If there were a “most photogenic” award for seaside towns in California, Carmel-By-The-Sea would very much be a contender.
The architecture is out of an English fairytale, with trailing flowers and quaint cottages lining the streets and you’ll find some of the region’s best restaurants in Carmel-By-The-Sea. It’s the kind of place that California locals head for a weekend away, and snowbirds flock to escape dreary winter weather.
What To Do In Carmel-By-The-Sea
The list of things to do in Carmel is plenty: there are local boutiques to shop, tasting rooms to sip local wine, and waterfront walks to be had. But as food people, we’re always searching for where to eat.
The town’s independent spirit is apparent on every block and especially comes to life with the numerous locally-owned restaurants.
The thing that makes Carmel-By-The-Sea so special is its smack dab in the middle of California’s Monterey County, one of the state’s biggest agricultural regions.
Add to it that the world-famous Monterey Aquarium is down the road, and it’s no surprise that local is a big theme among Carmel restaurants.
Here is the Salt & Wind Travel approved list of the best restaurants in Carmel-By-The-Sea:
Where To Eat In Carmel-By-The-Sea
Brophy’s Tavern | Serves Lunch & Dinner
If you’re looking for a spot to watch “the game,” you’ll likely end up at Brophy’s Tavern, one of the main sports bars in Carmel-By-The-Sea. But this English pub will throw you a curveball because everything from the decor to the service and the food and drinks is a mix of modern meets cheeky and worthy of a visit in their own right.
Both the Fish and Chips and the Brophy’s Burger are crowd favorites, and we can get behind them, but also check out their craft beers and the cocktail list featuring drinks made with locally-distilled liquors.
San Carlos St &, 4th Ave, Carmel-By-The-Sea
Carmel Belle | Serves Breakfast, Lunch, & Dinner
Don’t let the tucked-away location in a shopping center deter you; Carmel Belle is hidden but worth the hunt. We say go for a farm-to-table style breakfast that’s big on cooking with local ingredients and serving consistently healthy yet filling.
The espresso drinks and smoothies are always solid choices (try the Johnny Cashew or the Sunrise Smoothie!), but we go for the Roasted Mushroom Melt or the Green Eggs & Ham.
San Carlos St, Ocean Ave, Carmel-By-The-Sea
Cultura Comida Y Bebida | Serves Brunch & Dinner
With our big love for Mexico, it’s no surprise that we always search for quality Mexican food wherever we travel. For legit food focused on the Mexican state of Oaxaca (where mole and mezcal reign), head to Cultura Comida Y Bebida. The menu includes street tacos hits like Chicken Tinga, carnitas, and barbacoa but also Oaxacan staples like mole, chapulines (toasted grasshoppers), and Oaxaca cantina-style peanuts.
Dolores Street, between 5th and 6th Ave, Carmel-By-The-Sea
Flaherty’s Seafood Grill & Oyster Bar | Serves Lunch & Dinner
With its deep fishing roots – see: Steinbeck’s Cannery Row – the Monterey Peninsula is ground zero for California’s seafood culture. As a nod to that history, have at least one seafood-focused meal while in the area. Flaherty’s has a massive menu but sticks with the seafood (much of which comes directly from the docks of nearby Monterey).
You can’t go wrong with their fresh oysters, but we’re all about their cioppino. This tomato-based seafood soup is a quintessential Northern California recipe that embodies the fishing culture of the area.
There are all sorts of versions of cioppino up and down the Northern California coast, but Flaherty’s – with its balanced tomato-herbed seafood broth and loads of fresh shellfish – sets the standard.
6th Ave, Between Dolores & San Carlos, Carmel-By-The-Sea
Katy’s Place | Serves Breakfast & Lunch
Locals flock to this classic Carmel diner for all the breakfast staples. They’ll treat you like old friends the minute you walk in, and the cozy atmosphere will have you swearing you’ve been there before.
Go for the fully leaded coffee and the perfectly crisp bacon but stay for the decadent dishes like Dungeness Crab Benedict or the berry-clad cinnamon French Toast.
Mission St, Carmel-By-The-Sea
La Balena | Serves Lunch & Dinner
When it comes to cute hidden restaurants, Carmel-By-The-Sea brings it. Among those spots, La Balena stands out. Run by Florence-native Emanuele Bartolini and his wife, Anna, this restaurant is a taste of Italy in the middle of town.
You can’t go wrong ordering Tuscan classics like Pappardelle with Boar Ragu or the Bistecca with a side of potatoes.
Junipero St, Carmel-By-The-Sea
La Bicyclette | Serves Lunch & Dinner
The whole downtown of Carmel-By-The-Sea has an adorable European charm with its English architecture. But La Bicyclette brings vibes from across the channel with its French-Italian fare.
The cozy dining room is among the cutest in town but stay for the cheese boards, the wood-fired pizza, the steak au poivre, and the apple Tarte Tatin. From the minute it opens, this spot is always busy, so make a reservation or be prepared to wait for a table.
Dolores St &, 7th Ave, Carmel-By-The-Sea
7D Steakhouse | Serves Dinner
How do you do surf and turf, Carmel-style? You get a reservation at 7D Steakhouse, and enjoy!
Set in a former bank building, the modern decor and colorful art feel like a spot you’d see more frequently in downtown LA or in San Francisco’s SOMA neighborhood. But the sustainable seafood and the fact they’re the only exclusive Niman Ranch steak house in the country proves that they’re serious about their ingredients too.
Go ready to eat at order whatever sounds best. Just be sure to at least try one of their standout dishes like the hand-cut steak tartare, the drowning crab cake, or the glazed pork chop.
7th Ave & Dolores, Carmel-By-The-Sea
The Stationaery | Serves Breakfast, Lunch, & Dinner
The relative newcomer on the Carmel-By-The-Sea food scene, Stationaery, hasn’t been around long but is already high on the list of local favorites. Owned by Monterey-raised Anthony Carnazzo and his wife Allisa, the spot is named after Alissa’s other career as an acclaimed stationery designer.
The spot has a Nordic minimalism design, but the service brings a cozy charm. All the opening head staff was from the Monterey region, bringing their local pride to the menu with seasonally-driven farm-to-table cuisine with fresh ingredients and a modern twist.
Anthony used to work in the coffee industry in Southern California, so you can be sure the coffee service is always perfect yet unpretentious like the rest of the experience. Their location includes a courtyard patio with outdoor dining, making it the perfect spot to kick off your day.
San Carlos Street, 3 NE of 6th Avenue, San Carlos St, Carmel-By-The-Sea
Vesuvio Restaurant | Serves Dinner
Vesuvio Restaurant would win if a restaurant were measured by its owner’s passion for the food. This Italian restaurant is an institution in downtown Carmel-By-The-Sea not only for the food and warm service but also because this family-owned spot is run by some of the most affable Italian-Americans we’ve come across.
Chef Pepe regularly travels to Southern Italy in the name of research and has even created his own line of products (like legit Limoncello) imported and sold at the restaurant.
His son is a lover of all things cocktails and has started a micro-distillery down the road where he’s turning out twists on Italian classics like aged Negroni mix. If you go during warmer weather, ask to sit on the roof for some of the best outdoor seating in town.
6th Ave & Junipero St, Carmel-By-The-Sea
The Carmel-By-The-Sea Farmers Market
Okay, this last pick isn’t a restaurant but rather the Carmel-By-The-Sea Farmers Market. If you’re in town during the day on a Thursday, stop by here for everything from local produce to prepared foods and even local flowers.
A Word About Street Numbers
FYI, the buildings in Carmel-By-The-Sea do not have street numbers. That’s why the addresses listed here name intersections; be sure to use your phone’s GPS or ask a local as some spots are tucked away!
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Photo Credit: Opening photo by Katie Chang; all other photos by Aida Mollenkamp