Weekend Planner

The 7 Best Foodie Trips Around Northern California

By Virginia Miller  |  August 4, 2014
Credit: Virginia Miller

There's no end to incredible quick trips around the Bay Area. Whether you head north, south or east, there are enchanting towns, lush farmlands, vineyards and craggy cliffs. We've singled out our seven favorite getaways and all of them are three hours or less from San Francisco. Read on for the details, complete with recommendations on what to eat and do in each place. 

  • Credit: Facebook/Torc

    Downtown Napa

    Napa needs no introduction as one of the country's top travel destinations. And Downtown Napa is its more bustling center of notable restaurants and locals' eateries. It's walkable and relatively lively at night.

    What to Eat & Drink: We easily could recommend a list of food and drink greats in Downtown Napa but, given our regular coverage of the area, we'll name two of the newer arrivals. Torc (pictured) took over the address formerly inhabited by Ubuntu at the end of 2013 and Sean O'Toole's (CotognaQuince) Southern-influenced dishes, like dreamy shrimp and grits, are alone worth the trip. Punctuate the night with wine and beer at the new CADET wine + beer bar, where owners Colleen Fleming (Kelly Fleming Wines) and Aubrey Bailey (French Laundry) pour over 150 rotating offerings. It's already an industry hangout. Just look for the neon CADET sign down a Downtown alley.

    While You Are There: Go kayaking along the Napa River then catch a concert at City Winery Napa.

    Transportation Time: Roughly a one-hour (45-mile)  drive from San Francisco (highly dependent on traffic)

  • Credit: Facebook/The Curly Wolf

    Nevada City

    Imagine if the Wild West collided with a European village. There might be winding, narrow streets in a walkable town, pine trees, Old West saloons, wooden sidewalks and historic homes. Not far from Lake Tahoe, in the foothills of the Sierra Mountains, is Nevada City, a funky, artsy town that feels like Europe collided with California's Gold Country with a little bit of New Orleans party spirit under the surface. Visit the town during Day of the Dead or Halloween and you'll really see what we're talking about. 

    What to Eat & Drink: About two miles out of downtown Nevada City, don't miss roadhouse extraordinaire The Willo. Equal parts festive, locals' bar and old-school steakhouse, the joint beckons with a neon sign glowing through the pines, a parking lot oft-lined with classic cars and waitresses that call you "hon." Sitting under Elvis, John Wayne and scripture-verse clocks, enjoy thick cuts of NY steak that either you or their staff member cook on a giant grill. Back in town, the quirky dive bar of choice is Mine Shaft Saloon (since 1978). You can also savor gourmet ice cream at Treats or try third-wave coffee at elegant Victorian-Old West parlor The Curly Wolf.

    While You Are There: Akin to the great musical cities of the South, Nevada City has a vibrant music scene, despite its small size. There are a number of live-music options, but the coolest shows are at the historic Miner's Foundry. In the fall, the region is famed for its radiant fall colors and even offers walking maps through the town showing off maximum color. We know New Englanders who swear by the fall here.

    Transportation Time: Roughly a two-and-a-half-hour (140-mile) drive from San Francisco

  • Credit: Facebook/Aubergine


    This boho-chic beachside town remains a timeless and idyllic weekend retreat. Ritzy yet laid-back, conveniently walkable Carmel leads to the sea, adding intrigue as the stunning backdrop to fairy-tale cottages that dominate the architecture of the legendary coastal town.

    What to Eat & Drink: L'Auberge Carmel is a small boutique destination, featuring just over 20 rooms surrounding a peaceful brick courtyard where you can linger over breakfast or an early evening apéritif. The hotel is set in a historic building that recalls Carmel's bohemian roots mixed with modern luxury. Best of all, the inn houses Carmel's best upscale restaurant, Aubergine, where Chef Justin Cogley crafts a 12-course tasting menu ($145 per person, wine pairings $45-$175), listing only the main ingredient, served to only 12 tables in the intimate space with wine pairings from more than 4,500 bottles in the underground cellar.

    While You Are There: A walk on the beach is crucial — better yet, a sunset stroll. Carmel's Wine Walk By-The-Sea is a 12-stop passport that can be stamped over many visits to taste at 12 wine tasting rooms within walking distance of each other in the town of Carmel, pouring wines from nearby wineries.

    Transportation Time: Roughly a two-hour (120-mile) drive from San Francisco

  • Credit: Virginia Miller


    Drive north up Highway 1 along the Sonoma Coast to Jenner for a wine-rich town that feels worlds away from the typical tourist-filled Napa and Sonoma hot spots. The drive takes in rocky coasts, dramatic waves, rolling green hills, farmland and vineyards. Be ready to be enveloped by waves, moonlight, sunrise and birds cruising the coastline. The closest ATM machine is 30 minutes away. 

    What to Eat & Drink: Stay at the 51-year-old Timber Cove Inn for an oceanside retreat complete with fire pits, walking paths along the coast, vibrant ocean views and Alexander's, where dinners yield a number of pleasures like Dungeness crab and grapefruit, elevated eggplant Parmesan and picture-perfect sunsets. For breakfast, head down the road to Cafe Aquatica where you can dig into eggs on addictive housemade foccacia bread while sitting right on the water.

    While You Are There: Beach walks and hikes through Salt Point State Park, climbing out on rocky coastline to watch the waves — these are the activity highlights of this remote stretch of coast. There are also numerous wineries to visit in a region that continues to grow in popularity in the wine world, like nearby Flowers Vineyard, which put the area on the map with its delicate Chardonnay.

    Transportation Time: Roughly an hour-and-45-minute (75-mile) drive from San Francisco

  • Credit: Virginia Miller

    Port Costa

    If Savannah met a dash of New Orleans in California's Old West Gold Country, it might feel a bit like Port Costa. At the end of a long, winding road along the Carquinez Straight awaits quirky, charming Port Costa, a lesser-known town with stellar food, cocktails and an unforgettable dive bar. The town of barely 200 feels hundreds of miles from the city, though it's merely a 45-minute drive away.

    What to Eat & Drink: Set in a gorgeous Victorian-saloonlike setting, Bull Valley Roadhouse is equal parts big city-quality dinner spot (Thursday-Sunday), weekend brunch haunt and classic cocktail destination. And there's an inviting back patio, to boot. Stay next door at the quirky, historic — and, some say, charmingly haunted — Burlington Hotel, from the same owners, Earl Flewellen and Samuel Spurrier. Executive chef and co-owner David Williams (formerly of Slanted Door) and chef de cuisine Matt Brown preside over most of the food. But Flewellen runs breakfast, served Saturday and Sunday from 9 AM-2 PM at Burlington Hotel cafe. The aroma of bacon and pour-over coffee, made to order, drifts through the hotel, while locals and visitors stream in all day for fluffy pound cake, dense cornbread, biscuits, fresh-squeezed orange juice and fatty-good bacon.

    While You Are There: Skip rocks along the train tracks running the Straight, then catch live music some Sunday afternoons at one of the best dive bars in the US — yes, anywhere: The Warehouse Café, lined with mismatched antiques, animal heads, dusty Marilyn Monroe paintings and a giant polar bear — stuffed decades ago by an intrepid hunter — that towers over you as you play pool.

    Transportation Time: Roughly 45-minute (30-mile) drive from San Francisco

  • Credit: Virginia Miller


    It's less than an hour away, but a weekend or day in Saratoga feels far removed. This idyllic Northern California town, with its laid-back main street, is nestled at the edge of the Santa Cruz Mountains, amid oak and redwood trees, gorgeous estates, expansive vineyards and rolling hills.

    What to Eat & Drink: At Plumed Horse, the wine pairings are flawless, as is the kitchen's Parmesan soufflé doused in lush uni and Dungeness crab fondue. Sent Sovi Lounge is another charmer. Here, you can get a $35 four-course "Fauxlonial" meal, including brilliant stir-fried rack of lamb tossed with spring onions, peas, asparagus and porcini mushrooms. 

    While You Are There: Head to the family-run, scenic Garrod Farms/Cooper-Garrod Vineyards (pictured), where you can hop on a horse and take a leisurely ride through stunning vineyards and farmland in the valley of the Santa Cruz Mountains, followed by wine tasting. See a show in one of the most magical, historic concert venues in the country, Mountain Winery, or stroll through some of the most inspiring Japanese gardens in the country at Hakone Estate and Gardens, the filming site for scenes from movies like Memoirs of a Geisha. For more on Saratoga, see this guide

    Transportation Time: Roughly a 50-minute (50-mile) drive from San Francisco

  • Credit: Shed


    If you want a truly elegant escape in wine country, look no further than Madrona Manor, set in a Victorian house surrounded by oaks, palm trees and vineyard-filled valleys and mountains. An overnight here is restorative, and the restaurant downstairs is one of the best in all of Sonoma County. For a bit more of an adventure, stay on the square and eat, drink and play the day away.

    What to Eat & Drink: At Madrona, start downstairs by the fireplace if it's cool, on the verandah if it's warm — either way you'll have one of Pam Bushling's gorgeous, garden-fresh cocktails in hand. Then splurge on talented chef Jesse Mallgren's "Grande Dame" tasting menu ($155 per person, including gratuity), detailed here. If you're staying near the square, grab fire-licked pizza at Pizzando or a lively Spanish-themed meal, complete with spot-on sherry cocktails, at Bravas Bar de Tapas. See our Ultimate Guide to Healdsbug for more suggestions (see Healdsburg SHED, pictured). 

    While You Are There: Lounge in the pool, wander Madrona's gardens or drive down Westside Road to visit any number of excellent wineries, including Thomas George for its quality Pinot and wonderfully humble Porter Creek Winery, with quality Pinot and a lovely rosé.

    Transportation Time: Roughly one-and-a-half-hour (70-mile) drive from San Francisco