In the American imagination, California has always been shrouded in a haze of beachy, breezy fantasy. Early on, people harbored dreams of the state offering up fist-size gold nuggets. Then Steinbeck painted it as a picture of utopian perfection. More recently, the Golden State has become known for the fame and glamour of its young residents—people who seem to have an excess of either coding talent or cash (and sometimes both). The ever-winding roads always seem to lead to the welcoming ocean, and that’s to say nothing of the food! Doesn’t everything just taste better in California, where the food is fresh and the avocados are cheap? When it comes to food, it turns out the fantasy of California lives up to the hype!
For decades, California has been a paradise of plenty. It’s the West Coast frontier where chefs, farmers and culinary and cultural dreamers had the freedom to cultivate a seasonal, local farm-to-table philosophy, which eventually became the goal of restaurants and culinary establishments across the country—and even the world. When Alice Waters opened Berkeley’s Chez Panisse in August of 1971, she meant only to bring the power and pleasure of locally grown and raised ingredients—a movement she had encountered in France—back home. What she started was the slow food revolution under the loose label of “California cuisine.” While the culinary practice spread across the nation, the seat of this notion still remains in California, where the restaurant scene is exploding due to creative, cultured, innovative chefs eager to share their dishes in fresh, fun and unstuffy ways. The seeds of American cuisine have always been planted in California, but now those little seeds are sprouting and thriving, and California continues to emerge as an influential force in American dining.
When you find yourself wondering what to eat in California, ask yourself first about the season, where you are in the state and what state of mind you’re in. Depending on those answers, the ideal meal will vary, but one constant remains true: it’s all worth exploring!
The Dining Experience in California
Californian cuisine is synonymous with brilliantly fresh produce, internationally influenced cuisine and a strong emphasis on creative presentation. No matter where you are in the state, you’re bound to enjoy dishes rooted in Japanese, French, Mexican, Indian and Italian cultures, and you’re sure to encounter the freshest, most of-the-moment ingredients available.
Exceptional dining experiences in California vary with the diverse landscape. You might, for example, find yourself among towering redwoods while munching cheeses and sipping wines from celebrity purveyors. (This really can happen in California!) Then, drive just a few hours away, and your feet can be buried in golden sand while you stare at a cerulean coastline and shuck oysters by hand or enjoy a Michelin-starred meal infused with culture and pristine farm-grown produce. If you find yourself in the gorgeous desolation of a cactus-speckled desert painted in oranges and reds, don’t be surprised to enjoy the best Mexican food of your life straight from a taco truck.
All these unique food experiences are bound by one thing. The fresh, creative menus, ideas and meals created and enjoyed here are simultaneously an homage to tradition and a foray into wild experimentation. California’s chefs and farmers are constantly striking the balance between honoring the roots of their meals and poking holes in culinary convention.
With all this going on, expect an adventure every time you sit down to a meal in California!
Typical Californian Dishes
No matter where you are in the state, make sure to enjoy these quintessentially Californian delicacies:
Not many regions of the world can grow buttery avocados, but California is one of the few. The Hass avocado, for example, is a California native. Rudolph Hass discovered this variety in La Habra Heights, California, in the 1920s, and every single Hass avocado can trace its lineage to the original Hass mother tree. Less than 1 percent of the state is capable of growing avocados, but to enjoy a “local avocado” is a beyond-special culinary experience.
● Fish Tacos
While you can find fish and seafood tacos elsewhere in the world, California’s fish tacos are truly a special West Coast offering. Whether flash fried or deep fried, the fish is typically served on soft tortillas and topped with all sorts of fresh, flavorful vegetables and fillings.
With hundreds of miles of coastline, California is one of the country’s best places to enjoy fresh seafood. From oysters along the state’s northwestern coast to more tropical seafood varieties in the south, there are flavors to accommodate every seafood lover.
● Classic American Burger
Southern California’s car culture has greatly contributed to the staying power of the modern drive-in. While great burgers are available all over the continental United States, the Golden State is home to the iconic In-N-Out Burger, where a secret menu features special veggies, sauces and preparations. Whether you get your burger from a drive-through or a fancy restaurant, expect fresh flavors and out-of-this-world condiments.
Backroads Pro Tip
Be on the lookout for fresh fruit stands all over California, particularly when passing through the Central Valley between the coastal cities and the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Proximity to this highly productive produce-growing region means a plethora of local fruit stands offering delightfully tasty ripe fruit and other fresh produce.
Regional Foods and Specialties
California is a large, diverse state, and the delicious things to hunt down vary with its numerous regions. Don’t miss out on some of these local delicacies:
● Local Wines
Local wines are almost always on the menu, and with unique wine regions growing special grapes across California, there are certainly a lot to try. Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, merlot, Pinot noir, sauvignon blanc, Syrah and zinfandel are just a few.
If you’ve never shucked and eaten oysters just steps from where they were harvested, this is highly recommended when you come to Northern California. (As a bonus, you don’t even need to bring your own knife!)
● Fresh Mex
The proximity to Mexico and the large population of Hispanics living in California mean there’s a whole lot of delicious Mexican and Mexican-inspired cuisine on offer. From Northern California to the Inland Empire, you’ll find many options for flavor-forward tacos and burritos—all with an emphasis on fresh ingredients and traditional recipes.
Looking for some great California wine? Check out our Favorite California Wine Regions article!
Backroads Pro Tip
When in doubt at a restaurant, ask what’s local and best. The answer might just surprise you. With amazing ingredients popping up all over the state, you never know what’s been grown just around the corner!
Californian Food Terms: Glossary
English is spoken widely in California, and slang words show up infrequently on menus. That said, there are a few words that indicate food origin and how produce and products were raised, which can help you navigate any dining situation.
Words to Know on the Menu and When Dining Out
Biodynamic farming methods enliven the soil and utilize careful observation of nature’s rhythms. The main difference between organic and biodynamic farming is that the latter uses principles that add vitality to the plant, soil or livestock. This avoids the ill effects of soil-deteriorating traditional farming. Biodynamic agriculture uses specifically prepared concoctions made from minerals and herbs. The process is very similar to homeopathy.
Organic food is produced by methods that comply with organic farming standards. These standards vary across the globe, but organic farming generally strives to cycle resources, to promote ecological balance and to conserve biodiversity.
● Free Range
This term means the animals were raised in natural environments with freedom of movement. This is in comparison to commercially raised livestock, which is typically raised in small, confined areas where movement is highly limited.
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are novel organisms created in a laboratory using genetic modification and engineering techniques.
Tipping conventions in California are the same as they are throughout mainland United States. Remember, tips represent a significant portion of waitstaff livelihoods here, so if you received acceptable service at a sit-down restaurant, don’t overlook leaving a tip. Assuming the service was friendly, timely and adequate, diners will typically leave a tip of 10-20%.
Additionally, tip jars are increasingly being seen on counters at cafés, coffee shops and other more casual food and drink establishments, but you shouldn’t feel compelled to leave a tip in such cases unless you feel the service truly warrants it. If you do, a simple dollar or two will suffice.
In general, it’s customary to tip bellhops, valets, waitstaff members or anyone who provides you with exceptional service.
Californians don’t have set hours for meals, so while you’re visiting California, feel free to enjoy a meal or snack just about whenever. Don’t be surprised if you find that restaurants close earlier smaller towns, especially on the weekdays.
Because of the impressive variety of restaurants and sub-regions within California, it’s impossible to generalize about dining etiquette that is applicable to the whole state. While California has a reputation for being more casual that its East Coast counterparts (and yes, you can still pretty much walk into any restaurant in sandals and a t-shirt), you’ll feel much more comfortable putting on some nicer clothes when dining at more formal restaurants, particularly in cities and regions known for their upscale culinary experiences, such as Wine Country and the San Francisco Bay Area.