Get the best fish and chips in Morro Bay, or find a restaurant where you can sit on a wooden deck extended over San Francisco Bay, eat a fresh shrimp cocktail and watch the fattest sea gulls in town watch you.
Or a Mendocino restaurant that provides loaner binoculars for viewing the whale migration along the California coast.
Those are places my husband and I sampled during a driving tour of Central and Northern California. We were pleased to discover that waterfront eateries in the smaller coastal towns serve good to excellent food at reasonable prices, each with a special charm and local character all its own.
First stop, breakfast at the Nugget. This cozy restaurant in an Old West motif overlooks U.S. 101 and is almost in the heart of the small town of Summerland just south of Santa Barbara. On a nice day, and most are, the place to sit is on the terraced patio amid begonias near a well-fed yellow cat, where you have a view of the ocean from the upper level.
Variety of Sandwiches
The eggs are fresh and the omelets fluffy. My husband had the Ortega chili omelet with homemade not-too-hot salsa. You'll find the usual breakfast fare, including Belgian waffles, but they do stop serving it at 11 a.m. (11:30 a.m. on weekends). A good variety of sandwiches is offered for lunch, though. Breakfast costs around $4, lunches $3-$6. (The Nugget, 2318 Lillie Ave., next to the Summerland Market.)
Morro Bay, a popular summer vacation place, has a good selection of restaurants. So if you're ready for lunch or dinner, turn off the freeway and take the short detour to this fishing village.
The Fish Bowl was recommended to us as the best place in town for fish and chips. It is. The atmosphere is nothing special, but you get a great view of the bay and boats.
Our fish and chips were tender and not a bit greasy, just to our liking. We were sorry that we were too full to try the chowder, also a specialty. Prices were $4.25 to $6.75 for the fish and chips combinations. (The Fish Bowl No. 2, 801 Embarcadero, on Morro Bay. Watch for the orange awning.)
Our last stop of the first leg was Carmel, and this area, along with Monterey and Pacific Grove, is a well-known gastronomic delight. Perhaps the reason there are almost more restaurants than people on the Monterey Peninsula is to give tourists an opportunity to stretch out their stomachs and ready them for more in San Francisco.
For waterfront dining, any restaurant at Fisherman's Wharf or Cannery Row in Monterey is well worth trying, but for a change of pace, consider an ocean view picnic at Point Lobos State Reserve.
Three miles south of Carmel off California 1, this reserve contains 554 acres of beaches, tide pools, protected forests and coves as well as more than 300 species of vegetation and another 750 offshore acres where sea lions, harbor seals and otters frequently frolic.
More than a dozen well-marked and cleared trails make for easy hikes for all ages. Friendly docents will give you a trail map, explain what to look for and get you pointed in the right direction.
Guests at the Table
Don't be surprised to see black-tailed deer across the road as you drive in, or to have squirrels and rabbits join you at your picnic table. Be sure to take along binoculars and plenty of film for your camera. A "don't miss" for animal lovers.
We found Tiburon a beautiful, relaxing place to stay and still an easy drive into San Francisco. The Tiburon Boulevard turnoff (California 131) is only about a 10-minute drive from this charming town overlooking San Francisco Bay, and you'll be glad you made this detour for a lunch stop even if you plan to drive farther north that afternoon.
An ideal place to eat on a sunny day is Sam's Anchor Cafe. We sat on the deck extended over the water and gazed at the expensive houses cantilevered on the hillside bluffs, the picturesque village shops and the fattest sea gulls in town.
My shrimp cocktail was just what I wanted for a very late lunch, and my husband enjoyed his half-sandwich-and-chowder combo ($5). Lunches run $4-$12, and the location on the water will encourage you to sit a spell. (Sam's Anchor Cafe, off Tiburon Boulevard, right on the water near the village shops.)
The first settlement of any substantial size on the Mendocino Coast is Gualala, and most people vacationing there either camp or stay in housekeeping cabins. But if you do want a break from the domestic grind without driving far, try the Rusty Anchor at Anchor Bay.
Quality and Quantity
This faintly nautical restaurant in a cluster of nondescript commercial buildings may surprise you. What it lacks in atmosphere, it makes up for in quality and quantity. Dinners average about $14, and the menu includes at least one fresh fish catch.
I had red snapper cooked to perfection, and my husband tried another specialty, the chef's special steak, which almost covered his plate. Dinner prices include crackers, salad, potato or rice, dessert and beverage.
The view from the Rusty Anchor windows gives you a glimpse of that ruggedly beautiful coastline between the equally nondescript buildings on the other side of California 1, as well as a view into the Laundromat, a busy hangout. After their dry cycle is over, some of the laundry patrons may stroll over to the bar at the Rusty Anchor, which appears to be a major watering hole for this section of the coast.
If you're ready for a drink after dinner and interested in rubbing elbows with some local characters, wander into the bar and I'm sure you'll meet a few. (The Rusty Anchor, east side of California 1 at Anchor Bay, slightly north of Gualala.)
A Quaint Village
Our northernmost stop was the quaint--and admittedly touristy--village of Mendocino. It was a brisk sunny day so we chose to have lunch at Brannon's Whale Watch restaurant where we could sit on the sun deck and look out over the Big River and the Pacific.
Lunches were filling and delicious. Try the chili smothered in cheese, mushrooms and onions or the fat hamburgers and crispy fries with skins. The menu includes the full range of hot and cold sandwiches and salads priced between $4 and $6.
During the whale watch season, September to May, you may see some migrating grays and, for a closer look, the restaurant supplies loaner binoculars. (Brannon's Whale Watch restaurant, 45040 Main St., Mendocino, above the Main Street Deli and Bakery.)
To stock up for a picnic on the beach or bluffs, the Main Street Deli and Bakery downstairs has a wide assortment of goodies. The almond croissants and chocolate brownies looked mighty tempting.
The delightful small towns along the California coast, with their waterfront restaurants serving tasty food at reasonable prices, make this trip one guaranteed to please palates, satisfy stomachs and leave budgets balanced.