- California – San Francisco & Carmel
- California – Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo
- California – Los Angeles & Pasadena
- California – Napa & Sonoma
- Nevada – Las vegas
- Utah – Canyon Lands
- Older Reviews
These reviews come from a trip in September 2022.
I have retained some older reviews towards the bottom of this article that date from trips taken between 2010 and 2017. All are still operating as of December 2022.
San Francisco: McCormick & Kuleto’s, Ghirardelli Square.
I don’t think there is anything within a mile of Fisherman’s Wharf that isn’t a little bit crass and a big bit touristy. Though you’ll get bowls of chowder and Dungness crab all along the waterfront, at least McCormick & Kuleto’s offers a semblance of style and finer dining. At Ghirardelli Square facing the bay and golden gate bridge, it’s an airy dining room with great tables by big windows, serving reliable food. After two false starts with listed wines proving to be unavailable, we had a bottle of serviceable viognier from Fess Parker at a slightly steep $57, then shared some fried calamari before I chose blue crab cake and my partner Ahi poke (a take on sashimi or ceviche, originally from Hawaii). Both were good, and having spotted a fabulous looking baked dessert being served at the table next door, we couldn’t resist sharing the Blueberry Buckle: a skillet of blueberry cobbler, served with a big ball of vanilla ice-cream, which was as terrific as it was calorific. With coffees the bill came to $158 before service.
San Francisco: Bouche, 603 Bush St.
This tiny French restaurant is split over two floors of tightly packed tables, but furnished a really good and quite authentic Parisienne brasserie-style meal and experience. Offering only a seasonal Prix Fixe menu of three courses for $55, it is also cheap by San Francisco standards. On our visit some little tapenade toasts were served before gem lettuce salad with figs, Roquefort, red onion and a tasty honey vinaigrette. There’s choice for mains, and we both elected for the Wagyu beef top sirloin with smashed red potato, roasted cipollini onion, wild mushrooms and a peppercorn sauce. It was really good, the charry beef melting in the mouth. There’s a choice of pudding too, and my partner’s banana cake with berries and Chantilly was probably a better choice than my dark chocolate crème pot, though a clever layer of macadamia nuts concealed in the middle was nice. We had half a bottle of Champagne and two glasses of Cahors from the all-French list and wandered out happily having settled the bill of $190 plus service.
San Francisco: Caffè Macaroni, 9 Columbus Ave
Such fun dining here on the edge of China town, where Mr & Mrs Macaroni (actually Mr & Mrs Ascione) have run their North Beach restaurant for over 30 years. There’s a running comedy friction between Mr M, undoubtedly the Don, who oversees everything, and the warm and funny Mrs M, who has a constant stream of quips, mostly at his expense. The food is good, well-priced and plentiful. Ciabatta and tapenade is served, which if we’d known we wouldn’t have ordered the garlic bread, but it was delicious as was the wild boar ragu with pappardelle, a rich and lightly gamy sauce over perfect pasta. We finished with their tiramisu and drank a bottle of Aglianico del Vulture, for a good value $130 before service.
San Francisco: King Kee Chinese Restaurant, 101 Cyril Magnin St.
OK, first thing to clarify is that this is not the authentic Chinese regional cuisine experience that you might be seeking in Chinatown. We arrived late after a long drive from Los Angeles with too many stops on Highway 1 to admire the views, and saw decent reviews for this place which was literally just around the corner from us. A very odd place in many ways: their web site claims: “We feature the largest all-California wine list in the city,” which was surprising, but in reality, couldn’t have been further from the truth: the list comprised about a dozen non-descript wines, half not even from California. Food was westernised rather than authentic Szechuan and Cantonese (again as claimed), with shrimp dumplings, pot stickers, flaming spicy chicken, steamed rice and a bottle of Pinot Gris leading to a bill of $90. Not a destination, but they fed two tired and hungry travellers adequately.
Carmel: Mission Bistro, 2 Mission St.
The impossibly bijoux and expensive seaside town of Carmel is a delight to visit, crammed with art galleries, expensive boutiques and jewellers, but also some good restaurants. The exposed brick interior is contemporary and welcoming. All of our dining companions appeared to be ladies who lunch, sharing salads and coaxing a glass of white wine to last all evening, but we didn’t let that put us off having something more substantial and a good bottle of course. We kicked off by sharing some creamy burrata, served with a rocket and heirloom tomato salad, and doused in olive oil and balsamic. My main was halibut, a very nice tranche of fish from Alaska, served with light whipped potatoes and a lemon butter sauce. Kept simple, the fish was nicely charred on the outside but perfectly cooked inside. With a bottle of Chardonnay from J. Lohr, the total bill was $145 before tip.
Carmel: Anton & Michel, Carmel Plaza.
The elegant dining room is very “proper” with its flower displays and gleaming silverware, and windows overlooking a lovely courtyard and large fountain. The food here is traditional French-style, with Châteaubriand and rack of lamb being shared by candle-lit couples dining on special ocassions, and lots of flambéing at the table. My breast and confit of duck was very tasty, and came in an ample portion, served with a cassoulet of white beans and truffle oil. This was a good dish, and was washed down nicely by a bottle of Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon from the extensive and Wine Spectator award-winning list, which has several vintages of top Bordeaux and Burgundy, as well as an extensive domestic selection. If candles, flowers and a bit of special-ocassion ceremony are your thing, then Anton & Michel does it very well. $350 for two before tip.
Santa Barbara: Barbareno, 205 West Canon Perdido
This was a really nice place in a restaurant with large corner patio, that celebrates Central Coast ingredients and wines. Friendly service and a relaxed vibe tucked away from the bustle of State Street, we shared a citrus beet salad, chopped beetroot sprinkled with Drake Farms goat’s cheese ‘snow’, miso pesto and pistachio. It was fresh and tangy, perfect before ‘Santa Maria BBQ’ – locally farmed beef, marinated two hours and cooked 12 hours, with pinquito beans, pico de gallo and garlic butter. It was a lovely piece of melt-in-the mouth beef, and a shared portion of baked potatoes was delicious too. Dessert was shared too: a fun ‘Baked California’ – a take on baked Alaska of course, meringue around a mango and herb semifreddo, piquant with lemon, hop cake, lavender and pine nuts. With some sourdough and a bottle of the perfectly pitched Pinot Noir from Presque’il, the bill of $170 excluding service was spot on.
Santa Barbara: Intermezzo by Wine Cask, 813 Anacapa St
What a lovely spot this is, especially if you can snag a table in the leafy courtyard for dinner under hundreds of twinkling fairy lights. Charming and helpful service, unpretentious and tasty food and an extensive wine list set the scene for one of the best dining experiences of my 2022 trip. We started by sharing their house-made meatballs with a chunky, piquant marinara sauce, whipped lemon ricotta and thick slices of sourdough toast, before a fine main course of crispy chicken, coated in panko breadcrumbs and served with lemon-butter-caper sauce, and a salad of wild rocket, fennel, and Meyer lemon. We drank a bottle of the excellent Old Stones Chardonnay from Bergstrom, for a final bill of $131 excluding tip. Great value too.
Santa Barbara: Margerum Wine Company Tasting Room, 19 Mason St.
A welcoming, sophisticated space, with tables on the terrace, and it wasn’t too busy compared to the hustle and bustle of nearby State St. The Margerum wine company has two labels, Margerum and Barden, and the 2019 Sanford & Benedict Vineyard Chardonnay from Barden turned out to be one of my best wines of the trip. We shared some olives, smoked duck ‘toasts’ and a prosciutto and rocket pizza. The duck was just delicious, thin slices atop ciabatta layered with goat’s cheese and a sweet red onion marmalade. The pizza crisply thin-based and perfectly sized for tapas-style sharing. A delightful evening. $131 before service.
Santa Barbara: Flor de Maiz, 29 East Cabrillo Boulevard
On the shorefront, one block from Stern’s Wharf, an upscale Mexican restaurant and cocktail bar with two open terraces as well as plenty of inside tables. Food here is certainly a sophisticated take on the standard taco stand. On our visit lots of big birthday groups made it a rumbustious affair, so maybe not the place for a quiet tête-à-tête. The wine list is small and non-specific (everyone else seemed to be drinking cocktails or beer), so I chose the ‘house’ white, which was a decent Santa Barbara Sauvignon Blanc. We shared three dishes plus some guacamole, the best of which was halibut served with mole verde and herb-roasted potatoes, a sizeable chunk of fish well-cooked. Empanadas stuffed with lobster and jack cheese were good, though we’d visions of small empanadas as served in south America, whereas these were Cornish pasty sized and perhaps a little too big. Total $141 before service.
Santa Barbara: J. Wilkes Tasting Room, 35 State Street
Just a block back from the beach, the super-welcoming staff let us taste a few different wines before settling on the bottle we wanted for lunch. There are tasting flights available of course, but they are happy to serve you on their shady pavement patio from their limited choice of mostly sharing plates – charcuterie, cheeses, hummus – along with glasses or bottles of your choice. Prices are very fair, little more than retail, with the fine Chardonnay 2019 at $24 for example. Sharing plate and a bottle came to just $53 before service.
Santa Barbara: Finney’s Crafthouse & Kitchen, State St.
Certainly not what I’d call a destination place, but one block from the beach on State Street and next door to our hotel, it made for a decent quick lunch with two salads – chicken Caesar and Ahi tuna – and two glasses of Chardonnay, for $50 ex-service.
Santa Barbara: Chad’s, 216 Cabrillo Boulevard.
I’ve been breakfasting here for decades when visiting Santa Barbara, since it was called Sambo’s – actually a concatenation of the founders’ names, but one can see why it was changed. A basket of hot mini chocolate chip muffins, iced water and coffee appears as soon as you are seated, then choose from a menu of breakfast fare that spans eggs benedict to pancakes. French toast is plentiful (two could share), and service is friendly. Outside seating too. $30 for two excluding service.
Santa Barbara: Moby Dick, 220 Sterns Wharf
We’ve been to Santa Barbara seven or eight times over the past 30 years, and never once considered eating on Sterns Wharf; a fabulous wharf to wander along watching the pelicans and seals, but touristy to the nth degree. However, one boiling lunchtime having already put away 15,000 steps with a long walk along the beach, we found ourselves outside Moby Dick restaurant and took a chance as they had some outside seating right over the water. Food was OK, as might be expected, mac cheese with a whole lobster tail hearty enough, and a bottle of Riesling from Washington providing refreshment without too much alcohol. Two courses and the wine cost $87 before tax.
San Luis Obispo: Granada Bistro, 1126 Morro St.
A really pleasant dining space inside a brick-built, historic hotel given a chic revamp, it rained so we sat indoors rather than on the terrace. We shared three appetiser plates, our waitress having assured us they were substantial. They came in the shape of some very tangy and tasty Borracha shrimp – loaded with garlic and plenty of garlic toast for dipping – plus a wonderful skillet of duck fat baked cornbread, and a relatively disappointing white bean hummus that just lacked punch. We enjoyed a bottle of excellent Bourgogne Chardonnay from Bachelet Monnet and shared a dessert – a baked chocolate brownie – before finishing with coffees. $140 excluding tip was a fair price.
Pasadena: Green Street Restaurant, 146 Shopper’s Lane
This was our favourite meal in Pasadena, away from the charming but touristy Old Town, with a broad pavement terrace on a quiet side street. Our server recommended the potato chips to nibble on, and he was right: a fairly heroic portion to share of freshly cooked chips (crisps in the UK) with an onion and a blue cheese dip. We also had some stuffed dates, filled with almonds, wrapped in bacon and grilled. We kept main courses simple: truly excellent Kobe beef burgers, laden with cheddar cheese, red onion, pickles and salad. Sensationally meaty and satisfying with some sweet potato fries and house-made coleslaw. To finish we took another recommendation and shared a slice of carrot cake. Not always my favourite cake, but this was moist, rich and utterly delicious – and plenty for two. We drank a bottle of Alumni Pinot Noir from Oregon, and the bill of $121 before service was arguably the bargain of the trip for one of the best meals.
Pasadena: Il Fornaio Cucina Italiano, 24 West Union St. Tel: 626 683 9797
The old town of Pasadena is one of my favourite spots: full of characterful buildings, quirky non-chain stores and restaurants and a great place for strolling: everyone walks here and there’s a thriving café culture making it feel distinctly European. There’s a bustling and quite noisy atmosphere in this branch of a chain of upmarket Italian eateries, with many tables apparently celebrating something or other. Food was good – ‘solid fare’ might be a way of describing it. A carpaccio of certified Piedmontese beef came with shaved grana Padano, capers & wild rocket and was tasty to share. I then chose ravioli, stuffed with butternut squash, walnuts and grana Padano that was a relatively modest portion and which failed to really make an impression. Along with a bottle of nice Vermentino and bread basket, the bill of $140 before service was OK.
Pasadena: Ruth’s Chris, 369 East Colorado Blvd CA 91101. Tel: 626 583 8122
Ruth’s Chris is at once the most, and the least, authentic restaurant experience in America. Any visitor to the US will have seen its perfect steaks, cut as thick as your arm, sizzling from billboards, newspaper ads and the sides of busses. This is a large chain that offers an ersatz, homogenized, shrink-wrapped version of the all American steakhouse, complete with by-the-yard wood panelling and veneer of ‘sophistication’. Ruth’s Chris appeals to groups celebrating birthdays, young men trying to impress their dates and middle-managers hoping to woo their clients. In truth, Ruth’s Chris is just Sizzler for the aspirational: what it actually delivers on the plate is of secondary importance. It might be a little cruel, some would say snobbish to say it, but it is the preferred blow-out destination only for people who really know or care little about food. I started with veal ravioli, nice enough, the pasta a touch over-cooked but the flavours good. My partner’s ahi tuna seared rare was good. We both opted for filet mignon, accompanied by Au gratin potatoes and grilled mushrooms. The steaks were good, but nowhere near as good as those at Bouchon in Las Vegas, and mildly disappointing. We passed on dessert, but with a bottle of Benton Lane Pinot Noir the bill came out at $276 before service. Too much really, based solely on the quality of food.
Pasadena: Huntington Library tearoom
This isn’t really about the food of course, it is about the stunning Huntington library, museum and gardens. The library and art collection are fascinating and could soak up hours of your time, but it is the endless miles of immaculate garden that are just breathtaking. One of the essential rituals of a visit here is afternoon tea (be sure to book). Most of it is buffet style, but don’t let that put you off: the finger sandwiches, cakes, pastries, salads and desserts are constantly kept fresh and in impeccable order, and the quality is superb (carrot and cream cheese sandwiches on sun-dried tomato bread were my favourite). Your waiter will bring bottomless jugs of ice-tea or lemonade and a selection of terrific teas and coffees, as well as an overflowing basket of freshly-baked scones.
Marina del Rey: Beachside Restaurant, Jamaica Bay Inn
This was our hotel for the first night in California and was a default dinner choice given the probability of jet-lag. It did a job, but little more than that and cannot be recommended as a dining destination. My Branzino was over-cooked, the dessert was basically a pile of cream with some carelessly scattered berries. The patio ambiance could have worked, but the hotel was running an open-air movie night for kids in the garden about 20 feet away, so we dined to the caressing sound of Minions at full blast. We drank a bottle of Sonoma Chardonnay at $64, and the evening felt rather expensive at $190+ excluding tip, given the quality of the whole experience.
Malibu: Moonshadows, 20356 E Pacific Coast Highway
We drove from Santa Barbara to Los Angeles airport on the final day of our holiday, but an early evening flight meant there was time for a lunch stop. What better than to eat on the terrace at this restaurant literally above the beach in Malibu, 45 minutes from the airport. It’s a popular spot, especially to watch the sunset, but we settled into a booth with glasses of Pfalz Riesling (it has a good list), then shared an appetiser of pan-seared sea scallops. Three plump specimens were perched on a puree of celery root and coriander, perfect for mopping up with warm ciabatta rolls. We both then had Maine lobster Caesar salad. It was plentiful and good, baby Romaine lettuce with crisp bacon, olive-oily croutons and a tasty Caesar dressing. With coffees the bill came in at $129 before service. Valet Parking $10.
Needles: Riverfront Bistro, 3520 Needles Highway
Needles was a one night stopping point en-route for us, on the longer of two main routes between Las Vegas and Los Angeles, staying in an off-freeway La Quinta Inn. The town didn’t seem to hold much attraction I must say, but a little research brought up this friendly bar and casual restaurant right on the Colorado river that served up large and honest portions of fish and chips, along with a shared portion of onion rings, and washed down with some beers, for $57 excluding tip.
Napa: The French Laundry, 6640 Washington St, Yountville. Tel: 707 944 2380
The French Laundry is widely regarded as one of the best restaurants on the planet. As is the way of these things, a mythology has built up around the French Laundry – it certainly need advance planning to secure a table any night of the week. The French Laundry is a beautiful, timber-clad building dating from 1900. Behind a high hedge lies a secret garden where, cocooned in the warmth of a Californian evening, we sipped Billecart-Salmon whilst perusing the menu and wine list. The dining room is attractively chic, yet simple, and the mood immediately relaxing. Whilst many foodie temples can be up-tight and fussy, the French Laundry has the hallmark of a restaurant that feels comfortable in its skin. The Chef’s tasting menu (there is also a vegetarian alternative) costs $350 per person, a huge sum but comparable to three-star places in Paris. The meal unfolded over the next four and a half hours. Highlights included ‘Oysters and Pearls’ – the most delicate Bagaduce oysters and a generous scoop of salty Iranian caviar in a frothy sabayon, textured with creamy pearl tapioca. This was eaten with a mother of pearl teaspoon, a witty, yet elegant touch that reflected the entire menu: whilst the kitchen here may be deadly serious about its business, eating is clearly meant to be fun. ‘Macaroni and Cheese’ turned out to be butter-poached lobster in a broth of tiny Orzo pasta, enriched with Marscapone. ‘Pyrenées Brebis’ was a wonderful little palate-cleansing dish of sautéed globe artichokes in a preserved Meyer lemon vinaigrette. This was a meal constructed with love and intelligence, so that flavours and textures ebbed and flowed with a genuine rhythm. The meal concluded with a couple of desserts, including a sumptuous Valhrona chocolate tower, built from an aristocratic brownie, mousse, ganache and sorbet.The wine list is excellent, and some well-priced gems can be found if you look hard enough: we drank Knoll’s terrific Gruner-Veltliner Smaragd, bottle of Littorai Californian Pinot Noir and a half of Baumard’s Quarts de Chaume which brought the total bill in at something over $1,000.
Sonoma: Oso, 9 East Napa St, Sonoma Town
A nice casual lunch spot right on the main square in Sonoma town, with a shady rear garden patio. We wanted a light lunch and it hit the spot, with friendly and efficient service. Two glasses of Angeline Sauvignon Blanc washed down some fine sourdough, burrata and spicy patatas bravas. One more glass of Sauvignon was ordered for the non-driver, and it was a relaxed tapas selection that slipped down a treat for a reasonable $76 before service.
Picasso, The Bellagio Hotel
I feel kind of sad writing this review when in 2011 I reported this as being one of my best meals in a North American vacation. Eleven years on, and I think the basic problem is that time has stood still at Picasso, while the world of cuisine has moved on. Don’t get me wrong: I love classic cooking and a bit of ‘proper’ refined dining, but a lot about Picasso’s food and ambiance is now distinctly old fashioned rather than classic. Food is good but somewhat unexciting in flavour, and presentation is poored. Lobster salad was good, a scallop dish well-cooked but with a rather clumsy mashed potato accompaniment, steak was OK, and the highlight was probably the peach souffle to finish. With a bottle of Champagne and a half bottle of Vina Tondonia red, the bill of $600 excluding service was not out of line for a restaurant holding two Michelin stars, but unfortunately I felt it didn’t represent great value (or two star quality).
Bouchon, The Venetian Hotel
One of Tom Keller’s string of French Brasserie-inspired bistros, I really enjoyed my meal here. The wine list is massive, and from it we chose a couple of glasses of Roederer Champagne, a half bottle of Chateau Romieu Sauternes to split between a sauteed foie gras starter and dessert, and a bottle of CinQuin Syrah from the Santa Rita Hills, which was a great match with wagyu rib eye. It was cooked beautifully with a dark sear on the outside and flavoursome, pink centre and a side of creamy Béarnaise sauce. French fries were so crisp, fresh and moreish. And so to desserts: for me, fabulous ice-cream profiteroles with a melting bitter dark sauce, plus a superbly light and tangy lemon tart. Probably the best meal of the trip although the wine and wagyu choices did up the bill to a substantial $480 before service.
Mon Ami Gabi, The Paris Hotel
A casual lunch stop in this bustling and large pavement restaurant of the Paris casino was very enjoyable. With a couple of glasses of well chilled Sancerre at $19 each we both chose the baked goat’s cheese, which came rather unexpectedly in a rich tomatoey soup, but in fact it worked rather well, the cheese melting into the sauce and with thick slices of herb-garlic bread. Along with a shared portion of very good French fries, $83 excluding service.
Lotus of Siam, 953 E. Sahara Ave
The Lotus of Siam is one part of the Las Vegas scene that 99.999% of visitors will never see. This small, plain, simply-decorated Thai restaurant sits in an anonymous shopping mall well away from the Strip, yet Gourmet magazine have called it “the best Thai restaurant in North America”. There are clues that this is something special as soon as you enter: awards from Wine Spectator on the wall, stacks of Dom Perignon and Krug behind the small bar. Our extremely friendly waiter (the Lotus is family-run) looked after us really well, suggesting and describing dishes with enthusiasm. Every ingredient here is fresh: the owners drive to Los Angeles twice a week for herbs and other provisions, and Northern Thai dishes are their speciality. These can be super-spicy, so each is rated from 1 to 10 on the fiery scale, and our dishes in the 2-3 range (as recommended by the waiter) were hot enough for me. Everything here was good, from the ubiquitous Tom Kah Kai coconut and prawn soup, to much more unusual dishes like crispy fried rice with sour sausages, and a pungent green chilli, peanut and lime sauce. We washed this down with some Thai beer, and stumbled out into the desert.
We based oursleves in the attractive university town of Cedar City for a couple of days to explore Bryce Canyon and the Escalante Grand Staircase national monument. Try to stay in the quaint old town rather in a freeway hotel.
Cedar City: Mandarin Chinese Restaurant, 241 North Main St.
We’d driven out to the canyons of Utah at 9am, and spent a perhaps over-enthusiastic amount of time, arriving back at our base in Cedar City around 8.30pm without anywhere booked for dinner. We were in the mood for Chinese food and spotted Mandarin, which happily was able to take us. The food in a large, rather barn-like featureless space was actually very good. We shared steamed dumplings and breaded fantail shrimp, then some honey-sauced duck and a lemon chicken. Both were plentiful, fresh and well done with enough Szechuan chilli and spice. With two beers, the bill came to $55 before service.
Cedar City: Centro Woodfired Pizza, 50 West Center St.
Good reports about the pizza’s here, as being thin crust and far from the American norm, drew us in and I’m glad they did. We shared some burrata with salad and garlic bread to begin, then not being too hungry, also split a really good and substantial pizza: fontina and parmesan cheese, red onion, toasted pistachio nuts, wood roasted chicken and fresh rosemary. Centro also celebrates local artisan breweries, so a couple of pints (Moab Juice IPA and Cuththroat Pale Ale) washed everything down very nicely. $45.50 before service.
San Francisco: B44, Catalan Bistro, 44 Belden Pl. Tel: 415 986 6287
My last visit to this restaurant in the heart of the financial district, just a few blocks from Union Square, was most enjoyable so I booked again one unusually steamy hot evening when the outdoor tables in this little alley off Bush and Pine appealed. B44 offers an array of Spanish dishes, with tapas and paella as well as more Californian fusions, but still featuring lots of authentic meats, sausages, cheeses, fish and other Spanish ingredients. We shared a plate of Spanish cheeses, served with quince paste, fig and almond bread. My main course was absolutely superb, and a highlight of my trip: an inch-thick tranche of sweet, dense Sea bass, pan-fried and topped with a deep tomato and red pepper sauce, studded with slices of roasted garlic and served with braised fennel. The fish was just delicious and every flavour in the dish vivid. For dessert, fresh Mission figs and walnuts came drizzled with a little sweet Port wine reduction.
San Francisco: Great Eastern, 649 Jackson Street, Chinatown. Tel: 415 986 2550
Most of us tourists just end up wandering around Chinatown and plumping for somewhere that “looks right” for dinner. For me, that normally means a busy place, with plenty of Chinese people eating there. Thus, we stumbled into the Great Eastern on our first jet-lagged night of the trip. Good fortune definitely smiled on us this night, as the food was excellent. The large, bustling restaurant is efficiently served by frantically busy waiters, who pour tea, take orders and deliver food with rapid precision. Seafood is big here, and my steamed Pacific oysters in a black bean sauce were plump and delicious, served in a sparky, lime-infused, chilli sauce. Stronger stomachs might examine the giant tanks lining the back wall and opt for the sautéed fresh frog, for example. This was inexpensive and absolutely excellent, and comes with a definite seal of approval.
San Francisco: Gary Danko, 800 North Point Street. Tel: 415 749 2060
This is the 1* Michelin restaurant of highly-regarded chef Danko who quit the Ritz Carlton to go it alone. There are two dining rooms with a cocktail bar in the middle. Decor in both is classy with simple artwork and furnishings. The menu offers a mix-and-match approach: half a dozen dishes are listed in each of 5 or 6 sections (appetisers, fish, entrées, salads, etc.) and you choose the number of courses you’d like from as many or as few sections as you like, paying simply by the number of dishes ordered. You may also choose the tasting menu of 7 small courses selected by the chef. The food was extremely good in a lighter, modern style. Best dish for me was probably a grilled lobster tail served with niblets of sweet corn and a fresh tomato salsa but dessert was also gorgeous: a bitter-sweet chocolate soufflé served with hot vanilla and coffee sauces. The wine list is extensive and pretty evenly split between domestic and European wines, particularly French.
San Francisco: North Beach Pizza, Columbus Avenue
A real neighbourhood favourite and a bit of an institution. North Beach’s pizza’s are superb and huge – a regular is enough for two hungry tourists in my opinion! The place isn’t fancy, but the staff are very cheery and welcoming and the pizza toppings fresh and abundant.
Napa: Bouchon, 6534 Washington St, Yountville. Tel: 707 944 8037
Just a block or two along from The French Laundry, Bouchon is chef Tom Keller’s second restaurant in town, run in partnership with chef Jeffrey Cerciello. It is a lovely old building, with a small outside terrace. We ate in the light, airy dining room, which has a very French country feel. The menu is printed on a sheet of brown wrapping-paper, that is folded round your napkin. For lunch we decided to have salad and dessert. Both were really very good indeed, and came in ample portions for a satisfying lunch. My salad came with a goat’s cheese tart, and my lemon tart was very precise and restrained, without too much butter or sugar, and plenty of citrus bite. With a bottle of Napa Sauvignon Blanc and coffees, the bill came in around $80 for two. A full range of more substantial main dishes is served too, and the menu is available all day. An excellent choice.
Napa: Mustards Grill, 7399 St Helena Hwy. Tel: 707 944 2424
Casual, low-key and friendly, it is a regular hang-out for the winemaking community, has big portions of simple but very good and inventive food, and is both atmospheric and “genuine”, having been around for more than 20 years.
Sonoma: Dry Creek Kitchen, Healdsburg. Tel: 707 431 0330
Charlie Palmer’s Dry Creek Kitchen is the restaurant of the Hotel Healdsburg, a wonderfully chic hotel in the centre of a wonderfully chic town. This boutique hotel has terrific rooms, with oversized, overstuffed beds, striking modern design and spa bathrooms with walk-in wet room showers and six foot hot tubs. The restaurant is similarly modern in design, with plenty of space between tables and high quality furnishings and fittings. The food is the epitomé of Californian cuisine, with the emphasis on local ingredients, fusion elements, realy bold flavours and a very light touch with sauces and dressings. My starter of locally-grown organic rocket, grilled Sonoma peaches and caramelised walnuts was just brilliant. Served with a warm, wild berry honey dressing, it was both highly imaginative and really nicely composed. My main course filet mignon of Angus steak came with a pungent garlic potato mash and grilled vegetables, including wild mushrooms, asparagus and baby carrots. A coffee and chocolate dessert platter included a smoothly-textured coffee brulée, a little tower of chocolate ice-cream and brownies, and cocoa-nibbed shortbread biscuit. The wine list is entirely composed of Sonoma wines, with a remarkable choice available from the wine library.
Modesto: Dewz, 1101 I Street. Tel: 209 549 1101
Modesto is a large industrial town in the central valley, between San Francisco and Yosemite, and HQ of the giant Gallo corporation. Dewz is a bustling, noisy bar downstairs and restaurant upstairs serving good fresh food in ample portions. Deep fried calamari came with two dips, one a piquant chilli, the other an aioli-style sauce. My “Fricasee” was basically a creamy chicken stroganof-style dish, with lots of caramelised onions and an arborio rice risotto. The wine list at Dewz is the real highlight: the selection from around the world is outstanding, with regions like Alsace and Germany well represented, which is a real bonus for a casual place like this.
Modesto: Tresetti, 927 11th Street. Tel: 209 572 2990
This was probably my best meal in Modesto, in the long-established downtown restaurant, bar and wine store. In fact, the wine shop is excellent, and anything purchased there can be drunk in the restaurant for a very modest corkage charge, which is a bonus. On a Friday evening the bar was jumping and the service in the restaurant towards the end of the meal became a little stretched, but that didn’t take the gloss off of really good food. My starter of roasted garlic and brie was delicious; whole roast bulbs of garlic and melting cheese to spread on really good bread. My main course was a highlight: grilled pork chops with a grain mustard dressing served with a Californian fig chutney. A low-key but quite seriously foodie place, but not the venue for a quite dinner a deux on a weekend.
Modesto: Galletto, 1101 J Street. Tel: 209 523 4500
A converted bank, Galleto is immediately impressive with its high-ceilinged main dining room with atrium. There is also a broad shaded terrace next door, and downstairs, the private dining room which is actually the old vault of the bank, half of which is a temperature-controlled wine cellar visible through a full length glass wall (visits by arrangement). On my lunch-time visit, I enjoyed food that was good, served by friendly staff in a very striking setting. Fritto Misto had lots of good quality fish, calamari and fennel, served with a spicy aioli. My Kobe Steak salad was competent, though a touch lacking in flavour. Still, Galletto offers a real sense of occasion and was most enjoyable.
Pasadena: Shiro, 1505 Mission Street. Tel: 626 799 4774
Shiro is now a bit of a legend – readers of Gourmet magazine voted it 2nd best restaurant in Los Angeles at one time. Chef Hideo Yamashiro serves a distinctive blend of fusion cuisine, majoring in fish dishes that are as fresh and mouth-watering as they are inventive and surprising. My tempura of halibut had two perfect oblongs of thickly-cut fish on a delicious sweet and spicy sauce. The little side dish of a tiny potato dauphinoise and some al dente vegetables was playful and delicious. Wines are well-chosen, biased towards whites and the US. Decor is simple, prices for food and wine moderate.
Santa Barbara: Brophy Brothers, Santa Barbara Harbour. Tel: 805 966 4418
A real institution down on the harbour, Brophy Bros. is queued out the door even on week nights, when places round about it are half empty. Add your name to the list, then have a glass of wine or a micro-brew down in the bar while you wait for a table. The dining room on the first floor has a bustling, noisy, party-time atmosphere, and serves big portions of fresh, well-cooked fish and seafood to happy visitors and locals. An essential component of a visit here.
Santa Barbara: La Super Rica, 622 North Milpas. Tel: 805 963 2840
This restaurant is basically a small shack with a tented seating area attached, serving authentic Mexican food at rock-bottom prices. Isidoro Gonzalez established his family-run food stand in 1980. Place your order at the counter as you enter, from the blackboard of a dozen or so daily specials. Most plates are tapas-sized, so two or three per person is about right. Beautifully soft flour tortillas emerge from the kitchen in a constant stream, and your food is served in paper plates along with beers or authentic soft drinks made from unusual ingredients like hibiscus or tamarind. The home-made salsas are sensational, and Pechuga Suizo, (sliced chicken and cheese grilled inside soft tortillas) was one of my favourites. You’ll be in and out in half an hour, but great food and great fun.
Santa Barbara: Pane e Vino, 1482 East Valley Road. Tel: 805 969 9274
Santa Barbara is well-blessed with good restaurants. This Italian eatery was the venue for yet another off-line dinner. We sat on the terrace, where large heaters took the chill off the evening air. The food was quite traditional in style with antipasti, soups and salads to start, then Italian soulfood classics like braised veal shank or hearty pastas. The standard is very high, the bread and olive oil top-notch, and the service both efficient and informal.
San Luis Obispo: Apple Farm, 2015 Monterey Street. Tel: 805 544 2040
Oh my God, how can places like this survive? Arriving late on a Sunday evening for a one night pit-stop in San Luis Obispo we checked in to the basic but pleasant La Cuesta Inn and asked where would be good to eat and, more importantly, open at 9:15 on a Sunday. The clerk suggested this place immediately opposite. It was just horrible from start of finish: a massacred Caesar salad with synthetic-tasting cheese followed by the most singly disgusting dish ever to have disgraced a plate: take a completely dry chicken breast and stuff with slices of processed ham. Wrap in puff pastry and put in freezer. Several months later, remove and microwave until the chicken has the flavour, texture and aroma of rubber and the pastry is as soggy and chewy as a new puppy’s slipper. Smother with a vomit-like sauce, throw onto a plate from several feet away and voila: you too could be a chef at the Apple Farm.