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The jumbo prawns with Patron cocktail sauce at the California Bistro. Photo courtesy Wright On Communications
The jumbo prawns with Patron cocktail sauce at the California Bistro. Photo courtesy Wright On Communications
Lick the Plate

California Bistro surprises with a fresh, innovative menu


Located just up the Coast Highway 101 from the higher-profile Hilton Carlsbad Oceanfront Resort & Spa with its celebrated restaurant Chandler’s, the California Bistro at the Hilton Garden Inn Carlsbad Beach could easily be overlooked.

While it does not have the upscale vibe and cutting edge design, the California Bistro has a star in the kitchen that is worth checking out.

With it’s location right off of the lobby as you walk into the hotel, I had to ask the host if this was indeed the restaurant I was looking for.

It’s not a distinguished space, more functional for business and leisure travelers but hey, some of the best food comes out of unexpected places right?

It should be noted that the Hilton Garden Inn Carlsbad Beach is rated one of the three best HGIs in the country.

I would think it would qualify for that award based on location alone but I’m sure there is more that goes into the selection.

A hotel like this could get by with standard hotel fare and a killer location but the food and beverage team took the dining portion to a higher lever with their newly renovated restaurant and updated menu, which features the creative dishes of Chef Ricardo Vargas, craft beers, signature cocktails, and more.

The hotel itself is also in the process of a rooms update, further adding to its unexpected appeal.

Chef Vargas brings 20 years of experience to the California Bistro and has held positions as the Executive Chef at Feast On This Catering in San Diego, the Stoneridge Country Club in Poway and the Doubletree Golf Resort Hotel in San Diego. One has to remember that the restaurant in a hotel is just part of the responsibilities for the chef. These places are hosting weddings, conventions, reunions and all types of events so the banquet portion of the gig can take up a lot of time and energy.

Despite those distractions, it’s obvious that Chef Vargas is set on putting his personal touches on the California Grill and from what I sampled, it’s working. My office is right down the road from the Hotel and I am going to make it a regular part of my lunch rounds.

Let’s get to the meat of the matter here and talk food. We sat outside on a nice little patio with heat lamps and let the tasting begin.

The Seafood Chowder with baby clams, shrimp, salmon, and potato was a nice way to start thing off on a brisk October evening. I say the brisk part in jest but it was below 65 degrees so just go with it.

Next up was my favorite dish of the night, the Green Tomato Sliders.

Honestly, the slider trend was a little tired for this plate licker, but these were unique and definitely showed the personal touch of Chef Vargas.

They consisted of beer-battered tomato, homemade slaw and a spicy red pepper aioli on a very nice bun. Seriously good stuff, and so original. A great vegetarian option for your next dinner party.

Another standout is the Pacific Gulf Shrimp with jumbo prawns, corn, jicama relish, and Patron cocktail sauce. The shrimp is grilled and every ingredient works in harmony with each other. Plus the Patron cocktail sauce is kind of sexy but don’t worry, it’s simply for flavor, you will not have to call an Uber to get home. The Carlsbad Local Farm Strawberry Salad with local farm greens, strawberries, candied walnuts, goat cheese and light raspberry vinaigrette is delightful.

I’ll be completely honest in my preference for crispy battered versus grilled fish tacos as Chef Vargas offers, but these were quite nice. He grills mahi-mahi and serves it with salsa, queso fresco, crema Mexicana, and homemade slaw. The slaw provides the crunch I crave and the fish was moist and delicious.

We finished up the savory portion of the evening with the Linguine Mozzarella. This was my second favorite dish. If a pasta dish can be light, this one pulls it off.  Fresh tomato is combined with fresh mozzarella, green onion, garlic, and sweet lime-white wine sauce. I had some cold for breakfast the next morning and it was even better. The true test of a great pasta dish…in the world of Lick the Plate anyway.

California Bistro at the Hilton Garden Inn Carlsbad Beach was an unexpected delight and it’s worth keeping an eye on what Chef Vargas has on his seasonal menu.  The restaurant is located at 6450 Carlsbad Blvd. Call (760) 476-0800 or visit

Lick the Plate can now be heard on KPRi, 102.1 FM Monday – Friday during the 7pm hour.  David Boylan is founder of Artichoke Creative and Artichoke Apparel, an Encinitas based marketing firm and clothing line. Reach him at                                    [email protected] or (858) 395-6905.