-Worthy Coffee in Monterey

So the waves are crashing up against the cliffs and you hear there’s a world-famous aquarium nearby — you’ve made it to Monterey Bay! If you need a caffeinated buzz before you can take it all in, make sure to stop into Captain + Stoker. They offer a selection of specialty coffees and simple, yet tasty bites to complement your beverages. They focus on fair trade and have a unique rotating selection of international roasts to explore. From espressos and drip coffee to pour-overs and cold brew, Captain + Stoker has plenty of delicious caffeine delivery systems. You might even want to make a second stop on your way back from Big Sur to San Francisco to stay alert for the journey home.

8. Compagno’s Market and Deli for Sandwiches in Monterey

Built up an appetite after exploring downtown Monterey? You can fill your belly (and then some) after a stop at Compagno’s, one of the longest-running delis in the area. This family-owned and operated spot is known for its towering sandwiches and warm and witty owner. You’ll feel like you’ve traveled back to the 1950s when filling out your old-school paper order slip, where you can customize your hot or cold sub before handing that slip to the cashier. A large selection of chips and cold drinks are available to complement your hoagie for a delightfully well-rounded experience.

9. Alvarado Street Brewery for a Casual Pint and Meal in Old Town Monterey

Craving comfort food after a long day of taking in ocean air? Head over to Alvarado Street Brewery. Just a block away from the water and in the heart of downtown Monterey, this “brewpub” is the perfect spot to people-watch and absorb the coastal atmosphere. Their grub selection includes filling favorites like loaded mac ‘n cheese, a fried chicken sandwich and gourmet burgers. Wash it all down with a pint from their ever-rotating selection of beers, all of which are brewed at one of three California breweries from Carmel, Salinas or Monterey itself.

10. Revival Ice Cream for a Refreshing Artisanal Dessert in Monterey

Winding down after a day in the sun? Satisfy your sweet tooth and enjoy the sunset while consuming a cone from Revival Ice Cream. Revival makes handcrafted, small-batch ice cream using local, organic and sustainable ingredients. They’re known for their unique twists on classic flavors, like their Eucalyptus Mint Chip and Milk & Cookies. They also aren’t afraid to get adventurous — the Bee’s Knees, which combines caramelized honey and real beeswax, is a local favorite.

11. La Bicyclette for a European Experience in Carmel

Ah, you’ve landed in Carmel-by-the-Sea, a quaint beach city with a population of barely more than 3,000 people. With so many hidden gems in Carmel, you might need one of our detailed Thomas guides to help you find them all, like our must-hit recommendation, La Bicyclette. This charming bistro earned a spot in the Michelin Guide for its creative European country cuisine, cooked on no more than six burners and one wood-fired oven in a tiny kitchen. The menu changes weekly, but you can always expect imaginative dishes with provincial charm. Today, the menu features rainbow beet carpaccio and homemade pasta with lobster in a creamy cognac sauce — don’t you wonder what you can expect during your visit?

12. Cultura for Tapas-Style Mexican in Carmel

With Mexican culture so deeply integrated into the spirit of coastal California, we had to include another south-of-the-border style spot. When you’re after a casual-chic atmosphere and shareable plates, stop into Cultura. The menu combines appetizers and entrees, delivering the flavors of Oaxaca, such as halibut ceviche, mushroom mole and a variety of tacos ranging from vegetarian to meat-centric. And if you want to indulge in a few delectable craft cocktails, you may want to leave your car at home and take an Uber for a next-level night out.

13. Nepenthe for Lunch and Unbeatable Big Sur Views

It’s hard to believe, but you’re approaching the end of your Big Sur road trip. From San Francisco to this point, you’ve experienced unforgettable food and landmarks. Now, you’re in Big Sur, one of the most picturesque and undeveloped stretches of California coastline. While this isn’t the most unique recommendation due to its popularity, it’s so well-known for a reason. Nepenthe is a laid-back lunch and dinner spot with jaw-dropping views, making it a can’t-miss spot in the area. You’ll take in vistas of the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Lucia Mountains while enjoying classic California cuisine. If you only order one thing, make it the Ambrosia burger — it’s their version of a ground steak sandwich served up on a French roll with their secret Ambrosia sauce. Then, once you’ve finished your meal, you only have to stroll a few steps to make it to our next recommendation.

14. Cafe Kevah for a Bevvy and Treat Next Door

Before heading out for more adventures, grab a coffee from Nepenthe’s sister business, Cafe Kevah. Occupying the same lot and under the same ownership as Nepenthe, Cafe Kevah serves delicious gourmet coffees and baked goods with the same breathtaking views. The outdoor terrace provides a perfect spot to relax and enjoy a quick bite while soaking in the natural beauty of Big Sur. Indulge in their fresh pastries for a delightful treat following lunch at Nepenthe while enjoying a pick-me-up via a coffee, smoothie, or soda. They also offer a wonderful selection of wine and beer, or you could continue your adventure with one last stop for a beverage at another fun establishment in Big Sur.

15. Big Sur Taphouse for a Tranquil Taproom Atmosphere

End your day exploring the rugged trails with a bite at Big Sur Taphouse. This rustic eatery has an unpretentious atmosphere (think Adirondacks and family-style tables), a rotating selection of local beer and hearty dishes that can satisfy hikers and bikers alike. In addition to their regular menu, featuring Americana cuisine like loaded nachos and pulled pork sandwiches, the taphouse has daily themed specials such as Taco Tuesday, Fishy Friday and Slider Saturday. With its actual address on the PCH (you can even spot it on the occasional highway map of the US), the Big Sur Taphouse is a genuine roadside gem.

Let Rand McNally Publishing Guide the Way On Your Next Road Trip

Is the open road calling your heart (and stomach) yet? Then, it’s time to plan your road trip from San Francisco to Big Sur! Enjoy a unique, immersive way to travel with our maps and atlases. Silence those constant phone notifications that pull you out of the present moment and instead rely on your devices solely for road trip tunes and podcast favorites.

Our paper guides will help you plan your route while leaving room for discovery along the way. Nothing fosters a sense of adventure like holding a physical map. Satisfy your longing to explore the vibrant coastal region of California without digital distractions. Pick up one of our CA state maps and plan your big adventure from San Francisco to Big Sur today!

Author: Rand McNally Publishing Team
Date:Jul 10th 2024