There’s still gold up in these hills, but I’m not referring to flashes in a pan, or even the El Dorado wine-belt that’s been churning out award after award over the years. No, I’m referring to the food that’s served (and grown) here that’s an unsuspected treasure to travelers, and the flavor that keeps the locals happy right where they are. Whether you’re traveling on 49 or 50, any fork in the road is bound to lead you to a great meal in El Dorado County.

Steak and roast cauliflower at Smith Flat House, El Dorado County

It’s a crazy idea to think of a chef knowing their ingredients. But frankly, you don’t have to worry about that in El Dorado County, where so many culinary institutions use the farm next door, up the street or around the bend to fuel these foothill folks. A good meal requires two things: quality ingredients and ambiance. What better way than to start the day than with breakfast grown across the street from the birth of the California gold rush in Coloma?

Argonaut Farm to Fork Cafe exterior, El Dorado County

The Argonaut Farm to Fork Cafe is located where the Gold Rush began in Coloma.

The crisp, forested air that surrounds the riverfront Argonaut Cafe is potentially just as welcoming as the barista skills and wood-burning stove inside the cafe itself. What pushes this rustic spot beyond its perfected menu is that a majority of dishes are supported ingredient-wise by Bee Love Farm, which lies on the same stretch of historical Coloma. The cafe and the farm are both owned and operated by Brigette Faieta. She ensures a sense of belonging to every person that walks in the door, whether by the dishes crafted or friendliness of Faieta and her crew. Grab anything from a cappuccino to a chai latte before you’re overwhelmed with baked goods, omelets, bagel and breakfast sandwich options, all of which are typically accompanied by edible flowers and ripe fruit and fresh greens from the farm. Plan to grab your breakfast here, tour the historical Marshall Gold Discovery State Park and enjoy the river until it’s time for a grilled sandwich and soup (always made from scratch served in a mug) for lunch. They even have sweets like mochi, homemade pie with ice cream, and gold-dusted brownie sundaes.

What’s great about El Dorado County is the opportunity to fly fish, hike, go wine tasting, pan for gold, or take in history in between meals. You can pack in a weekend or even a half-day of adventure without moving more than 30 minutes to your next destination. There’s also no shortage of boutiques and craftsmen that add to the aesthetic this region has adopted since the Gold Rush. Moving south on the 49 from Coloma to Diamond Springs, you’ll pass by bucolic ranches, orchards, and vineyards with window-down-weather likely the case.

Annabelle's Chocolate Lounge chocolate flight, El Dorado, El Dorado County

Enjoy a chocolate and wine flight at Annabelle’s Chocolate Lounge in El Dorado.

In the town of El Dorado, you’ll first find Annabelle’s Chocolate Lounge. Yes, you read that correctly, “Chocolate Lounge.” Annabelle’s greets you with a parlor-style take on your local chocolatier. With ornate couches and chandeliers, a dimly lit table of in the corner, and a big wood bar top, it’s the perfect spot to indulge in a flight pairing that gets you four chocolates and four locally sourced wines. From traditional turtles to more elevated options like cacao dusted espresso truffles, Annabelle’s chocolate selection is unique and delicious. You’re bound to leave with a box of goodies for later.

House-made pate at Allez in Diamond Springs, El Dorado County

Enjoy housemade pate and other French delicacies at Allez!.

Just down the road at Allez!, a quiet French eatery, you’ll be welcomed with an excellent plate of meats, cheeses, and spreads accompanied with a fresh baguette and a glass of a local Mourvèdre or Barbera. With France’s colors displayed proudly on some various soccer-related items and French countryside decor and wood accents, Owner and Chef Christian hits a perfect balance of relaxed atmosphere and high-quality food that makes it a definite favorite with the locals. Plan to take it slow here, working your way through your charcuterie spread before moving onto appetizers like a salad or Escargots in garlic herb butter. As you pace your way into a heartier course, look for French favorites like Wild Boar Stew, Chicken Cordon Bleu, or “Prawns Martinquais,” prawns in a spicy ginger cream sauce served along a bed of saffron rice. Please do yourself a favor, and keep some room left to sit happily with a platter of their beautiful pastries, made by hand with perfect culinary execution.

Totem Roasters coffee and menu, Placerville, El Dorado County

Totem Roasters in Placerville makes delicious coffees with ethically sourced beans.

The following morning you’re going to want to hit everybody’s favorite coffee shop in Placerville, Totem Roasters. At Totem, Jacob Mingle has done an excellent job of gaining the trust of the entire town with the fuel that lifts you up and keeps you up daily. The baristas can make all the hits from a cortado to a macchiato, but at the base of every drink, passion for good beans drives the craft. Sourcing ethically, Totem specializes in an approachable range of roasts and flavor profiles from Columbia, to Kenya, to Bali, that is always drinkable and easy-going. The food matches the quality of their brews as well. The menu is almost 100% organic down to the spices and oils that they use to make green salads with house-made vinaigrette (try the raspberry when available). Don’t miss the chickpea falafel, yogurt filled granola cups with berries and the highly sought-after donuts which sell out like, well, hotcakes.

24 Carrot Farms, El Dorado County

24 Carrot Farms grows delicious, seasonal fruits and vegetables that many local restaurants use.

Totem, along with many restaurants in the area, take advantage of the local farms for their sourcing. 24 Carrot Farms has gained a reputation and respect in the region for Ben Hanson’s vision of producing quality over quantity and throwing in some unexpected visitors to each seasonal crop and greenhouse list. They supply more than just restaurants. The local food co-op features Hanson’s produce, and countless citizens visit the farm themselves for the open market of freshly picked options and U-pick opportunities on everything from flowers to pumpkins to apples.  They’ll have your staples liked mixed greens, heirloom tomatoes, and carrots. They also have surprises like Carolina reaper peppers, Candy Roaster squash (the one I grabbed was 11 pounds and over two feet long!), house-made black garlic, and other less common items that will put a smile on your face. The farm is just a couple of miles away from Main Street Placerville, which helps bring the community even closer and connected to their food.

The Farm Table charcuterie and cheese plate

The Farm Table’s charcuterie and cheese plate is a local’s favorite.

Speaking of Main Street, The Farm Table is a now a downtown classic in good ol’ Hangtown, and a perfect example of people connected to their ingredients. Many of the vegetable options are supported by, you guessed it, 24 Carrot Farms. But don’t worry, when you stop in for lunch, you’ll find Rabbit Pot Pie, Duck Confit, and Pork Belly dishes, or at least something along those lines. The menu is continually changing to reflect produce availability and access to what is freshest. One thing you can always count on is that chef Kara Johnson’s freezer is stocked with sausages made in-house for food lovers on the run. I had my eyes on the Duck Bourbon Apricot and the French Garlic. The Farm Table is also in a great location to set you up for a stroll in downtown Placerville, where you’ll find a variety of small shops and boutiques to explore.

Smith Flat House seafood soup, El Dorado County

The Smith Flat House bouillabaisse is best enjoyed with extra bread for soaking up the broth.

Last and certainly not least is the historic Smith Flat House. Just a couple quick miles from Placerville, the Smith Flat House has been serving the community since 1853 for all needs ranging from a Gold Rush pit stop to the post office, to a saloon. When you enter the building and walk downstairs to the cellar (where you’ll find the dining room), you’ll see the history of the building in the original stone walls and gated mine shafts that add to the experience. Here, Chef Scotty Tomblin will whip up some hearty dishes like a seafood bouillabaisse with broth that is so buttery and delicious your bread will dunk itself. The filet is tender and paired with mashed potatoes and prawns. Smith Flat House is the belly-busting, heartwarming spot you’re looking for to go home feeling satisfied.

Perhaps “heartwarming” is the feeling received from every place on this list, and more throughout El Dorado County. It’s the type of escape everyone needs, a place where you can breathe. How often can you say every fork in the road leads to a great meal, view, or winery? It’s a small-town feel with a big taste. You can’t go wrong in El Dorado County this California Restaurant Month. Or any month for that matter.

Words and images by Mike Battey.