The coastal village of Carmel-by-the-Sea, California, looks like it jumped from the pages of a storybook -- and its culinary treasures look like they jumped from the pages of the world’s best cookbook!
This charming area is home to restaurants and chefs who pride themselves on preparing fresh, local, and sustainable foods. One term you’ll hear frequently is California fusion -- it indicates that a restaurant consciously sources fresh and local ingredients, often farm-to-table. The menus change frequently to utilize the best of what is in season.
While there are plenty of fine-dining options, there are also a variety of quirky bistros located along the secret passageways and courtyards of Carmel.
I visited the area on a press trip with my sister, Lynn, to explore the rich, diverse, and oh-so-tasty chef-inspired menus. Here are some of the best spots we discovered.
Tucked away inside a courtyard, Stationaery is the brainchild of owners Anthony and Alissa Carnazzo. The couple chose the cottage for their restaurant because of the family-sized apartment on the second floor. The intimate 34-seat space with a small area for patio dining offers breakfast, lunch, and specialty coffees.
Stationaery specializes in elegant comfort food. During our breakfast, Lynn raved about the enormous skillet-baked pancake topped with fruit, creme fraiche, and granola. My potato pancake -- a huge pile of fried hash browns topped with bacon, frisee lettuce, a poached egg, and a tarragon vinaigrette -- was unlike anything I’ve ever tasted, and it was as visually appealing as it was tasty. The ingredients are sourced primarily from Monterey and Santa Cruz County farms to ensure a fresh and seasonal menu.
And since Carmel is wine country, you can enjoy a glass with dinner. Stationaery is the only place in Carmel to serve natural wines, or wines made with organically farmed grapes with minimal (if any) added sulfites.
2. Brophy’s Tavern
For the best pub fare in Carmel, Brophy’s Tavern is the place to go. This spot serves up handcrafted cocktails, cold draft beer, and plenty of quality bar food.
One of its specialties is the grilled cheese sandwich -- but this isn’t your ordinary grilled cheese sandwich. It features a delicious mix of fontina, Cheddar, Swiss, and Provolone cheese and is served with Brophy’s house-made tomato bisque.
Brophy’s is also known for its authentic fish and chips, which are about as good as you can get outside of London.
3. Rise + Roam
Carmel’s newest restaurant, Rise + Roam, is a Roman-style bakery and pizzeria, the first of its kind in the village. It’s run by renowned local chef Todd Fisher. On one side of the light-filled restaurant is the bakery, with croissants as large as footballs (perhaps I exaggerate, but they are enormous), cheesecakes, and other pastries. On the other side is the pizzeria in an open kitchen.
For a starter, we enjoyed a unique concoction featuring puffed forbidden rice, citrus, an over-easy egg, and hot sauce. That might sound like a strange combination, but the savory yolk mixed with the hot sauce to create a dish we couldn’t stop eating until it was gone.
At Rise + Roam, the pizza is all about the dough. Approximately 72 hours of cold fermentation produces a light and flavorful crust that may be easier to digest for those with gluten intolerances. The pizza crust is hand-formed into long planks and baked until the bottom is crisp and the interior is airy. We sampled a pizza with prosciutto, mushrooms, sage, Marsala, and Provolone and were not disappointed -- full, but not disappointed.
We took the leftover pizza back to our hotel for breakfast the next morning, and it was just as tasty cold.
4. Seventh & Dolores Steakhouse
Seventh & Dolores is a reference to the restaurant’s address. You won’t find street numbers in Carmel; instead, places are identified by the nearest intersection. So at the corner of 7th Avenue and Dolores Street, you’ll find Seventh & Dolores.
The space is vibrant and energetic, and Chef Todd Fisher leads a team of veritable magicians from its glass-encased kitchen. They serve elevated steakhouse fare plus sustainable seafood in a classy setting.
While the marble raw bar and fresh seafood are awe-inspiring, the real showstoppers are the all-natural meats from Niman Ranch. The 28-day dry-aged steak I ordered melted in my mouth. The Red, White, and Bleu salad was fresh and beautifully plated with endives, Comice pears, crispy bacon, and Rogue bleu cheese crema.
5. Etats-Unis French American Bistro
Etats-Unis, pronounced eh-TAZ-oo-NEE, is French for “United States.” Etats-Unis French American Bistro is one of Carmel’s best spots for French cuisine with an American flair. Chef Soerke Peters is a leader in sustainability and focuses on incorporating local ingredients into traditional French dishes. At the certified green restaurant, locals and visitors enjoy delicious choices for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
The restaurant emphasizes taste over theatrics, as evidenced by the delicious French comfort food my sister and I tried. I still dream about the French onion soup I had there. Equally tasty was the roasted beet salad with endives, arugula, burrata cheese, black Mission fig vinaigrette, and walnuts. Other local favorites include escargot, ratatouille, and bouillabaisse.
6. Treehouse Cafe
The owners of Treehouse Cafe, Fadi and Pam Alnimiri, wanted to create a beautiful space for guests to enjoy great food and wine. They’ve certainly succeeded! At Treehouse, they serve up Mediterranean, Greek, and Thai menu items that they personally select.
The mix of flavors is evident in the starters, such as the sliced gyros, Thai pork sausage, and steamed mussels. The green Thai curry is a delicious blend of bell peppers, bamboo shoots, coconut milk, basil, and green beans in a green curry sauce. Choose chicken, salmon, or prawns to go with it.
Customers appreciate the relaxed vibe and delicious food, especially when they can enjoy it outdoors in nice weather. The wine selection is impressive as well.
7. Carmel Belle
My sister and I stumbled upon Carmel Belle one day while shopping. Located inside a mall, this unassuming bistro was a pleasant surprise. The menu features locally sourced meats and produce from farmers who practice sustainability. The meats are hormone-free, grass-fed/free-range, and humanely raised in California. The produce is mostly organic and acquired from farmers and farmers markets.
The Green Eggs and Ham breakfast dish was as colorful as it was flavorful, with two poached eggs, prosciutto, and arugula with a green herb puree atop the eggs, all served on country toast. Delicious and hearty! The farm-to-table flavors carried over into the lunch and dinner menus, with soups, salads, and sandwiches plus hearty entrees like quinoa macaroni topped with Beemster goat gouda. My favorite was the meatloaf with mashed potatoes and a side of grilled asparagus.
8. From Scratch Restaurant
The name says it all at From Scratch Restaurant. This spot offers American favorites prepared from scratch, including vegan and vegetarian options. The dining room has a casual vibe, and there’s an outdoor patio as well. Fun fact: Guy Fieri made a trip to the restaurant, and it was featured in Season 21 of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.
For a hearty breakfast or lunch, try the huevos rancheros; they’re comforting and delicious. The veggie eggs Benedict are a vegetarian favorite. For a sweet treat you won’t forget anytime soon, order the banana-walnut pancakes featuring plenty of sliced bananas, large walnut pieces, and real maple syrup.
9. Cultura Comida Y Bebida
Cultura Comida y Bebida delivers the flavors of Oaxaca, Mexico, mixed with California coastal flavors. You’ll find traditional street tacos, but also unexpected treasures like tres leches French toast topped with fresh berries, anise whipped cream, and maple syrup.
Fan favorites include the fresh guacamole and chips; the vegetarian chile relleno stuffed with zucchini, red bell peppers, goat cheese, rice, and Monterey Jack; and the mole with pork that comes with a side of fresh tortillas, cabbage, and cauliflower.
For a boozy beverage, the mescal margarita can’t be beat.