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Where to Eat Along the PCH and I-5 Between SF and LA

From burgers and fries to big-ass salads, this is the only dining itinerary you need

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There are two main routes that connect the Bay Area and Los Angeles, and they differ wildly in terms of both natural beauty and amenities for travelers. You can spend a long day (or a leisurely weekend) winding down Highway 1, stopping along the way at a handful of charming seaside enclaves, each with their own culinary destinations. Or you can haul ass down Interstate 5, the flat, boring four-lane expanse that runs straight through California’s agriculture heartland — you’ll get to your destination in about six or seven hours this way, but the dining options are mostly limited to fast-food chains and mom-and-pop restaurants catering to truckers and farm workers.

But with a little planning, it’s possible to eat well while traveling through the center of the state as well as on the periphery. (Sadly, parts of the coastal highway are not drivable right now because of landslide damage, but hopefully that will change soon.) With that in mind, here’s a guide to eight restaurants to consider along I-5, plus 10 spots that are worth stopping for on the coast. All of the restaurants are located within a few minutes of the highway, and none of them require reservations or any sort particular attire — most of them are fun, casual places that are also good for families.

Did we miss your favorite restaurant along the coast or down the middle of the state of California? Please share your picks in the comments.

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Note: Restaurants on this map are listed geographically.

1. Dad’s Luncheonette

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225 Cabrillo Hwy S
Half Moon Bay, CA 94019
(650) 560-9832
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Scott Clark recently left the kitchen of San Francisco critical darling Saison, where he was working as a sous chef, to open this casual caboose cafe with his partner Alexis Liu in Half Moon Bay. Dad’s serves a grass-fed cheeseburger, homemade potato chips, an oyster mushroom sandwich, an herb salad, and mac and cheese. The menu notes: “Everything except cheese is local & organic, all condiments are made by Dad.”

2. The Picnic Basket

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125 Beach St
Santa Cruz, CA 95060
(831) 427-9946
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The Picnic Basket is the rare boardwalk-adjacent restaurant that is not, in any way, a tourist trap. Open from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily, this convivial Santa Cruz cafe serves salads, sandwiches, egg dishes, mac and cheese, pastries, beer, wine, and ice cream. You’ll find the names of local farms and purveyors all over the menu. The bacon, lettuce, and avocado sandwich is especially popular.

3. Alvarado Street Brewery

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426 Alvarado St
Monterey, CA 93940

This well-regarded brewpub in Old Town Monterey serves just the kind of stuff you want to eat after a long day on the road — burgers, tacos, flatbreads, sandwiches, wings, and beer-battered fries. The menu also has plenty of vegetarian options, and a few big-ass salads. When it’s not too crowded, Alvarado Street Brewery is also a nice place to enjoy a pint of beer or a glass of wine on the patio.

4. Cultura Carmel

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100 Dolores St
Carmel-By-The-Sea, CA 93923
(831) 250-7005
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Three veterans of Sierra Mar in nearby Big Sur opened this casual modern Mexican restaurant last year, and it’s still one of Carmel’s hottest tickets. Although the menu is broken up into appetizer and entree-sized options, you can build a great meal here by ordering a bunch of stuff to share for the table, tapas-style. Consider trying the epazote quesadilla, the tostada topped with local squid, and the grilled skirt steak with ancho chile and smoked onions.

Cultura Carmel/Facebook

5. Nepenthe

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48510 CA-1
Big Sur, CA 93920
 (831) 667-2345
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This unpretentious bar and grill has a truly spectacular view of the shoreline. Take in the scenery from your perch high up in the mountains while tucking into a shrimp BLT, a fancy tofu-vegetable sandwich, or Nepenthe’s “famous ambrosia burger.” The prices are a tick higher than what you find at many similar restaurants along the coast, but really, you’re paying for the scenery and mellow vibes. If you don’t want to commit to a full meal, you can always pop in for a drink and a snack on the patio. Note: Although Highway 1 is closed both north and south of this restaurant due to the landslides that buried parts of the highway this winter, Nepenthe is still open daily, for the Big Sur community and anyone who wants to make the trek up to the restaurant.

6. Madeline’s

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788 Main St
Cambria, CA 93428

Madeline’s feels a bit like a restaurant that time-warped from the mid-’90s into the present day, but if you embrace the slightly retro nature of this bistro, you can have a great meal here. This local favorite serves hearty, French-influenced American fare — chicken stuffed with brie, duck with a cherry-brandy glaze, etc. — in a cozy, soft-hued dining room. Central Coast wines are well represented on the drinks list, and during the day, the front part of the space opens as a tasting room. An a la carte menu is available with entree prices ranging from $24 to $38, and a five-course tasting menu is also available for $55. It’s a relatively small space, so it might be wise to book a reservation if you’re visiting on a weekend night.

Madeline’s/Facebook

7. Noi's Little Thai Takeout

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1288 2nd St
Los Osos, CA 93402
(805) 528-6647
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Head to this noodle hut near the water in Los Osos for fried rice, pad thai, pad see ew, egg rolls, and curries, all served to-go. The space has a few picnic tables if you want to dine outside, and the garden is studded with some statues and carvings that kids tend to love. An important fact for hungry travelers: Eater LA notes that sometimes the owners decide to randomly close up shop and put a sign on the door announcing that they’re done for the day, so it never hurts to have a back-up plan.

8. Ember

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1200 E Grand Ave
Arroyo Grande, CA 93420
(805) 474-7700
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At this Arroyo Grande hot spot, Brian Collins, a veteran of several great California restaurants including Chez Panisse, cooks thin-crust pizzas and rustic meats dishes using live wood fire. You can usually find a few plates on the menu that incorporate local seafood and vegetables, and the pastas are all made in-house. Ember is one of the most exciting restaurants along the Central Coast right now.

9. The Far Western Tavern

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300 E Clark Ave
Orcutt, CA 93455
(805) 937-2211
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Head to this Orcutt institution for oak-grilled tri-tip, baby back ribs, cowboy sirloin steaks, and double-cut pork chops. The space has an old-timey vibe, with a big bar in the front and a more formal dining room in the back, lined with comfy booths. Eater LA notes that Far Western Tavern offers a “classy take on ranchero barbecue.”

10. La Super-Rica Taqueria

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622 N Milpas St
Santa Barbara, CA 93103
(805) 963-4940
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After settling down in a retirement home near Santa Barbara, Julia Child became obsessed with this small taqueria, where the tortillas are made fresh throughout the day. Tacos are the main attraction here, but La Super-Rica also has a specials board which usually includes things like enchiladas, vegetable tamales, and chile rellenos. This restaurant is popular with both locals and travelers alike, and a line often snakes down the block.

11. Apricot Wood California BBQ

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2985 Renzo Ln
Patterson, CA 95363

As the name implies, this barbecue parlor in Patterson uses apricot wood to cook its brisket tri-tip and ribs — this area is the apricot capital of the world, after all. In addition to barbecued meat platters, this tavern-like restaurant also serves burritos, tacos, smoked fried chicken, and a bunch of entree salads. You won’t find many other barbecue parlors this close to I-5 on your journey, and judging from the Yelp and Foursquare reviews, this is one of the best of the bunch.

12. Pea Soup Andersen’s

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12411 CA-33
Gustine, CA 95322
(209) 826-1685
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This Danish-themed oddity serves better-than-average diner food as well as “homestyle specials” like pot roast, veal cutlets, and a roasted turkey dinner in a cafeteria-style space with Hans Christian Andersen flair. The 40-year-old restaurant offers an all-you-can-eat pea soup deal, and it has an adjoining bakery counter, gift shop, saloon, and motel. Like the other I-5 legend, Harris Ranch, you should visit this place at least once in your life just to know what it’s all about.

Greg Morabito

13. Wayback Burgers

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46365 W Panoche Rd
Firebaugh, CA 93622
(559) 525-9092
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The long stretch of highway between Coalinga and Santa Nella is one of the most boring parts of the I-5 journey between Southern and Northern California. There’s not much in the way of good food along the way, but if you’re starving (or need a break from the tedium), consider hitting up this better-than-average burger joint in Firebaugh, off exit 368. Wayback serves a heftier burger than you find at most fast-food chains, with straightforward toppings. If you squint, you might even think you’re eating a Shackburger.

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14. Harris Ranch Inn & Restaurant

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24505 W Dorris Ave
Coalinga, CA 93210
(559) 935-0717
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Once you roll up to this sprawling hotel/restaurant/market complex, you’re almost exactly halfway between Los Angeles and the Bay Area. Celebrate this achievement with a big-ass country breakfast in the Ranch Kitchen (served all day), a pub burger and a pint at the Horseshoe Bar (adults only), or a bone-in prime rib at the Steakhouse (a real high-roller kind of place). Harris Ranch has a restaurant to suit every taste, plus a general store with snacks, baked goods, sandwiches, and a seemingly endless array of tchotchkes. During peak breakfast/lunch hours, be prepared to wait a bit at the Ranch Kitchen, which is the most popular of the three establishments.

Harris Ranch/Facebook

15. In-N-Out Burger

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33464 Bernard Dr
Kettleman City, CA 93239

The most important thing to know about I-5 — aside from the fact that Harris Ranch has the best and most accessible bathrooms along the interstate — is that there are exactly three towns with In-N-Out burger locations between the Grapevine and Altamont Pass: Lebec, Santa Nella, and Kettleman City. The last one is the most vital location, because there’s no better fast-food options for 40 miles in either direction. Understandably, the Kettleman City In-N-Out frequently has lines snaking out the door. Open from 10:30 a.m. to 1 a.m daily.

Laine Trees/Flickr

16. El Dollar Taqueria

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14820 Aloma St
Lost Hills, CA 93249

Exit 278 has a Denny’s, a McDonald’s, a Wendy’s, a DQ, a Jack in the Box, and this popular taco truck, which is parked outside the Hercules Tire Shop. Yelpers rave about the carnitas and the al pastor tacos, which are priced at $1.75 a pop. Outdoor seating is available at a handful of picnic tables, but on hot days, this patch of land is sometimes full of bugs, so maybe consider getting your order to-go.

17. Tita’s Pupuseria

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20643 Tracy Ave
Buttonwillow, CA 93206

The stuffed corn cakes at this Salvadorian restaurant are easily some of the most delicious things you can eat along I-5. The only hitch about this otherwise convivial restaurant is that the service can be slow. If you’re in a rush, consider hitting up the taco truck from the same owners at the gas station directly across the street. A note for parents: Tita’s has a large, empty concrete space with a few tables in the back where kids can expend some of their energy before hopping in the car.

18. Chipotle and Friends

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5602 Dennis McCarthy Dr
Lebec, CA 93243

Exit 219A is home to an unusually wide array of solid chain restaurants, including one of I-5’s only Chipotle outposts. Around the corner you’ll also find a Panda Express (another super-rare find along the interstate), an Arby’s, and a sweet, sweet In-N-Out Burger. The strip mall on the eastern side of the overpass also has a Starbucks.

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1. Dad’s Luncheonette

225 Cabrillo Hwy S, Half Moon Bay, CA 94019

Scott Clark recently left the kitchen of San Francisco critical darling Saison, where he was working as a sous chef, to open this casual caboose cafe with his partner Alexis Liu in Half Moon Bay. Dad’s serves a grass-fed cheeseburger, homemade potato chips, an oyster mushroom sandwich, an herb salad, and mac and cheese. The menu notes: “Everything except cheese is local & organic, all condiments are made by Dad.”

225 Cabrillo Hwy S
Half Moon Bay, CA 94019

2. The Picnic Basket

125 Beach St, Santa Cruz, CA 95060

The Picnic Basket is the rare boardwalk-adjacent restaurant that is not, in any way, a tourist trap. Open from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily, this convivial Santa Cruz cafe serves salads, sandwiches, egg dishes, mac and cheese, pastries, beer, wine, and ice cream. You’ll find the names of local farms and purveyors all over the menu. The bacon, lettuce, and avocado sandwich is especially popular.

125 Beach St
Santa Cruz, CA 95060

3. Alvarado Street Brewery

426 Alvarado St, Monterey, CA 93940

This well-regarded brewpub in Old Town Monterey serves just the kind of stuff you want to eat after a long day on the road — burgers, tacos, flatbreads, sandwiches, wings, and beer-battered fries. The menu also has plenty of vegetarian options, and a few big-ass salads. When it’s not too crowded, Alvarado Street Brewery is also a nice place to enjoy a pint of beer or a glass of wine on the patio.

426 Alvarado St
Monterey, CA 93940

4. Cultura Carmel

100 Dolores St, Carmel-By-The-Sea, CA 93923
Cultura Carmel/Facebook

Three veterans of Sierra Mar in nearby Big Sur opened this casual modern Mexican restaurant last year, and it’s still one of Carmel’s hottest tickets. Although the menu is broken up into appetizer and entree-sized options, you can build a great meal here by ordering a bunch of stuff to share for the table, tapas-style. Consider trying the epazote quesadilla, the tostada topped with local squid, and the grilled skirt steak with ancho chile and smoked onions.

100 Dolores St
Carmel-By-The-Sea, CA 93923

5. Nepenthe

48510 CA-1, Big Sur, CA 93920

This unpretentious bar and grill has a truly spectacular view of the shoreline. Take in the scenery from your perch high up in the mountains while tucking into a shrimp BLT, a fancy tofu-vegetable sandwich, or Nepenthe’s “famous ambrosia burger.” The prices are a tick higher than what you find at many similar restaurants along the coast, but really, you’re paying for the scenery and mellow vibes. If you don’t want to commit to a full meal, you can always pop in for a drink and a snack on the patio. Note: Although Highway 1 is closed both north and south of this restaurant due to the landslides that buried parts of the highway this winter, Nepenthe is still open daily, for the Big Sur community and anyone who wants to make the trek up to the restaurant.

48510 CA-1
Big Sur, CA 93920

6. Madeline’s

788 Main St, Cambria, CA 93428
Madeline’s/Facebook

Madeline’s feels a bit like a restaurant that time-warped from the mid-’90s into the present day, but if you embrace the slightly retro nature of this bistro, you can have a great meal here. This local favorite serves hearty, French-influenced American fare — chicken stuffed with brie, duck with a cherry-brandy glaze, etc. — in a cozy, soft-hued dining room. Central Coast wines are well represented on the drinks list, and during the day, the front part of the space opens as a tasting room. An a la carte menu is available with entree prices ranging from $24 to $38, and a five-course tasting menu is also available for $55. It’s a relatively small space, so it might be wise to book a reservation if you’re visiting on a weekend night.

788 Main St
Cambria, CA 93428

7. Noi's Little Thai Takeout

1288 2nd St, Los Osos, CA 93402

Head to this noodle hut near the water in Los Osos for fried rice, pad thai, pad see ew, egg rolls, and curries, all served to-go. The space has a few picnic tables if you want to dine outside, and the garden is studded with some statues and carvings that kids tend to love. An important fact for hungry travelers: Eater LA notes that sometimes the owners decide to randomly close up shop and put a sign on the door announcing that they’re done for the day, so it never hurts to have a back-up plan.

1288 2nd St
Los Osos, CA 93402

8. Ember

1200 E Grand Ave, Arroyo Grande, CA 93420

At this Arroyo Grande hot spot, Brian Collins, a veteran of several great California restaurants including Chez Panisse, cooks thin-crust pizzas and rustic meats dishes using live wood fire. You can usually find a few plates on the menu that incorporate local seafood and vegetables, and the pastas are all made in-house. Ember is one of the most exciting restaurants along the Central Coast right now.

1200 E Grand Ave
Arroyo Grande, CA 93420

9. The Far Western Tavern

300 E Clark Ave, Orcutt, CA 93455

Head to this Orcutt institution for oak-grilled tri-tip, baby back ribs, cowboy sirloin steaks, and double-cut pork chops. The space has an old-timey vibe, with a big bar in the front and a more formal dining room in the back, lined with comfy booths. Eater LA notes that Far Western Tavern offers a “classy take on ranchero barbecue.”

300 E Clark Ave
Orcutt, CA 93455

10. La Super-Rica Taqueria

622 N Milpas St, Santa Barbara, CA 93103

After settling down in a retirement home near Santa Barbara, Julia Child became obsessed with this small taqueria, where the tortillas are made fresh throughout the day. Tacos are the main attraction here, but La Super-Rica also has a specials board which usually includes things like enchiladas, vegetable tamales, and chile rellenos. This restaurant is popular with both locals and travelers alike, and a line often snakes down the block.

622 N Milpas St
Santa Barbara, CA 93103

11. Apricot Wood California BBQ

2985 Renzo Ln, Patterson, CA 95363

As the name implies, this barbecue parlor in Patterson uses apricot wood to cook its brisket tri-tip and ribs — this area is the apricot capital of the world, after all. In addition to barbecued meat platters, this tavern-like restaurant also serves burritos, tacos, smoked fried chicken, and a bunch of entree salads. You won’t find many other barbecue parlors this close to I-5 on your journey, and judging from the Yelp and Foursquare reviews, this is one of the best of the bunch.

2985 Renzo Ln
Patterson, CA 95363

12. Pea Soup Andersen’s

12411 CA-33, Gustine, CA 95322
Greg Morabito

This Danish-themed oddity serves better-than-average diner food as well as “homestyle specials” like pot roast, veal cutlets, and a roasted turkey dinner in a cafeteria-style space with Hans Christian Andersen flair. The 40-year-old restaurant offers an all-you-can-eat pea soup deal, and it has an adjoining bakery counter, gift shop, saloon, and motel. Like the other I-5 legend, Harris Ranch, you should visit this place at least once in your life just to know what it’s all about.

12411 CA-33
Gustine, CA 95322

13. Wayback Burgers

46365 W Panoche Rd, Firebaugh, CA 93622

The long stretch of highway between Coalinga and Santa Nella is one of the most boring parts of the I-5 journey between Southern and Northern California. There’s not much in the way of good food along the way, but if you’re starving (or need a break from the tedium), consider hitting up this better-than-average burger joint in Firebaugh, off exit 368. Wayback serves a heftier burger than you find at most fast-food chains, with straightforward toppings. If you squint, you might even think you’re eating a Shackburger.

46365 W Panoche Rd
Firebaugh, CA 93622

14. Harris Ranch Inn & Restaurant

24505 W Dorris Ave, Coalinga, CA 93210
Harris Ranch/Facebook

Once you roll up to this sprawling hotel/restaurant/market complex, you’re almost exactly halfway between Los Angeles and the Bay Area. Celebrate this achievement with a big-ass country breakfast in the Ranch Kitchen (served all day), a pub burger and a pint at the Horseshoe Bar (adults only), or a bone-in prime rib at the Steakhouse (a real high-roller kind of place). Harris Ranch has a restaurant to suit every taste, plus a general store with snacks, baked goods, sandwiches, and a seemingly endless array of tchotchkes. During peak breakfast/lunch hours, be prepared to wait a bit at the Ranch Kitchen, which is the most popular of the three establishments.

24505 W Dorris Ave
Coalinga, CA 93210

15. In-N-Out Burger

33464 Bernard Dr, Kettleman City, CA 93239
Laine Trees/Flickr

The most important thing to know about I-5 — aside from the fact that Harris Ranch has the best and most accessible bathrooms along the interstate — is that there are exactly three towns with In-N-Out burger locations between the Grapevine and Altamont Pass: Lebec, Santa Nella, and Kettleman City. The last one is the most vital location, because there’s no better fast-food options for 40 miles in either direction. Understandably, the Kettleman City In-N-Out frequently has lines snaking out the door. Open from 10:30 a.m. to 1 a.m daily.

33464 Bernard Dr
Kettleman City, CA 93239

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16. El Dollar Taqueria

14820 Aloma St, Lost Hills, CA 93249

Exit 278 has a Denny’s, a McDonald’s, a Wendy’s, a DQ, a Jack in the Box, and this popular taco truck, which is parked outside the Hercules Tire Shop. Yelpers rave about the carnitas and the al pastor tacos, which are priced at $1.75 a pop. Outdoor seating is available at a handful of picnic tables, but on hot days, this patch of land is sometimes full of bugs, so maybe consider getting your order to-go.

14820 Aloma St
Lost Hills, CA 93249

17. Tita’s Pupuseria

20643 Tracy Ave, Buttonwillow, CA 93206

The stuffed corn cakes at this Salvadorian restaurant are easily some of the most delicious things you can eat along I-5. The only hitch about this otherwise convivial restaurant is that the service can be slow. If you’re in a rush, consider hitting up the taco truck from the same owners at the gas station directly across the street. A note for parents: Tita’s has a large, empty concrete space with a few tables in the back where kids can expend some of their energy before hopping in the car.

20643 Tracy Ave
Buttonwillow, CA 93206

18. Chipotle and Friends

5602 Dennis McCarthy Dr, Lebec, CA 93243

Exit 219A is home to an unusually wide array of solid chain restaurants, including one of I-5’s only Chipotle outposts. Around the corner you’ll also find a Panda Express (another super-rare find along the interstate), an Arby’s, and a sweet, sweet In-N-Out Burger. The strip mall on the eastern side of the overpass also has a Starbucks.

5602 Dennis McCarthy Dr
Lebec, CA 93243

Related Maps