EATING WELL while driving the Pacific Coast Highway from Los Angeles to San Francisco is something of a challenge. As a matter of fact, you really should resign yourself to feasting your eyes on the spectacular scenery until you get to San Francisco where you can feast your stomach.

Once you get above Cambria, which is just south of the famous Hearst Castle, there is only one way to go until you get to the Monterey Peninsula. There are no easterly roads through the rugged mountains. And there aren't many note-worthy restaurants. Unless you want to drive inland, about seven hours out of the way for a meal at the Imperial Dynasty in Hanford. If it's a choice between the beauty of the unspoiled coastline of California and a wonderful meal, sometimes even a food writer opts for the visual.

But if you time it right, you can take your first dinner north of Los Angeles at Sunburst Farms, a restaurant-general store-deli that promises organic food from the commune's own farm. It is 30 miles north of Santa Barbara, in Gayiota, and it's cheap.

Forget about the fact that the deli features processed meats complete with nitrites or that the cheese melted on the vegetarian special is the color of Velveeta. The carrots and cauliflower atop the baked potato are perfectly cooked, the beef has been marinated in a delicious blend of spices, the cheesecake is rich and creamy but not too sweet.

Several people discouraged a trip to the Pea Soup Andersen's in Buellton, the next stop. Years before it had been famous for its soup. It has been living on its reputation.

Once you get up into Big Sur country you should be willing to exchange good eating for spectacular scenery. Restaurant possibilities are limited.

The most famous of all eateries, Nepethene, is perched 800 feet above the Pacific Ocean in Big Sur and offers spectacular views of rugged rock formations, sheer cliffs, low-hanging fog, crashing waves and brilliant sunsets. It also offers the famous "Ambrosia Burger" and if you tell any Californian you have been to Nepethene they will ask you if you liked this specialty. It is described on the menu as "our version of a ground steak sanwich, served on a French roll . . . with our famous Ambrosia sauce."

Translation: hamburger on a soft poppy-seed roll with a dab of dressing indistinguishable from the meat.

But never mind. You can enjoy the view and then drive across the road for a much better, though more expensive meal, at Ventana. It is a small resort with good food and a celestial chocolate torte. Nothing put out by San Francisco, Los Angeles or Washington restaurants can match that torte, the creation of Elena Salsedo, who became Ventana's pastry chef when their's quit. She is self taught.

San Francisco, the next stop, has not lost its luster as a city for diners.

Some of the names and places change; some just get better.

Rene Verdon's Le Trianon has really hit its stride. John Kennedy's chef, who left the White House when Lyndon Johnson insisted he use recipe books, is producing exquisite food in beautiful classic surroundings where the tables are so well spaced you cannot eavesdrop on your neighbor's conversation. Many of Verdon's dishes are nouvelle cuisine, but he has never called attention to that because he has always cooked that way. "It's nothing new," he says. He uses the freshest ingredients possible and cooks them lightly. His sauces are made by reduction, without the use of thickeners. Even Verdon's cheesecake is a tangy "modern" version -- yogurt and whipped cream.

Paprikas Fono has become another San Francisco tradition. A fine hungarian restaurant run by Paulette and Lazlo Fono, it is proof that a place to eat in a tourist attraction (Ghiradelli Square) can offer high quality food at reasonable prices. The restaurant is charmingly decorated in the manner of a Hungarian inn. The porch tables offer a wonderful view of the harbor. The Fonos' menu does not vary much from year to year, and one of its delights is a simple cucumber salad.

If you have tried dim sum in Washington and loved it, you will want to go for an early lunch to the Hong Kong Tea House, a cavernous three-year-old dim sum palace decorated in cafeteria orange.

"A gigantic madhouse with many more Asians than Caucasians," as my colleague William Rice notes in his revised "Where to Eat in America." But you don't have to know the names of any of the 40 or so dim sums that are wheeled by on carts. The cartwheelers will identify what you're pointing at. For $8 two people can find happiness.

The restaurant is run by Joe Yick, whose family has been in the construction and restaurant equipment business in San Francisco for 60 years. cYick says he doesn't know anything about cooking and isn't even sure how some of the dishes are made, but he serves 800 people in a six-hour day and 1,200 a day on the weekend. Get there before noon for a table without waiting and for the most complete assortment.

For excellent seafood, gruff service and old San Francisco atmosphere, you have to stand in line at Taditch, either at lunch or for an early dinner. For excellent seafood and handsome modern surroundings where you might not have to stand in line, go to Scott's in the Embarcadero Center. The high quality of the food defies the accepted view of what large restaurants are capable of producing. Scott's serves one of the city's finest cioppinos, a local fish stew.

In case there is any question about San Francisco's devotion to food, during the six days I was there I was given four new cookbooks by local authors.

One, by Harvey Steiman, food editor of the San Francisco Examiner, offers those who can't get to the city an opportunity to taste some of the restaurants' best fare. Steiman's book, "Great Recipes from San Francisco," which is available by mail ($5.70 from J.P. Tarcher, Inc., 9110 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, Calif. 90069), offers recipes from many of the city's well-known establishments. What makes it different from so many other restaurant cookbooks is that Steiman tested all 150 recipes himself.

So did Goldye Mullen, food editor of the San Francisco Progress. She has put together "The International Dessert Book" with 120 recipes and the admonition: "My special desserts are for your special occasions. The piece de resistance to provide flourish and fan-fare -- not fat!"

Mullen's favorite dessert is Bing cherry torte. The book can be ordered from Ten Speed Press, Box 7123, Berkeley, Calif. 94707. It costs $8.55 including postage.

Even the host of one of San Francisco's most popular radio call-in shows, Owen Spann, is into the food business. He and his wife, Nancie, have put together what famous people would choose for "The Last Meal on Earth" (California Living Book, $4.95)

Some of the recipes picked up along the way are included. Cherry torte (10 servings) 8 egg yolks 1 cup plus 3 tablespoons confectioners' sugar 1 1/2 cups fresh rye bread crumbs (about 4 sliced) 3 tablespoons sweet sherry 1 cup round walnuts Grated rind of 1 lemon Dash of cinnamon 8 egg whites beaten stiff enough to hold point 3 cans (16-ounces) pitted black Bing cherries 1 cup heavy cream 4 tablespoons granulated sugar 2 teaspoons vanilla

Preheat oven 350. Beat egg yolks and sugar until very smooth. Cut crusts off bread and make crumbs in blender. Stir crumbs into egg mixture. Add sherry and ground nuts to batter and blend well. Stir in grated lemon rind and cinnamon. Fold stiffly beaten egg whites into crumb mixture. Drain cherries well. It is very important that there is no liquid whatsoever. Reserve half can of the well-drained cherries for a garnish. Gently fold the 2 1/2 cans of drained cherries into the cake batter. Butter and lightly flour a 10-inch spring form. Pour in batter and bake in a preheated oven for 30 to 45 minutes. When cake is tested done with a toothpick, remove from oven and cool on a cake rack.

After cake is completely cool, beat cream stiff and add sugar and vanilla.

Remove cool cake to a plate and cover completely with whipped cream. decorate top with a ring of black cherries. from "The International Dessert Book" by Goldye Mullen VENTANA CHOCOLATE TORTE (16 servings) 5 eggs 1 cup sugar 1 cup melted butter skimmed 3 ounces semi-sweet chocolate 3 ounces unsweetened chocolate 1/4 cup sifted cornstarch 1/2 teaspoon vanilla 3 tablespoon orange liqueur Grounded nuts, optional Glaze: 6 1/2 ounces semi-sweet chocolate 2/3 cup heavy cream 2 tablespoon unsalted butter

Over hot water, in the top of a double boiler, beat the eggs and sugar until mixture is very light and almost white in color. Remove from heat. Meanwhile melt the butter and skim off the foam. Return to heat and melt the chocolate. Beat the sifted cornstarch slowly into the egg mixture on low speed until throughly blended. Stir the vanilla and orange liqueur into the chocolate mixture and whisk the chocolate mixture into the egg mixture. Spoon into a 10-inch spring form which has been greased and floured. Bake at 325 degrees for about 20 to 25 minutes, until torte pulls away from sides of pan. Knife inserted in center will not come out clean. Do not overbake.

Cool in spring form. Remove ring.

To make the glaze, melt the chocolate and butter with the cream and spoon over the cooled torte. Refrigerate and chill completely. If desired, decorate sides with ground almonds, pistachios or hazelnuts. --Created by Klens Salsedo RENE VERDON'S STRAWBERRY CHEESECAKE (10 servings) 1 cup heavy cream 8 ounces sour cream 8 ounces plain yogurt Juice and rind of 1 lemon 1 package gelatin 1 tablespoon water 2 tablespoons sugar 1 pint fresh strawberries TOPPING: 1/2 cup heavy cream 1 tablespoon sugar Dash vanilla Strawberry jam

Whip 1 cup cream until stiff. Beat sour cream, yogurt and sugar together. Beat in the grated lemon peel. Add the juice of the lemon to the water and soften the gelatin in it. Dissolve over heat. Mix the gelatin with the yogurt. Then fold whipped cream into yogurt mixture.

Spoon into 8-inch springform and chill thoroughly, until mixture is firm.

Beat the 1/2 cup cream with the sugar and vanilla. Remove ring from springform. Spread or pipe the whipped cream around the sides of the cheesecake. Arrange the strawberries on top of the cake and glaze them with strawberry jam which has been melted, using a brush.

This is the adapatation of Verdon's cake. To make the dessert the way it is served in the restaurant, you will need a sponge cake. Cut the cake into a round 1/8 inch thick. Place the layer in the bottom of a spring form (9 or 10 inches) which has been lined with parchment or wax paper. Brush strawberry or raspberry liqueur over the cake layer. Spoon in the filling. And top with another 1/8 inch thick cake layer. Chill thoroughly. Unmold the cake and cover the sides with the whipped cream. Brush the top cake layer with melted strawberry jam. Decorate with the strawberries and brush them with melted jam.

Adapted from a dessert served at La Trianon CUCUMBER SALAD FROM PAPRIKAS FONO (6 to 8 servings) 3 or 4 cucumbers 1 tablespoon salt

1 1/4 cups water 1/4 cup sugar 1/3 cup white vinegar 1 or 2 cloves garlic, mashed Sour cream and Hungarian sweet paprika for garnish

Peel cucumbers with potato peeler. Slice thinly. In mixing bowl combine salt, water, sugar, vinegar and garlic; mix well.Pour dressing over cucumbers, allow to stand for at least 1 hour in the refrigerator before serving. Serve in large salad bowl (not wood) with some of dressing. Garnish with sour cream and paprika. SCOTT'S CIOPPINO (1 serving) 1/4 cup sliced mushrooms 4 ounces raw fish chunks 2 large shrmp 4 to 6 small scallops 1/2 teaspoon finely chopped garlic 2 ounces fish broth or clam juice 2 ounces dry white wine 2 fresh clams 1/2 cup marinara sauce 2 tablespoons cooked bay shrimp 2 tablespoons cooked crab meat 1 teaspoon chopped parsley In medium-size saucepan, combine the mushrooms, fish chunks, shrimp, scallops, garlic, fish broth, wine and clams. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat and let it simmer for 5 minutes, or until the fish is just done. Add the marinara sauce and heat it through. Add the bay shrimp and crab meat and immediately pour the cioppino into a large soup bowl. Sprinkle the surface with chopped parsley.From "Great Recipes from San Francisco" by Harvey Steiman