The Top 10 (or 11) Restaurants in Monterey County
Whenever you make a best-of list, you need to approach it with part science, part emotion and part guesswork. And then deflect criticism off a thick skin when your opinions are attacked.
People always ask me “where do you like to eat?” — a question far removed from “where do you like to dine?”
There are differences between those two questions, and they involve sit-down service, cutting-edge cuisine, white tablecloths, knowing what fork to use and good old American sticker shock.
Below I have listed my personal Top 10 places to “dine” on the Monterey Peninsula, complete with a four-category, 50-point grading scale. I tried to devise a system that evaluates quality of food (20 points), service (10 points), ambiance (10 points) and wine/cocktail program (10 points), all wrapped up in a blanket of personal opinion.
This list will continue to evolve, as restaurants change and trends develop. Check back on occasion to see how the list evolves and how your favorite place stacks up. Feel free to leave a comment and let’s create a local forum to exchange culinary banter. Cheers!
- 1. Marinus at Bernardus Lodge, Carmel Valley
Nestled among the oaks and vineyards of the valley, this impeccable restaurant brings fine dining to dizzying heights behind the talents of local chef icon Cal Stamenov, who lets the seasons and the region’s finest ingredients drive his inspiration. Coupled with a world-class wine cellar, Stamenov’s Euro-California cuisine should not be missed. www.bernardus.com/lodge/restaurants. Scores: 19, 10, 10, 10. Total: 49.
- 2. Aubergine at L’Auberge Carmel, Carmel
Housed in a historic, downtown inn, this intimate, critically acclaimed restaurant features the playful handiwork of Chef Justin Cogley, who prepares contemporary California cuisine with European influences. The 12-table restaurant features an underground wine cellar that was constructed beneath the inn’s courtyard to house the restaurant’s 4,500 bottle collection. www.laubergecarmel.com/restaurant.php. Scores: 18, 10, 10, 10. Total: 48.
- 3. Sierra Mar at Post Ranch Inn, Big Sur
Jaw-dropping views highlight award-winning Sierra Mar, perched on a cliff above the wild coastline of Big Sur. Chef Craig von Foerster’s inventive, prix-fixe menu changes daily. The restaurant’s rustic-chic interior just earned Top Décor honors from Zagat and features a wood-burning fireplace and small, elegant bar. Walk the grounds of this exclusive resort, and catch the sunset before dinner. www.postranchinn.com/dining. Scores: 18, 10, 9, 9. Total: 46.
- 4. Bistro Moulin, Monterey
This charming European bistro is home to French-born chef Didier Dutertre and gracious manager/wine director Colleen Manni. A few daily specials complement a small but mighty menu of delectable selections. Escargot and Parisienne gnocchi can precede a meal of mussels and frites, hangar steak, coq au vin and the chef’s perfect roasted chicken — all served in a warm, intimate environment. www.bistromoulin.com. Scores: 17, 9, 9, 9. Total: 44.
- 5. Restaurant 1833, Monterey
A pair of visionary bons vivants have turned Monterey’s landmark Stokes Adobe building into a food and cocktail playground with a comfortable, big-city feel. Named after the year this building was born, serving as a kiln and oven and later a pharmacy, Restaurant 1833 is the brainchild of Robert Weakley and David Bernahl (Pebble Beach Food and Wine; Los Angeles Food and Wine). Chef Levi Mezick boasts a resumé that includes stops in the kitchens of Per Se, Daniel and Café Boulud, some of New York City’s best-loved restaurants. www.restaurant1833.com. Scores: 18, 7, 10, 9. Total: 44.
- 6. Big Sur Bakery and Restaurant, Big Sur
Using the finest ingredients available, this restaurant oozes integrity with its classic, wood-fired American cooking. Mornings bring fresh fruit and vegetable juices and wood-fired breads with butter and sea salt. At lunch, try their iconic breakfast pizza, or a variety of quiches and frittatas. Stay for dinner and you’ll find simple yet inspired entrees done to perfection. www.bigsurbakery.com. Scores: 17, 8, 9, 8. Total: 42.
- 7. Mundaka, Carmel
Bursting on the scene a year ago, this Spanish tapas restaurant breathed new life into quiet Carmel. Intensely flavorful small plates reflect an authentic Spanish experience. Help yourself to toothpicked pinxtos on the bar, as well as a selection of Spanish wines, housemade cheese and desserts. Celebrated chef Brandon Miller changes the menu often at this late-night hot spot. www.mundakacarmel.com. Scores: 18, 8, 8, 8. Total: 42.
- 8. Pacific’s Edge at Hyatt Carmel Highlands, Carmel
Use the binoculars on your table in the bar to scan the horizon for whale spouts. In the dining room, sophisticated comfort food from Chef Matt Bolton takes center stage with a panoramic Pacific backdrop. This high-end destination dining experience is memorable for its stellar service and selections that draw inspiration from local farms and purveyors. www.pacificsedge.com. Scores: 16, 10, 8, 8. Total: 42.
- 9. Montrio Bistro, Monterey
This trendy, big-city-styled spot in downtown Monterey lures with a creative menu featuring carefully sourced ingredients prepared by noted Chef Tony Baker, a British expat with an eclectic style. Diners are equally at home munching small bites at the lively bar during a daily happy hour, as they are in a quiet corner of the dining room. www.montrio.com. Scores: 16, 8, 7, 9. Total: 40.
- 10. (tie) Christopher’s, Carmel
The tiny bar at Christopher’s is one of Carmel’s best-kept secrets, where the gregarious chef-owner, complete with New York swagger, may be found shaking up some creative signature cocktails. An elegant, serene dining room serves as backdrop to a unique menu that showcases memorable seasonal selections and exciting flavors applauded by both locals and tourists. www.christophersrestaurantcarmel.com. Scores: 17, 8, 7, 7. Total: 39.
- 10. (tie) Passionfish, Pacific Grove
The county’s first green restaurant resulted from owners Ted and Cindy Walter’s tireless championing of sustainable fishing practices and local farmers. Chef Ted’s menu features both land and sea selections and an eclectic, near-retail wine list. A corps of remarkably attentive and knowledgeable wait staff makes dining here a treat. www.passionfish.net. Scores: 16, 8, 7, 8. Total: 39.
- 10. (tie) Rio Grill, Carmel
The flavors of the southwest and beyond are highlighted at this longstanding restaurant in the Crossroads Shopping Center. A locals’ favorite, trendy Rio Grill features the creative talents of chef Cy Yontz, who elevates this unique cuisine to gourmet status. The small, lively bar offers trendy cocktails and an award-winning winelist. www.riogrill.com. Scores: 16, 8, 7, 8. Total: 39.
Just on the outside looking in: Cantinetta Luca, Carmel; Fandango, Pacific Grove; Restaurant at Ventana, Big Sur; Grasing’s Coastal Cuisine, Carmel; Casanova, Carmel; Tarpy’s, Monterey; The C Restaurant+Bar, Monterey; L’Escargot, Carmel; Wickets, Carmel Valley; Sardine Factory, Cannery Row; Andre’s Bouchee Bistro, Carmel; Il Vecchio, Pacific Grove.
GRUB HUNTER’S TOP 5 FAVORITES LIST
- 1. Will’s Fargo — Carmel Valley
- 2. The Whaling Station — Monterey
- 3. The Tap Room — Pebble Beach
- 4. Tarpy’s Roadhouse — Monterey
- 5. The Sardine Factory — Monterey
Best Outdoor Dining
- 1. Nepenthe — Big Sur
- 2. Mission Ranch — Carmel
- 3. Wickets — Carmel Valley
- 4. Trailside Cafe — Cannery Row
- 5. Restaurant 1833 — Monterey
Great Restaurant Bars
- 1. Restaurant 1833 — Monterey
- 2. Montrio Bistro — Monterey
- 3. Rio Grill — Carmel
- 4. The Forge in the Forest — Carmel
- 5. Cannery Row Brewing Co. — Monterey
- 1. Deetjen’s — Big Sur
- 2. Carmel Belle — Carmel
- 3. Loulou’s — Monterey
- 4. Haute Enchilada — Moss Landing
- 5. Toast — Carmel Valley
Best Pub Food and Brew
- 1. Crown and Anchor — Monterey
- 2. Brophy’s — Carmel
- 3. Peter B’s — Monterey
- 4. Mucky Duck — Monterey
- 5. Jack London’s — Carmel
- 1. Sierra Mar — Big Sur
- 2. Casanova — Carmel
- 3. Pacific’s Edge — Carmel
- 4. Lodge Restaurant — Carmel Valley
- 5. Marinus — Carmel Valley
- 1. Sierra Mar — Big Sur
- 2. Pacific’s Edge — Carmel
- 3. Nepenthe — Big Sur
- 4. Rocky Point — Big Sur
- 5. Mission Ranch — Carmel
- 1. Central Texan Barbecue — Castroville
- 2. Monterey Cookhouse — Monterey
- 3. Little Chicken House — Pacific Grove
- 4. Henry’s — Monterey
- 5. Salinas City Barbecue — Salinas
- 1. Baldemiro’s — Seaside
- 2. Mi Tierra — Seaside
- 3. Garcia’s — Seaside
- 4. Chipotle — Monterey, Sand City
- 5. Papa Chano’s — Monterey, Sand City
- 1. Allegro — Carmel
- 2. La Bicyclette — Carmel
- 3. Pizza My Heart — Monterey
- 4. Cantinetta Luca — Carmel
- 5. Monterey Cookhouse — Monterey
- 1. Gianni’s — Monterey
- 2. Pizza My Way — Pacific Grove
- 3. Ioli’s Pizzeria — Carmel Valley
- 4. Pizza My Heart — Monterey
- 5. Pelican Pizza — Monterey
- 1. Wild Plum — Monterey
- 2. La Tortuga — Seaside
- 3. Compagno’s — Monterey
- 4. Bayview Deli — Monterey
- 5. Banh Mi Bar — Marina
- 1. Restaurant 1833 — Monterey
- 2. Montrio Bistro — Monterey
- 3. Aubergine — Carmel
- 4. Lallapalooza — Monterey
- 5. Rio Grill — Carmel