There are many reasons people choose to visit a certain destination. If you’re heading to Southern California, make it the food. A recent delicious road trip allowed me to savor some of the best restaurants of the megaregion, all focused on using local ingredients to make unique high-quality dishes. To help you plan a delicious trip, here is a guide to creative and sustainable restaurants in Southern California, worth the trip alone.
Photo courtesy of Vessel Restaurant
1. Vessel Restaurant, San Diego
Located within the Kona Kai Resort & Marina, Vessel Restaurant just had a facelift in summer of 2014. The once tiny bar now offers an expansive space that pays homage to maritime culture with distressed wood and sea glass accents, sailboat photos, moving images of local landscapes, bay views from their balcony and a blue-hued ceiling opening above the bar that gives diners the feeling they are underwater (at least, I felt that way). The menu is New American, with lots of coastal influence, from lobster sliders with fried jalapenos to fresh catch to seared diver scallops served with sweet corn succotash and bacon vinaigrette. Both land and sea offerings typically come with creative twists, and are beautifully presented.
Vessel Restaurant offers daily specials and events to look forward to, like live music brunch and a Blood Mary bar on Sundays, an extended happy hour from 5 to 8pm on Mondays and Tuesdays, and a discounts on wines and BYOB opportunities on Wednesdays.
Recommended Eats: Start with a fresh Arugula Salad topped with contrasting yet complimentary elements like pungent Gorgonzola, sweet candied walnuts and fresh pears, before moving on to a hearty Linguine Bolognese (they don’t skimp on the meat in the sauce!) or the cooked-to-perfection Atlantic Salmon with seared fennel and pea tendrils. Save room for dessert — their sea salt-topped ganache served with toast is rich and satisfying. If you enjoy craft cocktails, their “Anti-Oxidant Mojito” is packed with health — and flavor — with Appleton Rum, lime, raspberries, blueberries, pomegranate juice and mint leaves.
A taste of Cheeky’s. Photos courtesy of Jessica Festa.
2. Cheeky’s, Palm Springs
Bacon flight, anyone? This is the type of innovative offering you’ll find at Cheeky’s, a breakfast and lunch hot spot in Palm Springs’ Design District. The menu aims to take ideas from all over the world and create dishes using local and organic ingredients that have never been done before. On one menu you may find Israeli couscous, Chinese chicken, salad and Spanish tuna, along with American classics like a pulled pork sandwich (with apple cider coleslaw), a grilled chicken sandwich (topped with avocado, argula, pesto and fontina) and a BLT (with jalapeno bacon and pesto fries).
This is one of the most popular restaurants in Southern California, so just make sure to bring a book or game to occupy yourself while you wait for a table. You can also head over to Birba next door — owned by the same people — for a beer in the meantime.
Recommended Eats: The menu changes weekly, although there are certain items that are delicious that can always be savored. Start with a bacon flight, with rotating flavors like Korean BBQ, Lychee and Apple Cinnamon, before moving onto the chorizo-stuffed chilaquiles or a buttermilk and fresh corn pancake with bacon and blueberries. End the meal with a home-made cinnamon roll (if there are any left, as they’re a best seller and only 48 are made per day!).
A taste of Wilma & Frieda’s Cafe. Photos courtesy of Jessica Festa.
3. Wilma & Frieda’s Cafe, Palm Desert
Everything at Wilma & Frieda’s Cafe is made-from-scratch, and you can taste it in every scrumptious bite. I recommend visiting during brunch — served on both weekdays and weekends — when you can enjoy grandmother approved-style comfort foods done in a farm-to-fork fashion in a cozy urban farm space. In fact, the recipes are based on dishes made by owner Kelly McFall’s own grandmothers, named Wilma and Frieda, but with a modern twist added in, bringing nostalgia into the present. Don’t deny yourself the chance to browse their homemade bakery counter, with decadent treats like cheesecake brownie, caramel pecan pie, apple and sour cream cobbler and peanut butter cookie sandwich. If the weather is nice, enjoy your meal on their outdoor patio and soak in the relaxed yet upscale ambiance of the area, known as the “Rodeo Drive of the Desert.”
Recommended Eats: If you’re in the mood for sweet, the Marion Blackberry Vanilla Custard French Toast is more like bread-pudding with accents of dark fruits. For something savory, the griddled meatloaf and eggs or Mark’s Short Ribs Egg Benedict atop homemade homemade English muffins are both standouts.
A taste of E.A.T. Marketplace & Eatery. Photos courtesy of E.A.T.
4. E.A.T. Marketplace & Eatery, Temecula
Farm-to-table fanatics will be in heaven at E.A.T. Marketplace & Eatery, which oozes organic, healthy, locally-sourced, raw, bio-dynamic gluten-free and vegan in every nook and cranny. Founder and Executive Chef Leah DiBernardo loves supporting local and sustainable purveyors, which is immediately apparent on their seasonally-changing menu. Along with the eatery, guests can order market items to take home, sip healthy smoothies and farm-to-cup coffee (including Paleo and organic), and take classes on topics like Organic Wine, Artisan Butters, Raw Cooking and Canning.
Recommended Eats: While the menu changes seasonally, check if their bacon-infused potato salad is being offered, along with the grass-fed beef ribs braised in local Wiens Oatmeal Stout, grain mustard and fennel.
Blue Star Lounge, attached to Rockwood Grill. Photo courtesy of JW Marriott Desert Springs.
5. Rockwood Grill, Palm Desert
Rockwood Grill, located within the JW Marriott Desert Springs Resort & Spa, delivers sustainable dining in a more posh atmosphere than the above-mentioned venues. All produce is sourced from California, with a major partner purveyor being Suzie’s Farms, a USDA-certified organic farm near San Diego producing over 100 crops across 70 acres (28 hectares). Both indoor and outdoor seating are available with the attachment of the Blue Star Lounge, and it’s recommended to make a reservation and ask for a table near the lake or on a plush couch around the fire pit.
Many of the dishes on the menu you’ll recognize as American classics, often with a slight twist — homemade pesto in the Di Stefano Burrata, fried calamari featuring Anaheim peppers and garlic aioli, mussels frites topped with chorizo — even the complimentary bread is served with cilantro-infused butter. Farm-to-glass cocktails and local wines and beers enhance the experience.
This is a great place to also sip a cocktail, enjoy some live music and do some people watching.
Recommended Eats: Start with a crab-laced spinach artichoke dip before moving on to a juicy Brandt Farms Ribeye topped with habanero butter sauce. End the meal with a Warm Valrhona Chocolate Lava Cake sitting under pistachio ice cream and brandied cherries.
What’s your favorite sustainable SoCal eatery? Please share in the comments below.
Top Photo courtesy of Karl Allgaeuer via Shutterstock