Set in a forested, coastal village strewn with quaint Hansel & Gretel cottages, Carmel-by-the-Sea is infinitely charming. Yet 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 they're famously dog-friendly. Plan your next dinner stop with our handy guide to the best restaurants in Carmel-by-the-Sea.
Best restaurants in Carmel-by-the-Sea
What is it? Exquisite tasting menu and impeccable service have guests dropping French Laundry comparisons at this special occasion destination.
Why go? A seasonal eight-course meal from superstar chef Justin Cogley features theatrical presentations of local seafood and produce as in 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.
What is it? Savor elevated Mexican cuisine and superior mezcals at a cozy restaurant and bar from three Post Ranch Inn vets.
Why go? You needn’t be Andrew Zimmerman to enjoy a genuinely 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.
What is it? Enjoy standout Italian pastas and wines in intimate dining room.
Why go? 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 pastas, exceptional bruschettas, and if you’re lucky, a smoke-tender grilled octopus. Choose an unfamiliar Italian wine, and you’ll soon be asking for it at your local wine shop.
What is it? This cheery, farm-chic cafe offers seasonal fare, wholesome juices, and an open-air dining room.
Why go? 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.
What is it? Atmospheric bistro churns out pizza and Old World charm.
Why go? With a rich ambience 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.
What is it? This satisfying hipster take on a classic England pub is exactly what Carmel needed.
Why go? In a town that leans more cute than cool, this stylish hideaway is a welcome hang. Sleek wood banquettes backed by a wall of vintage beer cans set stage for draft brews and gastropub fare such as Monterey Bay calamari, halibut fish & chips, and giant pretzels with spicy sauerkraut mustard.
What is it? Situated in one of Carmel’s many hidden courtyards, this tiny Italian restaurant woos diners with al fresco dining and spot-on pasta dishes.
Why go? 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.
What is it? A bright and airy modern wine bar that’s not overly posh, but does have a white grand piano for a spot of live music.
Why go? The light bites are a go-to here to pair with the wine – think marinated olives, smoked salmon crostini and crispy chicken strips. But Affina is also a nice spot to spend an evening, with larger meals consisting of ciabatta-bun burgers, pasta dishes and New York steak.
What is it? Contemporary steakhouse features airy, light-filled dining room anchored by a bustling marble bar.
Why go? 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.
What is it? Housed in the exceedingly dog-friendly Cypress Inn, this fun restaurant welcomes pups and their owners with classic cocktails, small plate dishes, and charming old-school vibes.
Why go? 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 outdoor fireplace.