I just got back from a weeklong vacation visiting friends in Carmel and Santa Barbara, where I learned some pleasures and perils of tourist-town dining. The fact is, it's hard to find good food in tourist towns; they don't have to serve good food. People will eat the stuff anyway, and pay handsomely for it. Which leads me to my four dining dictums:
The better the view, the worse the food Generally speaking, a place that touts its stunning ocean vistas or twinkling city-lights views doesn't have to wow you with its food, because it knows you came to admire the pretty view. The exception is breakfast. While you'll pay more for your bacon and eggs than you would at Denny's, breakfast is pretty hard to screw up, and even better while gazing upon the blue Pacific. Notable exceptions to the lunch and dinner rule: Perched out over the water adjacent to a golf course, the Blue Water Bistro in Bodega Bay (Bodega Harbour Golf Course, 21301 Heron Drive, Bodega Bay. Open for lunch daily; breakfast, Saturday-Sunday; and dinner, Friday-Saturday. 707.875.3519) specializes in showcasing local ingredients as transformed by acclaimed chef Mark Dierkhising. Newly energized by a young cooking team, the Drake's Beach Cafe (1 Drakes Beach Road, Point Reyes National Seashore. 415.669.1297. Open Friday-Monday, 11am to 6pm, and Friday nights for supper from 6pm to 8pm) is getting props all around for its extensive use of such precious area foodstuffs as Lunny Ranch meat and other regional providers. Formerly a great place to use the public bathroom, the Cafe is now destination dining. And what a destination! The Friday night seating is a hot ticket.
Avoid restaurants recommended by hotel visitor guides These restaurants are generally geared for the lowest-common-denominator tastes, and while you'll find fancy restaurants with the prices to match, they generally serve boring, predictable stuff. Exception to the boring and predictable: How about hotel restaurants themselves? In the North Bay, some of the best dining available is found at the hostelry, as with Dry Creek Kitchen adjacent to the Hotel Healdsburg (317 Healdsburg Ave., Healdsburg. Lunch, Friday-Sunday; dinner, daily. 707.431.0330).
Eat where the locals eat You can bet the cooks and servers who work in Carmel's quaint and expensive downtown don't eat there. But they've got to go somewhere on their days off. While waiters will be reluctant to bash their employer, ask them where else they would eat if out for a special occasion. Chances are, it's a place not listed in hotel guides and it's well off the tourist circuit. Theory confirmation: The Underwood Bar & Bistro (9113 Graton Road, Graton. Open for lunch, Tuesday-Saturday; dinner, Tuesday-Sunday. 707.823.7023), where all the hepcats go even though it's way out in the middle of nowheresville.
Dine out during off-hours Of course, some restaurants are popular with tourists and locals alike and live up to the hype, but getting a table and fighting the crowds can put a damper on the experience. Go for a late lunch or an early dinner. The staff will be calmer and you won't feel like such a tourist. Best bet: The Alta Mira Hotel (125 Bulkley Ave., Sausalito; 415.332.1350) has got to be one the best places in the North Bay to loll about on the terrace in the lengthening afternoon.
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