Where to eat on a road trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles

Where to eat on a road trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles

Two roads diverge between San Francisco and Los Angeles, and both are well-traveled: California State Route 1, which winds along the dramatic California coastline, and Interstate 5, a four-lane highway right through the state’s agricultural heartland. Whether you opt for the more scenic Highway 1, as it’s often called, or try to set a new land speed record on I-5, here are some favorite stops on and off the beaten path, listed from north to south. (You can also split the difference somewhat by taking Highway 101 from San Jose to San Luis Obispo, where it merges with Route 1).

If you leave San Francisco and drive down the coast, you can start early and make a long day of it. If so, your first stop should be coffee and baked goods in the Santa Cruz area. For lunch, seafood is the obvious choice on this stretch of coast, although it is not the only option. And if you take the time, you can treat yourself to a Michelin-starred dinner outside of Los Angeles as a reward for taking the long way.

If you’re serious, a trip down I-5 will save you several hours. But it doesn’t have to be a battle run only by In-N-Out Burger. A couple of excellent Mexican options, a good choice for Indian food and classic roadside kitsch are all worth a detour. Remember that it’s not just your car that needs fuel. – CP

Splash Cafe clam chowder

Splash Cafe clam chowder

Jess Lander

Take highway 1/101:

Pretty good advice, Soquel (Santa Cruz County)

Pretty Good Advice achieves a fantastic breakfast at a reasonable price (everything on the menu is under $10), but the kicker is that it’s all vegetarian and vegan. The menu consists of comfort food such as breakfast sandwiches on ciabatta bread and burgers together with filling salads such as one made with arugula and strawberries. The good morning sandwich ($5) has a satisfyingly crispy potato patty and a fried egg; it’s as good as any meat-based sandwich. Try it with an iced coffee flavored with caramelized coconut or a tart strawberry lemonade. All in all, Pretty Good Advice makes for an excellent breakfast or lunch stop on your way in or out of the Bay Area. -CH

3070 Porter St., Soquel.


Villa Azteca, Salinas

When you need to refresh your senses after the first leg of your trip or need a pick-me-up on the last stretch, visit this upscale Mexican restaurant in downtown Salinas. Although the food is atypical (see: salmon al pastor tacos and strawberry micheladas), the atmosphere is definitely familial. Funky decor and Mexican crafts spread on the walls, giving the restaurant a completely unique feel. Tacos come on the restaurant’s plush handmade corn tortillas, with fillings you won’t find at a typical taco truck: chewy hibiscus flowers draped in tomatillo salsa, beer-battered cactus paddles, and salmon rubbed with smoky pepper paste and achiote. If you’re lucky enough to be around for weekend brunch, the specials, like saucy squash blossom chilaquiles, are a delight. – SH

157 Main St., Salinas. villaazteca.com

Phil’s Fish Market, Moss Landing (Monterey County)

This popular mint green seafood shack is an easy road trip stop because it doesn’t require driving through (or parking in) touristy coastal towns like Monterey and Carmel. About 25 miles north of Monterey, and just a few minutes’ drive from Highway 1, Phil’s Fish Market in Moss Landing has been slinging fresh oysters, crab, clams and more for 40 years. The extensive menu covers seafood sandwiches, pastas, salads and soups, but it’s Phil’s cioppino that has garnered the most acclaim. The current warehouse on the water will be open through Labor Day, after which the restaurant will move to another Moss Landing location. (The move is a result of expansion plans by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute.) -JL

7600 Sandholdt Road, Moss Landing. philsfishmarket.com

A tahini goddess salad with quinoa tabbouleh from Coast in Big Sur.

A tahini goddess salad with quinoa tabbouleh from Coast in Big Sur.

Courtesy Coast

The coast, Big Sur

Most people will tell you to stop at Nepenthe for lunch in Big Sur, and while the restaurant’s sweeping views can’t be beat, there’s a more delicious option nearby: Coast. Housed inside a funky building made from ancient redwood trees, Coast is the dreamy, picnic-appropriate vision of chef Nick Balla, known for his experimental cooking at San Francisco’s Bar Tartine. At Highway 1, he serves seasonal, light and oh-so-California fare like sourdough pizza, high-textured salads and seeded cracker dip. Soft serve is showered with fresh fruit and hemp. Gluten-free and vegetarian options abound. Almost everything is organic. There are low ABV wines and cocktails. It’s rare to find so many vegetables on a road trip, let alone one with an ocean view nearly as stunning as Nepenthes. – JB

49901 Highway 1, Big Sur.


Al pastor tacos are the must-order from Boni's Tacos in Cambria.

Al pastor tacos are the must-order from Boni’s Tacos in Cambria.

Courtesy of Boni’s Tacos

Boni’s Tacos, Cambria (San Luis Obispo County)

Crowds line up every weekend for an incredible Mexico City-style pastor at this trailer parked in Cambria, a small seaside town popular with Hearst Castle visitors. Take a look inside and you’ll see a 70-pound cone of pork, marinated for 24 hours and cooked on a vertical spit. To best appreciate the al pastor—spicy, caramelized meat shaved off the trompo with chunks of juicy pineapple—order a plate of tacos filled with salsa verde. The burritos, grilled for more texture, are also a good choice. Find the Boni’s Tacos trailer in downtown Cambria (2253 Main St.) on Saturdays and Sundays, while Boni’s serves from a commercial kitchen (2405 Village Lane, Suite F) for lunch on weekdays. – JB

Multiple locations, Cambria.


Splash Cafe, Pismo Beach (San Luis Obispo County)

A Pismo institution for over 30 years, Splash Cafe has become so famous for its clam chowder that it’s now sold nationwide at Goldbelly and has even graced the frozen shelves of California Costcos—a pretty impressive feat for a cafe in a small, sleepy beach town. Yes, there will probably be a line, but this place also lives up to the hype. Don’t get distracted by the other menu items; it’s all filler that will prevent you from enjoying Splash’s absurdly creamy chowder in a buttery, toasted sourdough bread bowl. There are toppings to add, like bacon, extra seafood and clams, but I suggest keeping it simple with some cheese. -JL

197 Pomeroy Ave., Pismo Beach.


If you plan ahead, you can add a great meal to your road trip at Bell's in Los Alamos.

If you plan ahead, you can add a great meal to your road trip at Bell’s in Los Alamos.

Courtesy Bell’s

Bell’s, Los Alamos (Santa Barbara County)

If you plan things just right, you can treat yourself to dinner at Bell’s before entering Los Angeles. The Michelin-starred restaurant by owners Daisy and Greg Ryan leans French-Californian, and the place has a comfortably worn desert bistro feel about it. The five-course prix fixe dinner menu, created by Chef Daisy Ryan, changes frequently to suit the season. You can start with the bouncy and tender crepe cake, topped with tongues of Santa Barbara sea urchin and, for an additional $15, a quenelle of buttery caviar. For the most important, perhaps petrale sole, its sweetness complemented by nutty and earthy flavor notes of brown butter, green fava and toasted hazelnuts. The restaurant offers lunch (with room for walk-ins), a prix-fixe dinner ($90) that is reservations-only, and lunch takeout for pre-orders. And every once in a while, Bell’s hosts a really great pop-up, Priedite BBQ, which serves food inspired by California ranchero culture. Keep an eye out! – SH

406 Bell St., Los Alamos.


Brunch at Bob's Well Bread in Los Alamos.

Brunch at Bob’s Well Bread in Los Alamos.

Jess Lander/The Chronicle

Bob’s Well Bread, Los Alamos (Santa Barbara County)

Expect a line on weekends at this bakery in Los Alamos, a small old western town halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles—and a logical morning spot on the trip back to San Francisco. Los Alamos has recently been revitalized into a trendy wine and food destination, and Bob’s, which opened in 2014, has been at the forefront of this change. Stop in for coffee and pastries, like a chocolate pistachio croissant, or heartier breakfast and lunch plates: raisin challah French toast; poached egg in a jar with purple mashed potatoes and bacon lardon; or a classic sandwich. Grab a baguette with artisan bread, such as walnut, cinnamon raisin brioche or corn rye, for on-the-go snacking. -JL

550 Bell St., Los Alamos.


Take I-5:

Tandoori Flame, Patterson (Stanislaus County)

Sometimes when you’re tired of driving for countless, endless hours, the last thing you want is a burger combo that will weigh you down even more. Tandoori Flame, an Indian restaurant next to a gas station off I-5 in Patterson, offers vegetarian and meat curries a world apart from the drive-thru. The butter chicken and rice meal is delicious, while spicy appetizers can help you come back to life. The icy mango lassire refreshes with every sip, which helps when you’re driving through the valley’s triple-digit heat with a broken air conditioner. -MC

2345 Sperry Ave., Patterson. mytandooriflame.com

El Grullense Jal #5, Santa Nella (Merced County)

This birria truck offers delicious, crispy birria tacos outside an Ampm in Santa Nella. The menu features other Mexican food trucks like grilled meat tacos, burritos, quesadillas, and tortas, but the birria items are the real winners here. The house quesabirria adds melted cheese to the birria taco, in what some places down south or around the Bay Area might refer to as a “quesataco.” The rich, red consomme, the broth in which the dish’s beef is cooked, is full of homey flavor. -MC

12185 Santa Nella Blvd., Santa Nella. instagram.com/elgrulsejal5

The windmill outside Pea Soup Andersen's, a classic stop between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

The windmill outside Pea Soup Andersen’s, a classic stop between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Courtesy Pea soup Andersen’s

Pea Soup Andersen’s, Santa Nella (Merced County)

With its full-size Dutch windmill beckoning to weary travelers, Pea Soup Andersen’s is as much a kitschy roadside attraction as a restaurant—and when approached that way, it makes a great pit stop. Anton Anderson, an immigrant from Denmark, opened the restaurant’s original location in 1924 in the then-Danish enclave of Buellton, selling split pea soup made by his French wife, Juliette. Today, chartreuse bowls and cups of the stuff remain on nearly every table—the business claims to sell millions of bowls per year. Customers who buy the travel special can have as many as they want: It’s an all-you-can-eat with Danish pumpernickel bread and onion cheese rolls, plus a milkshake or coffee. Truth be told, a cup and a half sandwich can be enough to get you back on track. – CP

12411 CA-33, Santa Nella. peasoupandersens.net

Arizona Cafe, Bakersfield

If you’re looking for a hearty breakfast in Bakersfield, Arizona Cafe has a fantastic omelet topped with chile verde. On the menu, it’s called a torta chile verde ($12), but it’s really like an open omelet topped with onions and spicy, saucy pork ribs. Chile verde is a bit misleading as the color of the ribs is red. Nonetheless, these ribs are tender and delicious, and are made better with a side of salsa that’s closer to a concentrated consommé. If you’re looking for a more traditional breakfast, try the machaca with eggs. -CH

809 Baker St., Bakersfield. 661-324-3866

This story has been updated to include a reference to Highway 101.

Caleb Pershan is the San Francisco Chronicle’s associate food editor. Email: caleb.pershan@sfchronicle.com

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