I can say with absolute certainty that Napa is not an easy place to find a delicious and reasonably priced meal. It's filled to the brim with fancy schmancy high end spots ready to consume your entire pay check in a single fell swoop. Sure, some of those places are great or even incredible, but I wouldn't suppose that a meal at that price point is always in the cards. When I find myself in Napa, there is one place that has a number of great, reasonably priced options that I find myself returning to time and time again – The Oxbow Market.
If you're headed to Monterey, you're inevitably going to go to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. And you should. It's absolutely one of the best aquariums in the country. All of the exhibits are extremely well designed – I especially loved the one with the jellyfish. The aquarium is located in the most touristy section of town called Cannery Row which is full of now-defunct anchovy-canning warehouse factories that have been resurrected mostly as mediocre chain restaurants. Sure, you could eat at one of those places, but I think your best lunch option in the area is actually inside the aquarium.
Ah yes, the world famous Swan Oyster Depot. This 100-year-old Lower Nob Hill institution is certainly one of the more famous San Francisco eateries and I'm lucky enough to live on the same block as this revered bastion of seafood. With a place so good, so close by you'd probably expect to find me there on a weekly basis, but there's two things that constantly hold me back – open for lunch and there's constantly tourists lined up out the door. Literally every single time I've walked by this lunch-only hot spot – between their opening at 10:30 AM and their closing at 5:30 PM – there has been a substantial line to contend with. This is a very discouraging sight for someone like myself who absolutely refuses to wait in lines for anything, no matter how amazing the results may be.
For Amy's birthday weekend we had booked a cabin in the Paso Robles Wine Region. From San Francisco, it would have been a four hour drive so we knew we needed a Friday night pit stop for dinner half way there. A bit of web research illuminated the fact that there were very few viable options between Los Gatos at the south edge of Silicon Valley and our ultimate destination without heading into Santa Cruz or Monterey, which we wanted to avoid for traffic purposes. But there was one single place that did seem to be well regarded and worthy of a pit stop — a fish shack on the waterfront in the tiny town of Moss Landing called Phil's Fish Market.
In the upscale, rural, wine and wilderness town of Los Gatos, there are plenty of formal dinner options. I've done a good deal of fine dining in the area, but on this particular evening I just wanted something a bit more low key. Given my mood and my craving for seafood, I decided to check out Billy's Boston Chowder House to see if they could carry the flag for Boston in Silicon Valley.
Cioppino. Say it with me: CHEE-oh-PEE-no. Just as I was, you're probably wondering what on earth that could be. I really don't know how it happened, but somehow I had been blissfully unaware of this San Franciscan specialty until a friend insisted we go to Sotto Mare in San Francisco's Little Italy, North Beach. He had been before and desperately wanted to once again experience the local dish that he'd been dreaming of since he first tasted it a few years prior.
This vacation couldn't have come at a better time. As the entire country fell into a below-zero deep freeze, I was headed for some sun and heat in Turks & Caicos with my girlfriend Amy and her family.