Southern California

plums cafe 1Here'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.

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fitzpatricksSolvang 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.

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pier46logo200.jpgThough I'm not a betting person, I would have put my small stash of savings on the line if anyone had told me a year ago that I would become a seafood lover. While still not on the sushi bandwagon, I have to say that 2009 changed my mind about how good fish can be. Of course, that is, when prepared by professionals using the freshest fish available. Chef Ludo Lefebvre prepared the best seafood dish I have ever had at LudoBites 3.0, one that I instantly wanted more of, much to my husband's disbelief. When we go out to dinner, one bite of his fish is usually enough for me. However, I know I wouldn't have enjoyed it as much if I hadn't discovered Pier 46 Seafood first.

They are located in Templeton, CA, a small town just south of our favorite wine region – Paso Robles. We go to Paso a lot, but I had never heard of Pier 46 until I joined Twitter last March. Their name came up time and again between my winery tweeps when discussions about lunch were bandied about. Everyone claimed they had the BEST fish tacos in the region.

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Sushi ota 1Sushi 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.

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Sides Hardware and ShoesWe 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.

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