Southern California

harrisranch.jpgI'm an obsessive travel planner. I leave nothing to chance when venturing far away from my home. I need a lay of the new land to feel safe and happy. I don't always do everything or go to every place I research, but the last thing I want is to be bored when I'm away from home sitting in a generic hotel room. Since I've also been, at least until the last year, a fairly picky-eater I like to know my dining options. I will only eat fast-food in an emergency, i.e. when there is absolutely no other choice. As a result, my pre-trip planning involves many sessions on the Internet, trying to find the best and cheapest restaurants that also have a decent wine list and cuisine that isn't too ethnic (the Man won't eat Indian, Thai or Chinese that doesn't come from a container). This is not an easy task.

Our most recent road trip to Sonoma county meant an endlessly boring drive up the I-5 from L.A. We could have flown, but we wanted to spend our money on wine and since we needed a car anyway, we bit the bullet and hit the highway. Once you cross the Grapevine, Central California is mostly flat desert with nothing to see except the occasional gigantic farm or mass-producing vineyard. I hate this stretch of road more than the road to Las Vegas and believe me that's saying something because I hate Las Vegas. (Only the I-10 to Phoenix is worse.)

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daofu 11You'll never find this place on your own; you have to know someone. The Thin Man and I are just that lucky. Michele lives close by and does a fast focus so we can shoot and eat while everything's still hot. DaoFu is in Normal Heights and the fusion menu shares Thai, China, India, Vietnam and Japan. Michele says, "There's nothing normal about Normal." I don't see anything weird other than a guy on the street with his dog, who's still in the same spot when we emerge later. The dog is clearly unhappy.

To check it out, you have to be a detective. That's because in December they were told to stop using the name Tao and so they became DaoFu. Back story: Vegas dudes took issue with the name, according to our server. Why is Tao Asian nightclub in the Venetian Hotel agonizing over a place 326 miles away? Vegas Tao seats 3,000; Tweets to 75,000; lists 139,000 Facebook friends, hosts an annoying website and features scantily clad women. DaoFu, nee Tao, has no website, no Twitter presence, it closes at 9, and seats 50 fully dressed crunchies in a storefront. Same thing.

DaoFu is a place you want in your neighborhood, but not if you live in Nevada. It's chic with flowers, dessert, beer, wine and smart servers. It's also funky and the funk part is writing on the walls. Every inch is covered in graffiti. The owner says to himself, what else? "Okay, hungry people, go draw on the walls." The dominant theme is animal motifs. Of course.

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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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blackcatlogo.jpgWith my weekend plans suddenly cancelled, I got to drive up my beloved Central Coast  for a second visit to Cambria in a month.  Both times, I had one place in mind at which to dine: Black Cat Bistro.  Since I first enjoyed dinner there last year, I have made it a point to return each time I have the opportunity.  While I enjoy exploring new restaurants, Cambria is a small enough place, so I have almost gone to all the fine dining restaurants in town. Black Cat Bistro is my first choice, and I have pretty much made it my mission to try the whole menu this year.  Even with my point overages on my Weight Watchers plan, this oh-so-delicious task will be worth it!

Despite the small size of Cambria, there are a good amount of locals that frequent the restaurant, as well as us out-of-town regulars. On a Friday night you should be able to snag a table in the main dining room or a seat at the bar. However, on a Saturday night I would highly recommend reservations. Since I travel alone (by choice, really!), I prefer to sit at the bar so that I can get a sneak peak at the various dishes coming out of the kitchen as they are taken to each table.  Not to mention, chef Deborah Scarborough peeks out from the kitchen from time to time.

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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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