Before planning my trip to Southern California with my son, I would never have given Pasadena much thought. Most people probably know it for the Rose Bowl and its vicinity to Hollywood and Universal Studios but as we discovered, Pasadena can stand as its own destination. During our brief stay we had a chance to experience the foodie side of the city.
Traveling with kids it’s understandable for parents to stick with something they know, visiting the franchises and big brand restaurant names but there are so many independent and local spots in the city worth bringing the kids to and here are 10 my son and I enjoyed:
Old Pasadena Farmers Market
Our first day in town happened to correspond with the Old Pasadena Farmers Market right around the corner from the Courtyard Pasadena where we were staying. Nothing beats sampling local food from regional producers.
There was fresh fruit and juices, as well as to-go items like sandwiches. You could even enjoy live music while you strolled through the pedestrian only street. Some meals don’t require s sit down restaurant.
La Grande Orange Café
Good food is key but add to that unique surroundings and you have La Grande Orange Café. The spot is housed in a restored train station (and on the Metro Gold Line). Expect to wait if you plan to go for brunch as it’s a popular spot but you can always wait in the Otis Bar either inside or on the deck.
Tacos on our mind my son and I selected from the full meal taco platters. The kale based salad with the DIY tacos was so tasty and our waiter made sure we were always stocked with handmade tortillas. My son really loved the helpful and friendly attitude of our waiter, giving his personal thoughts on some dishes my son may want to try. Nothing makes a parent happier than seeing their kids treated with respect and importance. Well, nothing makes this parent happier, that and a good handcrafted sangria.
If we had more days we probably would have worked our way back to visit The Luggage Room right next door for their wood-fired pizza. It sure smelled dreamy when we walked by their spacious outdoor patio.
Coming from an urban center alleyways are often perceived as dark, isolated areas where restaurants store their garbage but Old Town Pasadena has built upon the city’s art-centric community and turned alley’s into welcoming spaces housing cafes and small storefronts. Café Santorini is one such restaurant. The entrance seems rather understated but as you make your way up to the third floor you’re greeted with a charming Mediterranean spot. If weather permits, opt for the large outside deck and a smoked margarita or a homemade sangria.
Compared to most of the places we dined in Old Pasadena, the wait staff at Café Santorini seemed a little aloof but that could be design, trying to evoke a certain atmosphere. You’ll find a fair selection of pasta and wood-fired pizza to please anyone but the kebob dishes are my pick along with grilled (not breaded or fried) calamari to start. Don’t forget to save room for tiramisu to round out your meal.
Adjusting to the time zone change meant we were up early, visiting the impressive city hall up the street where found the Jackie and Mack (Jessie) Owens monument. Strolling around Memorial Park (sometimes referred to as library park due to the remnants of the city’s first public library), we walked by a small bungalow housing the Marston’s Restaurant. The cute front porch and cozy interior was too much not to stop for breakfast.
You’ll find some great breakfast fare like eggs, oatmeal and omelettes but being known for their French Toast I opted for the corn flake encrusted sourdough toast with pecans and whipped cream. Yes, a little over the top but oh my so worth it.
Sangers & Joe
Our days in Pasadena were pretty busy with hiking Eaton Canyon, visiting Hollywood and a day in Universal Orlando. This meant getting fueled up ahead of time and Sangers & Joe right around the corner was the perfect pick. They even have an ‘In & Out Special” of coffee/juice with a pastry to go.
Sanger, Australian slang for sandwich, is the main item on Sangers & Joe daily menu. My son loved his French Onion Panini with a side of fruit (love that fruit is an option) and I enjoyed my heart breakfast sanger. The café is counter service ordering with plenty of seating inside, including a large communal table. I liked that they offered real cutlery and glasses (free water) for guests choosing to dine-in. My son loved his first chai tea latte experience.
Juice Served Here
If breakfast isn’t really your thing, Juice Served Here is right next door to Sangers & Joe offering a variety of fresh squeezed juice. Their Sweet Greens (with cucumber, cilantro, apple, lime and such) was the perfect pick-up when hitting the road.
Old Pasadena Food Tasting Tour
When traveling we love finding local spots offering great food. Old Pasadena Food Tasting Tour by Melting Pot Tours is like that best friend you wish you in town, the one to take you around to the cool spots, the hole in the wall areas you would probably just walk right by.
Lisa Scalia, one part of the sister duo behind the foodie experience, took our small group on a condensed food tour of Old Pasadena. The tour not only took us into small community shops and gave us a sampling of some fabulous regional flavours and owners, it was part neighbourhood tour. As we walked around the various streets Lisa gave us some history, talking about the architecture, the artistic influence, and how the area has changed and evolved over the years. Not something I expected but something that really added to the overall tour experience, giving us a better sense of the city we were calling home for our short visit.
But of course the best part was the food. The walking tour lasts about 3-hours but our condensed tour was a little shorter. Some of our favourite stops included:
I’m sure my son and I walked by this spot a few times during our stay as it was just down the street from the Courtyard Pasadena but it never occurred to us to stop in. What a mistake for it was here we were exposed to Tortas (authentic Mexican style grilled sandwiches).
One sandwich was brought out to serve our group of four, but the quarters were pretty substantial. One sandwich could easily have been a mini meal. We washed it down with a glass of aguas fresca, a Mexican fresh fruit drink. The flavour varies depending on the fruit in season but a refreshing treat. If the seating is full inside, there is some additional outdoor seating in the side alley or you can grab it to go for a picnic in Central Park.
Another hole in the wall spot on a side street is Father Nature but this family-owned café has been around for years. We tried some fresh made falafel balls with tahini dip, all made by hand. Living in the city we’ve tried falafel before, a favourite with my kids, but this version was so fresh, crispy on the outside and light on the inside (not dense). You could get them in a wrap but I loved them on their own like a snack. You’ll find a great collection of natural authentic Mediterranean food made fresh to the delight of your taste buds.
Bird Pick Tea & Herb
Tea, my drink of choice, always seems to take a backseat to coffee so you can imagine my excitement when we visited a tea shop. Part café, part shop, Bird Pick Tea & Herb is a tea lovers fantasy. I especially loved the large bar where you can order your classic tea and lattes as well as a number of fusions both hot and cold.
We tried a steeped Oolong, a blossom tea (where the tea opens into a flower as it steeps, and a chilled Purple Drink fusion of hibiscus tea and lychee. My son enjoyed his tea experienced so much that we visited the shop again in the evening when wrapping up our night.
You’ll never go wrong with an ice cream stop when traveling with kids. Located within the funky Indiana Colony, a collection of small independent shops housed in a small open building space, we stopped by Coolhaus. It started as an ice cream truck with architecturally inspired gourmet ice cream. I didn’t see much in the architecture idea but there were some pretty fun and funky flavours like Pizza, Cuban Cigar, and Buttered French Toast. You can ask for a little sample if you’re curious about a flavour.
Two of our tour guests opted for the Pizza flavour and loved it. My son stuck with a chocolate chocolate flavour and I went for a little bourbon in a specially created flavour using Maker’s Mark.
The Pie Hole
Another spot located within the Indiana Colony is Pie Hole offering fresh slices of goodness in the form of sweet or savoury pies. The hardest part will be trying to decide on a flavour. Pair it with an extensive speciality coffee and latte list.
If you’re planning an extended stay in Pasadena I would plan the food tour for your first day. This will help you get a lay of the land and highlight a few spots to visit later during your stay.
These were just a few of the food spots we had a chance to visit on our trip and in no way does this tap out Pasadena’s appealing restaurant list. I really liked that all of the food spot locations we discovered were all within walking distance of the Courtyard Pasadena where we were staying right in Old Town. There was no need to worry about driving around and finding parking.
You can see more of our seven day Southern California road trip with great ideas for families and tweens in the video below or checkout our Youtube channel for our family travel playlist:
Whether you’re planning to make Pasadena your family vacation destination or you decide to stop by for the day to experience the art, history and architecture, pass over the mainstream and visit some of the small locally run restaurants in the community. It’s these small business owners that keep the community strong and taste buds will be rewarded.