If the summer sun has not yet broken through the fog in Carmel by noon, consider driving 10 miles inland, up Carmel Valley Road, to Cafe Rustica for lunch. You will be sitting on a sunny patio enjoying what Tripadvisor's reviewers accurately rate as the best restaurant in the Valley. We have a summer place nearby, and have eaten here more than a dozen times in the past year or two. The interior of the restaurant is cosy at other times of year, with a low ceiling, stone walls, bustling staff, and a warm pizza oven. There are 7 seats at the bar where a single diner can usually snag a spot even on a busy weekend evening. The room has a nice buzz but is not too noisy.
The menu includes pasta and pizza but classifying it as Italian is a misnomer. One of the perennial favorites is Hungarian Paprika Beef Goulash on Egg Noodles, and the first 2 pizza listings are Alsatian in origin. The restaurant is faultlessly managed in the European tradition by a large omnipresent gentleman with graying hair. Service is attentive, faultless and friendly. The wait staff appear to enjoy their work. The 3-4 nightly specials are always an excellent choice. Vegetables are not neglected and are perfectly cooked. At least one vegetarian option is available.
If you are a foodie or want to splurge, go to Marinus at Bernardus and take your chances. But if you want to eat reliably well and feel pleasantly satisfied, Cafe Rustica is your best bet.