There is a lot to see and do when visiting Half Moon Bay, California. This coastal community provides a classic harbor, secluded beaches, spacious foothills, several trails to enjoy, and an eclectic downtown area full of boutique shops and restaurants.
Within the heart of the harbor lies the enclave of Princeton By the Sea, or just "Princeton" as called by the locals. This article covers the area of Princeton By the Sea and the adjoining harbor area and its restaurants.
The Princeton area is a place for tourists. There is the Johnson Pier and the Pillar Point Marina, a throwback to an era of fishing boats, fish markets, and fishing off the pier. The commercial fishing that boomed years ago is still present, yet, not as bountiful as years past.
Old Princeton Landing
There are plenty of options to dine in Princeton. Let us start with my favorite place, and that is "Old Princeton Landing," or "OPL." Located on Capistrano Road, this little hole in the wall dishes out some fantastic fare. OPL used to simply be a fish market, but they eventually made the fish market into a dining area, albeit a small one, but they do have outdoor seating. Next door to the restaurant is a popular bar that often hosts live music. We have enjoyed their fish tacos and fish and chips, and more recently, their delicious tri-tip sandwich. I don't often order tri-tip sandwiches because they are often dry, but at OPL, it was delicious and full of flavor! OPL is often overlooked by tourists. On one visit, people were in line for Barbara's Fish Trap and Half Moon Bay Brewery, and just around the corner was OPL and there was no line. More on those places upcoming.
The charm of Old Princeton Landing is that the fish, for their fish and chips anyways, comes from the local fishermen. We talked with the owner and he let us know, that "that fish you just had in your fish and chips was likely caught this morning." Having the luxury of enjoying fresh fish in Half Moon Bay, or any coastal town is a challenge in these modern times. There are just too many laws preventing the sale of fish off a boat that goes directly to a local restaurant, and because of this governmental interference, there are fewer fishermen.
Another favorite restaurant of ours is Mezza Luna restaurant. Mezza Luna is located across the street from Old Princeton Landing. If you love Italian food, then you definitely want to stop by Mezza Luna. My wife had the lasagna and it tasted as the dish was from the old country, not that we've had lasagna in the "old country," but it was plated very rusticly and had a ton of flavor. I chose the Lamb pops which were incredible!
For breakfast, we enjoy the Caffe Mezza Luna located at the Shoppes in Harbor Village adjacent to the Oceano Hotel and Spa. Caffe Mezza Luna has a number of pastries or the classic bacon and eggs or omelet.
It's a Trap!?
I mentioned before about the restaurants that are more "touristy," where often there is a line. The first is Barbara's Fish Trap. Barbara's, you can't miss, because again, there is often a line outside. Barbara's is located right on the water. Barbara's is "okay." It is reasonably priced, but our feeling is that the food is a bit overrated. Back in December of 2019, we tried it again, following up on a trip prior to December of 2019, where we just were not impressed, and our follow-up trip in December wasn't any better. We felt that the staff was "bothered" by the number of people. Their fish is not locally sourced and they don't make any false claims that their fish is from the bay, but just a note for you. For such an "acclaimed" local restaurant, you would hope that the fish is locally caught.
The Half Moon Bay Brewing Company is also very popular with tourists. We have been there a couple of times and we have always enjoyed our time there. They do brew their own beer and they even have a "red" beer which is difficult to find in these days of IPA's and fruity beers that are quite "hoppy." Half Moon Bay Brewing Company provides nice outdoor seating and their food has always been good, nothing special, but definitely palatable.
Then there is Sam's Chowder House
The most iconic restaurant in Half Moon Bay is Sam's Chowder House which lies on Highway 1 just outside of Princeton By the Sea. Sam's is ALWAYS busy! The restaurant is spacious as they provide indoor dining as well as outdoor seating with a spectacular view of Pillar Point Harbor Beach as well as the harbor itself. If you time it right, and the weather is cooperating, Sam's provides a spectacular view of the sunset. The food is not as spectacular. We have enjoyed the calamari and the clam chowder, but as for some of their main dishes, there is much left to be desired. Parking at Sam's can be a challenge and if you are simply driving past Sam's on Highway 1, slow down. Cars are always coming in and out of the place and often they are backing up on Highway 1.
You do have to visit Sam's at least once if you travel to Half Moon Bay. I suggest sticking to the calamari and clam chowder. Our suggestion is to bypass the touristy restaurants as previously mentioned, and head to either Old Princeton Landing or Mezza Luna.
There are a few other restaurants in the Princeton area, but for this piece, I just wanted to share restaurants where we have dined before. There is always a lot to explore in Half Moon Bay, and that is the charm of this community, as there is still a lot to explore and places to eat that we have not been to.