Hottest New Monterey County Restaurants

By Carolyn Alburger  |  September 2, 2014

Monterey County is having a culinary moment. Yes, the land best-known for Clint Eastwood's mayoral stint and Big Sur's hair-raising cliffs is now a hotbed of up-and-coming chefs and restaurateurs. While we love the old-guard restaurants, including Casanova in Carmel and Nepenthe in Big Sur, here are eight new Monterey County restaurants to hit up on your next trip to the area. We've even added suggested dishes and nearby hotels. Note: if you want to try a restaurant so new we couldn't yet vet it for this list, Affina Carmel is your place. 

  • La Balena

    This adorable Carmel-by-the-sea Italian restaurant comes from Florence, Italy, native Emanuele Bartolini, his wife and consummate host Anna Bartolini and chef Brad Briske, who brings his locally honed kitchen chops to the salumi, desserts and everything in between. Sidle up to the reclaimed wood tables, dig into Briske's free-form porcini lasagnette and watch regulars give bear hugs to the owners on the way out. You'll want to do the same. 

    Order this: Lasagnette ai porcini, housemade sausage, crema Catalana 
    Where to stay: La Playa Carmel

  • Lokal

    If you're looking for avant-garde, technique-driven fare in Carmel Valley, Lokal marks the spot. Here, Mugaritz vet Brendan Jones takes liberties with American classics. Dishes like Burnt Caesar Salads, sous vide Wagyu steaks and fish 'n' chips made with sea bass and Brussels sprout chips come out of the kitchen as they're ready (no courses!). Diners huddle into yellow-clothed tables amid chalkboard walls and white rafters overhead. 

    Order this: Beet salad, Fat Albert Slider with pork belly and negro chile sour cream on a steamed bun, Valrhona chocolate gelato with sea salt
    Where to stay: Bernardus Lodge

  • Alvarado Street Brewery

    This red-hot and state-of-the-art craft gastropub sits in a former movie theater, filling a new niche for the town of Monterey. Owner and head brewer J.C. Hill bolts around the cavernous wood-toned dining room, rattling off the details of his six very balanced beers. Don't overlook the kitchen, where chef Aaron Has weaves beer into the food. Think pizza dough made with beer grains and a salad made with ale-infused watermelon.

    Order this: Tasting flight with the lambic, both versions of the Duane's World IPA and Das Pilsner; beer melon salad, duck ham pizza and the burger
    Where to stay: Casa Munras

  • Jeninni Kitchen + Wine Bar

    This new Southern Mediterranean spot is alone worth the trip to Pacific Grove. The Palestinian heritage of owner-sommelier Thamin Saleh meets chef Jeffrey Weiss' passion for the food of Southern Spain in a menu of small plates with massive appeal. Start the night with a sherry cocktail from the bar and descend into the rosy glow of the downstairs dining room. 

    Order this: Cauliflower with Benton's bacon, crispy octopus, meatballs, goat flan
    Where to stay: Andril Cottages

  • Big Sur Roadhouse

    Tucked into the forest, the "homegrown modernism" of Steve Justrich’s decor is the first thing to grab diners at Big Sur Roadhouse. Then there's the charming staff. But the soulful New Orleans cuisine, cleanly rendered by chef Matt Glazer, is what keeps them coming back for more. Buttery biscuits pervade the breakfast, lunch and dinner menus. Don't miss them. 

    Order this: Gumbo, pork shoulder with collard greens, coconut upside down cake
    Where to stay: The cabins at Glen Oaks are without parallel

  • Lucky's Roadside

    While driving through the county, the most fortunate diners get hungry in Seaside, where Lucky's Roadside awaits. This family-run, diner-style restaurant offers great tap beers and a decor that's as quirky and warm as the service. The Italian heritage of the owners and the Chinese leanings of the new chef combine in a menu of cross-cultural favorites. Everything is made and served with the utmost care. 

    Order this: Fried artichokes, Sichuan green beans, bacon-wrapped meatloaf, fried chicken 
    Where to stay: Sanctuary Beach Resort

  • Crema

    If you're in Pacific Grove at breakfast time, be sure to pop into this Victorian home-turned-cafe, where you can wash down a killer breakfast burrito with piping-hot cups of Verve coffee. Owner and baker Tamie Aceves makes a mean morning glory muffin too. And if you're in the market for lunch, check out the croque monsieur made by new chef Meredith Marin, who has cooked with Susan Spicer in New Orleans. 

    Order this: Lemon bar, breakfast burrito, soup, lunch special of the day
    Where to stay: Lover's Point

  • The Restaurant at Ventana

    In March, this Big Sur heavyweight hired Paul Corsintino straight from Geoffrey Zakarian's The National in New York. So now there's a stunning menu to match the restaurant's $20 million ​remodel. Diners dig into a $75 five-course fixed-price meal that feels like a steal.

    Order this: Tomato and pistachio butter salad, stuffed squash blossoms, steak with figs, baked Alaska
    Where to stay: Ventana Inn