In a previous post, I wrote about some of the good family food and eating experiences that we enjoyed during our recent family rendezvous in Big Sur. This time, I want to describe some of our favorite restaurants. There is no lack in Big Sur of good eating choices for every budget and for every time of day. We certainly haven’t tried them all. So often we are on our way to something else and the time is not right. But we have also become creatures of habit, so we come back to our old standbys.
Without doubt, the place we visit the most is the Big Sur Bakery. We used to make elaborate home-made breakfasts in the cabin – pancakes, omelets, scrambled eggs and bacon – but no more. Every morning we head to the Big Sur Bakery, often with the younger ones chanting in the background what has almost become a mantra, “Big Sur Bakery! Big Sur Bakery!” The obvious reasons for this change of allegiance are first there is nothing to clean up except for busing your table when you are finished and second the pastries and breakfast dishes are unbelievably delicious. My very favorite is the ham and cheese croissant, but the daily fritatta runs a close second. For those with a sweet tooth, the berry strudel is a pleaser. The pain au chocolat (chocolate croissant) is a popular choice for kids. The citrus bun is also popular with everyone. Beverages are also varied and creative. The barista spends as much effort with the kids’ hot chocolates as he or she (depending on the day) does with the lattes. There is a whole wall full of choices for hot tea, or you can get iced tea or fresh fruit juice. When we first started going to Big Sur, the bakery was popular, but now it has clearly been discovered. If you arrive at 8 AM there is likely to be a line waiting for the doors to open. If you arrive too late – say around 11 – there is a good chance that they will have run out of your favorite. If that happens, hang around for lunch or dinner because their offerings for those meals are creative and delicious.
The Big Sur River Inn is a popular family gathering place for lunch. By noon, the fog has almost always burned off so that the deck is warm and sunny. The choices are all pretty much American – burgers, sandwiches, interesting soups, and salads filled with just about whatever you might want – but they are well prepared, tasty, and generously sized for the price. For the kids (as well as their parents) an unusual advantage of the River Inn is that you can choose to sit in the river. That’s right! There are Adirondack chairs in the middle of the river running behind the restaurant where you can sit and cool your feet in the rushing water while you are waiting for your lunch. The place serves dinner, too, and often has live entertainment later in the evening. The River Inn is at or near the nerve center of the Big Sur because it has one of the best grocery stores with a selection of wine, beer, and liquor and it also is nearby several motels and campgrounds as well as Big Sur’s version of a shopping mall: three or four little shops with clothing, curios, and other odds and ends.
Nepenthe is quintessential Big Sur. It has been in place for a long time, and to prove it there are pictures around of customers relaxing during the days of Jack Kerouac and before. That means that a lot of today’s older visitors remember the place from their “Hippie Days”. The big attraction is the view, and it is at its best after the fog has gone and before the sun has set, so clearly lunch is a popular time. Arrive when they open, and you will probably be able to get a table outside with a view. Things fill up fast, so you may need to wait, but there are some comfortable waiting areas outside. The food is good but not amazing. The “signature dish”, if there is one, is the Ambrosiaburger topped with a special sauce. The French dip sandwich is straight out of the sixties and reminiscent of the one my mother always prepared for my kids during their visits. The bean salad is much more complex than the three-bean salad you have probably had a hundred times before. It has an herbal taste that complements whatever you have with it. The soup of the day is always unique. One of my favorites is the curried apple. The name may not sound too exciting, but the soup is outstanding.
There are other very special places including the Post Ranch and Ventana. Those have spectacular views, elegant dining rooms, and amazingly sophisticated foods for being so far from the big cities. For them, you might consider dressing a little better than the usual Big Sur casual, and you should definitely be prepared when the check arrives. Still, the experience makes it seem very much worth it.
This list has only scratched the surface of the restaurant experiences that are available to you in Big Sur. Much of the fun is exploring the possibilities on your own.