If wanderlust flows through your vegan veins, the ultimate California road trip is likely at the top of your bucket list. This itinerary takes you from San Diego to San Francisco, crunching on purple taquitos in Costa Mesa, digging into a popcorn-topped mac and cheese in Santa Barbara, and holding on tightly to a barbecue fried shrimp Po’Boy on Dutch crunch bread in Oakland. Don’t be so surprised—the Golden State does much more than $16 avocado toast. Buckle up and set your Google Maps to cruise down the scenic Pacific Coast Highway. California is calling.
San Diego’s restaurant scene has a lot of variety including sushi, vegan versions of fast-food classics, rustic comfort food, and more to start off right on this indulgent road trip.
With a rich menu of risotto, pizzas, breakfast calzones, and handmade pasta, it’s no surprise that Donna Jean is one of the top vegan restaurants in San Diego. Carbs rule this kitchen—from the cast-iron mac and cheese to the impossible-to-resist house bread and butter—but it’s highly advised to save room for the crispy Hot Shrooms (Nashville-style fried oyster mushrooms). Pro tip: don’t skip dessert.
If you like your vegan brunch with a side of punk metal, then Kindred is the place for you. The ambiance is a hardcore juxtaposition of unapologetically hot pink walls accented with a four-eyed wolf sculpture and skull decor. Savory bánh mì French toast sticks (Crusties) and a country-fried breakfast sausage sandwich (The Forenoon) are two local favorites that pair tantalizingly well with one of the restaurant’s many brunchy cocktail options.
Other exceptional eats in San Diego County include The Plot in Oceanside, Civico 1845 (multiple locations), Trilogoy Sanctuary in La Jolla, Tribute Pizza in North Park, Split Bakehouse in La Mesa, Maya’s Cookies in San Diego, and The Yesai (multiple locations).
Orange County is dotted with exceptional vegan restaurants and hidden gems. If you need to keep your visit short, The Camp and The LAB Anti-Mall in Costa Mesa is where you will find a cluster of vegan restaurants and cool shops to keep you entertained between meals.
Good Town Doughnuts
Good Town Doughnuts
Neighboring Seabirds Kitchen, Good Town Doughnuts features brioche-style doughnuts (about half are vegan). Tantalizing flavors include Mango Coconut, Lemon Poppyseed, Matcha, Chocolate Strawberry, and more. When struck with indecision, opt for the pre-packed vegan assortment box that comes with six adorably miniature doughnuts in the shop’s best-selling flavors.
Seabirds Kitchen is a great stop for those craving a taste of cool California cuisine. Grab a spot on the patio for brunch and indulge in the sweet-meets-savory Porque Maria—Seabird’s take on a Monte Cristo sandwich—enjoyed between sips and nibbles of a fried pickle-topped Birdy Mary (the restaurant’s take on a Bloody Mary). At night, that patio turns on the twinkle lights as guests munch on crispy Purple Taquitos, Beer Battered Avo Tacos, and a controversial yet mouthwatering Beets Me Burger topped with almond butter. Local tip: if you’re dining with two or more, split the Chaffle for dessert—this churro waffle sundae is the perfect food.
Other noteworthy stops in Orange County include Kenshō Vegan Sushi (various locations), Munchie’s Diner, Naughty Vegan, and Soy Concha in Santa Ana, Vegan by El Zamorano in Costa Mesa, Freesoulcaffe in Tustin, Gracias Madre in Newport Beach, and The Stand in Laguna Beach.
With a city as sprawling and progressive as Los Angeles, there are curated vegan restaurant guides for every neighborhood. When LA is just a detour on a long list of California’s coastal cities, stick to the established spots in Venice and Santa Monica to avoid the inevitable traffic across the city.
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Erin McKenna’s Bakery
Erin McKenna’s pioneering bi-coastal bakery makes something sweet and savory for everyone regardless of dietary preference or food sensitivities. Everything on the menu is gluten-, dairy-, egg-, and soy-free. Locals have been visiting this vibrantly pink storefront for years and still have a hard time deciding what to get—it’s all enchantingly good. High on the list is a slice of Cinnamon Crumb Cake, Coffee Crunch Doughnut, savory Veggie Bombs, and the Bakery Sink dessert cup—a 16-ounce tumbler packed with pieces of cake and various flavored doughnuts.
Plant Food and Wine
Plant Food + Wine
Three words: cacio e pepe. Celebrity chef Matthew Kenney produces a fabulous vegan reinvention of this classic Italian dish with soft kelp noodles dressed in an umami-rich cashew cheese sauce infused with black pepper and brought to life with fresh spring peas. Each menu item at Plant Food + Wine is precisely plated and expertly prepared—you’ll want to budget for a handful of dishes to sample the culinary talents of this haute cuisine. It’s certainly high-end but well worth the spend.
Other stellar stops in Los Angeles include Magpies Soft Serve (various locations), Pura Vita Pizzeria in West Hollywood, Gracias Madre in West Hollywood, Flore in Silver Lake, Ladurée in Beverly Hills, Rahel’s in Little Ethiopia, El Cocinero in Van Nuys, and Monty’s Good Burger (various locations).
Santa Barbara’s food scene relies heavily on tourism which means there are more bistros and fine dining than there are fast-casual restaurants. There are only a handful of completely vegan restaurants in Santa Barbara, but the few that exist are quite memorable.
This completely vegan restaurant nails California cool cuisine. The menu favors vegetables in lieu of alternative vegan meat options, highlighting seasonal produce and transforming mushrooms and jackfruit into meaty chorizo and hearty handholds. Favorites at Mesa Verde include the Squash Blossom Quesadillas, Picadillo Empanadas, and loaded Polenta Fries.
Satellite’s menu is vegetarian and changes regularly, but you can always find plenty of clearly-labeled vegan options. Dig into the Yoga Pants Salad or tear apart the garlicky Cast Iron Focaccia while sipping one of the fabulous wines on offer. Note: the restaurant doubles as a wine shop, so purchase a few bottles for the road (when you arrive at your next destination, obviously).
Other great stops would be Oliver’s, The Natural Cafe, Fala Bar in Santa Barbara, Bliss Cafe and Ziggy’s in San Luis Obispo, and Shine Cafe in Morro Bay.
While small in population and size, Monterey is not to be missed on a coastal tour of the Golden State. It’s not a massive vegan hub like Los Angeles or Orange County, but there are plenty of vegan-friendly spots to sustain your beachside and hiking activities. Check these two out the next time you’re up North.
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El Cantaro delivers quality vegan food for a great value. For the same price as two burritos from Chipotle, you can feed two people with a large combination plate and a couple of sides. This works to the budget-conscious traveler’s favor, because you will want to try every vegan option on the menu. Start with the vegan taquitos, try the mushroom quesadilla, and polish off the meal with fried plantains served with non-dairy ice cream.
For an evening of live music and great vegan food, Julia’s is the place to be. The menu is vegetarian, but most items are vegan or can be made vegan (more often with substitutions than omission). Pro tip: happy hour starts at 8pm and lasts all night long. Take advantage of late-night specials.
Other stops in Monterey and on the way to the Bay Area include Saffron Cafe, Central Coast Juicery in Pacific Grove, Pretty Good Advice in Soquel, and Zachary’s and Veg on the Edge in Santa Cruz.
You could spend a month in the Bay Area and still have more to see and eat. However, if you only have a few days, stick to the vegan highlights in San Francisco, Oakland, and Berkeley for a plant-based taste of the Bay.
Shizen Vegan Sushi Bar
Shizen is a wildly popular vegan sushi and izakaya bar featuring the fusion of veggie-forward Japanese and California cuisine. Expect immaculate vegan nigiri, intricate sushi rolls, and a wide array of grilled, braised, and fried vegetable dishes.
Timeless Coffee Roasters
Timeless Coffee Roasters and Bakery
Timeless Coffee is a vegan bakery and coffee roastery that has all of the essentials to start your day. Whether you’re craving a sweet powdered sugar-dusted blueberry scone or a savory egg-free frittata, Timeless Coffee will serve it up with an excellent cup of coffee or dairy-free latte.
The Butcher’s Son
The Butcher’s Son
The brother-and-sister duo that own this vegan deli wanted to provide nostalgic comfort food without any animal ingredients for their community. The wide range of options at The Butcher’s Son include monstrous meat-and-cheese sandwiches, deli sides á la carte, and housemade sweets. Be sure to arrive early as this spot closes at 3pm on weekdays and 4pm on weekends.
Other great stops in San Francisco include Wildseed, BAIA, Vegan Picnic, Gracias Madre, and Nourish Cafe. In Oakland, try out Souley Vegan, Eternal, Bare Knuckle Pizza, Malibu’s Burgers, and Millennium. In Berkeley, visit Cha-Ya, Kaffa Ethiopian Cuisine, and Stand-Up Burgers. Outside of these cities, check out Retrograde Coffee Roasters in Sebastopol and Blossom Vegan in Pleasanton.
We hope this ultimate California road trip inspires you to try new dishes, support small businesses, and explore new horizons. Happy vegan traveling!
For more vegan options in California, read:
A Vegan Guide to Napa and California’s Wine Country
How to Eat Vegan In Oakland
VegNews Best of LA Awards