There is no state more diverse in cuisine than California, and to truly experience its eclectic nature, you just need to sit down and order.
California is a bastion of eclectic cultures and traditions, and that’s reflected in every restaurant, diner, bar, and food truck across this vast state.
Eating and drinking in California is like taking a trip through time and across the world all at once. Some of the best cuisine and most original cocktails were invented here.
The Mexican influence on California means tacos here are both innovative and authentic. For modern/gourmet fare, check out Guerrilla Tacos in Los Angeles. Fish tacos are also an L.A. staple, so head over to the Best Fish Taco in Ensenada. For the oft-regarded “Best Taco in California,” you should make it a point of eating at Nuestro Mexico in Bakersfield. And if you’re hankering for simple and classic, you can’t miss at La Taqueria in San Francisco.
This sour-tasting slice of heaven has roots that date back thousands of years. In California, however, the history is more closely tied to the Gold Rush, when French bakers set up shop in San Francisco to feed the miners. Even the mascot of the San Francisco 49ers is a nod to the era (his name is Sourdough Sam). If you’re looking for the perfect loaf, there’s really only one place to get it: head to Boudin Bakery in San Francisco where they’ve been perfecting the sourdough recipe since 1849.
Another Mexican import, mezcal is made from the agave plant. This differentiates it from tequila which is a blue agave product. In recent years, mezcal has gained traction among discerning drinkers, no more so than in Los Angeles. Mezcal is typically made in Oaxaca, Mexico, so it stands to reason that the best Oaxacan restaurant in L.A., Guelaguetza, would have a top-shelf selection. Other great spots for mezcal aficionados include modern taco joint Petty Cash, and Madre! in Torrance, which stocks hundreds of bottles.
Wine and Beer
You could throw a rock and find a world-class wine up and down the coast of California. Napa, Sonoma, Los Robles, Solvang, and Monterey all have some of the best vintages on the planet. But California is also a hotbed of beer-making. From NorCal to SoCal, craft brewers are dominating the beer scene like never before. Check out Stone Brewing in San Diego, Eagle Rock Brewery in L.A., 21st Amendment in San Francisco, or the ultimate classic Sierra Nevada Brewing in Chico.
Wisconsin? Please. The best cheese is clearly from California. Have you heard of Humboldt Fog? That comes from Cypress Grove in Humboldt County. How about Red Hawk, that gooey triple-crème that melts in your mouth? Marin County. And cheddar? Sorry Wisconsin, but Fiscalini Bandaged Cheddar from Modesto has you beat any day of the week. Of course, California has that whole wine thing to go along with it.
Not only was the French Dip invented in Los Angeles, two different restaurants that have been open since the early 1900s claim its origin. Philippe the Original in Downtown opened in 1908 and is a counter-style diner with fast service, cheap coffee, and all the jus you can handle. Cole’s, meanwhile, also opened in 1908, is (slightly) more upscale, and features a hidden speakeasy in the back of the restaurant. Who invented it first is up for debate, but both sandwiches are worthy of your growling stomach.
Outside of Japan, there is no better place to eat raw fish than in California. Whether it’s classic counter-style at an izakaya like Sushi Gen in L.A., omakase eating at celeb-favorite Sushi Park, or upscale delights at Akiko in San Francisco, you can find the freshest, most savory cuts of fish that rivals any place in the world.
If there’s any debate about the home of the burger, just ask Fat Burger, Carl’s Jr, McDonald’s, In-N-Out, Umami Burger, The Habit Burger Grill, Hamburger Mary’s, Johnny Rockets, The Counter, Original Tommy’s, and Jack in the Box which all started in the Golden State. Counter burger joints are the epitome of California culture and most especially in Los Angeles where you can find deliciously savory patties at places like the Apple Pan, Cassell’s, Pie n’ Burger, and Father’s Office.
White rum, dark rum, Curaçao liqueur, orgeat syrup, and lime juice is all you need for the perfect concoction that is the Mai Tai. The drink was invented (allegedly) by Victor Bergeron in 1944 of the famed restaurant Trader Vic’s in Oakland, California. The reason it’s “alleged” is because Donn Beach (of Don the Beachcomber fame) claims he invented it in the 1930s in Hollywood and is widely considered the father of the tiki drinking scene. Regardless of who can take claim, the drink hails from California, so bottoms up!
In Los Angeles, donuts are more than just donuts, they’re works of art. For traditional fare, there’s the iconic Randy’s Donuts, instantly recognizable by the giant donut perched on top of the building. For creative flavors, check out California Donuts, which are covered with Lucky Charms and other breakfast cereals and sweets, or Blinkie’s Donut Emporium in Woodland Hills, where the donuts are filled with Bavarian cream, or Colorado Donuts where inventive designs are highly Instagram-worthy.
There are more Asian Americans in the San Gabriel Valley than almost any other locale in the United States. Because of this influx, there is a food culture that rivals the best restaurants in all of Asia. The best of the best in the Valley is the Dim Sum; dumplings are traditionally eaten for breakfast, and the best Dim Sum can be found at Din Tai Fung in Arcadia. All your dumpling dreams come true at this masterpiece of morning Chinese food. There will be long waits, but it will be worth it.
Inspired by a drink in Ireland, the owner of the Buena Vista in San Francisco set out to re-create the concoction and in 1952 stumbled upon what we now know as an Irish Coffee. Today, the mixture of coffee, whiskey, and floating cream can still be enjoyed out of a chalice at the original Buena Vista location.
There aren’t a ton of oyster bays in California anymore, but the ones that still exist produce some of the most savory mollusks you’ll ever try. In Morro Bay, about half way between Los Angeles and San Francisco and a perfect stop during a road trip along the coast, you can find oysters as big as your head. Stop in and try some at the lively Tognazzini’s Dockside, where they also serve fresh grilled behemoth bivalves. There’s often live music, and an outdoor deck overlooking the ocean.
Gilroy is just south of San Jose and is considered the garlic capital of the world. The city is known for its extensive garlic crop, garlic-themed restaurants, and the annual Gilroy Garlic Festival that takes place every summer. The festival is a cornucopia of all things garlic including a garlic cook-off and the famed Gourmet Alley where experimental chefs whip up new and unique garlic-centric creations.
Los Angeles has the largest Korean population outside of Korea, and that fact is very much reflected in the food. Koreatown in the middle of L.A. is a hodgepodge of international cuisine, but one of the biggest draws is its Korean BBQ of course, which is more of an activity for Angelenos than a meal. For traditional feasts where diners cook the meat themselves in the middle of the table, check out spots like Park’s BBQ, Kobawoo House, or Soot Bull Jeep.