What to do and where to eat on a seafood pilgrimage along California's most delicious drive
A seafood drive may sound like an irreverent way to spend Thanksgiving weekend, but fall is about appreciating plenty, and on the Northern California coast, that means fresh seafood.
My family is no stranger to unconventional holiday celebrations (I’ve cooked bouillabaisse for Thanksgiving dinner, making fish stock while most people were brining a turkey), so a coastal seafood pilgrimage seems just right for observing our own version of the holiday.
Our plan is to taste our way from Bodega Bay all the way south to Monterey. We’ll sample the best of the harvest’s largesse: everything from Dungeness crab (whose season starts this month) to local clams and oysters and Pacific Coast sardines.
We’ll also look for giant purple-tipped artichokes, local berries that have been made into preserves, wild mushrooms, and lingering Indian-summer produce, all of which are still going strong here as late as November.
It’s hard to imagine a more beautiful time to take a drive down State 1. We count the black-and-white Holsteins grazing placidly by the side of the highway. The fog rolls in as the cow sightings give way to brown pelicans, otters, and sea lions on their own seafood quests. My husband and I stop frequently, mostly to let our 3-year-old son run around, but also because we can’t resist spontaneous beachcombing on quiet stretches of sand, local wine and cheese tastings, or walks on the chaparral-covered rolling coastal hills.
The most striking thing about the entire span of highway is how it presents itself with little fanfare. The route is one of the most visited in the world, yet it feels hidden from exposure, virtually unchanged from year to year. As legendary and celebrated as some of its destinations are, it still feels like we’re stumbling upon a tremendous secret every time we round a bend and see an oyster farm or crab shack or cheese shop.
The food, too, is simultaneously unpretentious, simple, and out of this world. Everything we eat is prepared with a tangible respect for the ingredients, from Seaweed Café in Bodega Bay, where chef Jackie Martine strives to buy only from sources within 30 miles, to Passionfish in Pacific Grove, where a wallet-size guide to making conscientious seafood choices accompanies our bill.
By the end of our trip, we’re sated and happy, and filled with a renewed sense of gratitude that we live in such an abundant, delicious corner of the world. Nothing irreverent about that.
Next: Where to stay and what to do
NORTH OF SAN FRANCISCO
Cozy wooden buildings on the bluffs that feel retreatlike and luxurious. INFO: 84 rooms from $235; in Bodega Bay; 888/875-3525.
Ideal for beachcombing, kite flying, or fishing from jetties. Campsites are also available (112 sites from $19). INFO: $6 day-use fee; 201 Doran Beach Rd., Bodega Bay; 707/565-2041.
Get an up-close look at an oyster farm and buy fresh oysters to take with you or eat on-site. INFO: 15479 State 1, Marshall; 415/663-1242.
Ship-shape, nautical-themed hotel is housed in a renovated historic brick warehouse at the Cannery. INFO: 252 rooms and 13 suites from $179; 866/415-0704.
Yes, it’s kitschy. But it’s also a lot of fun to stroll around, taking in attractions like (415/705-5500), the aroma of bubbling crab pots, and the ($14, $7 ages 3-11; or 888/732-3483).
Get immersed in Pacific Coast maritime history onboard five late-19th-century ships, each of them floating National Historic Landmarks. INFO: Closed Thanksgiving; $5, ages 15 and under free; 499 Jefferson St.; 415/447-5000.
The World War II submarine is open while being restored to its 1945 appearance. INFO: $9, $4 ages 6-12; Pier 45; 415/775-1943.
NORTH OF MONTEREY
Thousands of northern elephant seals (and visitors) come to Año Nuevo every winter, but earlier in the season, free self-guided walks may yield glimpses of early arrivals. INFO: $6 per vehicle; on State 1, 12 miles south of Pescadero; 650/879-0227.
Spread out a picnic, or walk around tidepools to look for crabs and anemones. INFO: On State 1, about 2 miles south of Pescadero; 650/879-2170.
Enjoy ocean and bay views as you sample wines made by a small family-run winery in the Santa Cruz Mountains. INFO: 55B Municipal Wharf, Santa Cruz; 831/425-7777.
The coast side of the park ― Waddell Creek and Rancho del Oso ― offers lots of windsurfers to marvel at; or hike the first few miles of the Skyline to the Sea Trail to waterfalls, wildlife, and ancient coast redwoods. INFO: 17 miles north of Santa Cruz on State 1; 831/425-1218.
Part summer camp, part spa, with tent cabins and more luxurious lodge rooms. INFO: 80 tent bungalows from $95, 12 cabins from $145, 39 lodge rooms from $165; on State 1, about 11 miles south of Pescadero; 877/262-7848.
Julia Morgan designed much of this peaceful, secluded retreat on the Monterey Peninsula. Rooms are TV- and telephone-free, which only enhances the appeal. INFO: 312 rooms from $133, including breakfast; in Pacific Grove; 866/654-2878.
Dennis the Menace Playground Hank Ketcham, creator of the Dennis the Menace comic strip, designed one of the town’s best attractions for families. Fanciful play structures include a climbing wall, a hedge maze, dizzying slides, and an antique steam locomotive. INFO: Closed Tue; 777 Pearl St., Monterey; 831/646-3860.
Spectacular exhibits and an ocean-conservation message are hallmarks of the world-class destination. INFO: $25, $16 ages 3-12; 886 Cannery Row, Monterey; 831/648-4888.
Next: Where to eat
1. BODEGA BAY
Slow food meets west Sonoma terroir at this cheerful restaurant, where you’ll find both fish and seaweed on the menu. INFO: $$$; closed Mon-Wed; 1580 East-shore Rd.; 707/875-2700.
2. BODEGA BAY
Lucas Wharf A welcome stop for creamy clam chowder, sourdough bread, local crab, and great Bloody Marys, enjoyed in view of boats unloading their catch. INFO: $$$; closed Thanksgiving; 595 State 1; 707/875-3522.
Tomales Bakery The space is so tiny, it’s hard to believe that owner Cameron Ryan can turn out enough croissants, nut-studded sticky buns, and savory focaccia and pizzetta to satisfy the crowds. INFO: $; closed Mon-Wed and Thanksgiving; 27000 State 1; 707/878-2429.
The latest collaboration of restaurateur Pat Kuleto and chef Mark Franz of Farallon fame, located in a beautiful little cove of Tomales Bay. The menu changes nightly; look for seared Bolinas halibut and Bodega Bay Dungeness crabcakes with fennel rémoulade. INFO: $$$; 23240 State 1; 866/636-4257.
5. POINT REYES STATION
Dine on Sonoma Coast ingredients ― including Cowgirl Creamery cheeses made just blocks away ― and local meat and seafood. The clubby dining room goes with the homey menu, which offers dishes like fried Drakes Bay oysters. Or take a break from seafood and try the grass-fed rib-eye. INFO: $$; closed Wed and Thanksgiving; 11180 State 1/Main St.; 415/663-1515.
6. SAN FRANCISCO
For half a century, the Franciscan has been serving famous and not-so-famous patrons the old standards, including the renowned whole Dungeness crab, along with a few surprises like housemade burrata cheese and cured meats. The glamorous luxury-liner decor and the views of the bay and city skyline are unparalleled. INFO: $$$; Pier 43?; 415/362-7733.
7. SAN FRANCISCO
Come for the spectacular views of the ocean and the Sutro Baths ruins, the renovated historic building, and modern takes on seafood dishes like pan-roasted day-boat scallop salad with yuzu-truffle vinaigrette at Sutro’s restaurant ( $$$). Or opt for the more casual Bistro restaurant ( $$), with classic, simple fare like crabcakes. INFO: 1090 Point Lobos Ave.; 415/386-3330.
8. SAN FRANCISCO
At the Beach Chalet ($$), watch the sun set over churning whitecaps as you taste your way through a sampler of house-brewed beers and snack on ahi tuna tartare or buttermilk-fried calamari. Downstairs, the more casual, kid-friendly Park Chalet ($) has no ocean view, but it does have a stone fireplace and glass doors that look out on Golden Gate Park. INFO: 1000 Great Hwy.; 415/386-8439.
9. HALF MOON BAY
A popular fresh fish joint styled like a beach cabana. Its offerings run the gamut from cioppino to the can’t-miss fish tacos, which are a delicious study in simplicity ― perfectly fried cod and a bit of shredded cabbage folded in a warm corn tortilla. INFO: $; closed Mon and Thanksgiving; 99 San Mateo Rd./State 92; 650/712-1125.
10. HALF MOON BAY
Local seafood has a comfort angle at this inviting restaurant. Standouts include the coconut crabcakes with basil aioli, the surprisingly light salmon BLT on toasted brioche, and the seafood chowder, a creamy mixture of shellfish and salmon studded with sweet corn and bacon. INFO: $$; 401 Main St.; 650/560-9758.
A century ago, Duarte’s was a local whiskey watering hole. Today, the fourth generation of the Duarte family is still known for hospitality, serving cioppino, crab melts, creamy artichoke soup, and legendary homemade fruit pies. The ingredients are fresh and lovingly presented, and some of the produce comes from the garden behind the restaurant. INFO: $$; closed Thanksgiving; 202 Stage Rd.; 650/879-0464.12. CAPITOLA
Gayle Ortiz and her husband, Joe, opened this bakery in 1978 to immediate acclaim for her European-style pastries. Stop here on the way to the beach for gourmet picnic fare, including sandwiches, salads, and, of course, sweets. INFO: $; 504 Bay Ave.; 831/462-1200.
13. MOSS LANDING
While the ambience is next to nonexistent (order at the counter, grab your bottle of wine from a self-serve fridge), the seafood is outstanding, especially the spicy, rich cioppino, full of juicy chunks of fish, crab legs, clams, prawns, and scallops. INFO: $$; closed Thanksgiving; 7600 Sandholdt Rd.; 831/633-2152.
Portola Cafe & Restaurant at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seasonal dishes featuring sustainably fished seafood, like marinated white anchovies and crab-and-seafood cakes. Great bay views; use binoculars (provided) to look at frolicking otters while you eat. INFO: $; (cafe) to $$ (restaurant) plus aquarium admission; 866 Cannery Row; 831/648-4870.
15. PACIFIC GROVE
Chef Ted Walter and his wife, Cindy, are passionate about sustainable seafood, which he prepares expertly. Order a fish you haven’t tried before, and you’ll be rewarded with the likes of pepper-crusted sablefish or charmoula-marinated California sturgeon. More familiar items are far from mundane, like the delicately crisp, baseball-size Dungeness crabcake. The setting echoes the simple elegance of the food. INFO: $$; closed Thanksgiving; 701 Lighthouse Ave.; 831/655-3311.