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Golden Gate Bridge (viewed from Marin Headlands), one of several Northern California places you'll want to photograph again and again.

“Such was life in the Golden Gate: Gold dusted all we drank and ate…” — Robert Frost

Is or isn’t California in the Southwest?


Depends on who you talk to. According to the map alone, California is in the southwest.

Yet when you consider the characteristics California shares with states undeniably southwest such as Arizona and New Mexico ~ warm and dry climate, relatively sparse population ~ only the southeastern portion of the state qualifies.

Nevertheless, your Western road-trip could take you through Northern California, so YOU’VE GOT TO KNOW about the terrific food waiting for you there.

Friends I visit with there are champion foodies, so we tend to feast day and night, and I’m able to do a lot of . . . sampling.

But whether or not you know someone who lives in the Bay Area, here’s how you can do the same. With ideas on things to do before or after your fab meal, take a look at these ~

Top Five Northern California Places & Plates

  • MIMI’S CAFE, Roseville ~ Comfortable, elegant and COLORFUL French bistro-style restaurant, It’s the place to be for Saturday brunch, with conversation buzzing all around. Like seafood? Then order the moules-frites ~ mussels with fries ~ as I did; they will not disappoint. Such beautiful mussels and hand-cut, sea-salted fries. Terrific service ~ our server knew the menu, kept in touch with us just enough, and left us alone with friends to talk and talk some more . . . no one rushes here.

Moules-frites with crostini, Mimi's Cafe in Roseville near Sacramento, one of 5 (+1) Northern California places to visit.

SPECIAL BECAUSE . . . the place is “FRITES-CENTRAL.” The fries taste phenomenal on their own. Yet you can pair them up with a variety of meats besides mussels: beer-battered fish, grilled chicken, grilled salmon, and a New York strip for a classic steak-frites.

TO DO: See restored trains, learn history at the California State Railroad Museum ~ not at all as dry as it sounds.

  • WOODEN CHARCOAL KOREAN BARBECUE HOUSE, San Francisco ~  The banquet begins when you order your favorite combination of meats  . . . we chose pork, rib-eye steak, and bacon. Then the server sets before you dish after dish of banchan, those little-of-everything plates of food that “make” a Korean meal. Then once she lights the coals and delivers the GENEROUS portions of meat, you barbecue them yourself. Cook, eat, drink, cook some more ~ so good. Service is quick, though not so attentive. There was that excessive smoke that had our friend, Karen, in tears   before we got our cook-eat routine under control. But in the end, this was the MOST DELICIOUS Korean barbecue I’ve had in a long while. 

Wooden Charcoal Korean Barbecue House in San Francisco, one of 5 (+1) Northern California places to visit.

SPECIAL BECAUSE . . . of the banchan, including fishcakes, kimchi, yum and naturally gluten-free shirataki noodles, radish, hot peppers . . . all full of flavor and, like the meat, in good quantity.

TO DO: Hang out with the Sea Lions at Pier 39 with fellow sea lion watchers from all over.

Watching Sea Lions at San Francisco's Pier 39, one of 5 (+1) Northern California places to go.

  • THAI SMILE, San Rafael ~ small, pretty restaurant in a small, pretty city north of San Francisco. What makes it special is the lady in charge knows how to cook. Don’t be shy when asking about specials. That’s how I got to enjoy a de-lish catfish and jasmine rice dish NOT on the menu. Meanwhile, hubby L. declared his pork chops the BEST he has EVER had. And, believe me, the man knows from pork chops.

Thai catfish (in a banana leaf wrap) with jasmine rice at Thai Smile in San Rafael, one of 5 (+1) Northern California places to visit.

Thai pork chops with jasmine rice at Thai Smile in San Rafael, one of 5 (+1) Northern California places to visit.

SPECIAL BECAUSE . . . the atmosphere feels cozy, unpretentious, and  . . . relaxed. Thai Smile’s location is further north from San Francisco than say, Sausalito, so you’ll be dining in the company of locals rather than tourists. Good food, no crowds.

TO DO:  Visit the Marin County Civic Center designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Controversial for its blue roof and pink stucco walls, the Civic Center is a National Historic Landmark.

  • BARREL HOUSE, Sausalito ~ Cool, contemporary yet cozy is the vibe at this waterfront eatery serving American food with a touch of French to make things interesting. I chose roast chicken atop mashed potatoes seasoned with bacon and dijon mustard. Oh yeah. The chicken, with the tasty appetizers that came before, would have been enough. But then the people in charge did something that put Barrel House on my list of “absolute fave restaurants” when they offered us complimentary desserts because they had been late with one dish, so not all of us received our plates at the exact same time. What, among other goodies, did we choose? Why, strawberry cheesecake, of course!

Roast chicken dish, Barrel House, in Sausalito ~ one of 5 (+1) Northern California places for great meal.

Cheesecake, The Barrel House, Sausalito ~ sweet surprise from one of 5 (+1)Northern California places to eat GOOD food.

SPECIAL BECAUSE . . .  the waterfront location makes Barrel House THE place to enjoy great food and San Francisco Bay views at the same time.  You can see from the city of Oakland across the bay to San Francisco, connected by the Bay Bridge ~one of the longest suspension bridges in the U.S. In between the two cities you also see Angel Island ~ “the Ellis Island of the West” ~ Treasure Island, Alcatraz Island, and San Francisco’s northeast shore. Then it’s time for shopping in Sausalito.

San Francisco Bay, with Alcatraz Island at center, as viewed from in front of Barrel House, Sausalito, one of 5 (+1) Northern California places to fine dine.

The waterfront in Sausalito, one of 5 (+1) Northern California places where you'll find great food.

TO DO: See Alcatraz Island up close. You may already know the island is the site of a (now-closed) maximum-security prison that once housed the likes of Depression Era bad guys Al Capone and Machine Gun Kelly. (The prison tour, is hands-on and great fun, by the way.) But did you know Alcatraz is also a seabird sanctuary? Alcatraz Island is super popular so to reserve your place, buy your cruise ticket at least a day IN ADVANCE. And take care to dress for the day with layers of warm clothing AND a jacket because it is C-O-L-D out there. (Hard to have fun when you can’t stop shivering.)

  • THE COUNTER, Corte Madera ~ One in a chain of upbeat and stylish burger joints where you create your own customized gourmet burger. They use the term “gourmet” because the ingredients are quality ~ the beef is grass-fed, for instance. Also because many of those ingredients are unusual additions to a burger, like the smoked gouda I chose to top my burger. What a delicious surprise!  To build your meal, you choose from a generous list of burgers ~ which includes “lamburger”sauces, cheeses, toppings, sides, and buns. Actually, if you choose to have your burger on a bed of salad greens as I did, your choice of “bun” need not be a bun at all. One visit here and you may not ever go back to simple cheddar ~ or just ketchup ~again.

Gourmet burger, The Counter in Corte Madera, one of 5 (+1) Northern California places for good eats.

SPECIAL BECAUSE . . . it has a gluten-free menu offering hundreds of delicious burger combinations.

And if you’re after a super-special experience in Corte Madera and time is NOT of the essence, head to this bonus plate location. . .

  • BURMATOWN, Corte Madera ~ The numbers of people outside this restaurant at dinnertime, all waiting for a table, might give you the idea they’re serving something inside worth waiting for. And you’d be right. Once inside, you’ll be enjoying some of the tastiest Burmese food in the Bay Area with fresher than fresh ingredients. Plate after plate. And almost as intriguing as the flavors in these Asian fusion dishes is the way the servers prepare it for you at tableside. Before ever lifting a bite to your mouth, you’ve tasted it with your eyes. Order Burmatown’s tea leaf salad, one of the house specialties, and you’ll see what I mean. For a “taste” right now, see the video below.

SPECIAL BECAUSE . . . . the atmosphere is lively, abuzz with people talking excitedly about the food as much as anything else. And at least half of the menu options, including the tea leaf salad, are available gluten-free.

TO DO: Head for Marin Headlands on the Pacific coast. Birdwatch, picnic, and take your fill of photographs of the Golden Gate Bridge from one of the best vantage points on the Bay. (Just as I did for this article’s featured image.)

So there you have five sets of Northern California places and plates for an all-around sweet travel experience.

Both Sacramento and the San Francisco Bay Area offer all kinds of activities to help you work up an appetite. And whatever kind of food you have an appetite for, whether French-inspired, Korean, Thai, American, or anything-but-basic burgers ~ they’ve got that, too.

What delicious combination of attractions and eateries would you choose to start ~ or end ~ your road trip?