California Dreamin' on a Drive through Southern California, ALEX FINER Is Lured to a Succession of Excellent Seafood Restaurants Serving Locally Caught Produce

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Byline: ALEX FINER

MANY travel California's celebrated Highway One for the breathtaking views of the Pacific, for Big Sur and Hearst Castle. Others take surfboards, but for me the real magnet is always the fish.

With my wife and daughter in tow, our route from San Francisco took in Monterey, Santa Barbara, LA and beyond. It's one of America's great drives, with superb restaurants at every stop.

At Santa Cruz, with its famous boardwalk and vintage wooden rollercoaster, our base is the Beach Street Inn, a modernised 50s motel, built around a pool at the quieter end of the front, overlooking volleyball games on the sand.

On the pier, jutting half a mile out to sea, fishermen catch rock cod and ling, and always hope for halibut.

"The biggest I caught was 65lb," one tells me. "I've got a picture." I choose to believe him. Beneath us, harbour seals and sea lions honk approvingly as they rearrange themselves on pontoons and balance on beams between the pilings.

Trawlers lie at anchor in the bay with mesh nets coiled on huge drums. But my waiter, Ken, at Gilbert's Fire Fish Grill on the pier, says most commercial boats follow the fish to cooler waters further north.

Ken serves my cioppino - a fragrant, soupy stew with clams, mussels, squid, prawns, scallop, white fish and Dungeness crab in the shell. And he explains you can fish with a rod from California's piers and jetties without forking out $43.50 (pounds 26) for a fishing licence.

Nonetheless, I can't - and won't - hire a rod. My childhood memory is that fishing stops being fun the moment you feel a tug on your line and reel in a flapping vertebrate, eyes glistening, that wants to be back in the water without a hook in its mouth.

At Moss Landing (population 700), rooms are reserved for us at the Captain's Inn, a cute, well-appointed B&B run by Melanie Gideon. I spot a framed photograph of her husband, Yohn, with a 45lb king salmon caught offshore.

Captain Yohn runs nature tours of the Elkhorn Slough, an inland channel flanked by 3,000 acres of coastal mudflats. This is home to more than 400 different species of fish and birds as well as the lovable, endangered sea otter that eats a quarter of its own weight in seafood each day.

From an open boat, we watch astonished as a sea otter floats by on its back using a stone it keeps under a flipper to crack open on its stomach a breakfast clam collected from the muddy bottom of the estuary.

Here a sub-marine canyon stretches out to sea for 100 miles to a depth of two miles. That's why this fishing village is home to major research projects that include the life history of dead whales on the sea floor and the development of underwater robot vehicles.

Phil DiGirolamo, of Sicilian parentage, serves normal-size calamari from a former fish-processing shed between the beach and the harbour that is now Phil's Fish Market.

He's a local celebrity catering for 1,000 customers a day on summer weekends at this out-of-the-way restaurant with local petrale sole, sand dabs, rock cod and king salmon. People wait patiently in line to order before they are served on long trestle tables.

In the Monterey Bay Aquarium, happily, fish are very much alive. On the site of a former sardine cannery in the town made famous in Cannery Row by John Steinbeck, the aquarium is also responsible for Seafood Watch, a West Coast guide to sustainable seafood, now embraced by chefs and retailers along the coast.

A colour-coded list of fish is divided into green for sustainable, through amber to red for overfished or caught in ways that harm other marine life or the environment.

We find well-prepared (and sustainable) fish at neighbourhood restaurants such as Passionfish in Pacific Grove (crab cakes and halibut), at upscale hotels such as the Intercontinental (salmon sashimi), and on the Fisherman's Wharf pier at Abolonetti (squid and sand dabs). …