The dazzling deep-blue ocean scenes and buff-colored rolling hills are reason enough to visit California’s spectacular Central Coast. Add in the amazing flavors that emerge from the waters of the Pacific Ocean and the fertile hills that rise along the coast, and you have an impossible-to-resist destination.
Culinary delights range from briny oysters paired with plummy wines to sweet/tart olallieberries served in succulent pies and on hearty pancakes. It’s all set off by lovely settings at oceanside tasting rooms, quaint cliffside towns, and hilly wineries.
I have road-tripped through the California Central Coast numerous times over the years, and I’ve always marveled at the magnificent terrain. I especially love small towns like Pismo Beach, Cambria, and San Simeon, where the distinctive sights and flavors are accented by salty air and crashing waves.
On my recent early-autumn road trip, I decided to focus on the unique flavors of the Central Coast. What I found were remarkable culinary treasures, some that originated in this part of California, and others that are classics with a coastal California twist.
Located about halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco along California Highway 1, the Central Coast makes for a convenient 3- to 4-hour drive from either major city.
Here are 9 delicious foods and drinks to try along the California Central Coast.
Highway 1 Road Trip hosted me on portions of the trip, but all views are my own.
1. Olallieberry Turnover
Avila Valley Barn, San Luis Obispo
If you love the juiciness of a blackberry and the tangy flavor of a raspberry, then the olallieberry is sure to fulfill all of your berry dreams. The olallieberry was developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the 1930s by crossing a variety of blackberry, loganberry, youngberry, and raspberry strains. The “olallie” part of the name originates from the native Chinook people’s word for “berry.”
The olallieberry thrives in the coastal region, and it has become a staple of cafés and shops along the Central Coast. One of my favorite olallieberry tastes was in a turnover pie at the Avila Valley Barn. The bustling, multi-faceted farm stand in rural San Luis Obispo offers all sorts of olallieberry products, including full pies, jams, and syrups. For me, the turnover’s flaky crust and flavorful berry filling made for the perfect bite.
Pro Tip: Avila Valley Barn is also known for its apples, cider, and pumpkins, and it is a popular spot in the fall for people looking for a fun and festive Halloween or Thanksgiving outing.
2. Coastal Terroir Wine-And-Oyster Pairing
Sinor-LaVallee Tasting Room, Avila Beach
Specializing in wines grown 1.2 miles from the Pacific Ocean, Sinor-LaVallee’s creations are a perfect match for fresh-from-the-sea oysters sourced from nearby Morro Bay. The Sinor-LaVallee Tasting Room, located just steps from the beach in the small coastal town of Avila Beach, offers a wine-tasting-and-oyster-shucking experience. It perfectly showcases the wines from the company’s Bassi Vineyard, known for their pronounced coastal terroir (meaning “sense of place or environment”).
Along with the wine-and-oyster pairing, be sure to try Sinor-LaVallee’s excellent menu of accompanying dishes, such as caviar service and the charcuterie board filled with local-favorite cheeses, breads, nuts, and butters. The indoor tasting room is lovely, but on a warm California day, it’s hard to beat Sinor-LaVallee’s shady patio.
3. Shrimp And Crab Ceviche
PequÍn Coastal Cocina, Pismo Beach
Seafood ceviche, with its citrusy/spicy flavor, is one of my favorite beach foods. I was delighted to find a “ceviche flight” on the menu at the cool PequÍn Coastal Cocina at the Vespera Resort in Pismo Beach.
Served alongside tortilla chips in a row of three pretty tulip glasses, the flight included a crab and shrimp ceviche with an avocado and cucumber sauce; a coctel rojo ceviche with shrimp, clam, crab, and octopus served with chilled tomato clam broth and topped with salted peanuts; and a dragon fruit ceviche featuring the distinctively colorful fruit along with cucumber, chili, mango, red onion, and avocado. They were all delicious, but for me, the coctel rojo stood out for the surprising burst of flavor from the combo of marinated seafood and peanuts.
4. Edna Valley Zinfandel
Saucelito Canyon Winery, San Luis Obispo
While the hilly Edna Valley wine region outside of San Luis Obispo is known largely for its pinot noirs, I was fascinated to hear that the region has multiple microclimates, which produce a variety of grapes in a relatively small area.
At the scenic Saucelito Canyon Winery, for instance, a warmer climate at the historic estate vineyard in the Arroyo Grande Valley makes for the winery’s signature Zinfandel, known for its high-toned, brambly fruit character. I loved sitting on the outdoor tasting patio, looking out onto the vine-covered hills, sipping the delicious red wine.
Pro Tip: A fantastically fun way to tour the Edna Valley wine region is from a tandem sidecar of a motorcycle operated by a knowledgeable tour guide. I had a great tour of several area wineries with Sidecar Tours, a company that offers tours in nine locations throughout California.
5. Grilled Peach Salad
Gardens Of Avila, Avila Beach
The Gardens of Avila at the Sycamore Mineral Springs Resort is known as one of the most romantic dining spots in the region, and it is easy to see why. Located amidst a beautiful garden setting in Avila Valley, the restaurant exudes warmth and intimacy. When I visited on a cool September evening, a fireplace was glowing at one end of the dining room, and large windows offered views of the tree-lined patio.
I tried several excellent dishes, including the braised short rib served over cream risotto and the smoked chicken pasta with house-made fettuccine, cherry tomatoes, and red onion in a roasted garlic cream sauce. The entrées were delicious, but my favorite flavor was the peach salad served with grilled peaches, shrimp, arugula, sliced almonds, and burrata cheese, all dressed with a honey champagne vinaigrette.
An on-site garden produces vegetables and fruits for the Gardens of Avila, providing a true farm-to-table experience.
Pro Tip: The Gardens of Avila is a part of the historic Sycamore Mineral Springs Resort, a charming resort that features hillside hot mineral spring tubs and spans more than 100 acres of forest, hills, and meadows.
6. Pismo Clam Chowder
Splash Café, Pismo Beach
Once known as the Clam Capital of the World, Pismo Beach takes its name from the Pismo clam, and numerous spots along the town’s boardwalk offer dishes that feature clams and other local seafood.
Perhaps the most famous of the clam-focused offerings is the chowder at the surfer-themed Splash Café. The lines of customers that often stretch out the door and down the street attest to the community’s fondness for Splash. And the food lives up to the hype. I ordered a cup of the chowder loaded with toppings such as seafood, cheese, and green onions. Served alongside a side of grilled sourdough bread, the creamy chowder made the perfect beachside lunch. Splash is also known for its bread bowls, fish and chips, burgers, and onion rings.
7. Olallieberry Pancakes
Linn’s Restaurant, Cambria
Another Central Coast classic is in store at Linn’s Restaurant, a thriving spot in the historic East Village of downtown Cambria. Linn’s got its start in the 1970s when Central Coast transplants John and Renee Linn began farming and selling produce at their bustling stand. Among their specialties were Renee’s olallieberry pies.
Today, the restaurant, which is still run by the Linn family, serves up a variety of olallieberry dishes, such as a stack of whole wheat and honey pancakes with flavorful olallieberry topping, and the stuffed French toast served with mascarpone and olallieberry preserves.
Although most people know Linn’s for its olallieberries, the restaurant also offers a wide range of Central Coast dishes such as the Moonstone Beach omelet with shrimp, crab, tomato, mushrooms, and hollandaise sauce for breakfast; and clam chowder, burgers, and quiches for lunch and dinner. An adjoining shop carries even more Linn’s specialties, including jams, candies, and baked goods like fruit-filled scones, bear claws, and pies.
8. Fair Famous Cinnamon Rolls
Old West Cinnamon Rolls, Pismo Beach
A decades-old breakfast tradition awaits at Old West Cinnamon Rolls, a mainstay in downtown Pismo Beach. The cinnamon rolls got their start more than 40 years ago when founder Betty Clemens created her signature bread recipe at the family home in Shell Beach. Soon, she began taking her dinner rolls to state fairs, and she ultimately created the sweet cinnamon rolls at a fair, earning the nickname “Fair Famous cinnamon rolls.”
Today, locals and visitors in search of a fresh-baked roll and a cup of coffee flock to Old West Cinnamon Rolls, where they can choose from several varieties, including rolls with raisins, walnuts, or pecans.
9. Seaside Wine Tasting
Hearst Ranch Winery, San Simeon
A heady combination of local wines and a seaside setting is in store at the Hearst Ranch Winery, where the tasting room is located right on the coast of lovely San Simeon. Inside is a large tasting room and gift and wine shop, and outside is a patio area that offers close-up views of the water and pier.
In fact, the winery offers the best of both of the Central Coast’s iconic tableaus, with the wines being created a few miles inland at the heart of beautiful Paso Robles wine country, and the San Simeon tasting room playing up the stunning coastline.
Pro Tip: This San Simeon winery is located about a mile and a half away from the gorgeous Heart Castle. The winery’s tasting room makes a great stop after taking a tour of the hilltop castle.
Explore more of California’s Central Coast: