17 Restaurants Worthy Of A Day Trip Outside LA
From Santa Barbara to San Diego to Palm Springs, these are some of our favorite places to eat within a few hours drive.
From Santa Barbara to Big Bear to the little one-horse towns in the high desert, LA has no shortage of places to escape on the weekends. But more often than not, we don’t get our sh*t together in time to pull off an entire weekend away. And now, it’s Saturday morning and the only activity in sight is doing your laundry. But wait, there’s hope—get into your car and drive to one of these 17 restaurants instead. This list includes a French bistro in wine country, an 80-year-old saloon in Joshua Tree, and fancy date spots in La Jolla—all within a few hours of LA. You can fold that underwear when you get back.
Los Alamos is a tiny town in Santa Barbara wine country. It’s not as famous as its neighbors Buellton and Los Olivos, which is exactly why we love it so much. It’s quiet, relaxing, and full of exciting restaurants that aren’t overrun by screaming wine tourists. If you only have time for one meal here, go straight to Bell’s. Inside an old post office, this casual French bistro is the kind of place you eat at once and walk out wondering if you should give up your city life and move here. Come dinnertime, their $90 four-course prix-fixe features dishes like a sea urchin mille crepe, halibut tartare, and 5 oz. steak au poivre and is one of the best fine dining deals in California.
Reservations at this American-inspired bistro book out weeks in advance—even during the low season—and if you think driving out midweek will help your chances, it won’t. Here’s the good news: the bar area is walk-in only and that’s where you’ll want to sit anyway. The entire menu is offered here (get the slightly sweet pork chop, it’ll ruin all other versions you’ve eaten), plus you can chat up the bartenders about all the original art on the walls while they pour you a smokey Old Fashioned. Bar Cecil is one of those places that’s sexy and chic without feeling like “sexy and chic” is the theme—it just naturally is. If you’re looking for date night in the desert, Bar Cecil is where you go.
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photo credit: Andrea D'Agosoto
Taco Maria, one of the most acclaimed modern Mexican restaurants in Southern California, recently dropped their tasting menu format, but eating there still feels like a very special experience. Their updated menu has a lot of compelling options, like blue cornbread with huitlacoche butter, a lamb tongue tlayuda, and probably our favorite caesar salad in existence. Its location inside an upscale shopping plaza is a tad generic, but it never takes away from the inventive food coming out of the kitchen. And besides, who’s really complaining about watching a dancing fountain all night?
You could spend an entire month trying every pho spot in Orange County’s Little Saigon—and most of them would be pretty damn delicious. But if you only have time for one, go to Pho 79. The landmark Vietnamese restaurant in Garden Grove, open since 1982, is one of the most well-known spots in the OC, and there’s an hour-long wait almost every day to prove it. But frankly, we’d wait two hours for pho this good. You can add a variety of different meats to the soup (the oxtail is their signature), but here, it boils down to the broth. Oxtails are simmered for 12 hours and infused with star anise and other fragrant spices. It’s rich, cinnamon-y, and deeper in flavor than any other pho you’ll find in Southern California. Cash only.
Bar Le Côte
Seafood-focused spot Bar Le Côte, the second restaurant from the crew behind Bell's, was one of the most highly anticipated restaurants to open in the Santa Ynez Valley, probably ever. Fortunately, BLC delivers on the hype. You’ll eat dishes like scallop crudo with pickled black pearl mushrooms and vegetarian paella, sip local orange wine, and Google whether there are any houses available within walking distance. Bar Le Côte is an ideal dinner spot after a dreamy day of wine tasting, but if you can’t score a reservation, pop in during lunch service when there’s usually an open table.
Even by Joshua Tree standards, La Copine is in the middle of nowhere. However, this daytime cafe (open 11am-4pm) serves our favorite food in the high desert and is worth the two-hour drive into no man’s land. The constantly-changing menu is on the smaller side, but with options like artichoke toast, rockfish ceviche, and a lamb burger, everyone in your group is going to find something they love. The bright, open space is an ideal hangout spot after you’ve immersed yourself in The Integratron sound bath in nearby Landers.
The Jolly Oyster
If slurping oysters in the sand is your idea of an adventurous weekend, look for the Jolly Oyster Shuck Shack trucks that park at San Buenaventura State Beach Park in Ventura on Saturdays and Sundays. The locally-owned oyster farm raises its own Kumamotos in Baja California and hauls them north, selling them to daytrippers who set up BYOB picnics on the beach. Grab an oyster knife (they sell them on the truck) if you want to shuck them yourself, or just order some oysters on the half shell with cucumber mignonette from the truck, which also serves prepared dishes like fried oysters tacos, steamed clams, bay scallop ceviche, and sea urchin tostadas.
Little Dom's Seafood
From the moment you find a seat on Little Dom’s sidewalk patio and catch the sun setting over Carpinteria’s quirky downtown, you’re immediately set at ease. Sure, you might be driving back to LA soon, but tonight, you’re a local and the biggest worry you have is where to hang your new windsock. If you’re familiar with Little Dom’s (and the original Dominick’s before that, RIP), you’ll spot old favorites like the arancini and meatballs, but we recommend skipping the dishes you can get in Los Feliz. Instead, focus on the things you can only get here: live uni and oysters from the raw bar, squid ink agnolotti, and cold smoked salmon with seeded flatbread. You’re sitting three blocks from the ocean after all—lean into it.
Cold Spring Tavern
Set in the Santa Ynez Mountains just above Santa Barbara, Cold Springs Tavern is an old cabin and former stagecoach stop that dates back to 1886. But the crowds don’t drive up here just because it's a living museum. Cold Springs also serves some of the best tri-tip on the Central Coast: thick juicy slices of medium-rare beef grilled over oak and seasoned with garlic and spices. During the week make a reservation for a full meal inside the restaurant, or show up on weekends for the big outdoor barbecue where families load up on tri-tip sandwiches slathered in barbecue sauce or house salsa while drinking beer, picnicking in the gardens, and enjoying whatever live bands happens to show up.
When it comes to Texas-style barbecue in California, it doesn’t get more serious than Heritage Barbecue in San Juan Capistrano. There are two massive, custom-built smokers right outside the restaurant and you’ll usually see a line of ‘cue devotees lined up behind them any day of the week (thankfully the lines move fast). Smoky, exceptionally tender brisket is the star here, but the housemade jalapeño cheddar sausages, pulled pork, and sides like loaded potato salad and creamed corn esquites deserve some shine, too. There’s a large shady patio on site where you can linger over your meal with some beers. If not, just take your food to-go: Heritage runs an impressively efficient drive-up preorder system through their website.
Why would I drive all the way to San Diego for pastries, you might ask? Yes, LA is filled with amazing bakeries. But you will regret driving home with just one dozen pastries from Wayfarer in La Jolla instead of two. This tiny surfboard-shaped bakery from a chef who used to bake at Tartine scrawls its daily offerings on a paper menu—buttery croissants, fruit-filled tarts, sourdough bread, cookies, and a few artfully constructed sandwiches filled with mortadella or avocado and sprouts. All of it is exceptional. And if you stick around for pizza night, get whatever vegetarian pie is on special.
Addison is a very high-end tasting menu spot at a fancy resort in Del Mar, just north of San Diego. It costs $355 per person and there’s a good chance you will eat a part of your several-hour-long meal gazing out over a golf course fairway. These qualities might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but if there is the best version of dining inside what feels like the private mansion of a Spanish land baron, Addison pulls it off. Dishes like king crab with passion fruit foam and wagyu with braised maitake mushrooms—the kind of hoity-toity food they poke fun at in movies—look gorgeous and taste luxurious. If you’re open to shelling out for a spa day and round of golf in Torrey Pines, splurging at Addison is an equally worthwhile expense.
photo credit: Jakob Layman
Located in downtown Santa Barbara, Bibi Ji is on a stretch of State Street that’s better known for Billabong discount stores than destination restaurants. But once the food inside this casual Indian restaurant starts hitting the table, it becomes abundantly clear why you spent two hours on the 101 to get here—this is some of the most exciting Indian food you’ll find on the Central Coast. We’d make a trip just for the uni with biryani rice, but as long as you’re here, you should order the grilled lamb chops dusted with turmeric and cumin, curry made with local halibut, and the tangy passion fruit lassi. There’s also an excellent natural wine list.
photo credit: Jakob Layman
Nick's Laguna Beach
Nick’s is the crown jewel of Laguna Beach—the ultimate crowd-pleaser where you take your picky visiting relatives who just want to get out of LA for a day and can't decide on a place they all want to eat. You'll encounter ridiculous wait times and zero reservation availability (unless you book weeks in advance), but you will also find the greatest prime rib sandwich of all time. Go for a post-beach lunch or drinks and snacks at the bar.
Pappy and Harriet's
To call Pappy & Harriet’s a mere restaurant would be selling the place short. It’s an iconic saloon/outdoor music venue with history dating back to the 1940s when the original building (and the surrounding Pioneertown) were constructed as a Wild West-era frontier set for Hollywood films. Needless to say, we wish these walls could talk. This place is more of a nightlife destination than a dining one, but that said, it's popular for a reason: they’re open all day on weekends and crowds show up early to eat BBQ, dance to live music, and take in all the insane glory emitting from this high desert landmark.
The Donut Man
Do you really need to drive an hour just to eat a donut? If that donut is coming from Donut Man, the answer is yes. Located on Route 66 in the eastern SGV suburb of Glendora, The Donut Man has been around since the ‘70s and is a flat-out classic. While they have a menu of all sorts of very good donuts, you’re here for the famous strawberry-stuffed ones. They’re basically puffy donut pitas filled with fresh, sugar-glazed strawberries and they ruin every other donut in existence. For a few weeks in late summer, you might see peach-filled donuts instead. Don’t worry, they’re somehow even better.
You’ll find no shortage of tourist-clogged restaurants in Santa Barbara and La Super-Rica is one of them. Thanks to Julia Child proclaiming this order-at-the-counter Mexican spot as her favorite restaurant in America, you can come here almost every day of the week and find lines around the block. The good news is that the hype is real—the food here is worth the wait. It’s hard to go wrong with any of their tacos or chicken suizas, but if you don’t order the Super-Rica Especial (basically a giant plate of chilies, cheese, and marinated pork), don’t bother coming.