Best Lunch on the Monterey Peninsula

Best Lunch on the Monterey Peninsula

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Picking a great lunch spot around the Monterey Bay Area can create a decision-making crisis. That happens in 1-square-mile Carmel-by-the-Sea on its own, where there are more than 50 restaurants. From there, Local Getaways thought long, hard and hungry on this list, scouring spots from Big Sur in the south to Moss Landing in the north.

Some priorities that guided this compilation include: patios (which have evolved amid Covid), family-managed establishments (with a splash of more resort-leaning spots), and local product, (which led to a lot of seafood). There are scores of more casual spots that make fantastic midday fare. Chief among them are the spots I frequent most, like the torterias and taquerias of Seaside (¡I see you Tortuga and Mi Tierra!). But here we focused on full-service spots. 

Here are our top picks for Monterey Peninsula Lunch, selected by our editors.

Feature Photo: Big Sur River Inn & Restaurant

Photo: @bigsurriverinn

Big Sur River Inn & Restaurant

There aren’t many places in the world, let alone California, that allow you to dine in the water, but this is one of those. At the Big Sur River Inn & Restaurant there are actually four places you can dine: in the historic dining room, on the expansive deck, on the lawn or in an Adirondack chair along the bank of — or with feet soaking in — the Big Sur River. If you want a substantial yet gluten-free meal, get the chimichurri-marinated California gaucho steak. If you’re craving comfort food, it doesn’t get much better than carrot cake French toast.

Photo: Courtesy of Corkscrew Cafe

Corkscrew Cafe

The whole “taken straight from the European countryside” refrain is well-worn, but it definitely applies here given the pebbled garden and rustic fare — and, after all, the owner is Belgian. Specialties, as with sibling spots La Bicyclette and Casanova in Carmel — the former a superb lunch play itself — include breads and pizzas, but don’t sleep on the smash burger, pear salad or tiramisu.

Photo: Courtesy of Epsilon


7902 Moss Landing Road, Moss Landing

Surprisingly few downtown Monterey restaurants do a proper lunch, and fewer still have done as long or as well as Epsilon. The authentic family heirloom recipes that go into the avgolemono soup, imam bayildi and chicken kabob sandwich speak for themselves, as does the staying power of the service staff. Come night time, it’s also a great spot to watch the tour buses offload talent for the adjacent Golden State Theatre, or to drift next door to Monterey’s first speakeasy since Prohibition, where Epsilon chef-owner Chris Hix does the food too.

Photo: Courtesy of Haute Enchilada Cafe

Haute Enchilada Café

7902 Moss Landing Road, Moss Landing

The sizable patio is flush with thoughtfully arranged greenery and quirky art, and the plates of relleno de La Paz, pescado Cubano and magic mushroom tartine are every bit as creative and strikingly arranged. Specialty drinks like the Moroccan mojito and cup of Zen represent another big draw. Ask your server about the resident owls.

Photo: Courtesy of Hula's Island Grill

Hula's Island Grill

622 Lighthouse Avenue, Monterey

The vibe and decor and service and patio and juicy tiki drinks (that much sexier amid happy hour) all complement the food. The food, meanwhile, reciprocates with tropical range, fusion intuition and lots of vegetarian/vegan options. Greatest hits include items like seared ahi wontons, abalone-style calamari, jungle tofu, the Trader Vic’s fish sandwich and namesake Hula Burger. Guests can also select a fresh catch of choice and a preparation like lemongrass-crusted or blackened wasabi style.

Photo: Courtesy of La Bicyclette Restaurant

La Bicyclette Restaurant

The menu here is updated weekly, but guests can always expect a fresh assortment of Belgian-tinged creations — including the constant Duvel beer — from the Georis family. A wood-fired oven is at the heart of this operation and you can’t go wrong with any of the pizza offerings, especially the Champignons which boasts both portobello and oyster mushrooms. Ask the server about the charcuterie selection that’s cut to order with the on-site hand cranked slicer.

Photo: Courtesy of Lucia Restaurant & Bar

Lucia Restaurant & Bar

415 W Carmel Valley Road, Carmel Valley

Bernardus Lodge plops a destination restaurant in a scenic cradle of Carmel Valley vineyards, mountains and lavender fields. Either patio — out front by the organic kitchen gardens or in back by the expansive bocce ball courts — furnish dreamy backdrops for modern farm-to-fork fare that emphasizes local producers and wine country cuisine like braised short ribs, prosciutto pizzas, grilled swordfish and Dungeness crab cakes.

Photo: Courtesy of Maligne


600 Broadway Ave., Seaside


Here the open floor plan gives diners a wide angle of the kitchen amid an airy, urban-chic, intentionally unfinished space. The main focus is wood-fired finds — think crispy black cod, popular chicken parm and lush pork piccata — complemented by a superb seasonal pizza program, sharp wine list and smooth service. Chef-owner Klaus Georis grew up in restaurants, found his kitchen calling in Michelin starred S.F. spots and while interning at Belgium’s In De Wulf, then returned home to give Seaside a restaurant unlike any it’s seen.

Photo: Courtesy of Mangia - Eat on Main

Mangia - Eat on Main

328 Main Street Suite A, Salinas

I named this place the Best New Restaurant of 2021 for its habit-forming homespun recipes, family-run enthusiasm, local vibe and vibrant dinner scene. But the lunch might be more magnetic, thanks to modest price points and less bustle. Things to consider in anticipation: truffle gnocchi, pollo piccata and penne alla Mangia, which earns the name.

Photo: Courtesy of @sammievsfood


48510 Hwy. One, Big Sur

The legendary spot where Henry Miller once hung is worth the drive from town, and the drive is famous for a reason. Here the views and the vibe are so profound the food and beverage program almost gets underrated. The two “house favorites” (steak frites and famous Ambrosia burger) deliver reliably, and so does the wild shrimp BLT.

Photo: Courtesy of Pescadero Carmel

Pescadero Carmel

San Carlos Street & 7th Ave, Carmel

The modern menu dives deeply and devoutly into Baja California, with mescals and tequilas to match. Covid helped Pescadero up its outdoor patio game, and the mood is about as social as it gets, lifted at later hours by sister spot Barmel next door. The guacamole, yellowfish tiradito, sake-steamed salmon and handmade tortillas are all superb, but the real clincher is the abalone tacos with fried artichoke.

Photo: Courtesy of Phil’s Fish Market & Eatery

Phil’s Fish Market & Eatery

The seafood has earned an international reputation and appearances on BBC Travel, Food Network and Sunset Magazine. Picnic tables and a beachside eating area fill up with families grazing on waves of Sicilian-style artichokes, oysters, clams, prawn cocktail, cracked crab and, yes, the headlining cioppino, available by bowl or bucket. Pro tip: While it’s not uncommon for the line to stretch into the parking lot, Phil’s Snack Shack down the street does delicious soups and sandwiches without the wait.

Photo: Courtesy of Sand Bar and Grill

Sandbar & Grill

Wharf #2, Monterey

Tucked under Wharf Two in Monterey, Sand Bar is a locals favorite for a rock-solid lineup of strengths: Fresh seafood befitting a dockside spot; signature dishes like crab-shrimp melts, sand dabs, clam chowder and calamari all done with aplomb and a kick of Sand Bar personality; a great happy hour; staff that’s been there forever; solid wine list long on value; and harborside views that often include frolicking otters.

Photo: Courtesy of Schooners Monterey

Schooners Monterey

The on-top-of-the-ocean positioning would be enough — you’re essentially dangling over the Pacific — but the drinks and food hold up, and the cute-and-clean aesthetic and wind protections are key details they pay attention to. The raw bar dishes local shellfish and such, a bunch of appetizers and main plates focus on fresh catch like local black cod and seared sea scallops, but there’s a steakhouse side of the menu too, and a $150-ish seafood tower for the ambitious.


West End Tap & Kitchen

Putting a California spin on traditional pub food in an industrial, family-friendly setting, West End Tap & Kitchen serves up favorites like flatbread pizzas with an assortment of toppings, from slow-roasted tomato to Italian sausage, as well as a variety of starters, sandwiches and farmers’ market-inspired salads. You can’t go wrong with the house-ground burger though, topped with the restaurant’s signature sauce and your choice of fixings. Pair your meal with a drink from the extensive menu of craft brews, many from local breweries, or glass of wine from the California-centric wine list (many are on tap).

Photo: Courtesy of Villa Azteca

Villa Azteca

The family-run spot has a gift for giving traditional Mexican recipes contemporary creative flourishes and presentation, with lots of vegetarian options. It’s a recipe that made them one of the area’s most popular new restaurants of the last few years. Tacos de nopal, chicken mole, beef birria en consomé and prawn aguachile are among the plates that have made it an Oldtown hit — and inspired a second location in Carmel Plaza. 

More Local Favorites on the Monterey Peninsula

Who’s writing these?

Meet our always-hungry team of foodies who compiled this list.
Please let us know if we’ve missed your favorite

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