We were on our way back from Death Valley where the only thing on the side of the road is an occasional purple flower, a bit of brush, a lone cactus or two… My husband suggested that we take a detour to Lone Pine.
“Why?” I asked him.
“Because I went there once,” he said “and it was sort of quaint and charming. And you’d like it?”
“Really?” I made a face. I have a skinny tolerance for western mountain towns.
“And,” he added, “I bet they have a restaurant there. And you know you get cranky when you haven’t eaten.”
He had me there. So I instantly googled best diner in Lone Pine and came up with what sounded like a somewhat charming diner called Alabama Hills Café and Bakery.
Up the mountain we went, into the town that was sort of quaint and charming. But we couldn’t find the restaurant and then he made a random right turn in an effort to turn around and there we were right in front of it. And it was sort of adorable except the clock in the door said 1:58 and there was a sign on the door that said that they closed at two.
I was truly astonished when they let us in. “Why not?” he said. “I’m here and so are you.”
I LOVE breakfast! It’s my favorite meal of the day. How anyone can skip it is a mystery to me. However, the cost of it has gotten a bit out of hand at most places in LA, so we rarely go out to eat it when we’re at home. Plus this is a meal I have a firm grasp on as a cook. While I may not be Top Chef material, I can make a mean chilaquiles, egg mcMuffin or frittata to compete with most diners and dives out there. So when I find myself out of town, I do hard research on where to get the best breakfast - a place with interesting menu options without breaking the bank. It IS the most important meal of the day.
We don’t go to “The Desert” (a.k.a. Palm Springs, which refers to the whole region despite the various other small cities surrounding it) very often. I mean LA is hot enough, but sometimes you just need to escape to somewhere more relaxed, where wearing a bathing suit all day is de riguer and lounging by the pool a necessity (otherwise you’d die of heat exhaustion). A quick internet search turned up Cheeky’s (the menu had me at cheddar scones), but it was too far from where we were staying and we’d never be able to make it there before 9:00am, a must if you want to beat the breakfast crowd in any city. (I am officially too old to waste time waiting in line for anything, especially something so ordinary as breakfast.) So, we were thrilled when a local friend told us about Louise’s Pantry. She said it was the best and locals always know.
While we find ourselves in Santa Barbara wine country, also known as the Santa Ynez Valley, about every other month or so, I can honestly say I had never been to the actual town of Santa Ynez until last month. I use the word “town” quite loosely to describe this 6-block, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it, gathering of small office buildings, shops and homes. I’ve seen it on the regional tasting map for years, but until S.Y. Kitchen moved in, there was no reason to ever go there…at least not for a tourist.
Despite its proliferation of wineries in the last decade, the restaurant scene in the Valley just has not kept up the same pace of growth. Your high-end / non-chain options are few and far between (literally), so when we heard of this place - owned and operated by the team behind Toscana in Brentwood - we figured we would give its “modern, rustic” Italian food a try. The chefs - brothers Luca and Francesco Crestanelli - are direct from Verona, bringing their expertise to fruition in this tiny corner of wine country.
The whole Friday night crowd is out in University Heights. Good thing we reserved at Adams Avenue Grill. This is really something: they start at 8 am and serve lunch until 2 and open at 5 for dinner. They do it seven days a week and, if that isn't more than enough, they deliver. Three meals a day, seven days a week. Really. How'd we end up here? It's Michele's turn to show me and The Thin Man places we won't find on our own in San Diego.
Butcher paper and crayons are fun while we're waiting. Too bad our game of Hangman is riddled with artistically challenged and bad drawing. A painter with much better ability has a show here of fine water colors. We have flowers plus actual salt and pepper shakers on the table. (You can hardly find salt and pepper anywhere anymore. We'll uncover more about this another day.)
We're going simple. The Thin Man opts for Anjou pear, Mandarin orange and arugula salad with grilled chicken and Boston lettuce, spinach, walnuts and blue cheese. Pears are perfectly ripe and oranges are juicy. We're partial to salads with heft from cheese and nuts and if you throw in some croutons, that's great. Californians take greens for granted although we were in a Whole Foods, somewhere between Costa Mesa and La Jolla, and the greens were not what you expect. Anyway, in Boston we take lobster rolls for granted. Not beans, not ever.
Solvang is a tourist town through and through. This quaint, Danish-themed city is located smack dab in the middle of Santa Barbara's wine country. If you aren't in town for the pastries or chocolates, you're probably visiting because of your love of wine. It sort of looks like a Disneyland version of what people imagine Denmark to be like, but we are assured by Danish friends is not really based much on reality.
Though it has a slew of winery tasting rooms the food options, post breakfast, are pretty slim. Like most wine regions it has a few high-end restaurants that require reservations (like Root 246), but after a long day on our feet we just wanted something casual and uncomplicated. Fitzpatrick's Tavern fit the bill perfectly. Open for around 6 months, it's everything an Irish bar should be and a nice change from the other mid-priced options around town (pizza, pasta, sandwiches). Chosen mostly for comfort and convenience, we sidled up to the bar, so we'd have a good view of the game.
Sushi Ota modestly calls itself the "premier sushi restaurant in San Diego." They rate the number 52 spot on Yelp’s Top 100 Places to Eat in the US but I didn't know this before. Their adamant fans insist they should have landed higher since the fish is gimmick-free without say, whimsical concoctions. I agree, fusion throws me too. How'd we end up destination dining? It's not easy finding just the right place and it's tough even where I live, let alone somewhere else.
How do you judge great sushi? Eat it everywhere with reason. Reason takes in authentic dining rooms that are busy, hopping even, and for me the longer the line the better. I had the best tuna that dropped from a chef's knife to my plate. We were sitting at the bar in a place whose name I no longer remember in a strip mall in Orinda where you had to show up in the morning to get a seat. Stunningly, West Coast tuna is nothing like what we get on the East Coast; ditto today's salmon and uni.
We start the day shopping for plants. After, we ask the mechanical lady to take us over to Mission Bay Drive. You have to convince her you're no longer in Boston; this takes more than a couple of whacks. Shortly, we all find Sushi Ota tucked beside a 7-Eleven in the far corner of a mini-mall that also houses Planned Parenthood. I get out first to see how it looks.
I just love the food and wine community on social media. They find all the coolest and latest places to go when you head out on the road. While our trips to wine country always center on finding the best new wineries and visiting old favorites, ballast - in the way of great eats - is equally important if you want to survive a day in the tasting rooms. The Santa Ynez Valley (also know as Santa Barbara Wine Country even though it's 30 minutes north) is home to over 100 wineries, but the towns are pretty small. This leaves your lunch options a bit slim especially in the Buellton area, unless you're looking for fast food or are hankering for a bowl of pea soup. So when I heard about a new place called Industrial Eats, I just had to check it out. Well, I actually saw a picture of one of their pizzas on Facebook and it made my mouth water. So on our next foray up the coast I made it our lunch destination.
Open for about a month or so, there isn't much info out there about it, so it was not the easiest place to find. I have to admit we initially drove right by it, finding ourselves at the end of the road and out of luck. There was only one option and that was to turn around and look up the address again. This is something that happens quite a lot in wine country, as many of the best places are not on the map, so to speak.
Located on Industrial Way (which I guess has something to do with the name), it's sort of tucked in behind the owner's main business, New West Catering. Jeff and Janet Olsson have been putting their 30 years of restaurant experience to good use in the Vally for over a decade and this is a clear expansion of their efforts. Why not put your catering kitchen to a secondary use during the week and bring your talent to the public at large?
Finding a great restaurant isn’t easy. I read hundreds of reviews and clip the best ones but they usually just languish in a file. I would never have gone to Chung King but for Jonas Goodman. Foremost on his list of must-try-restaurants is Chung King, recommended to him by his friend, the wonderful novelist, Nicole Mones, an expert in all things-Chinese.
Not all Chung King’s are created equally. The only one to try, according to Nicole is the one run by Linda Huang’s at her address at 1000 S. San Gabriel Blvd, San Gabriel, CA 91776 (626/286-0298). The restaurant inhabits a cinderblock building on a non-descript block in San Gabriel. The exterior doesn’t invite you in, which is why the recommendation of a noted author and respected authority on Chinese cooking is needed.
Our visit was completely serendipitous. We had driven out to Banning to pay our respects to my mom who is buried there. If you have ever gone to Palm Springs, you have passed through Banning, which sits at the foot of the Idyllwild road. My parents moved there when I was in High School and I don’t have fond memories of the town but that’s where my mother is buried, so we make the trip there to spend a quiet moment with her.
We love going to wine country. It's our favorite place to vacation. It's peaceful and beautiful and you can drink during the day without having to be in a bathing suit….or anyone judging you. While the Santa Barbara wine region is technically closer to us, we spend most of our time in Paso Robles.
Driving up the 101 is much prettier than the flatlands of the I5 and the central valley, so we usually head up along the coast and make a pitstop in Los Olivos, one of the quaintest towns you'll ever see. If you're into wine, it's nirvana. For good or ill - it's a hot button issue for residents - wine is king here, with over 25 tasting rooms lining both sides of this close-your-eyes-and-you-might-miss-it Main Street. Good food is a necessity when wine tasting and you'll get some great grub at Sides Hardware and Shoes.
Yes, it's an odd name for an American wine bistro, but the owners - chefs Jeff and Matt Nichols - are long time residents of the town and wanted to keep the location's history alive. After years developing their culinary talents separately, they went into business together in 1996. Their first joint venture was the refurbishing of Mattei's Tavern, one of the Central Coast's original stagecoach stops built in 1886. They opened their "dinner-only" The Brothers Restaurant in that historical space which had been vacant since 1974. They had great success in this building, giving visitors a first-class, elegant dining experience that's a bit unexpected for this sleepy, little town.
Here's what I like about California: People think nothing of driving 82 miles for lunch. (In New York, this never happens.) The Thin Man and I are now two of those people as we head out from La Jolla to Plums Cafe in Costa Mesa. We've brought the Boston mechanical lady along to tell us where to get off. She acclimates, more or less, and in no time it's north on the 5. Our LA cousins, who are meeting us, drive 56 miles and they've lived here long enough to get over their New Yorkiness. I guess we have too.
Just in case, The Thin Man prints directions. As it turns out, she not only does not get lost but she sees into the future. Five miles ahead, on the way home, she tells us repeatedly to get off because there's trouble ahead. We don't, there is, but it works out.
How do you define an ideal California lunch? Although I'm no slouch in the lunch department, a perfect lunch will be one I didn't have to make. Ideal is every plate beautifully arranged. Ideal is having to choose. Will it be soup and salad, waffles, chopped or Caesar, greens? Ideal comes with a brother and cousins. Ideal is a chic vibe. Home? If only.
by Nancy Ellison