Food in California: What to Know and Eat (2023)

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In the American imagination, California has always been shrouded in a haze of beachy, breezy fantasy. Early on, people harbored dreams of the state offering up fist-size gold nuggets. Then Steinbeck painted it as a picture of utopian perfection. More recently, the Golden State has become known for the fame and glamour of its young residents—people who seem to have an excess of either coding talent or cash (and sometimes both). The ever-winding roads always seem to lead to the welcoming ocean, and that’s to say nothing of the food! Doesn’t everything just taste better in California, where the food is fresh and the avocados are cheap? When it comes to food, it turns out the fantasy of California lives up to the hype!

For decades, California has been a paradise of plenty. It’s the West Coast frontier where chefs, farmers and culinary and cultural dreamers had the freedom to cultivate a seasonal, local farm-to-table philosophy, which eventually became the goal of restaurants and culinary establishments across the country—and even the world. When Alice Waters opened Berkeley’s Chez Panisse in August of 1971, she meant only to bring the power and pleasure of locally grown and raised ingredients—a movement she had encountered in France—back home. What she started was the slow food revolution under the loose label of “California cuisine.” While the culinary practice spread across the nation, the seat of this notion still remains in California, where the restaurant scene is exploding due to creative, cultured, innovative chefs eager to share their dishes in fresh, fun and unstuffy ways. The seeds of American cuisine have always been planted in California, but now those little seeds are sprouting and thriving, and California continues to emerge as an influential force in American dining.

When you find yourself wondering what to eat in California, ask yourself first about the season, where you are in the state and what state of mind you’re in. Depending on those answers, the ideal meal will vary, but one constant remains true: it’s all worth exploring!

Food in California: What to Know and Eat (2)

  • The Dining Experience in California
  • Typical Californian Dishes
  • Regional Foods and Specialties
  • Californian Food Terms: Glossary
  • Tipping Etiquette
  • Dining Etiquette
  • Want to Know More about California?
The Dining Experience in California

Californian cuisine is synonymous with brilliantly fresh produce, internationally influenced cuisine and a strong emphasis on creative presentation. No matter where you are in the state, you’re bound to enjoy dishes rooted in Japanese, French, Mexican, Indian and Italian cultures, and you’re sure to encounter the freshest, most of-the-moment ingredients available.

Exceptional dining experiences in California vary with the diverse landscape. You might, for example, find yourself among towering redwoods while munching cheeses and sipping wines from celebrity purveyors. (This really can happen in California!) Then, drive just a few hours away, and your feet can be buried in golden sand while you stare at a cerulean coastline and shuck oysters by hand or enjoy a Michelin-starred meal infused with culture and pristine farm-grown produce. If you find yourself in the gorgeous desolation of a cactus-speckled desert painted in oranges and reds, don’t be surprised to enjoy the best Mexican food of your life straight from a taco truck.

All these unique food experiences are bound by one thing. The fresh, creative menus, ideas and meals created and enjoyed here are simultaneously an homage to tradition and a foray into wild experimentation. California’s chefs and farmers are constantly striking the balance between honoring the roots of their meals and poking holes in culinary convention.

With all this going on, expect an adventure every time you sit down to a meal in California!

Typical Californian Dishes

No matter where you are in the state, make sure to enjoy these quintessentially Californian delicacies:

Avocados

Not many regions of the world can grow buttery avocados, but California is one of the few. The Hass avocado, for example, is a California native. Rudolph Hass discovered this variety in La Habra Heights, California, in the 1920s, and every single Hass avocado can trace its lineage to the original Hass mother tree. Less than 1 percent of the state is capable of growing avocados, but to enjoy a “local avocado” is a beyond-special culinary experience.

Fish Tacos

While you can find fish and seafood tacos elsewhere in the world, California’s fish tacos are truly a special West Coast offering. Whether flash fried or deep fried, the fish is typically served on soft tortillas and topped with all sorts of fresh, flavorful vegetables and fillings.

Seafood

With hundreds of miles of coastline, California is one of the country’s best places to enjoy fresh seafood. From oysters along the state’s northwestern coast to more tropical seafood varieties in the south, there are flavors to accommodate every seafood lover.

Classic American Burger

Southern California’s car culture has greatly contributed to the staying power of the modern drive-in. While great burgers are available all over the continental United States, the Golden State is home to the iconic In-N-Out Burger, where a secret menu features special veggies, sauces and preparations. Whether you get your burger from a drive-through or a fancy restaurant, expect fresh flavors and out-of-this-world condiments.

Backroads Pro Tip

Be on the lookout for fresh fruit stands all over California, particularly when passing through the Central Valley between the coastal cities and the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Proximity to this highly productive produce-growing region means a plethora of local fruit stands offering delightfully tasty ripe fruit and other fresh produce.

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Regional Foods and Specialties

California is a large, diverse state, and the delicious things to hunt down vary with its numerous regions. Don’t miss out on some of these local delicacies:

Local Wines

Local wines are almost always on the menu, and with unique wine regions growing special grapes across California, there are certainly a lot to try. Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, merlot, Pinot noir, sauvignon blanc, Syrah and zinfandel are just a few.

Oysters

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If you’ve never shucked and eaten oysters just steps from where they were harvested, this is highly recommended when you come to Northern California. (As a bonus, you don’t even need to bring your own knife!)

Fresh Mex

The proximity to Mexico and the large population of Hispanics living in California mean there’s a whole lot of delicious Mexican and Mexican-inspired cuisine on offer. From Northern California to the Inland Empire, you’ll find many options for flavor-forward tacos and burritos—all with an emphasis on fresh ingredients and traditional recipes.

Looking for some great California wine? Check out our Favorite California Wine Regions article!

Backroads Pro Tip

When in doubt at a restaurant, ask what’s local and best. The answer might just surprise you. With amazing ingredients popping up all over the state, you never know what’s been grown just around the corner!

Californian Food Terms: Glossary

English is spoken widely in California, and slang words show up infrequently on menus. That said, there are a few words that indicate food origin and how produce and products were raised, which can help you navigate any dining situation.

Words to Know on the Menu and When Dining Out

Biodynamic

Biodynamic farming methods enliven the soil and utilize careful observation of nature’s rhythms. The main difference between organic and biodynamic farming is that the latter uses principles that add vitality to the plant, soil or livestock. This avoids the ill effects of soil-deteriorating traditional farming. Biodynamic agriculture uses specifically prepared concoctions made from minerals and herbs. The process is very similar to homeopathy.

Organic

Organic food is produced by methods that comply with organic farming standards. These standards vary across the globe, but organic farming generally strives to cycle resources, to promote ecological balance and to conserve biodiversity.

Free Range

This term means the animals were raised in natural environments with freedom of movement. This is in comparison to commercially raised livestock, which is typically raised in small, confined areas where movement is highly limited.

GMO

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are novel organisms created in a laboratory using genetic modification and engineering techniques.

Tipping Etiquette

Tipping conventions in California are the same as they are throughout mainland United States. Remember, tips represent a significant portion of waitstaff livelihoods here, so if you received acceptable service at a sit-down restaurant, don’t overlook leaving a tip. Assuming the service was friendly, timely and adequate, diners will typically leave a tip of 10-20%.

Additionally, tip jars are increasingly being seen on counters at cafés, coffee shops and other more casual food and drink establishments, but you shouldn’t feel compelled to leave a tip in such cases unless you feel the service truly warrants it. If you do, a simple dollar or two will suffice.

In general, it’s customary to tip bellhops, valets, waitstaff members or anyone who provides you with exceptional service.

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Dining Etiquette

Californians don’t have set hours for meals, so while you’re visiting California, feel free to enjoy a meal or snack just about whenever. Don’t be surprised if you find that restaurants close earlier smaller towns, especially on the weekdays.

Because of the impressive variety of restaurants and sub-regions within California, it’s impossible to generalize about dining etiquette that is applicable to the whole state. While California has a reputation for being more casual that its East Coast counterparts (and yes, you can still pretty much walk into any restaurant in sandals and a t-shirt), you’ll feel much more comfortable putting on some nicer clothes when dining at more formal restaurants, particularly in cities and regions known for their upscale culinary experiences, such as Wine Country and the San Francisco Bay Area.

Want to Know More about California?

Read the full California Travel Guide Overview here.

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FAQs

What kind of food does California eat? ›

If you are wondering what the Golden State's most-iconic dishes are, here's the list of 8 California typical foods:
  • California Pizza. © California Pizza Chicken Restaurant. ...
  • Cobb Salad: © Fundamental Restaurant Los Angeles. ...
  • Cioppino. © Sotto Mare Restaurant. ...
  • French Dip. © Thepioneerwoman.com. ...
  • Burritos & Tacos. ...
  • Sourdough Bread.
26 Nov 2017

What does Michael Pollan mean when he says eat food not too much mostly plants? ›

'In Defense of Food' Author Offers Advice For Health In his new book, Michael Pollan advises readers to "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." He says that we should make healthy food more of a priority, even if it means spending more time and money, or get used to chronic disease.

What is the right food Rule answer? ›

Explanation: (I) Eat the right amount of the right food at the right time is the food rule. (ii) Those who follow it usually notice the benefit in greater physical and mental efficiency and more stamina.

What food is California state known for? ›

The Golden State unconventionally declared four different nuts as its official state food, but almonds are the obvious choice. The state produces 80 percent of the world's crops!

What is the golden rule of eating? ›

Eat regular meals – don't skip meals – and always eat a healthy breakfast (e.g. bowl of natural hi fibre cereal with sliced banana and low fat milk). 6. Restrict your alcohol intake.

What are the first 3 food rules? ›

The First Three Rules for Healthy Eating

Don't eat anything your great grandmother wouldn't recognize as food. Don't eat anything with more than five ingredients, or ingredients you can't pronounce. Stay out of the middle of the supermarket; shop on the perimeter of the store.

What are the 5 golden rules of food safety? ›

Food safety tips
  • Clean. Our health is in our hands! ...
  • Chill. Food that is meant to be kept chilled should be! ...
  • Cook. Properly cooking food minimises the risk of food poisoning. ...
  • Separate. Cross-contamination is a major way for food borne diseases to spread.

What are Michael Pollan's 3 food rules? ›

Just try to eat as much real food as you can, and try not to eat too much of it, and try to eat mostly plants. It's easier than you think and the more you do it, the easier it gets.

What is the 5 ingredient rule? ›

Stick to the 5 ingredient rule: Choose foods with less than 5 ingredients and all things you recognize and know are real food, such as tomatoes, water, or salt. Or if there are more than 5, make sure they're all food or spices. Buy only packaged foods with ingredients you can pronounce or recognize.

What is Pollan's argument? ›

Pollan argues that to "give up" human consumption of animals would result in a "food chain…even more dependent than it already is on fossil fuels and chemical fertilizers since food would need to travel even farther and fertility—- in the form of manures—- would be in short supply".

What are the 4 types of eating? ›

The Four Types Of Eating
  • The four types of eating are Fuel, Fun, Fog, and Storm.
  • Fuel Eating is when you are eating foods that support your body and its needs. ...
  • Fun Eating is eating any foods that you love to eat that don't necessarily give you anything back. ...
  • Fog Eating is anytime you eat without awareness.
22 Jul 2015

What is the most important rule to remember before eating food? ›

Eat Slowly. Eat slowly and chew your food well. The first step of digestion begins in your mouth, when you chew food. Properly chewing food results in release of digestive enzymes that help in proper digestion of food and assimilation of nutrients from the food.

What are common food rules? ›

Some examples of food rules are:
  • Don't eat past 7pm.
  • Clear your dinner plate.
  • No snacking between meals.
  • Only eat what you serve yourself.
  • White foods are bad for you.
  • Eat fruit, but not bananas.
  • Avoid too much sugar.
9 Jul 2020

What is California favorite fast food? ›

A recent study from CashNetUSA identified the top-rated fast food chains in every state. For California, In-N-Out Burger landed on top.

What are 5 things California is known for? ›

One of the most popular destinations in all of North America, California is famous for the Golden Gate Bridge, Disneyland, and Hollywood. Other things unique to California are Coachella, the Wine Country, Silicon Valley, and Surf Culture, in addition to less obvious sights and cultural aspects.

What part of California has the best food? ›

According to a list compiled by Lovefood, the city that serves the best food in the entire state of California is San Francisco. You name it, this city has it. San Francisco is home to the most restaurants in the entire country.

What California city has the best food? ›

San Francisco ranked the highest with Sacramento and San Diego among the top 10 cities. The lowest city on the list in California was Moreno Valley ranking at 180 out of 182.

What is Level 3 eating? ›

A level 3 diet is the least limited. It is used as a transition to a normal diet. People on this diet can eat bite-sized pieces of moist foods with near-normal textures. They should avoid very hard, sticky, or crunchy foods, such as dried fruit or nuts.

What are the 3 eating times? ›

Most cultures in the world eat about every six hours with three main meals that correspond to breakfast, lunch and dinner – varying in how abudant each meal is.

What is 70% rule in eating? ›

The 70/30 rule. Here's how it goes: weight loss is 70 percent the foods you eat, and 30 percent exercise. Therefore, it's not scientifically possible to eat everything you want and lose weight—even with a 'magic pill' in place. Lose weight the honest way—with a food and exercise plan that makes sense.

What 3 foods Can you survive on? ›

  • Perfect Foods. (Image credit: XuRa (opens in new tab) | shutterstock (opens in new tab)) ...
  • Beans. (Image credit: USDA) ...
  • Kale. (Image credit: Justin Jernigan) ...
  • Cantaloupe. (Image credit: stock.xchng) ...
  • Berries. (Image credit: Ohio State University.) ...
  • Barley. (Image credit: USDA) ...
  • Seaweed. (Image credit: NOAA) ...
  • Fish.
8 Dec 2021

What food will run out first? ›

Meat shortages, especially beef and poultry, will plague us again in 2022. Daniels says that meat and poultry are in short supply in many supermarkets. This is due to several factors, with manufacturing plant labor shortages causing most of the issues.

What are 3 Food Safety Tips? ›

Food Safety at Home
  1. Clean. Always wash your food, hands, counters, and cooking tools. Wash hands in warm soapy water for at least 20 seconds. ...
  2. Separate (Keep Apart) Keep raw foods to themselves. Germs can spread from one food to another. ...
  3. Cook. Foods need to get hot and stay hot. ...
  4. Chill. Put food in the fridge right away.
28 Oct 2021

What are the 4 C's of food safety? ›

The 4Cs of food hygiene

Cleaning. Cooking. Chilling. Cross-contamination.

What are 4 quick tips for food safety? ›

Four Steps to Food Safety: Clean, Separate, Cook, Chill. Following four simple steps at home—Clean, Separate, Cook, and Chill—can help protect you and your loved ones from food poisoning.

What are the 4 C's Food Hygiene? ›

In the health and social care sector, the four C's are especially important for food hygiene safety. Cleaning, Cooking, Cross-contamination and Chilling all come into play during the food handling process and must be implemented properly at all times.

What are the WHO Five Keys in safer foods? ›

The Five Keys to Safer Food Poster

The core messages of the Five Keys to Safer Food are: (1) keep clean; (2) separate raw and cooked; (3) cook thoroughly; (4) keep food at safe temperatures; and (5) use safe water and raw materials.

How do Muslims eat? ›

Muslims eat halal (lawful) foods, which include fruit, vegetables and eggs. Any meat and meat products they consume must be from a halal slaughtered animal. Milk and dairy foods are halal, cheese may be halal depending on ingredients.

Is a flexitarian? ›

Flexitarianism or 'casual vegetarianism' is an increasingly popular, plant-based diet that claims to reduce your carbon footprint and improve your health with an eating regime that's mostly vegetarian yet still allows for the occasional meat dish.

What is the 5/20 rule in food? ›

Though not an end-all test, a quick way to read the percent daily values is to use the 5/20 rule. This says that if the %DV is less than 5% there is a low amount of this nutrient, while if the %DV is greater than 20% there is a high amount of this nutrient.

What are the 8 guidelines for healthy eating? ›

8 tips for healthy eating
  1. Base your meals on higher fibre starchy carbohydrates. ...
  2. Eat lots of fruit and veg. ...
  3. Eat more fish, including a portion of oily fish. ...
  4. Cut down on saturated fat and sugar. ...
  5. Eat less salt: no more than 6g a day for adults. ...
  6. Get active and be a healthy weight. ...
  7. Do not get thirsty. ...
  8. Do not skip breakfast.

How does Pollan feel about fast food? ›

In Pollan's account, fast food gives pleasure to the eater in large part because of its nostalgic qualities. People enjoy eating fast food because it reminds them, for instance, of happy times in their childhoods.

What does Pollan mean by not exactly? ›

What does Pollan mean by “not exactly”? He means that although these chickens are technically labelled as “free range,” they are accustomed to not going outside, and by the time the option exists to go outside, the chickens are conditioned to stay indoors and most do so.

How do you change your mind? ›

How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence is a 2018 book by Michael Pollan.

What is the most popular snack in California? ›

Cheetos

What is California comfort food? ›

California. Plenty of foods could be the unofficial comfort food of California (Mission burritos, Animal Style things), but fish tacos win out for being the most all-over the state.

What snacks is California known for? ›

10 Foods the Rest of the Country Should Thank California For
  • Açaí bowls (San Francisco, CA) ...
  • Sprinkles Cupcakes (Beverly Hills, CA) ...
  • Almonds (Bakersfield, CA) ...
  • Fortune Cookies (San Francisco, CA) ...
  • Rocky Road Ice Cream (Oakland, CA) ...
  • Green Goddess Dressing (San Francisco, CA) ...
  • Sourdough Bread (San Francisco, CA)
28 Apr 2017

What is the #1 favorite food? ›

The Number 1 Most Popular Foods in America are Hamburgers!

What are California flavors? ›

Sense of Place: The Ingredients and Flavors of California
  • Fruits: Figs, especially Black Mission Figs. Grapes. ...
  • Greens and Vegetables: Fennel. Mushrooms. ...
  • Seafood and Meat: Dungeness Crab. Abalone. ...
  • Other: Olives. Nuts – especially almonds, cashews, and pistachios. ...
  • Related: Sense of Place: The Food and Ingredients of Florida.
12 May 2022

What is the most random food? ›

Top 10 Weirdest Foods to Try While Traveling
  • Jellied Moose Nose, Canada.
  • Casu Marzu, Italy.
  • Fried Tarantulas, Cambodia.
  • Stargazey Pie, England.
  • Tuna Eyeballs, Japan.
  • Balut, Philippines.
  • Huitlacoche, Mexico.
  • Surströmming, Sweden.

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