We’ve lived in Los Angeles for twelve years (moved here in 2011!) and in all of that time, we’ve only taken one legitimate road trip up the coast… and that was during the pandemic when we escaped to Washington State to see my husband Craig’s family. On that odyssey, we stopped in Carmel, which was a beautiful respite from the monotony of our apartment, though it was also stressful because we were all in masks. That’s why, with the big news that we’re moving back to NYC in September, we decided to take a totally spontaneous road trip from Los Angeles to Sonoma. And we had such a blast, I thought I’d lay it all out for you here, in case you happen to be in L.A. and are craving a road trip of your own.
Day One: L.A. to Carmel
We set off at about ten o’clock for the first leg of our journey and took the 101 (last time, we took U.S. 1 which was curvy and beautiful, but a leg of it is now closed because of a landslide).
For lunch, we stopped off at Metropulos in Santa Barbara, a much-loved destination for sandwiches. Craig had one with turkey; I ordered a salad with grilled chicken (should’ve ordered a sandwich) and we sat outside on a day so perfect, it was almost obnoxious. We grabbed coffee (and a pistachio baklava) next door at Dart Coffee Co. and then hit the road again.
Back on the road, it was just a few hours to Carmel. Going in April is a great time to go, especially midweek (we arrived on a Wednesday): the temperature was just a little cool, and the streets were almost empty. We checked into our lovely hotel — L’Auberge (we used Amex points to book it) — and we were greeted with a beguiling and delicious chai-spiced grape juice, before they showed us to our room.
The hotel is elegant without being over-the-top. Our room had a four-poster bed and a marble bathroom and fresh cookies that they put in a little basket. There’s no air conditioning, but it’s totally fine because you open the window and get a nice gust of ocean breeze.
For dinner that night, we’d heard tell of a local spot called La Bicyclette. I thought that they didn’t take reservations; apparently, they do: you make via a phone call, whatever that is? Luckily, on this not-so-busy night, they found a table for us and we enjoyed a local favorite.
We really liked the grilled little gem appetizer, but for me the highlight was the mushroom pizza. Our waitress suggested we order it with the gnocchi (seen behind the pizza), because we could dip the crust in the cream sauce. Good tip! We also ordered half a bottle of Pinot Noir (it came in a mini bottle) and that was cute.
Day Two: Carmel to Monterey to Berkeley
The next morning, we met Craig’s friends Sam and Amy (who live in Carmel) at a spot they recommended, Carmel Belle, which definitely seemed like an in-the-know kind of place.
I had a most excellent smoked salmon sandwich (Craig had the green eggs and ham, not pictured) and then we set off for the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which was only a short twenty minute drive away.
Truly one of the world’s great aquariums (if not the greatest), we somehow missed our many chances to go here over the years. (I even bought Craig two tickets for Christmas one year… and we never used them!) But finally we made it, and my octopus-loving husband came face-to-face with a Pacific octopus that was so alive and showy, he was like Octopus Liberace. And that fish on the left kept staring at me. Hey fish: take a picture, it’ll last longer!
From the aquarium, we hit the road north and headed to Berkeley to visit our friend J., who’s in grad school there. We met up at Tupper & Reed, a cocktail bar really close to the campus and also our hotel: The Hotel Shattuck Plaza, which seemed like the place all the Berkeley parents stay while visiting their kids.
After enjoying Black Manhattans, made with Amaro, Craig and I toured the Berkeley campus — which was undeniably beautiful. It was 4/20 on the day we went, so there were lots of students 4/20-ing on the lawn. Apparently there was even a trampoline.
Now, you’re not going to believe this, but when we went to spontaneous plan this trip, I checked Resy to see if one of the country’s most important restaurants, the place where “organic,” “farm-to-table,” and “local” all took on meaning in the United States, had any reservations. And would you believe it? I grabbed an 8:15 PM for two people at Chez Panisse for the night we were there.
The last time I went to Chez Panisse — over fifteen years ago! — my friend Kristin and I experienced the lavish tasting menu downstairs. This time, on the recommendations of various friends and alumni of the restaurant, we ate upstairs at the Café. Even though it’s more casual, the food is just as carefully made and you have more control over what you order. We started with a Little Gem salad with marinated beets and a creamy basil dressing and cooked broccolini with anchovy breadcrumbs.
Though the rest of the meal was tremendous (see below), these salads were the highlight for me. Especially the one on the left: something about the way that it was dressed made me wish I could sign up for the Alice Waters salad school. (Funny enough, I actually made a salad with Alice Waters for my cookbook! Maybe I need to read that chapter again.)
For our entrees, we each ordered the braised lamb with celeriac puree and sugar snap peas. My favorite part was the jus underneath: very classic French, but not at all pretentious. We ordered a bottle of Pistus Etna Rosso to go with our meal, on the recommendation of the server, and it was a perfect, mineral, robust wine to balance out the richness of the lamb.
You can’t eat at Chez Panisse without ordering dessert and these classics — an apple tart with cherries on the left, a chocolate cake with caramel and pecans on the right — did not disappoint. They were emblematic of the restaurant itself: thoughtfully-made and sophisticated while also downright delicious.
Day Three: Berkeley to Sonoma
On Friday morning, we explored Berkeley a bit. My friends Toby and David both insisted that I check out the Berkeley Bowl, so while Craig showered, I took a quick jaunt over there and marveled at the stacks of gorgeous produce. It was like a Costco and the Garden of Eden had a baby.
From there, Craig and I headed over to grab lunch at Fava — another spot recommended by Toby, from two Chez Panisse alumns — and their falafel sandwich was simple and surprising, with various textures and flavors and an embarrassment of herbs.
After that, we checked out The Cheese Board Collective, a Berkeley institution. Toby made me promise him I’d visit and grab a pastry: I chose a corn cherry scone and it was out-of-this-world.
Well-fed and eager to get on, we hit the road for the two hour drive north to Sonoma.
Now the big splurge that I made for this trip was using almost five years of American Express points to book a swanky hotel (at some point, you’ve gotta use them!): so I settled on The Farmhouse Inn, which was lovely and cozy all at once.
Our room was directly over a Michelin-starred restaurant and originally we were going to skip it to get dinner at Glen Ellen Star, about forty minutes away. But that afternoon, we went to a wine tasting on the hotel grounds (one of the perks of staying at a nice place in Sonoma) hosted by Kathryn Sloan of Smallvines Vineyards.
After sampling and buying a few bottles (how could we not?), we told her our dinner plan and she was shocked that we weren’t eating at the hotel. “My husband and I eat all over Sonoma all the time, and it’s our favorite restaurant, hands down.” Considering that we were buzzed from the wine and preferred walking down a flight of stars to driving for forty minutes, we agreed that the hotel made more sense.
The meal itself was super pricey ($225 a person, to be specific) but it was our blow-out meal at our blow-out hotel and the food was truly above reproach, if not downright spectacular. The chef trained at many prestigious institutions (including Atelier Crenn) and the attention to detail was undeniable. We also did a wine pairing which was so extravagant and interesting, I started a new Instagram account just to write about it.
That night we stumbled upstairs to bed and slept happily dreaming about caviar covered asparagus with onion flowers and grilled steak with pressed pickled Daikon radish with herbs.
Day Four: A Day in Sonoma
The next morning, we ate breakfast once again downstairs at the hotel. This time we sat outside and enjoyed some Eggs Benny before heading out for the day.
We drove over to Guerneville, which we’d heard a lot about (mostly from our gay friends). We walked around and saw some antiques and a river and a cute book store.
From there, we went to a one o’clock wine tasting at Ryme Vineyards, which came highly recommended from the hotel.
Turns out wine tastings are just opportunities to sit in lovely spaces and drink wine while gossiping about the people next to you. (A table of six women and two men amused us because the men were bored out of their minds, staring at their phones; one of them left.)
The wine at Ryme was excellent: our favorite was a Sangiovese Friulano, which was a deep dark red rosé. We bought a few bottles. From there, we went back to the hotel and swam for a bit and finally made our way into town for our final dinner of the trip, at The Matheson.
I’m so glad we wound up here: not only was the food great, but before dinner we partook of “the wall of wine.” You basically give them your credit card, they give you a wine card, and then you can go along an enormous wall and use the card to try splashes, 1/2 glasses, or full glasses of over ninety different wines. At first my card didn’t work, and when I showed the handsome bartender he said: “Sir, that’s your hotel room key.”
All of the food at the Matheson was top notch (though they ran out of bread by the time we got there, and it looked so good!). Loved my steelhead trout with a clam-infused sauce and that Baba au Rhum for dessert was Baba au righteous. (We ordered a bottle of Flowers Chardonnay which was a great discovery; next time, we’ll visit their vineyard too.)
Day Five: The Journey Home
And yesterday, our last day, we had breakfast at the hotel and then started the long drive back.
This time we didn’t take the scenic 101; we were eager to get home to our dog, so we took the not-so-scenic 5. We listened to some podcasts (highly recommend Randy Newman on vintage Desert Island Discs) and before we knew it, we were back in L.A.
What a fun road trip! If this was our farewell-to-California tour, I don’t think we could’ve done much better.
1 thought on “Wining and Dining Our Way Up the California Coast, from Los Angeles to Sonoma”
What a great trip! I’m keeping your recommendations on food and lodging for the next time I visit CA!