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Mr. Harper's Travel Guide

There are few more delightful areas than Napa and Sonoma Wine Country, with its quaint towns, fine restaurants, stylish shops and landscape covered by a quilt of manicured vineyards. The Napa Valley forms a graceful crescent, its wide, fertile plain flanked by verdant mountains. This ...

There are few more delightful areas than Napa and Sonoma Wine Country, with its quaint towns, fine restaurants, stylish shops and landscape covered by a quilt of manicured vineyards. The Napa Valley forms a graceful crescent, its wide, fertile plain flanked by verdant mountains. This is where one will find iconic names such as Robert Mondavi, Shafer, Schramsberg, Stag's Leap, Caymus and many more. Sonoma County comprises four wine-producing areas: the Alexander and Dry Creek valleys to the north; the Russian River Valley to the west; and the Sonoma Valley to the south. 

Less than two hours from a pristine Pacific coast, hundreds of powdery Sierra slopes, a primeval grove of redwoods or one of the most acclaimed wine regions in the world, Northern California is a very special place. When Tuscany and the Amalfi Coast aren't within immediate reach, a few days in a Healdsburg vineyard followed by a lazy drive down the Pacific Coast Highway make for a more than adequate substitute.

To say that Southern California is a vast desert remade into an elaborate amusement park is only partly accurate. The region that sprawls from the Tehachapi Mountains north of Los Angeles to the Mexican border was, not more than a century ago, still largely filled with sage and chaparral; now it's covered with the world's busiest freeway system, golf courses and front lawns greened by out-of-state water supplies, and subdivisions and shopping malls stretching as far as the eye can see (not too far, on smog-addled Los Angeles summer days). And yet, they keep coming. From 1950 to 2000, the population in the area nearly doubled -- and the 186-mile stretch of coastline from Santa Barbara to San Diego has been developed into a nearly unbroken megalopolis inhabited by a staggeringly diverse population of 15 million.

Tourists continue to flock here, too, and for good reason. Southern California's beaches live up to their glowing Hollywood image. The financial strength and cosmopolitan charms of Los Angeles are in the world's top tier, and the very first Disneyland retains its hold on the global imagination. Southern California's climate is unbeatable; the car-friendly landscape allows motorists to range far and wide; and there's something about the shorts-and-suntan lifestyle that really works.

bird icon Recommended Luxury Hotels in California

All Andrew Harper-recommended hotels offer impeccable accommodations and high levels of personal service. Only the best of the best make our list, so we rate them on a scale from bird icon 90 to 100.

Best Restaurants in California

Set in the middle of downtown Los Angeles, Jar has the retro feel of an old supper club, with wood-paneled walls hung with portraits. Suzanne Tracht has reached back into the national recipe book to present new takes on classic favorites. Among the appetizers, do not pass on the deviled eggs with crab meat, or the fried Ipswich clams with cocktail sauce and roasted garlic tartar sauce. Then there are the meats: the 14-ounce prime rib eye and Jar’s justly famous pot roast with carrots and caramelized onions. Closed Monday.

8225 Beverly Boulevard Los Angeles $70

Chef Corey Lee, who worked for many years at The French Laundry, here oversees a menu that skillfully combines contemporary American, Continental and Japanese cuisines. The spare interior of white walls, gray banquettes and black tables reflects the minimalist style of the food. Look for varied dishes such as oysters with pork belly and kimchi; caviar, winter melon and chicken cream; white sea trout with roe, radish and perilla; sea urchin, okra and nori; whole baby sea bream, iceberg lettuce, black trumpet mushroom and aged tangerine peel; and beef rib, eggplant, broccoli, ramps and charred scallions. The exceptional wine list has 19 by-the-glass selections, as well as six sakes. The recommended wine pairings are spot-on. Closed Sunday and Monday.

22 Hawthorne Street San Francisco Multicourse tasting menu, $270

This rustic stone building just off St. Helena’s main street is the venue for some of the finest meals I’ve had in the Wine Country. Chef Hiro Sone, who works with his wife, Lissa Doumani, has opened Bar Terra for light meals and drinks, while keeping a vibrant full menu in the restaurant. The food embodies a skillful take on California cuisine with Asian accents. The menus change regularly, but look for dishes such as broiled sake-marinated Alaskan black cod with shrimp dumplings in a shiso broth, and soy-braised beef short rib with fried gnocchi, asparagus and watercress. The wine list is full of interesting bottles, and the staff is very knowledgeable. Closed Tuesday and Wednesday.

1345 Railroad Avenue St. Helena Four-course menu, $85; five courses, $105; six courses, $120

Focusing on authentic bistro cuisine, this charming establishment also features one of the best wine stores in the village. Classics such as lobster bisque, duck confit and veal tenderloin are served with sunny California attitudes. A chef’s table is available.

Mission Street between Ocean and Seventh avenues Carmel

At this renowned restaurant, chef/owner Charles Phan produces Vietnamese food using fresh Bay Area ingredients. Located at the northeast corner of the Ferry Building, it is invariably crowded and often noisy. However, a wall of windows looking out to the water makes this a bright spot during the day and provides a wonderful view of the glittering harbor at night. Begin with the signature spring rolls: pork, shrimp and mint wrapped in translucent rice paper. For a main course, try the caramelized wild Gulf shrimp with ginger and garlic in a slightly hot chili sauce. 

1 Ferry Building #3 San Francisco $55

This cheery local institution, once owned by Carmel’s most famous resident/mayor, actor/director Clint Eastwood, features plenty of hearty gastropub fare, an extensive beer selection and sun-splashed patio dining. Note the homage to its former proprietor in the barroom.

San Carlos Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues Carmel

Ensconced in a charming little house within easy walking distance of the MacCallum House, Café Beaujolais has long been noted for its locavore sensibilities. I began with local Dungeness crab cakes, accompanied by a zesty Asian slaw and crispy noodles in a scallion vinaigrette. My main course was an utterly memorable pan-roasted California sturgeon fillet with house-made tagliatelle, wild mushrooms, beets and snap peas. Do not miss dinner here; the cooking is exceptional.

961 Ukiah Street Mendocino, California

This inviting seafood house features warm wood accents, leather banquettes and a colorful mural. Appetizers might include a terrific selection of oysters and chilled shellfish, as well as dishes such as lump blue crab cake and a rich clam chowder. Among the main courses could be plank-cooked wild Pacific swordfish with spaghetti squash and tapenade; or wild Stikine River ivory king salmon with lemon nage, English peas and heirloom tomatoes. 

544 South Grand Avenue Los Angeles $75

Part of a well-regarded West Coast-based restaurant group, this airy trattoria offers antipasti, wood-fired pizza, house-made pastas and rotisserie roasted meats. There is also a children’s menu for a casual early dinner with the family.

Ocean Avenue at Monte Verde Street Carmel

The dappled patio here draws a fashionable older crowd with upscale comfort food and unfussy presentations. I enjoyed a bowl of creamy and fresh corn chowder, as well as an expertly prepared fillet of parmesan-crusted halibut served atop al dente risotto studded with sweet peas. The three-course “Express Business Lunch” is one of Palm Springs’ better dining values, and you’re guaranteed some excellent people-watching.

701 W Baristo Road Palm Springs, California

Directly across the street from The Willows, this traditional French restaurant is close enough to provide room service from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m. But in good weather, it’s a shame not to take advantage of the restaurant’s serene courtyard, shaded by a canopy of ficus trees. The cuisine lives up to the setting: I loved my garlicky escargots, and tender, perfectly caramelized sweetbreads.

385 W. Tahquitz Canyon Way Palm Springs, California

Chef-owner Cindy Pawlcyn has been known to refer to this wonderful restaurant as a “deluxe truck stop.” I have eaten at Mustards for many years and am including it now because it is favored by so many constituencies: winemakers, farmers, off-duty chefs and, yes, truck drivers. They all come for the delicious food, a lively mix that includes ahi tuna crackers, wasabi crème fraîche and a san bai su sauce; and Dungeness crab cakes with espelette aioli, garden greens and sherry vinaigrette. From the woodburning grill and oven, look for main courses such as the beloved Mongolian pork chop with sweet-and-sour red cabbage and house-made mustard. You will, I’m sure, enjoy browsing the wine list as much as I do. 

7399 St. Helena Highway Yountville $55

Set in part of Cary Grant’s former estate, this restaurant has a romantic patio for alfresco dining. My appetizer of chilled duck breast over lentils and couscous with apples, red pepper and fennel presented an intriguing array of flavors and textures, and the barramundi with crab salad, spinach and spaghetti squash tasted fresh and sweet. The service felt professional but, alas, rather cold. This is a good choice if you can sit on the patio, otherwise, consider dining elsewhere. Closed June-September.

621 N Palm Canyon Drive Palm Springs, California

I have fond memories of a Napa restaurant called Tra Vigne, whose chef, Michael Chiarello, won fans for his delicious takes on Italian cuisine. Chiarello is back in the kitchen at this venture in Yountville. He focuses on Italian regional dishes and relies on carefully sourced ingredients, with pasta, cured meats, fresh cheeses and cured olives all made in-house. Look for starters such as grilled short rib/pine nut meatballs in Sicilian tomato sauce with sweet Italian peppers in agrodolce, fresh ricotta and coal-roasted eggplant; pastas like the veal and pork Bolognese with porcini mushroom sugo, rosemary and Parmigiano Reggiano on tagliarini; and main courses that might include grilled acorn-fed pork shoulder loin with Tuscan beans and grilled stone fruit. 

6525 Washington Street Yountville $70

This beautiful restaurant with its soft lighting and dramatic floral arrangements is ideal for a romantic dinner. But it is about much more than the ambience. Piero Selvaggio is a consummate restaurateur and host, and you’ll not only feel welcome but also enjoy some of the best Italian food in the United States. The three-course menu might begin with superb prosciutto di Parma aged for 24 months with fresh burrata; while the second course could be classic tagliatelle with meat ragu, or the rich risotto made with aquarello carnaroli rice with radicchio di Treviso, buffalo blue cheese and Amarone. The third course might be the classic veal chop Milanese with an arugula and tomato salad. The wine list is beyond encyclopedic. Closed Sunday and Monday.

3115 Pico Boulevard Santa Monica $90

Chef-proprietor Roland Passot sticks fairly closely to the French canon here, with some interesting innovations, so look for starters such as wild mushroom and charred leek salad with truffled egg yolk vinaigrette. Main courses might include lobster and mushroom risotto with leeks and lobster bisque; or rack of lamb with charred serpent cucumber, curried mint yogurt, lamb bacon and lamb jus. Closed Sunday and Monday.

2316 Polk Street San Francisco Three-course menu, $100; four courses, $120; five courses, $140

A handsome room with large windows and generously spaced tables makes a fine venue for the New American-French cooking of chef Josiah Citrin, a hometown wonder who has cooked with stars Wolfgang Puck and Joachim Splichal. The wide-ranging menu could present starters such as a soft-poached egg with lemon crème fraîche and American osetra caviar, or Santa Barbara spot prawn with Hope Ranch black mussels, pea pods, celtuce (Chinese lettuce), sorrel and pea tendril broth. Among the main courses, you might find lobster Bolognese with fresh capellini, basil and brown butter-truffle froth; or the prime beef rib eye cap with braised beef cheek ravioli, beef tongue galette, wild ramps and carrots. Closed Sunday and Monday.

1104 Wilshire Boulevard Santa Monica Four-course tasting menu or five-course vegetarian tasting menu, $145

For a taste of some gleefully over-the-top glitz, you could try this restaurant in the Riviera Hotel in northern Palm Springs. A lounge lined with mirrored walls and glittery sofas leads to a dining room with equally dramatic red-and-black crystal chandeliers. The food could easily be overlooked in such a space, but powerful flavors demand attention. We began with a Peking duck-inspired appetizer served with corn crêpes and a spicy tamarind glaze, followed by a fine seafood stew with Spanish chorizo in a rich tomato-fennel broth.

1600 N Indian Canyon Drive Palm Springs, California

After an extensive renovation a few years ago, this inviting 30-year-old restaurant continues to gather plaudits as one of the finest on the Monterey Peninsula. Dapper proprietor Tony Salameh offers contemporary favorites such as beef brochette, prawns and angel hair, barramundi salad, and Hawaiian tuna tartare. Children’s menu available.

In the Court of Fountains Mission Street between Ocean and Seventh avenues Carmel

This newcomer to Palm Springs has an industrial-chic décor, with large booths flanking a lengthy communal table of polished concrete. Service was inexcusably slow, but the cocktails and food were delicious. I had a bracing Singapore Sling to pair with a plate of tender octopus, cooked sous vide and spiked with smoky paprika. For my main course, savory Texas redfish with delectably crispy skin crowned a bright salad with purple artichoke, slightly bitter radicchio and chewy bulgar.

800 N Palm Canyon Drive Palm Springs, California

Tucked into a charming 19th-century building, this restaurant is home to the sublime cooking of chef Thomas Keller (who also presides over Per Se in New York). Here, Keller and his crew orchestrate two nine-course menus (one vegetarian) that change daily and focus on small, carefully considered dishes meant to intrigue and inspire. No ingredient is repeated in any menu. Offerings have included a sabayon of pearl tapioca with Island Creek oysters and white sturgeon caviar; Columbia River sturgeon with bacon, Savoy cabbage, turnips and Dijon mustard; and Snake River Farms prime beef with porcini mushrooms, carrots, a potato confit and a rich bone-marrow pudding in a sauce Bordelaise. The wine list is astonishing, and the staff is expert at recommending pairings. Reservations are extremely difficult to obtain and are accepted precisely one month to the day in advance. 

6640 Washington Street Yountville Tasting menu, $310 (service included)

The most popular brunch spot in Carmel offers relaxed patio dining and a warm, family-friendly atmosphere. The house specialties are the omelets, the waffles and the eggs Benedict, of which there are a staggering 20 varieties.

Mission Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues Carmel

More than one winemaker recommended this stylish American bistro to us during our stay in Paso Robles. A joint venture of brothers Michael and Chris Kobayashi, the restaurant has a minimalist yet comfortable interior, and excellent contemporary cooking. To start, I tucked into a rich, tasty abalone tostada, served with avocado and pork-belly carnitas. And for my main, I tried the satisfying lamb chop with braised shank, carrots and a feta salsa verde. The wine list offers 26 by-the-glass choices.

843 12th Street Paso Robles, California

Three of the most talented and creative people on the American restaurant scene are behind this wonderful place. Nancy Silverton has made her mark in L.A. with the restaurant Campanile and the landmark La Brea Bakery. Partners Joe Bastianich and chef Mario Batali are the driving forces behind favorite New York restaurants Babbo, Lupa and Del Posto. Here, the trio has created an exceptionally appealing menu with antipasti such as steamed mussels with tomatoes, chilies and herbs; and the mixed appetizer plate that might comprise veal tongue crostini with salsa rustica, mortadella, salame gentile, duck rillettes, prosciutto-wrapped grissini with truffle butter and bacon-wrapped pork and pistachio terrine. Pastas might include the rich tagliatelle with oxtail ragu, or squid-ink pasta with Dungeness crab, sea urchin and jalapeños. Look for hearty main courses such as the porcini-rubbed rib eye, or snapper alla Livornese. 

6602 Melrose Avenue Los Angeles $80

Chef Michael Tusk, who worked in the kitchens of Alice Waters at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, nightly creates three menus: an à la carte salon menu and a multi-course menu from the best of the market. Selections change daily, but look for dishes such as farfalle with summer squash, terra firma tomato and burrata; black cod with wild ramp, Manila clam and bronze fennel; and Watson Farm spring lamb with green garlic, fiddlehead fern and golden marjoram. Closed Sunday.

470 Pacific Avenue San Francisco Salon Menu, $80; Quince Menu, $220

Chef Gary Danko’s taste for the theatrical manifests itself here in striking art and dramatic pin-spot lighting. The setting is a fine showcase for his contemporary California cooking. The menu changes regularly, but starters might include risotto with rock shrimp, Dungeness crab, shimeji mushrooms and peas; or seared ahi tuna with avocado, nori, enoki mushrooms and lemon-soy dressing. Main courses could be branzini with fennel purée, Niçoise olives and a saffron-orange emulsion; or a seared filet of beef with potato gnocchi, olive oil, Swiss chard and Stilton butter. The wine list features more than 1,200 selections. 

800 North Point Street San Francisco Three-course menu, $85; four courses, $100; five courses, $120

This oasis of tranquility comes with dark-blue carpeting, custom-painted damask wallpaper, an enclosed patio and dramatic net-like lighting fixtures. The focus on seafood reflects the passions of co-owner Donato Poto and chef Michael Cimarusti. The menu is always changing, but starters have included Santa Barbara spot prawns with tomato and bronze fennel. The main courses could be black bass with turnip, hibiscus and Indonesian spices; John Dory with porcini, lardo and wild asparagus; or wagyu with wild asparagus, grilled favas and pickled plum. The wine list has a remarkable selection of more than two dozen wines by the glass and 400 labels. 

5955 Melrose Avenue Los Angeles Five-course menu, $90; seven courses, $180; chef’s multi-course menu, $220

This casually chic café, whose artful bric-a-brac interior seems modeled after a Keith McNally restaurant, is an excellent all-purpose option for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Specialties include brioche French toast, fresh fisherman’s stew and thin-crust pizzas from a wood-fired Mugnaini oven.

Dolores Street at Seventh Avenue Carmel

I have long admired the culinary vision of Nancy Oakes, who teamed up with noted designer Pat Kuleto to open Boulevard, just by the Ferry Building, in 1993. With its Belle Epoque flair and first-class staff, the restaurant has a lively hum. A starter of ahi tuna comes with prickly pear, pasilla, hearts of palm and watermelon-radish slaw, cara cara orange-and-cumin oil, avocado, duck fat tortilla and taro crisps. The equally imaginative and beautifully prepared Kurobuta pork chop comes with cherries, pancetta and mustard oil, roasted purple cauliflower, sweet corn-and-sage popcorn and a polenta fritter. 

1 Mission Street San Francisco $85

With big windows overlooking Market Street, exposed brick walls and a double-deck warren of rooms, this is perhaps the most emblematic San Francisco restaurant. The crowd is a lively blend, and the best place to observe the scene is at the beautiful copper bar. Its creative force, beloved chef Judy Rodgers, died too young at 57, but her Mediterranean-inspired menu lives on. Typically, this includes fish of the day done in a woodburning oven, and a superb Caesar salad. The roasted chicken for two with Tuscan bread salad is peerless. At lunch, there’s the hamburger, made with fresh-ground meat and served on grilled rosemary focaccia. I’ve never eaten a better one. Closed Monday.

1658 Market Street San Francisco $65

The interior of this vine-wrapped Spanish-style building is a dramatic space with exposed brick walls, a towering chimney, a beamed wood ceiling and theater-perfect lighting. This provides an apt setting for the superb cooking of chef Suzanne Goin, whose training included a spell in the kitchens of Chez Panisse in Berkeley and Campanile in Los Angeles. Her food is inventive and ever-changing. For starters, you might find ricotta dumplings with morels, spring vegetables, ramps and Parmesan. Main courses could include pan-roasted halibut with artichoke, frisée, lardons, soft egg and mustard crumbs; or beef short ribs with sautéed greens, roasted cipollini onions and horseradish cream. Goin has become famous for her three-course Sunday supper, a bargain at $45. 

8474 Melrose Avenue West Hollywood $80

Pronounced “kwa,” the name is an old French word meaning “tranquil.” Coi serves a multicourse tasting menu, which changes daily. Although the dishes are of Northern California, the meticulous presentation is almost Japanese, with each offered on a different style of plate as would happen in an elevated kaiseki meal. Choices have included buckwheat ravioli with asparagus, parsley and Meyer lemon, and progressed to dishes such as beef sirloin with farro, onions, wild mushrooms and nettle. The staff can recommend wine pairings for each dish. Although service is crisp, the meal can go on. This is not for everyone, but it is all delicious and will take you to the cutting edge of today’s cooking, without straying into the odd or gratuitously bizarre. Closed Tuesday and Wednesday.

373 Broadway San Francisco Tasting menu, $225

Staff at the Farmhouse Inn in northern Sonoma urged us to try this rustic place, centered on a wood-fired oven, and it comfortably exceeded its modest billing as a “Pizzeria & Salumeria.” Chef Dino Bugica aims to serve “cucina povera,” employing simple local ingredients in dishes that have been proven over the centuries. I can certainly recom- mend the outstanding chicken grilled under a brick and served with roasted potatoes and a Tuscan kale salad with Parmesan shavings. The wine list contains only local bottlings.

21021 Geyserville Avenue Geyserville, California

The contemporary décor of this stylish restaurant exudes warmth, comfort and welcome. Chef Richard Reddington’s resumé includes stints at San Francisco’s La Folie and Masa’s; New York’s Daniel; France’s Arpège and Le Moulin des Mougins; and four years heading the kitchen at Napa’s Auberge du Soleil. His memorable menu changes often but has included inviting dishes such as glazed pork belly accompanied by apple purée and burdock with soy caramel; sautéed skate wing with early summer squash, caramelized onion and green peppercorn butter; and Prime New York steak with potato-mushroom purée, lardons and fried shallots. Reddington works with the wine staff to create one of the most intriguing lists in the Napa Valley. 

6480 Washington Street Yountville $75. Five-course tasting menu, $85 (one of the best deals in Napa and Sonoma).

A short walk from the Santa Ynez Inn, this convivial place serves very good Italian food. After simple but delicious ciabatta crostini with buffalo mozzarella, prosciutto and sage, I opted for the penne with Italian sausage and white truffle oil. This was followed by an excellent Milanese pork chop, pounded thin, breaded, pan fried and then served under arugula and cherry tomatoes with sliced potatoes. The wine list features 12 selections by the glass. Closed Monday for lunch.

3687 Sagunto Street Santa Ynez, California

Star chef Charlie Palmer is the guiding light at this Wine Country restaurant, where big windows overlook the green oasis of Healdsburg Plaza. Everything is impeccably fresh and beautifully prepared. The menu features appetizers such as the delicious Oz Family Farm rabbit triangoli with rabbit loin roulade, shallot soubise, crisp artichoke and watercress; and main courses like char-broiled filet mignon with porcini mushrooms, smoked fingerling potatoes, charred shallots and sauce Bordelaise. The wine list features more than 500 Sonoma bottlings (with an emphasis on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay), many unavailable elsewhere. 

317 Healdsburg Avenue Healdsburg $75. Five-course seasonal menu, $80
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