When you live on the Central Coast, SOOOO many options are a short drive–and sometimes it is hard to rationalize even leaving home. We have the ocean, the beach, all the wine-country and our own fabulous restaurants right here, so why leave? Because it’s nice to get outa town now and then! Whether to go North or South is always the first decision here in San Luis Obispo, and when North wins the toss, one of my favorite food destinations is MONTEREY. No, no, no, not any of that crap down there–I know what you’re thinking! There’s a whole area *down there* that a LOT of people think–and consider–“Monterey”. And sure… take the kiddos down there and go whale-watching and hit the Aquarium and buy salt-water-taffy and a bobble-head doll and dodge the seagulls and strollers, but when you’re ready to have a grown-up Monterey experience: here’s your list. I get asked about Monterey restaurants more than any other area save here locally, so I thought I’d put my 5 favorites in one place.
Number 1–and this is SO hard to do, because I love Number 2 SO MUCH, but–for all-around crowd-pleasing, comfortable, incredible food, wonderful wine list and great service: I gotta go with MONTRIO BISTRO. Great atmosphere, great cocktails, great food Every. Single. Time–and you get to draw on the tables! How very Chuck-E-Cheese’s of them! Well, whatever their motivation, it works and this is my go-to spot when staying across the street at The Monterey Hotel–the ONLY place I stay in Monterey. Be sure and go on Sunday night, when bottles under 100 bucks are half-off! Oh and get the duck.
A second place so close and hard-fought in my head with number 1–for reasons that would make this post WAY too long–is easily RESTAURANT 1833. The only reason it is #2 is because it recently CLOSED. However, I can not think of a replacement for this list so I guess this is really a TOP-4. The only reasons I am including it is for all the great memories–the food, the awards, ridiculous bottles of wine consumed, great friends–and that you need to WATCH this space for what happens next. This stunning little piece of property will not sit idle long.
Number 3: FIFI’S BISTRO in Pacific Grove. Love this little secret hide-out for not only the food, but the WINE SHOPPING!!! The wine-prices–and selection–is AMAZING. You will leave with an appetite satisfied with classic French fare and at LEAST a case of wine.
In the Number 4 spot: let’s talk about dining at The Aquarium. Yes, The Monterey Aquarium. Kinda like Disneyland, everyone should visit at least once in their life, and I recommend multiple visits FAR more than The Happiest Place on Earth. It is fascinating and beautiful enough to dodge the throngs of children and blocks-away parking. And when you get hungry? Skip the cafeteria downstairs with the stroller-contents screaming over their chicken nuggets and strawberry shaved ice. Duck away upstairs to THE RESTAURANT AT THE AQUARIUM. Ahhhhhhh. Peace and quiet, tablecloths, a winelist and some of the best views of the bay alongside incredible food. This is the headquarters of SEAFOOD WATCH and the menu reflects it.
OK so you HAVE to go down onto the pier, right? Well, you don’t have to EAT there, but IF YOU DO: if you just have to have some local fare, some sardine factory, cannery row seafood and the smell of salt water, pigeon-poop, old carpet and worn wood planks, make a bee-line for OLD FISHERMAN’S GROTTO (and I have to admit I love this place enough sometimes I sneak down here WHILE complaining about the tourists). The first thing to greet you will be the “NO HIGHCHAIRS” sign. That’s true love right there, folks. The menu is piles and piles of seafood, fried, steamed, grilled, a perfectly serviceable winelist (every time I have been, bottles were half off. Not sure the details of this *sale* but I never complain. When you can buy a bottle for the price of 1 1/2 glasses, you shut up and just take the remainder home!). DO NOT skip dessert!!! This place rules all–I don’t care what kind of names you call me.
Sorry I can’t come up with a full, legitimate Top 5. Sure, you can go to Passionfish, or pho at Chopstix, or drive to Carmel for Casanova or Carmel Valley for Corkscrew Cafe. There’s a lot of options. All decent options. But I am going to leave it at MY top 4, becasue nothing has blown me away like these 5 spots.
Do NOT forget MONTEREY ART MUSEUM, up in the part of Monterey–the actual town–people never go to. You DO know Monterey was the capitol of California, right?!?! Brush up on your Monterey history and the State Park in town HERE. Here’s another one: TOP 5 HISTORICAL PLACES IN MONTEREY. But if you want a full history of the sardine industry–its rise and collapse, you need to travel to Salinas to the STEINBECK CENTER. It is FASCINATING. Enjoy Monterey!