A Gourmet Journey Through California
13 January 2022
There are times in the life of a Destination Manager for a luxury travel company when one feels the need to defend oneself. All too often your partner, your oldest friends, even your fiercest foes will exclaim how lucky you are to have a job that means you are on vacation nearly all the time. “IT IS NOT A HOLIDAY!” We will proclaim with ever increasing ferocity. And it’s true. Most of the time the trips we take are genuinely hard work, with a punishing schedule that invariably leaves you needing a real vacation to recover afterwards. Sometimes however, I have no choice but to hold my hands up and admit that there are a lot worse ways to make a living. Our recent trip to California in December 2021 provided a number of these moments. Most of which involved eating.
Perhaps unfairly, the US has long been associated with the type of cuisine that caters for an undiscerning palate, but this opinion risks overlooking the country’s incredible gourmet scene. With California’s mix of fresh off the boat seafood and mouth-watering farm to table produce, it is firmly on the map as one of the world’s premier food destinations.
San Francisco, where we started our journey, is a food lover’s paradise. It may be small by city standards, but it is a mighty melting pot of cultures, rich in international flavors and full of hidden local gems. Eating opportunities are endless, but we followed a local recommendation and tucked into a sumptuous feast at the R & G Lounge, a popular eatery in Chinatown, famed for its signature deep-fried crab.
Another important stop on the culinary trail is the transformed Ferry Building, located in the financial district. Once the tallest structure in the city and the hub for all travel in and out of the Bay Area, the Ferry Building lost its importance after the dawn of the automobile and the opening of the Golden Gate and Bay bridges in the late 1930’s. But in 2003, after years of neglect, it was re-opened to the public and is now home to a variety of different purveyors of artisanal fare.
Insider tip: we recommend using a guide here to lead you to the best bites, while also getting some context on the history of the region and an introduction to the products which range from the finest bread and cheese I have ever tasted, to some of the most unusual ice cream flavors I have encountered, with plenty of chocolate, dim sum and tea thrown in for good measure.
Leaving San Francisco behind, foodies should not miss Tomales Bay, reached with a 90-minute hop north on the highway or via a longer, far more scenic drive, hugging the winding northern Californian coastline. Even as someone who has always found oysters a mildly squeamish snack, I discovered those served here to be delicious and oh so moreish.
From here, heading east takes you to Healdsburg, one of the main towns of Sonoma County. Sonoma is far bigger, perhaps more beautiful and certainly less developed than its more famous neighbor, the Napa Valley. Its reputation is growing fast however, with its range of Pinot wines already world beating and in the Montage Healdsburg and the Farmhouse Inn, it has two hotel restaurants serving food that is so good, I am not able to adequately describe it with pre-existing words from any known language.
We concluded the culinary focus of our tour by crossing into Napa. While it is wine that grabs the headlines here, it is more than fair to say that the standard of the food is just as noteworthy. It can’t be “normal” for someone to have steak for lunch and dinner 3 days in a row, but so good was it here that I could not entirely fault one of my colleagues for doing so. However, with other Instagramable delicacies like my unbelievable lobster gnocchi at the Solage Resort and Spa and an intriguing dish featuring a roast chicken served on top of some Belgian waffles at the Carneros Resort & Spa, I felt fully justified by my more varied approach.
The group had, by the time we left Napa, leaned into our over-indulgence by making use of the more elasticated clothing in our bags. Indeed, undertaking a daily itinerary of eating a top quality three course meal every 2 or 3 hours was soon second nature. Our new bellies were a small price to pay for what was an extraordinary and memorable journey through a genuine gourmet wonderland. Besides we were “on vacation” after all…