The most effective locations to eat between SF and LA
If you’re driving from San Francisco to Los Angeles, the trip is usually described as “long” or “boring” or “a slog.” But between two of California’s greatest cities are many opportunities to stop, break up the trip and have a bite to eat.
From fast food classics in the Central Valley to the Michelin-starred restaurants on the Central Coast, we’ve compiled some of our favorite places to stop along Interstate 5 and Highways 101 and 1.
The I-5 freeway isn’t the most romantic place, but it gets the job done when you’re doing the San Francisco to Los Angeles drive.
Thomas Winz/Getty Images
California Interstate 5
A classic Californian rite of passage is enduring the drive from the Bay Area to Los Angeles and vice versa. Yes, you have the scenic option of taking Highway 1, but for the sake of time and speed, most of us apparently opt for I-5, judging by the number of FasTrak toll tags on windshields. (And just think, once you bomb down I-5, you get to do it all over again for the return trip. It’s enough to make some of us resort to flying.)
The stretch between the Bay Area and Los Angeles may be the agricultural powerhouse of California, but it’s not exactly known for its food offerings. We’ve done the trip many, many times, and here are our favorites along this pungent drive. If you need more ideas, check out this guide of food stops along I-5.
Pea Soup Andersen’s in Santa Nella, Calif.
Image via Yelp
Pea Soup Andersen’s, Santa Nella
For the coziest kind of comfort food, swing by this institution dedicated to pea soup, especially on cold winter days.
“The product itself did not disappoint. I added only a dash of black pepper, like I used to do when I was a kid, before diving in,” deputy managing editor Kimberly Alter writes. “It was satisfyingly hot but not scalding, which is what you want when you’re sitting in the Central Valley in the afternoon. It was thick enough to coat the back of my spoon, with the weirdly satisfying grittiness that shows it’s been freshly prepared . I chose the chicken salad sandwich for my combination option, and its crisp vegetables and chilled filling offset the warm indulgence of the soup perfectly, as did the pickle spear the plate was served with.”
Pea Soup Anderson’s, 12411 CA-33, Santa Nella. Open daily, 8am to 9pm
The Harris Ranch Ranch Burger was as delicious as it looks.
Photo By Andrew Pridgen
Harris Ranch, Coalinga
Central Coast editor Andrew Pridgen visited one of the best-known stops along I-5, diving into the history of the ranch and how it’s changing to meet evolving tastes.
And, of course, he had to have a burger.
“The bun was spongy and warm to the touch, with onions baked on the top,” Pridgen writes. “I started typing adjective-laden descriptions into my phone that embarrassingly went like this: ‘The lettuce was so fresh and deep green I had to take a bite of it on its own. Onion, a ‘Prince’ shade of purple and tomato redder than a Central Valley sunset.'”
Harris Ranch Inn & Restaurant, 24505 W. Dorris Ave., Coalinga. Hours depend on the restaurant.
In-N-Out burgers are served at the John Varvatos 13th Annual Stuart House Benefit presented by Chrysler with Kids’ Tent by Hasbro Studios at John Varvatos on April 17, 2016, in West Hollywood, California.
Tommaso Boddi/Getty Images for John Varvatos
In-N-Out, Kettleman City
Ready to go animal style? A classic of every road trip in California is In-N-Out, the burger chain many locals would call their favorite. Strategically located at the halfway point between San Francisco and Los Angeles, this In-N-Out is one of the busiest in the state. Not only do drivers stop here to stretch their legs and grab a bite to eat, but the outlet also has a Tesla charging station.
“The fast food company has a simple base menu: burgers, fries, drinks, shakes,” Pridgen writes. “Over time, it has transformed into an art form of infinite possibility, thanks to its legendary and beloved ‘secret’ items.”
In-N-Out, 33464 Bernard Drive, Kettleman City. Open Sunday through Thursday, 10:30 am to 1 am, Friday and Saturday, 10:30 am to 1:30 am
The Pacific coastline from Highway 1 in California.
Coastal California (Hwy 101/California State Route 1)
If you’re taking the scenic route, Highway 1 is one of the world’s most beautiful drives, no question. It can also feel like one of the world’s longest drives, clocking in at 450-plus miles, many of which are winding and up against nail-biting cliff drops. You will definitely need (and want) to stop.
But because the beauty of this drive, in part, comes from its relative isolation from development, places to eat can be few and far between. To help you plan ahead for the inevitable rest you’ll need, here are our favorite spots that are worth the splurge or can’t be missed.
We’ve included stops on both State Route 1 and Highway 101, since many people toggle between the two on their way south rather than drive the entire scenic route.
Casanova Carmel, one of the small village’s most storied restaurants, hath a hidden gem in a table Vincent van Gogh may have sat at in the months leading up to his death.
Image via Yelp
If you’re craving fine dining along Highway 1, stop by Casanova, a converted chateau that is now a charming French and Italian restaurant. It also has a special claim to fame like no other: the table where Vincent van Gogh may have eaten his final meal, Pridgen writes.
Owner Walter Georis was fascinated by Auberge Ravoux, the hotel and restaurant in France where van Gogh spent the last few months of his life. The main dining room at Casanova is patterned after that of the auberge, and in addition to the van Gogh table, Georis brought back other pieces of furniture and even a chef from Auberge Ravoux to Carmel.
“The nondescript farm table consists of a few consecutive slats of barn wood whose unvarnished veneer has a red hue in the restaurant’s lighting,” Pridgen writes. “A simple, understated relic that left its potential as van Gogh’s final resting place.”
Casanova, 5th Avenue between Mission and San Carlos, Carmel. Open Tuesday through Saturday, 4:30 to 9:30 pm
Ocean breezes come up the cliff side to greet visitors to Big Sur’s Nepenthe. Since its opening in 1949, visitors have enjoyed the hideaway once owned by Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth.
Photo Courtesy of Yelp
Nepenthe, Big Sur
What was once a rustic getaway with infrequent power for Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth is now a must-visit restaurant in Big Sur. Still family-owned after three generations, this is likely one of the most beautiful spots in America to have a burger with a view.
The Hollywood connection didn’t stop with Welles and Hayworth. Nepenthe’s soaring views also played host to another generation of celebrities; eventually, they were even featured in an Elizabeth Taylor film.
“As revelers sit on colorful oversized cushions that adorn the giant concrete stairs out in front or find a quiet corner inside to sip coffee or split the restaurant’s signature Ambrosiaburger, a ground steak sandwich served on a French roll that Lolly [the founder] herself perfected,” Pridgen writes, “the ever-present challenges of the day-to-day still seem to fade as long as Nepenthe exists.”
Nepenthe, 48510 CA-1, Big Sur. Open daily, 11:30 am to 10 pm
Sous chef David Ward prepares for service at Six Test Kitchen in Paso Robles. The 12-seat restaurant became the first in the area to win a Michelin star last fall.
Photo Courtesy of Ricky Odbert
Six Test Kitchen, Paso Robles
If you’re looking for a splurge along the Central Coast, swing by San Luis Obispo County’s first Michelin-starred restaurant. Chef Ricky Odbert spent a decade in fine dining in San Francisco but found himself forced out by the housing crisis. Then in his 30s, he returned to his parents’ home to figure out the next steps in his career, and his dad encouraged him to begin a commissary in the garage.
That was the beginning of what would become Six Test Kitchen in Paso Robles, and in 2019, Michelin came calling. “Against all odds, the restaurant team that you could count on one hand had graduated from a tiny garage to a small restaurant, that barely anyone in the area knew, and had now achieved the impossible,” Pridgen writes.
Six Test Kitchen, 3075 Blue Rock Road, Unit B, Paso Robles. Open Wednesday through Saturday, 5:30 to 8:30 pm Reservations required.
A full grill at the Santa Maria Elks Lodge’s “Cook Your Own” Friday, which has become the place in California to find Santa Maria-style barbecue done right.
Photo By Andrew Pridgen
Santa Maria Elks Lodge, Santa Maria
Few outside the Central Coast know that California has its own homegrown style of barbecue, centered around the town of Santa Maria. And in a humble Elks Lodge is where you will find the epitome of the style. (Note that you’ll need to be an Elk or know an Elk to participate in the Friday “Cook Your Own” dinners.)
“The secret behind the eponymous barbecue, charred on the outside, pink in the middle, is its simplicity,” Pridgen writes. “No dry rub. No waking up at 4 am to fire up the smoker. No sticky, sweet brown sugar sauces. No burnt ends. It’s as simple as ‘turn and burn, baby,’ at least according to one of its longest- tenured pitmasters, Mark Souza.
“This way of cooking, this delicate dance of fire, meat and human, has its origins — not surprisingly — in Santa Maria, a city an hour north of Santa Barbara. In its current iteration, it can be traced back to a single institution , one that’s both a purveyor and gatekeeper of a nearly impossible-to-emulate style today: the Santa Maria Elks Lodge.”
Santa Maria Elks Lodge, 1309 North Bradley Road, Santa Maria. “Cook Your Own” dinner every Friday, from 6 to 8 pm
Even early on a Tuesday morning, Paula’s Pancake House in Solvang is hopping. To get into the restaurant, which opens at 7 am and closes at 3 pm, the manager suggests coming early in the morning or later in the afternoon.
Photo By Andrew Pridgen
Paula’s Pancake House, Solvang
Do pancakes have the power to change your life? The ones at Paula’s Pancake House in Solvang, which may be the best ones in the state, just might. For this important dispatch, Pridgen brought along the foremost pancake connoisseur of his acquaintance: his 8-year-old son.
“As my son and I dove in, the agreed upon breakfast exchange never happened,” Pridgen writes. “I’ve seen the 8-year-old completely ignore a plate of carefully prepared dinner, and I’ve seen him take down a trio of store-bought birthday cupcakes at once. But I’ve never seen him eat like this. Midway through, he grabbed his spoon, along with his fork so he could double-fist his bites, just one scoop after another.
“It’s no exaggeration to say his plate was clean within five minutes. He would later declare Paula’s the ‘best pancake ever — or at least better than yours.'”
Paula’s Pancake House, 1531 Mission Drive, Solvang. Open daily, 7am to 3pm