Our Favorite Burgers on the Central Coast
Story and photos by Katherine McMahon
I am constantly driving Highway 101 up and down the Central Coast, and one thing I can never get enough of on my journeys is a good burger. I’ve traveled all over the U.S. and am convinced that California’s Central Coast has the best burgers in the country. It could be the history of cattle ranching, the fresh farm-to-table culture, or just an elevated culinary style. Sometimes it can also be about more than the burger — it’s the entire experience. There are so many I have tried, but here are the ones that have stayed in my memory.
California 101 Travelers Guide Ventura County’s Favorite Burgers
Although Decker Kitchen was originally located in Westlake Village, in 2022 they made the move to an infinitely larger and upscale space in Thousand Oaks. This is my kind of place: stylish, farm-to-table menu, unique cocktails, and wine shop. They had me at Feta Mousse Toast. The burger is a winner, topped with the magical combo of aged Spanish Manchego cheese and jalapeño marmalade.
Decker Kitchen is at 3731 Thousand Oaks Blvd., Thousand Oaks. For more: deckerkitchen.com
Winchesters Grill & Saloon
For more than two decades, Winchesters Grill & Saloon has been a huge draw on Ventura’s Main Street. When it opened in the mid-‘90s, the downtown Ventura area was much quieter. Now, there is so much to do, see, eat, and drink along Main Street, yet Winchesters is still the place to be. It has a fun cowboy theme, expansive patio, and live music most nights. There’s all kinds of classic cowboy food: chili, tri-tip, pulled pork, and a huge local beer list — but the burgers are the stars. My favorite is the 50-50 Bacon Burger because of its incredible smoky bacon flavor.
Winchesters Grill & Saloon is at 632 E. Main St., Ventura. For more: winchestersgrill.com
Jim & Rob’s Fresh Grill
I’ve been to Ojai quite a bit, but until recently I had missed this local hotspot. Jim & Rob’s Fresh Grill has been serving mostly Mexican food for over 25 years. The burritos, enchiladas, and nachos are popular, but the burgers are a favorite. The style here is simple done to perfection — especially if you get the Watkins Ranch burger. They start with a third-pound patty, sourced from grass-fed angus beef courtesy of the Ojai-based Watkins Cattle Co., and add the traditional burger fixings. Everything is very fresh, and it just works. Jim & Rob’s is adjacent to Lisa’s Cantina; with several TVs, it’s a lively place to take in a game (or three) and enjoy a margarita or beer with your burger.
Jim & Rob’s Fresh Grill is at 214 W. Ojai Ave., Ojai. For more: jimandrobsojai.com
California 101 Travelers Guide Santa Barbara County’s Favorite Burgers
Padaro Beach Grill
A Santa Barbara County favorite! A visit here is worth it for the lush, expansive outdoor seating area alone. There are picnic tables surrounded by tropical palms, a sandbox area for kids to play, and the beach just beyond a hedge. The menu is classic California coast: fish tacos, fried calamari, tri-tip fries, and oh-so-amazing burgers. Here, they believe in piling them high with a delight of flavors. The signature Padaro Burger comes with melted cheese, bacon, an onion ring with a scoop of chunky avocado mash in the middle, barbecue sauce, chipotle mayo, lettuce, and tomato. The crunch of the onion ring with the creaminess of the avocado is a joy to the tastebuds. It’s a whole experience sitting by the ocean, under the palms, enjoying a burger and their classic milkshakes.
Padaro Beach Grill is at 3765 Santa Claus Ln., Carpinteria. For more: padarobeachgrill.com
Milk & Honey Tapas
Years ago, I was looking for a light bite to eat in downtown Santa Barbara, and I found the tapas-style menu of Milk & Honey. There are so many treats at this dinner spot, like Manchego cheese skewers with pressed guava, or bacon wrapped dates. There are also clever cocktails like Midnight in the Garden — a lavender-lime twist on an Aperol gin spritz. But what keeps me coming back again and again are the Americana Sliders: ground sirloin topped with Roma tomato, a slice of cheddar, and chili garlic aioli. Sounds so simple, and yet after a bite you have to pause and say Wow.
Milk & Honey Tapas is at 30 W. Anapamu St., Santa Barbara. For more: milknhoneytapas.com
Jalama Beach Store
During the height of Covid lockdowns, there were days I had to just get out of the house and drive. One time I was on CA-1 near Lompoc and turned down a road I had never been on before. After about 15 minutes the Pacific Ocean emerged into view, and I found myself at Jalama Beach County Park. How had I never known of this before? There are camp sites and cabins, day-use picnic areas, a beach that is wonderful (if windy) for walking and poking around the tide pools. There is also the Jalama Beach Store, which proudly declares it is the home of the world famous Jalama Burger™. I discovered that people drive from all over to line up for this burger. The secret seems to be in the stacking of shredded lettuce, red onion, crisp slice of tomato, and the magical Jalama sauce. After a long country drive, sitting on the sand watching the wind surfers as the sun sinks toward the horizon, this burger is perfection. Just watch out for the seagulls — they love the burger too!
Jalama Beach Store is at 9991 Jalama Rd., Lompoc. For more: jalamabeachstore.com
California 101 Travelers Guide San Luis Obispo County Favorite Burgers
TASTE! Craft Eatery
On many of my drives up the coast, I get to San Luis Obispo right around lunch time. Between the airport and downtown is TASTE! Craft Eatery. They have two locations — one in SLO and one in Paso Robles, but I love the convenience of the SLO establishment. The burgers come small, slider-style, but the flavor combinations are brilliant. And there are a ton of them on the menu! Along with more than a dozen beef sliders, you’ll also find choices for lamb, pork, fish, chicken, and vegetarian. My favorites are the Eve Burger, with fig jam and chèvre, and the Georgia Burger, with marinated peaches and bacon.
TASTE! Craft Eatery is at 2550 Broad St., San Luis Obispo. For more: tasteslo.com
One night I was staying in Morro Bay when the power went out along the Embarcadero and none of the restaurants could seat me for dinner. So I left downtown looking for something new, and stumbled across Flavor Factory. It is unassuming, tucked between a karate school and an auto parts store, but the Bacon Jam Burger topped with caramelized onions, espresso, and other exotic goodies is extraordinarily good. Their many other burgers — from the Towering Inferno (think spicy) to The Hangover (with two fried eggs) — will have you coming back time and again.
The Flavor Factory is at 420 Quintana Rd., Morro Bay. For more: facebook.com/flavorfactorymb
The Bistro at Vina Robles
The Vina Robles Winery is known for crafting high quality wines. But they also have a bistro kitchen at their tasting room that is open for lunch and provides ample options to complement their wines. The chef has created a burger topped with a portobello mushroom, caramelized onions that have been soaked in cabernet, raclette cheese, and roasted garlic aioli, all on a grilled brioche bun. It is beautiful to behold, and the flavor palette is beyond anything you would expect from a burger. I have to tell you this about Paso Robles: come for the wine, stay for this burger.
Vina Robles is at 3700 Mill Rd., Paso Robles. For more: vinarobles.com/visit/bistro