At Coastal Kitchen, dining is an experience. Dishes are served, drinks poured. There are tables and booths. In most respects, it resembles any other restaurant. Yet Chef Michael Rotondo builds the tasting menu as movements, though he’s not reaching for a crescendo. Each course is captivating. What shouldn’t come as a surprise is that Coastal Kitchen is tucked inside the Monterey Plaza Hotel on Cannery Row. Yet hotel restaurants are often overlooked. Locals consider them the domain of tourists. Visitors are often keen to leave the hotel and scout for places around town. “It is a little challenging,” admits chef Mario Garcia of Estéban Restaurant, located in the Casa Munras Garden Hotel in downtown Monterey. On weekends and busy seasons, area residents tend to look elsewhere. “They’ll come in on a weekday,” Garcia says. But some of Monterey County’s most esteemed restaurants are housed in hotels. Aubergine, in the exclusive L’Auberge Carmel, holds the county’s only Michelin Star. Sierra Mar in Big Sur’s Post Ranch Inn brings in produce from its own plots, as well as select farms. The blackened halibut at Pacific’s Edge, the restaurant at Hyatt Carmel Highlands, will linger in your memory for years. Portola Hotel & Spa features not only a sit-down restaurant—Jacks— but also Peter B’s, a brewpub and sports bar often cited for the best chicken wings in the county. There are other examples, such as Shearwater Tavern in Carmel Mission Inn, Covey Grill in The Quail Lodge and the C restaurant+bar, in the Clement hotel on Cannery Row. These are not the dour rooms of industrial carpet often framed by the phrase “hotel restaurant.” Many feature changing menus and are guided by seasonality and sustainability, emphasizing local ingredients. The culinary team at Valley Kitchen in Carmel Valley Ranch can call upon artisans tending gardens, beehives, even goats and chickens. Chef Christian Ojeda of Lucia Restaurant & Bar in the Bernardus Lodge calls his approach “chef to farm.” Ojeda visits with farmers and gets to know them and their products. He may take asparagus from one, but turn to another for corn, depending upon their particular qualities. The forager who brings in mushrooms pulls up to the luxurious retreat in a battered and bruised Toyota pickup. It helps that, as at Valley Kitchen, Sierra Mar and other locations, the 18 The Best of Monterey Bay ® EAT + DRINK 2023-2024 Room, Service Hotel restaurants have become destinations of their own. By Dave Faries Inn Crowd Estéban Daniel Dreifuss