11 Northern California Restaurants Well Worth the Drive from San Francisco

Destination Dining: 11 Northern California Eateries Well Worth the Drive

Road trips are great for inspiring spontaneity and indulging one’s sense of adventure, and in Northern California, a region surrounded by such diverse beauty, the drive is often as rewarding as the destination. Quaint towns, fertile valleys, rugged coasts — no matter which direction you head, there’s something to be seen and, usually, eaten. So whether you’re local to the Bay Area or have some extra time on your next trip to San Francisco, these delicious restaurants should definitely be on your radar.

In the spotlight

Loulou’s Griddle in the Middle

3 hours from San Francisco

Guy Fieri visited this bustling fish house on Monterey’s Pier 2 while filming his show “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives.” The kitschy atmosphere and warm hospitality are reason enough to make the trip, but if that doesn’t sell you, the famous abalone sliders and creamy clam chowder will. Municipal Wharf Number 2 (Monterey)


1 hour, 15 minutes from San Francisco

Northern California: Manresa
Photo by Eric Wolfinger.

In 2009, David Kinch, head chef of Manresa, competed against Bobby Flay on on Food Network’s “Iron Chef to see who could transform cabbage into five delectable dishes. Kinch proved victorious. A Michelin-rated restaurant since 2007, Manresa added its third star in 2016, and Kinch recently became a semifinalist for the James Beard Outstanding Chef award. With a daily tasting menu of creative contemporary California cuisine, this Los Gatos favorite is not to be missed. 320 Village Lane (Los Gatos) 

Sam’s Chowder House

1 hour from San Francisco

Northern California: Sam's Chowder House

Featured on “Eat St.” for its famous lobster rolls and shrimp po’boys, Sam’s Chowder House is no stranger to the spotlight. . NBC’s “Today Show” called Sam’s lobster roll “one of the five best sandwiches in America.” Add the oceanfront dining views of Half Moon Bay and you have yourself a perfect pairing. Reservations essential. 4210 N. Cabrillo Highway (Half Moon Bay)

Beyond the bite 


2 hours from San Francisco

In 2012, chef Ben Sims, formerly of Chez Panisse and Acquerello, opened Bantam, an upscale pizza joint inside an industrial warehouse space on the west side of Santa Cruz. While the wood-fired Neapolitan-style pies are the claim to fame, it’s the other parts of the menu that make this a spot to seek out, says food critic Michael Bauer. After dining on ragu Bolognese, walk across the street to the Swift and Ingalls Street courtyards, where it’s easy to spend a day shopping and sipping local wares in the six tasting rooms and brewery. 1010 Fair Ave. (Santa Cruz)

Coast Kitchen

2 hours from San Francisco

Northern California: Coast Kitchen

The drive north on Highway 1 is reason enough to venture out to Coast Kitchen, nestled in the recently remodeled Timber Cove Resort. Here, carefully crafted cocktails and wild mushroom risotto taste even better with views of the Pacific. Sitting atop a bluff, the restaurant is surrounded by dirt trails that wind along the coast. Walk to the cliff’s edge for a close-up view of Beniamino Bufano’s 93-foot sculpture “Peace Obelisk,” symbolizing beauty, spirit, and tranquility. 21780 N. Coast Highway (Jenner)


1 hour from San Francisco

Northern California: Farm

Chef Aaron Meneghelli’s fine-dining hideaway in the Carneros Inn serves inventive California cuisine in an elegant setting. Whether you come for the poached Maine lobster with medjool dates or the buttermilk biscuits with foie gras mousse, an after-meal game on the outdoor sand bocce ball courts is a must. 4048 Sonoma Highway (Napa)

Hog Island Oysters

1 hour from San Francisco

Northern California: Hog Island Oysters

Shuck, grill, and slurp at this oyster farm on Tomales Bay. Responsible for harvesting and selling more than 3.5 million mollusks each year, Hog Island sits on the picturesque sands, where you can get your fingers dirty shucking and grilling your own freshly harvested morsels. Feast on the results at outdoor picnic tables while you watch the sun set. Reservations required. 20215 Shoreline Highway (Marshall)

Tour de force

Chez Panisse

55 minutes from San Francisco

Few restaurateurs of our time are as revolutionary and respected as Alice Waters. Chef, author, and food activist, she opened Chez Panisse in 1971 with the vision of a neighborhood bistro, unintentionally launching the modern farm-to-table movement and changing the way we think and feel about food. If that doesn’t entice you to visit, what will? 1517 Shattuck Ave. (North Berkeley)

Limewood Bar and Restaurant

50 minutes from San Francisco

Northern California: Limewood

The Fairmont’s Claremont Club and Spa in the Berkeley hills may have a new restaurant headed by Michelin-starred chef Joseph Humphrey, but this dining room has a rich history. Stories say the hotel (now a historic landmark) was won over a game of checkers and recount its rebound from disasters, including a fire and the earthquake of 1906. The resort’s Limewood Bar and Restaurant showcases Humphrey’s take on casual shared plates in a contemporary space with bay views. 41 Tunnel Road (Berkeley)


4 hours from San Francisco

Northern California: Nepenthe

For all we know, Henry Miller could have been sitting at Nepenthe when he famously said, “It was here in Big Sur that I first learned to say ‘amen.’” Perched on a cliff and wedged between Highway 1 and the Pacific, this iconic restaurant has been serving up views with a side of fresh California cuisine since 1949. The outdoor seating on raised picnic tables means there’s not a bad spot in the house to view the dramatic Big Sur coast. 48510 Highway 1 (Big Sur)

Oakville Grocery

1 hour, 15 minutes from San Francisco

Northern California: Oakville Grocery

Founded in 1881, Oakville Grocery remains the oldest continually operating grocery store in California. The well-known spot has been a Napa Valley gathering place ever since locals rode horses to market. Renovated in 2012, the building has a fresh new look yet retains its ties with the past: don’t forget to check out the display of the well, uncovered in the process. Grab a sandwich, head out to the picnic area, and savor a little bit of history. 7856 St. Helena Highway (Oakville)


This article originally appeared in Marin Magazine.