If you love food, it might be hard to choose where in California to plan a trip. From the rural Redwoods of Northern California, to the sun-soaked southern shores, to the inland mountains and deserts, chefs have been getting creative in California for a long time.
You really can’t go wrong anywhere in the state, but Los Angeles is a great place to start and end a food-focused California road trip if you want to sample the best of the urban areas as well as further-out spots worth the drive. Let’s hit the road for a road trip itinerary that loops inland from LA, then south to San Diego before winding up the Pacific Coast – sampling the bounties of the land and sea all along the way.
To provide the best recommendations in a region where the options are always changing, we’ve teamed up with Chef Sandy Ho, an Australian professional chef with an interest in using local, sustainable produce. Her fascination with nostalgic cooking and flair for colorful flavors will guide you to some of the most interesting, flavorful, and diverse options for dining in Southern California.
Stroll around iconic Venice Beach and grab a snack before hitting the road © MattL_Images / Shutterstock
Let’s be honest: you could just drive around Los Angeles and eat your way through the city – and never run out of fascinating flavors and different dining options. So, give yourself a day or two in LA at the beginning or end of your trip to enjoy the city’s culinary scene.
© All graphic elements by Jacob Rhoades / Lonely Planet
Narrowing down the wealth of options can be tricky, but that’s where Chef Sandy Ho is able to help. On your first day of eating your way around SoCal, it’s important to start with a good meal, and Chef Sandy recommends Flake in Venice: “Perfect breakfast spot to quickly grab a breakfast burrito, coffee and an açaí bowl,” she says. “I love getting the regular burrito with turkey sausage and avocado – extra hot sauce on the side!”
Stroll around iconic Venice Beach and, if you’re still hungry, grab a snack before hitting the road. “I love La Isla Bonita for the best quick snack; they have amazing ceviche tostadas on the west side of town,” Chef Sandy says.
Banh mi is the perfect grab-and-go meal option in Los Angeles © Joshua Resnick / Shutterstock
On your way out of LA, you could also stop in Alhambra, a city-within-a-city of the greater Los Angeles area. This area is known for great Asian restaurants in every variety, including excellent Vietnamese cuisine. There, Ho has a few suggestions too. “Com Tam Kieu is a new favorite of mine,” she says. “I would try absolutely everything and anything on the menu over and over.” Ho also recommends Ba Le, a mother-and-daughter-owned bakery: “it has the crispiest banh mi in town,” she suggests, if you’re looking for a grab-and-go option to hit the road.
From LA it’s a 60-90-minute drive to the Temecula Valley, where you’ll want to stop and soak up the sun – and try a bit of the local wine that the region is famous for.
Temecula, a region most known for its wine, is gradually emerging as a food destination © ekam / Shutterstock
Temecula wining and dining
Amid Temecula’s sun-soaked, hilly vineyards rooted in granitic soil, a region most known for its wine is gradually emerging as a food destination by leaning into local, organic produce. Along Front Street in Old Town, for example, independent restaurants like E.A.T marketplace (Extraordinary Artisan Table) serve all-day breakfast alongside a range of sandwiches and salads – like its roasted chicken salad sandwich with cranberries, and organic greens dressed in mustard-shallot vinaigrette.
Claim a spot on the waitlist at The Goat & Vine, for eclectic pizzas © Rosamar / Shutterstock
There’s also The Goat & Vine, where co-owner Nathan Rivera pivoted from a career in law to return to an environment where eclectic pizzas with scratch-made proteins, and sandwiches on house-made sourdough not only nourished bellies but served as a hub for meaningful, in-person interaction. Claim a spot on its waitlist for pies like The Favorite with fennel sausage and mushrooms, and more adventurous interpretations like the Jalapeño Lime Carnitas pizza with slow-roasted pork, avocado, and cotija cheese. Nearby, a former 1900s homestead and antique shop has transformed into Small Barn, a restaurant for fanciful dishes, from a roasted beet salad drizzled in local honey to duck confit with seasonal fruit.
From Temecula, it’s a short drive south to San Diego. We recommend staying the night after some delicious wine tasting and hitting the road first thing in the morning.
Patio dining takes advantage of San Diego’s enviable weather © Idealphotographer / Shutterstock
San Diego eats and sweets
Once in San Diego’s city limits, lead your palate through the city’s diverse neighborhoods. In University Heights near famous Balboa Park, Johnston’s Bar is a relaxed and cozy place for shared bites – like hummus livened up with sumac, toasted Cubano sandwiches, and lightly battered fish and squiggly chips. Don’t miss a scoop or two of Stella Jean’s global ice cream flavors, like ube with a pan de sal crunch, or the creamy yet vegan-friendly mango sticky rice.
In East Village, just a few blocks from Petco Park, Callie does Mediterranean-inspired plates made to share, from its juicy Aleppo chicken marinated in garlic yogurt, to crunchy Egyptian carrots with cashew dukkah and an orange-habanero dressing. Searching for tacos? Salud Tacos in Barrio Logan, and Tuetano, located in Old Town Urban Market in Old Town San Diego, are solid bets.
Looking for tacos? Old Town Market is an excellent choice © Wirestock Creators / Shutterstock
The Plot restaurant nearby serves a completely plant-based menu if the road trip crew leans more herbivore than carnivore. Think: Sushi rolls made with lion’s mane mushroom “crab,” and a purple Okinawan sweet potato gnocchi with tangy pickled turnips and carrot puree.
Continuing on, swing over to the resort town of La Jolla and stake out a patio spot at Marisi, perhaps after a visit to the Museum of Contemporary Art. Start with its house-made limoncello before moving onto the modern Italian restaurant’s homemade pasta dishes.
From San Diego, you can turn your wheels north to eat your way up the Pacific Coast; though it might seem like one big urban drive, there are towns and communities with unique cuisines all along the coast that are worth making the room for.
Once you have a nixtamalized tortilla, you’ll always be hooked © Sergio Hayashi / Shutterstock
Orange County food halls, and more
Depending on when you’re ready to stop, head to Heritage BBQ – either in Oceanside or the original location in San Juan Capistrano. People flock to these shops for a Southern California take on tender brisket, chopped up or stuffed in a flour tortilla, pulled pork or spareribs, and sides from mac and cheese to potato salad. Co-owner and pitmaster Daniel Castillo, an Orange County native, was originally inspired by Texas-style BBQ. The Oceanside location is more upscale, with specialties like pork belly banh mi, pastrami torta, plus craft beer, orange wine, and cocktails. The original is a more casual, outdoor operation.
Further north off I-405 in Costa Mesa, near the coast, Taco María plates up modern versions of traditional Mexican dishes. Its four-course prix fixe menu rotates often, though always includes corn-based masa products that are nixtamalized (a pre-Hispanic process that transforms dry corn kernels into tortillas, tamales, and more) in-house. On a given evening, one might encounter a tamal of sunchoke and green tomatillos, smoked albacore tacos, and pork belly with smoked nopales (cactus).
Anaheim Packing District is a two-story food hall in a former orange packing warehouse © The Image Party / Shutterstock
Onward, Westminster and Garden Grove are also known as Little Saigon, and home to the largest Vietnamese population outside of Vietnam. It’s also the place to go in Orange County for traditional Vietnamese fare. Pho 78 for example isn’t the only pho spot in the area but its signature oxtail pho, a brothy dish spiced with star anise, stands out. It opened in 1982 and has been a multi-generational operation ever since.
At Anaheim Packing District, a campus reimagined from historic, late-1910s citrus industry buildings invites guests to choose their own culinary adventure. A two-story food hall in a former orange packing warehouse serves all palates, from Indian food at Adya to Japanese-style crepes at Crepe Coop. In another building, Poppy & Seed is a full-service restaurant with an expansive outdoor patio (and fire pits) that does brunch and dinner, including a meat-centric and vegan chef’s tasting menu.
At this point, your road trip will continue north to end up where you started in Los Angeles. This is a great opportunity to spend an extra meal or two in different areas of the city if you didn’t at the beginning of your road trip itinerary.
Other California Food Experiences
Any food guide to California would be remiss to exclude the San Francisco Bay Area; like Los Angeles, the many cities that comprise the Bay Area are a foodie’s destination in their own right, and one could easily spend a long weekend making the short drive from city to city to sample it all. Here are a few must-try spots if you’re also planning to visit this part of Northern California, from cheap eats to splurges and everything in between.
Boudin Bakery in Fisherman’s Wharf is beloved by visitors and locals alike © 365 Focus Photography / Shutterstock
San Francisco: San Francisco itself is home to a healthy number of Michelin-starred restaurants, ranging from the three-star contemporary French restaurant Atelier Crenn (helmed by James Beard award-winning Chef Dominique Crenn) to the exemplary Californios which elevates Mexican light years beyond the Mission District burritos you’ll find nearby. We’d be remiss to leave The French Laundry off the list, which is located north of the Bay Area in Napa County. At the other end of the budget and reservations-needed spectrum, Boudin Bakery in Fisherman’s Wharf is beloved by visitors and locals alike and you can’t go wrong with one of the many dim sum restaurants in Chinatown. San Francisco also shares the claim as the birthplace of Tiki culture; you could journey across the Bay Bridge to sip the original 1944 Mai Tai at Trader Vic’s or visit a modern temple to tropical cocktails at Smuggler’s Cove.
There are some fantastic dining options in the small towns that surround the slumbering volcano of Mount Shasta © Valerie Stimac / Lonely Planet
Shasta Cascades: Further north from San Francisco, there are no shortage of great food options. While it might seem – and literally is – miles from the big cities, there are some fantastic dining options in the small towns that surround the slumbering volcano of Mount Shasta. Plan ahead to enjoy a meal at Café Maddalena in Dunsmuir, easily missed as you head north on I-5, or tuck into a hearty dish at McCloud Meat Market (in McCloud) after a day of adventuring. There are also plenty of good casual spots; Yaks Shack in Mt Shasta is a beloved spot for smoothies and lunch options.
Mouth-watering mexican dishes like mocajete can be found in California’s Gold Country © SRMDigital / Shutterstock
Gold Country: While it was gold that inspired people into the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountains, Gold Country is also home to a few gems of the culinary variety. Located in Angels Camp, Cascabel Restaurant offers delightful Mexican dishes including a mouth-watering molcajete that’s perfect for sharing with your travel companions. Nearby, the town of Murphys has become a little wine getaway, boasting tasting rooms for most of the 20 wineries that produce in the surrounding Calaveras County.
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