The amount of time and money spent on restoring rivers for declining populations of salmon has grown substantially in recent decades. But despite the infusion of resources, many studies suggest that salmon populations are continuing to decline, leading some to question the effectiveness of restoration efforts. Here we examine whether a particular form of salmon restoration—channel reconfiguration with gravel augmentation—generates physical and biological habitat that is comparable with other streams that support salmon. We compared a suite of habitat features known to influence the various life stages of Chinook salmon in a restoration project in California's Merced River with 19 other streams that also support Chinook that we surveyed in the same geographic region. Our survey showed that riffle habitats in the restored site of the Merced River have flow discharge and depth, substrate and food web characteristics that cannot be distinguished from other streams that support Chinook, suggesting that these factors are unlikely to be bottlenecks to salmon recovery in the Merced. However, compared with other streams in the region, the Merced has minimal riparian cover, fewer undercut banks, less woody debris and higher water temperatures, suggesting that these factors might limit salmon recovery. After identifying aspects in the Merced that differ from other streams, we used principal components analysis to correlate salmon densities to independent axes of environmental variation measured during our survey. These analyses suggested that salmon densities tend to be greatest in streams that have more undercut banks and woody debris and lower water temperatures. These are the same environmental factors that appear to be missing from the Merced River restoration effort. Collectively, our results narrow the set of candidate factors that may limit salmon recovery in channel reconfiguration restoration efforts. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.