Regardless of whether you’re a California native or from out-of-state, the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) makes for a fantastic road trip. Starting at Dana Point in the OC and ending up north by Leggett, there are beaches to visit, mountains to hike, and, of course, food to eat at every stop along the way.
I’ve compiled a this handy guide for you, so all you have to do is enter places into your GPS and know you’re on your way to gorgeous views and unbeatable food. Buckle up, because this is a road trip you’ll never forget.
Oceanside: Swami’s Cafe
Technically, the PCH doesn’t start until Dana Point, so San Diego County isn’t part of it. But if you’re going to take the time to drive up the California coast, you can’t miss sunny San Diego. There’s hiking to do, beaches to visit, and beach towns to stroll through.
SoCal also has amazing açai bowls, which are a California must-have, and Swami’s is the home to some of the best in San Diego. Though this brunch won’t leave you feeling heavy, it’s still nice to walk it off in the cute little seaside town of Oceanside. It’s classic California at its best.
#SpoonTip: If you’re feeling extra Californian, try their avocado toast as well.
Newport Beach: Kéan Coffee
Newport Beach is one of the first stops on the official Route 1 AKA the official PCH. It boasts ten miles of California coastline and also some ten mile hikes (as well as shorter ones) for those that want to get some Vitamin D in. Since it’s a two hour drive from San Diego, it’s perfect for a quick coffee and/or bathroom stop.
Kéan Coffee is one of the most well-known coffee shops in this area and is a local roaster, meaning that the coffee they serve is all roasted on site, some within mere hours before serving. Not only is their latte art on point, but they also have unique drinks like a Turkish latte in addition to your regular iced coffee and cappuccinos.
Santa Monica: Sweetfin Poke
Though poke has been a Hawaiian staple for years, it’s recently become a mainland fad. And since California is Hawaii’s sister state when it comes to food trends (hello, açai bowls), it only makes sense that California has some of the best poke on the mainland.
You’ll definitely regret not trying Santa Monica‘s famous Sweetfin Poke, so pull off the PCH and head to this bustling beach city. While you’re there, take a walk around the Santa Monica pier for some photo ops.
#SpoonTip: If you’re unsure of what to get, pick from their classic bowls. You can also build your own bowl, and for those who’re paleo or don’t want to eat rice, they have kelp noodles or salad that you can also pick as a base.
Malibu: Reel Inn
While there are many places in Malibu to eat dinner overlooking the sunset, Reel Inn is great because it won’t break the bank. It’s also home to classic comfort seafood, like fish ‘n chips. They also have plain grilled fish for those who’re looking for something a little healthier. It’s nothing fancy, but it’s fresh and will fill you right up.
If it’s not too dark yet, take a blanket and watch the sunset from one of the many beaches around Malibu. Or, even better, drive further up north to the Sandhill for a great view of the sunset from a higher viewpoint.
Ventura: Taqueria Cuernacava
If you haven’t tried al pastor before, go to Taqueria Cuernacava in Ventura ASAP. They carve up their al pastor fresh and pair it with pineapple for a juicy tang. Whether in taco form or burrito form, you really can’t go wrong. It’s the best post-beach food, since you’ll be hungry after a day sunbathing and playing in the ocean.
Having grown up in Ventura county, I can tell you that this city has amazing Mexican food (because you can’t leave SoCal without trying Mexican food), as well as beautiful beaches that have a different vibe than those in Malibu or the OC.
Santa Barbara: McConnell’s Fine Ice Creams
Yes, there are famous artisanal ice cream places like Humphrey Slocombe in San Fran and all the Insta-worthy spots in LA, but McConnell’s is classic ice cream done right. They make their ice cream in small batches from California Central Coast grass-fed milk and cream that they pasteurize at their own creamery.
You can taste the quality in their ice cream. Try every single flavor your heart desires, because they are more than happy to give you generous samples of each.
#SpoonTip: Try the dark chocolate cacao nib if you’re a chocolate lover, the olive oil with almonds if you like unique flavors, and the eureka lemon and marionberries if you’re into something fruity. Note — some flavors may change by season.
San Luis Obispo: Goshi Japanese Restaurant
San Luis Obispo, dubbed by us Californians as “SLO,” is probably one of California’s most underrated cities. Not only was it Zac Efron’s birthplace, it was also named the happiest city in America. With amazing hikes (try Bishop Peak for an unbeatable view of the sunset) and plenty of ocean activities (surfing, kayaking, and exploring sea caves), you’ll find yourself jealous of the students who go to Cal Poly SLO.
Especially with the food here — everything is just so good. Local, farm-to-fork restaurants are in abundance, and they have a variety of different types of food as well. For the best Japanese food (because you have to try sushi while in California), head to Goshi Japanese Restaurant.
#SpoonTip: If you can’t decide what sushi roll to order, you can get half rolls of certain sushi.
If you’re in SLO for dinner, head over afterwards to Morro Bay for picture-perfect sunset views of Morro Rock.
Cambria: Linn’s Restaurant
Continuing from SLO to Cambria means you’re heading into central California AKA home of all the small towns. Not a bad thing, though — people in Cambria are probably some of the nicest you’ll ever meet.
Linn’s is home to the famous ollalieberry (a mix between blackberries and raspberries) pie, but they have a restaurant as well. It has a lot of gluten free options for those of you with dietary restrictions.
#SpoonTip: If you’re looking to save a little money, go for brunch. Try the Linn’s Bin (pictured above) if you’re looking for something savory or their pancakes with the ollalieberry syrup if you’re looking for something sweet.
For snacks: Soto’s True Earth Market
Before you head up to Big Sur, make sure to stop by this Whole Foods-esque market for healthy snacks. Or, if you’re looking for dessert, Soto’s has the best gluten free brownies you’ll ever taste.
#SpoonTip: We also picked up food for a wine and cheese picnic in Big Sur, since we didn’t want to spend big bucks dining out in Big Sur.
Big Sur: Big Sur Bakery and Restaurant
Big Sur has hands down the most stunning sights on the California coast. Hiking is truly the star, and camping as well for those who are up to it. It’s much more cost effective to bring food to make yourself in this area, as there aren’t many restaurants and they are all pretty high priced.
If you do want to eat out in Big Sur, however, the Big Sur Bakery and Restaurant is one of the most acclaimed eateries in the area. I recommend going for brunch — their breakfast pizza has gotten rave reviews.
Pacific Grove: Happy Girl Kitchen
Perks of this vegetarian café: they have kombucha on tap, nourishing options even meat-lovers will like, very strong coffee, and a variety of gift options since they make their own jams and marmalades. They also have gluten free baked goods, unique chocolates, and more things that’ll make you wish you had more room in your stomach.
The café is also two blocks away from the Monterey Bay Aquarium, so you can park on the street here and walk over.
San Francisco: Tony’s Pizza Napoletana
You know a pizza place is good when it has won numerous awards at the World Pizza Cup against real Italian pizzas. Tony’s, right in the heart of SF’s Little Italy, has a large variety of pizzas so everyone will be satisfied. From gluten free, to classic American, to Neapolitan, you can’t really go wrong.
#SpoonTip: Try the quail egg, potato, and guanciale pizza if you’re looking for something unique or the prosciutto e pomodorini if you’re looking for a more classic Italian pizza.
Santa Cruz: Johnny’s Harborside
Santa Cruz is arguably NorCal’s most famous beach town, with a boardwalk that rivals Santa Monica’s. After you chill out on the beach, hit up Johnny’s for dishes that have a fresh twist on seafood and a view of the harbor.
#SpoonTip: Make a reservation (you can use OpenTable) because it can get quite busy during peak hours.
Marshall: Hog Island Oyster Company
Hog Island Oyster Company has a location in San Francisco’s Ferry Building, but I recommend that you drive up to Marshall and tour their oyster farm. You can also eat at their Boat Oyster Bar, where they shuck the oysters for you, or the picnic area, where you shuck your own oysters — you can’t get much fresher than that.
And there you have it! Enjoy the sunshine, the great eats, and the views — it’s all the best California has to offer.