Best Dinner on the Central Coast

Because it’s sandwiched between two of the most notable food meccas in the world — San Francisco and Los Angeles — this sprawling region often gets overlooked when it comes to all things gastronomic. But the Central Coast boasts more than just rolling hills, rugged cliffs and Hearst Castle. Take a drive down 101 and you’ll find something for everyone — French-style breads and upscale ranch cuisine that uses produce grown just miles away. There’s a lot to love about the Central Coast, and thankfully food and drink is near the top of that list. Here are our top picks for the best dinner restaurants along the Central Coast.

Bantham-Central Coast-Dinner-@bantam1010-800x450


1010 Fair Ave., Santa Cruz


Frequently named as the best restaurant in Santa Cruz by locals, Bantam wows guests with its innovative and devoted approach to food. Chefs develop the deeply seasonal menu from scratch every day, showcasing the best of what the region offers. Sample dishes range from burrata with beets, pistachios and pecorino Romano, to fried chicken with butter beans, peas, fava beans, kale and chili butter. There is also an extensive line-up of crispy-crust pizzas with fresh tomato sauce and pockets mozzarella along with spicy honey. Hours are Tuesday through Saturday 4:30pm to 8pm. Closed Monday and Sunday.

Cultura Comida y bebida-Central Coast-Dinner-@culturacarmel-800x450

Cultura Comida y Bebida

Dolores St. between 5th and 6th, Carmel


For a taste of Oaxaca on the Central Coast, there’s no surer bet than Cultura Comida y Bebida. Superb food, great service and an outstanding setting — including a nice outdoor seating area away from the street — make this a fail-safe. A great date spot, you’ll find an assortment of family-style dishes on the menu as well as a full bar specializing in unique cocktails and traditional mezcal. Order the street tacos or the chicken tinga burrito and wash it down with a rotating mezcal creations born of regular staff retreats to the southern edge of Mexico. For dessert, try the oat milk flan. Hours are Tuesday through Sunday 5pm to 9pm. Closed Monday.

La Balena-Central Coast-Dinner-@labalenacarmel-800x450
Photo courtesy of La Balena

La Balena

Junipero between 5th and 6th, Carmel


La Balena — “whale” in Italian — shows that fried chicken can be elegant. Just take a look at their pollo fritto. It’s half of a Fogline Farm chicken that’s crusted with arborio (an Italian short-grain rice) and served with a small side salad. Crispy on the outside, tender and juicy on the inside, it doesn’t get much better. Other standouts at this unassuming and exceedingly hospitable spot include the bruschetta topped with Seka Hills olive oil, and a robust wine list. Hours are Wednesday through Sunday 5pm to 8pm. Closed Monday and Tuesday.

Nepenthe-Central Coast-Dinner-@nepentherestaurant-800x450


48510 Hwy. One, Big Sur


Open since 1949, Nepenthe is renowned for the panoramic views of the coast it offers from the sprawling wrap-around deck. The restaurant features a menu of Californian, Greek and Mediterranean cuisine, all highlighting locally grown food. Appropriately named, the famous Ambrosia Burger is Nepenthe’s version of heaven, served on a French roll with their famous ambrosia sauce. If time permits, have a drink before or after dinner out on the deck. If it’s chilly there is a vast selection of warm drinks like the Keoki coffee, made with Kahlua, Crème de Cacao and Korbel Brandy, topped with whipped cream. Hours are 11:30am to 9pm daily.

Passionfish-Central Coast-Dinner-@living_la_vida_laura-800x450
Photo: courtesy of Passionfish


701 Lighthouse Ave., Pacific Grove


If it’s real, local seafood you’re after, skip the more-trafficked restaurants on Cannery Row or Fisherman’s Wharf and head over to Passionfish, a town over. Something that will become apparent immediately is the extensive wine list — including many natural wines — with close-to-retail prices. While most restaurants mark up wine by 200 to 300 percent, it’s only about 50 to 80 percent here. For food, Nancy’s buttery buttermilk biscuits are a must and so is the arctic char if it’s on the menu. Consult with your server about the seafood selection, but know you won’t order a dud regardless. Hours are 5pm to 9pm daily.

Pasta Moon-Central Coast-Dinner-@pastamoonhmb-800x450

Pasta Moon

845 Main St., Half Moon Bay


Open since 1987, Pasta Moon embodies the farm-to-table concept in real terms, building its menu around organic produce, the catch of the day, and the finest cuts of meats and poultry. Eco-friendly and inventive, you’ll find a world of house-made pasta here ranging from puttanesca to lasagna to pappardelle and beyond. Don’t sleep on the drinks either. There is a bevy of unique seasonal cocktails offered like the Tulum margarita with Hornitos reposado tequila, jalapeno agave, lime and cranberry, and the Atticus Finch, with Old Forester bourbon, Campari, benedictine, and plum bitters. Hours are Monday, Thursday and Sunday 5pm to 8pm; Friday and Saturday 5pm to 8:30pm. Closed Tuesday and Wednesday.

Who’s writing these?

Meet our always-hungry team of foodies who compiled this list.
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