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Carmel Valley Ranch
Photograph: Courtesy Carmel Valley Ranch

The best restaurants in Carmel

Whet your appetite with our list of the best restaurants in Carmel-by-the-Sea, from cozy bistros to upscale digs

Written by
Garrick Ramirez
&
Clara Hogan
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Set in a forested, coastal village strewn with quaint Hansel & Gretel cottages, Carmel-by-the-Sea is infinitely charming. Don’t let the storybook setting fool you. Amidst the fanciful facades, you’ll find exceptional, serious-minded eats; think Top Chef meets The Shire. Restaurants tend toward fine dining with atmospheric environs, varied cuisines, and fresh seafood pulled from Monterey Bay. This is the kind of place where you wouldn't want to be caught in cargo pants but can freely take Fido around with you, as the area is famously dog-friendly. Plan your next dinner stop with our handy guide to the best restaurants in Carmel-by-the-Sea. We've also included a few destination-worthy stops in nearby Carmel Valley. 

Best restaurants in Carmel-by-the-Sea

Exquisite tasting menu and impeccable service have guests dropping French Laundry comparisons at this special occasion destination. A seasonal eight-course meal from superstar chef Justin Cogley features theatrical presentations of local seafood and produce as oysters and caviar packaged like a gift from a high-end boutique. A 2,500 bottle-strong wine cellar makes the supplemental wine pairing an indulgent must.

Savor elevated Mexican cuisine and superior mezcals at a cozy restaurant and bar from three Post Ranch Inn vets.  You needn’t be Andrew Zimmerman to enjoy a delicious basket of spicy chapulines (grasshoppers), the perfect snack for sampling the noteworthy collection of rare mezcals. Follow it with halibut ceviche, steak tacos, and a relleno-style Monterey abalone within the dimly-lit dining room or outdoors around warming fire pits.

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Take in the views of the hotel and Carmel Valley while dining at this unfussy yet chic restaurant within the hotel lobby. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner all use ingredients like honey, cheese, salts, eggs, fruits, and vegetables sourced from The Ranch’s organic garden. The dinner menu includes charcuterie boards, Dungeness crab toast, a slew of fresh salads, and main dishes ranging from a red wine braised beef short rib to seafood pappardelle or a fresh fish option.

 

Just when you think you’ve had your fill of Cal-Italia restaurants, a place like La Balena comes along to reinvigorate your spirit. What might sound good on the menu is likely phenomenal on the plate. Daily options feature handmade pasta, exceptional bruschettas, and, if you’re lucky, a smoke-tender grilled octopus. Choose an unfamiliar Italian wine, and you’ll soon be in heaven.

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This cheery, farm-chic cafe offers seasonal fare, wholesome juices, and an open-air dining room. You won’t twist your tongue enjoying the clever Green Eggs and Ham, a delicious country toast topped with prosciutto, poached eggs, and a dollop of vibrant herb pesto. Lunch and dinner offer more healthful comfort foods such as crispy panini sandwiches, organic quinoa mac & cheese, and grass-fed meatloaf with homemade ketchup.

 

With a rich ambiance that transports you to some rustic European countryside—wooden country tables, dangling copper pots—French classics such as Salades Folle d’Ete sit alongside mozzarella di bufala pizzas, and nobody bats an eye. The vino flows at lunch and dinner, but come morning, the kitchen shifts gears with bellinis, wood-fired eggs, and brioche French toast. 

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This satisfying hipster take on a classic England pub is what Carmel needed. In a town that leans more cute than coolthis stylish hideaway is a welcome hang. Sleek wood banquettes backed by a wall of vintage beer cans set the stage for draught brews and gastropub fare such as Monterey Bay calamari, halibut fish & chips, and giant pretzels with spicy sauerkraut mustard.

Lucia Restaurant & Bar is the fine-dining centerpiece within the luxurious Bernardus Lodge & Spa in Carmel Valley. Diners — both hotel guests and not — can choose to sit within the relaxed yet sophisticated space just off of the buzzy lobby or dine al fresco on the patio. Lucia offers breakfast, lunch, and dinner, with menus pulling ingredients from the onsite garden. For dinner, locally grown vegetables are the star — alongside perfect dishes from tender lamp chomps to braised beef short rib. 

 

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Situated in one of Carmel’s many hidden courtyards, this tiny Italian restaurant woos diners with al fresco dining and spot-on pasta dishes. In addition to a killer Bucatini alla Carbonara, Il Tegamino dishes up romance worthy of the tear-jerking finale of your favorite rom-com. Snuggle up with your SO under throw blankets and fork into a white wine-sauce spaghetti bursting with prawns, clams, and mussels.

This Carmel newcomer has all the elements for your big night out: fetching interior, lively crowd, and a menu of steakhouse staples done right. Order a martini and pace through a meal of pristine West Coast oysters, warm Parker House rolls, Little Gems Caesar, and an aged Niman Ranch porterhouse. Frugal foodies will want to hit the bar during a Sunday through Thursday happy hour for $2 oysters and $8 cocktails.

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Owned by the legendary film star—and avid animal advocate—Doris Day, the Cypress Inn and its signature restaurant, Terry’s, are filled with hounds, yorkies, and maltipoos who rest contentedly as their owners nosh on Moroccan spiced calamari and mini Reubens, and eye Day’s Technicolor films on flat screens overhead. You needn’t bring a pooch to enjoy nursing a stiff Vesper cocktail—James Bond’s drink—on the garden courtyard strung with twinkling lights and warmed by an outdoor fireplace.

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