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TRAVEL JOURNAL INDEX > California Eatin'

Carmel to San Diego, CA  01/22-02/01/07 (Day 272-282)
California Eatin'

Since the Journey began, we have been lucky enough to dine at private tables located right in the kitchens  of an embarrassing number of great hotels and resorts. They’re called chef’s tables and our meals at the Inn at Langley on Whidbey Island in Washington, Salish Lodge near Seattle and Triple Creek Ranch in Darby, Montana stand out as great chef’s table experiences.

During a tour of the kitchen at Bernardus Lodge in the blissfully fog-free Carmel Valley, even our spoiled rotten selves are impressed by the table they use for Chef Cal’s coveted private meals. It’s just a simple half-moon-shaped  recessed booth, but the curved wall behind lucky diners is covered with signatures from famous foodies and the just plain famous, including Julia Child whose stamp of approval wows us way more than the nearby signatures of Daniel Boulud, Goldie Hawn or Clint Eastwood (click to read Karen’s full review of Bernardus Lodge for iTravel iShop, including our amazing chef’s table meal that had Eric eating mushrooms and everything).

Back on the coast in Carmel-By-The-Sea (which always seems like a made up fairy tale name but there it is on the signs and everything), we stroll through the buttoned-up neighborhoods and iconic coastal walkways and it really does seem like everyone living in such a picture-perfect place—from the super-smiley kid collecting errant carts in the Safeway parking lot to the dowager waving at us from in front of a shop on pristine Ocean Avenue—must, surely, be picture perfect happy. We know that can’t be true but Carmel-By-The-Sea convinces you otherwise. Maybe it’s the name.

We don’t know if Julia Child ever ate at a restaurant called Passionfish in Pacific Grove, not far from Carmel on the Monterey Peninsula, but we do know that you should eat there if you like delicious, sustainable gourmet seafood that you can actually afford and an award-winning wine list that doesn’t know meaning of “mark up.”

Our drive from Carmel to San Diego takes up past Piedras Blancas beach near San Simeon at the right time of year to view a beach full of elephant seals. Every winter thousands of them drag their blubberous bodies (too many chef’s tables?) onto the sand and the mothers have their pups in the sun. A small flock of dive-bombing seagulls alerts us to the fact that one of the females has just given birth—the birds, which are basically the vacuum cleaners of the beach—are fighting over the after-birth.

Despite the stomach-churning eating habits of the gulls, we’re pretty hungry and we know just the place: Moro Bay’s Taco Temple! We dream of eating here every day we are forced to eat somewhere else and don’t even talk to Karen about California fish tacos unless they’ve come from Taco Temple. Our lunch is, as always, flawless (spicy fresh salmon tacos with tons of fish and tender corn tortillas and homemade mango salsa and light and airy and tender fried calamari) and our waitress, Mary, makes it even better by exclaiming “Right on!” after everything we order like it’s the best choice she’s heard all day.

From elephant seals on the mid coast we head south toward Navy Seals on Coronado Island near San Diego, which is an odd cocktail of sprawling military bases with a dash of one of the most historic resort hotels in Americas (click to read Karen’s full review of Hotel Del Coronado for iTravel iShop).

We haven’t been to San Diego in years and our memories of the city are not particularly enticing. But that was then. When we weren’t looking this town grew up and she’s no longer LA’s awkward second cousin. There are so many great places to stay and eat in San Diego right now (and more on the way) that doling out tips about the city isn’t even necessary. Except these two:

Unleash your inner Hugh Hefner at The Keating Hotel. Designed by a creative team at Pininfarina (designers of the Maserati and the Ferrari, among other testosterone addled design icons), The Keating has polished concrete floors, a black and red color scheme, see-through showers and super high-tech toys.

And spend at least one evening at the San Diego Wine & Culinary Center.  Don’t let the scholastic-sounding name put you off. The only thing you’ll have to learn here is that there IS a place where you can pay retail prince (ZERO MARKUP) for wine.

How is this possible? The charming wine-loving owner runs an extremely successful catering company and uses his profits to subsidize the Wine & Culinary Center which  allows him to offer lucky patrons an amazing selection of wines at wine store (not jacked-up restaurant) prices—when we were there bottle prices ranged from $7-$135. The atmosphere is very living room with couches and small chatty tables. A different local jazz band (think new jazz—young, funk-inspired, etc) plays every Thursday night making the environment even more convivial and date-worthy. John’s chef churns out wonderful (and equally affordable) food as well ($6-$16).

Another highlight of our time in San Diego is the chance to see a band called Mike D’s Go Go Jungle at a little bar/club called Winstons Beach Club. We’ve written about our much-admired friend Mike Dillon and his practically incalculable number of musical projects, including Go Go Jungle, in the past and we’ll do it again as long as he keeps pounding on things—from bongos to vibraphones. He’s got the beat like no one else.

Karen works the band’s merch table (while dancing) and sells three Go Go Jungle CDs during the show. Even more impressive than that is the white-haired old man who spends the entire night getting down in front of a speaker. He puts us all to shame. Oh, if you ever get to Winstons, go to the bathroom. We left a Trans-Americas Journey sticker in the ladies’ room and another in the men’s rooms.
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