Many of the restaurants on California's Monterey Peninsula are aimed at out-of-towners. Lovely views of the sunset on Monterey Bay are supposed to compensate for overpriced, mediocre food, all too often served in faux seafaring surroundings. The best spots, not surprisingly, are more inconspicuous, beyond the bustle.
Visitors make the mistake of heading to Fisherman's Wharf in Monterey, but a far better place for fresh seafood is unassuming Monterey's Fish House, on a busy road near the eastern edge of town. From spring through late fall, local salmon (around $15) is likely to be on the menu. Huge, tender prawns, straight out of the Bay, are a delicious splurge--order them grilled ($29). Most fish comes grilled, blackened, pan-fried, or sautéed with butter, lemon, and capers. And all the wines on the restaurant's list are available by the glass, a rarity. Opt for one of the Monterey char-donnays, like Bernardus, Morgan, or Chalone.
If you simply can't give up looking out at the Bay, funky Loulou's Griddle in the Middle on Municipal Wharf No. 2 serves a mean breakfast and lunch. At breakfast, the banana griddle cakes arrive perfectly fluffy ($5.50). Egg dishes, from simple omelets to scrambled eggs with squid, come with home fries sprinkled with tomato, caramelized onion, basil, and Parmesan. A huge cup of clam chowder is thick without being gloppy, and filling enough to make a light lunch ($4). The local sand dabs--a type of flounder--are tender and delicate ($10). They're served in a sandwich, but it turns soppy too quickly. Getting them on a plate with crispy fries is a better way to go.
You'd hardly expect to find a French bistro among the supermarkets and gas stations of Highway 68 in Pacific Grove, Monterey's neighbor to the west. But Fifi's Café Bistro is a little slice of Paris at a reasonable price; nothing tops $20. The homey coq au vin--two chicken leg quarters with carrots, onions, mushrooms, and potatoes in a rich wine sauce--is a frequent special ($15). And the steaming bowl of mussels could just as easily be found at a Parisian café ($7.50 as an appetizer and $15.75 as an entrée with French fries).
The Monterey Peninsula has plenty of Mexican restaurants, but one of the best is Zócalo, with locations in Pacific Grove and downtown Monterey. Meals start with warm chips and two salsas, one version made with roasted tomatoes, the other with tomatillos. Pozole--a pork and hominy stew more often found in Mexican homes than in restaurants--is dense and flavorful, and accompanied by Zócalo's handmade flour or corn tortillas ($7.75). Those tortillas also wrap succulent grilled fresh snapper in the fish tacos ($9.75). Chile rellenos are juicy and coated in a light egg batter ($7 at lunch, $10.50 at dinner).
Copies of The Surfer's Journal by the door and surfing snapshots by the register are clues that the old-fashioned Little Swiss Café in Carmel is popular with dudes looking to fuel up before hitting the beach. The soft cheese blintzes are a specialty ($6.50). And the eggs Benedict are the best around ($10). If only the coffee were as rich as the Hollandaise sauce.
A playful mural--it's said to depict the Dutch countryside in four seasons, but it somehow includes the Eiffel Tower and the Leaning Tower of Pisa--spans three of the walls and provides silly eye candy.
A fun alternative to Carmel's haute dining is a picnic on the beach. Stock up on provisions at The Cheese Shop on the lower level of the Carmel Plaza Shopping Center, next door to Chico's. Owner Kent Torrey is generous with the samples. The shop carries about 300 varieties from nearly 20 countries. (Nothing local, though--Monterey Jack was popularized in the area in the 1880s, but golf courses replaced pasture land, and the best Jack cheese now comes from Sonoma.) There's also bread from the Palermo Bakery in nearby Seaside, and an impressive selection of international wines. Two local standouts: the 2003 Kali Hart char-donnay ($13) from Talbott Vineyards, and the pinot noir from the Krutz Family Cellars ($25). Carmel Beach is just down the hill. Lay down a blanket, and take in the most authentic seascape around.