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If you didn’t already know that eating locally in California is the ultimate foodie dream, then allow us to count the many ways why. Not only is the Golden State ground zero for some of the best produce in the country and home to incredible farmers markets, but it’s also super culturally diverse thanks to several immigrant communities.
This is especially evident in California’s long-standing restaurants (and relative newcomers) from no-frills taverns and cafes to more upscale establishments throughout the state’s major metropolitan areas and tiny towns.
Iconic California Restaurants
That said, we’re rounding up our favorite unique restaurants that represent California’s food culture. And they’re not just Michelin-starred, fine dining spots loved by chefs, or James Beard Award-winners like the French Laundry, Zuni Cafe, Plumed Horse, or Addison either. Some have been around since the mid-1800s, while others have opened within the last decade. Some spots do walk-ins only, while for others, reservations are an absolute must. To begin, let’s start in northern California and work our way south to San Diego.
Northern California Restaurants
From historic spots for casual eats and modernized twists on traditional cuisine using seasonal ingredients, we call it California cuisine.
Gott’s Roadside, St. Helena, Napa County
Gott’s in St. Helena originally opened as Taylor’s Automatic Refresher drive-in in 1949. Since renamed, it’s become a NorCal mini-chain with locations in Oxbow Public Market in Napa and Ferry Building Marketplace in San Francisco. Gott’s has classic American road trip eats from burgers featuring Niman Ranch beef patties and root beer floats, to other items like poke tacos and a kale caesar salad. There’s also a California-centric wine list that you can order by the glass and half bottle.
Gott’s Roadside, 933 Main St, CA-29, St Helena, CA 94574
Chez Panisse, Berkeley, Alameda County
Before farm-to-table dining became an overused buzzword, the real deal was happening over at Chez Panisse in Berkeley. It opened in the 1970s when the food culture was all about canned food and microwaveable dinners. The restaurant features peak produce from local, regenerative farms and producers and from its own organic farm served in a renovated, two-story Craftsman home. It’s a dream reservation among serious foodies.
Chez Panisse, 1517 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, CA 94709
Rooh, South Beach, San Francisco
You’ll find mom and pop Indian restaurants up and down the coast, so a restaurant doing upscale riffs on traditional Indian cuisine with California touches, like Rooh in San Francisco, stands out. Rooh does small plates like curried octopus with apple and furikake, and pulled laal maas (lamb) tucked into steamed bao buns, plus a variety of homemade chutneys.
Rooh, 333 Brannan St #150, San Francisco, CA 94107
Swan Oyster Depot, Nob Hill, San Francisco
This cash-only seafood counter in San Francisco has been around (and in the same locale) since 1912. Swan Oyster Depot is a must for super fresh Blue Neck oysters, Little Neck clams, seafood salads, and its signature crab back—a combo of crab meat and liver served in its shell. Just be prepared to wait for one of its 18 seats.
Swan Oyster Depot, 1517 Polk St, San Francisco, CA 94109
Tadich Grill, Financial District, San Francisco
Tadich Grill in San Francisco’s Financial District is widely cited as the oldest restaurant in California. It opened in 1849 and is known for its fresh seafood and heyday classics like Oysters Rockefeller, crab Louis salad, and salmon and crab à la Newburg. They don’t take reservations and there’s usually a wait but know that portions are huge here so we recommend splitting a few plates to share when you snag a seat.
Tadich Grill, 240 California St, San Francisco, CA 94111
Yank Sing, Financial District, San Francisco
Three generations have been serving guests dim sum at family-owned Yank Sing in San Francisco’s Financial District since 1958. There are two locations, one in Rincon Center and the other on Stevenson Street, and people go for all sorts of dumplings from xiao long bao (soup dumplings) to seafood basil dumplings, plus steamed pork buns, and crisped honey walnut prawns. This is the place to bring a ton of fam and friends so you can order a number of things to sample.
Yank Sing, 49 Stevenson St, San Francisco, CA 94105
Duarte’s Tavern, Pescadero, San Mateo County
Cioppino (a tomato-based seafood stew invented in NorCal) is a majorly loved dish in California and the quaint Duarte’s Tavern is where to get it if you happen to be in Pescadero on a weekend. Its handmade pies in flavors like blueberry, peach, and the regional olallieberry are also popular. The family who runs the restaurant comes from Portuguese roots as its Patriarch bought and opened the tavern in 1894 after immigrating to California.
Duarte’s Tavern,202 Stage Rd, Pescadero, CA 94060
Central California Restaurants
Don’t miss these classics in California’s middle parts, from the Central Coast to the Central Valley.
Zócalo, Sacramento, Sacramento County
We’re all about traditional Mexican cooking, though we’re also all about modern spins on traditional dishes, as they do at Zócalo in Sacramento. The menu spans regional specialties, from Baja fish tacos to cochinita pibil from the Yucatan, and enchiladas in mole sauce. The restaurant also offers weekend brunch, as well as several other locations around Sacramento County, including in the small towns of Folsom and Roseville.
Zócalo, 1801 Capitol Ave, Sacramento, CA 95811
Hitching Post II, Buellton, Santa Barbara County
Santa Maria-style BBQ is unique to California, and Hitching Post II in Buellton is one of the best places in the state to taste it, especially its tri-tip BBQ. The story goes that the method of charring food on a metal grill that pitmasters move up and down to navigate the heat, was inspired by native Chumash people’s method—they used coastal winds to fan a fire’s flames. This Western-themed steakhouse is also famous for its appearance in the film, Sideways.
Hitching Post II, 406 E Hwy 246, Buellton, CA 93427
Noriega’s, Bakersfield, Kern County
Prepare to cozy up next to someone new as Noriega’s in Bakersfield is famed for its family-style seating and Basque-inspired dishes like lamb or oxtail stew. Most meals all come with a host of sides like soup, salad, bread, and beans, plus house wine. They’re open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner though those familiar with its original location should know it closed in 2020 and reopened in a new location in the Stockdale Fashion Plaza. And, if you still have room, stop by equally-legendary Luigi’s for a bite or some Italian pantry ingredients.
Noriega’s, 4809 Stockdale Hwy, Bakersfield, CA 93309
Southern California Restaurants
From Los Angeles to San Diego, find storied icons and up-and-comers putting fancy twists on traditional dishes. Starting in LA, the following restaurants have joined the likes of The Musso & Frank Grill, and Spago as California classics.
Dha Rae Ok, Koreatown, Los Angeles
Of the plethora of Korean BBQ restaurants in LA’s Koreatown, Dha Rae Ok stands out because while most KBBQs specialize in brisket, this one is all about smoked duck. Their most famous dish is a whole roast duck cooked in a clay oven with sweet potatoes and chestnuts—if you go, call ahead to pre-order this one and bring all of your friends.
Dha Rae Ok, 1106 S Western Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90006
Guelaguetza, Koreatown, Los Angeles
As a temple to Oaxacan regional cuisine in LA, especially mole, it’s no surprise Guelaguetza’s menu offers seven different kinds, like the Oaxacan chocolate-tinged Mole Negro, and cumin-spiced Mole Amarillo. The dining destination also serves traditional drinks like horchata and champurrado, plus the kind of mezcal list that makes us giddy. Oh, and for those who are wondering, mole is a pre-Hispanic, traditional sauce that combines a number of chiles, seeds, nuts, fruits like plantains or prunes, and spices.
Guelaguetza, 3014 W Olympic Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90006
Langer’s Delicatessen-Restaurant, MacArthur Park, Los Angeles
Langer’s Deli may have relocated a number of times since its existence (it first opened in 1947), but its hot pastrami on toasted rye remain consistently loved. The go-to #19 for example, includes hot pastrami, cole slaw, Swiss cheese, and Russian dressing—it’s also Langer’s most popular sandwich.
Langer’s, 704 S Alvarado St, Los Angeles, CA 90057
Philippe The Original, Chinatown, Los Angeles
Philippe The Original’s signature French dipped sandwiches have been a classic since the Los Angeles deli opened in 1908. In fact Philippe reportedly invented them, though Cole’s French Dip also claims to be its originator. The corner deli is located near Dodger stadium, and though the roast beef dip is a definite go-to, the lamb dip with blue cheese is lesser known and just as tasty. They also do daily breakfast.
Philippe The Original, 1001 N Alameda St, Los Angeles, CA 90012
Shamshiri Grill, Westwood, Los Angeles
Foodies know that when it comes to Persian food in LA they follow their taste buds to Westwood, also known as Little Persia or Tehrangeles. Shamshiri Grill for example has been firing up traditional eats from its huge grill since 1981 like lamb kabab koobideh and shirin polo, a rice dish studded with nuts, orange peel, and a saffron-marmalade sauce.
Shamshiri Grill, 1712 Westwood Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90024
I-naba, Torrance, Los Angeles
If ramen and sushi are the superstars of what we typically associate with Japanese food, then tempura and soba are its highly underrated cousins. And when in LA, I-naba in the South Bay is where to find freshly fried tempura and soba noodles (served cold or hot.) This is also where to get tempura kaiseki, or a set meal of multiple courses, which includes soba or udon noodles, sashimi, sushi, and miso soup. Torrance, where I-naba is located, is also home to one of the largest Japanese communities in the country.
Sushi I-Naba, 20920 Hawthorne Blvd, Torrance, CA 90503
Phở 79, Garden Grove, Orange County
You can’t talk about good food in the OC without discussing Pho 79 in Garden Grove. The menu is extensive though the brothy oxtail pho is their signature dish. Oxtail simmers for 12 hours and is spiced with star anise for complexity. It opened in 1982, and is cash only, btw. It’s often busy, so be prepared to put your name on the clipboard and hang tight til your name is called.
Phi 79, 9941 Hazard Ave, Garden Grove, CA 92844
LSXO, Huntington Beach, Orange County
When in search of Vietnamese food in Orange County, Little Saigon in Garden Grove and Westminster is the place for excellent traditional eats. For a more modern spin LSXO is a restaurant located within Bluegold restaurant in Huntington Beach for noodle soups like hủ tiếu Nam Vang with fish balls, ground pork, and shrimp, and the savory pancake bánh xèo with bean sprouts.
LSXO, 21016 E Pacific Coast Hwy D200, Huntington Beach, CA 92648
Animae, Downtown, San Diego
Animae is a somewhat fancy wagyu steak house in San Diego that also does elegant interpretations of traditional Filipino dishes like short rib kare kare and long beans in a velvet-draped dining room. What’s interesting is that even though the region is home to one of the largest Filipino populations—and while you can find lots of casual Filipino food spots—if you’re feeling more upscale Animae is the only place in town (and one of a handful in the state) currently doing what they do. It’s also why it makes this list.
Animae, 969 Pacific Hwy, San Diego, CA 92101
Have Us Plan Your California Trip
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Photo Credit: Waiter showing menu to customers. By BONNINSTUDIO