Cambria – the one on the Central Coast of California, not the one in Australia – is the perfect place for a long-weekend get-away. Whether coming from Southern California, the Bay Area or the Central Valley, it’s a convenient distance – just far enough from home, yet not a major trek.
The town is divided into two villages, about 30 minutes north of San Luis Obispo and 15 minutes south of the Hearst Castle. Heading north beyond the castle, Highway 1 winds its way through Big Sur and on to Monterey and Carmel. It’s a drive that rivals the Amalfi Coast or Hana Highway for white knuckles and surpasses each of them when it comes to spectacular views.
About five minutes from the town of Cambria, on the ocean side of the highway, a span of bed and breakfast inns and motels line Moonstone Drive and offer unimpeded views of the Pacific.
There are shops and restaurants in both sections of the town, know as East Village and West Village. For browsing in local shops and for the best eating the action lies in the East Village.
Jennifer and I have been sneaking off to Cambria in season and out for some 20 years. When folks ask us, “What do you do there?” the answer always is, “Nothing; it’s perfect.”
We take walks on the wooden path through the protected growth above the boulder and driftwood strewn beach. We sit and read on benches overlooking the ocean, when the weather permits, or in the front room of the B&B when the weather turns wet or cold or windy. We shop – a little – and drive a few miles up the coast to look at the sea elephants as they lounge on the sand and rocks. We comment often on how few vacant lots remain on Moonstone Drive and we remember when close to half of them were empty. In short, we would do nothing, or close to nothing.
Until recently that’s all there was to it – a great place to spend a few days doing nothing. Then, at the end of the day, it would become a matter of “what are we going to do about dinner.” It’s one thing to revel in the quiet and the isolation, knowing that in a few days we’ll be back home, surrounded by the city life that is so necessary to our contentment. It’s quite another thing to do that while deprived of the type of dining upon which we have become happily dependent.
Years ago, on our first visit, we were introduced to the The Sea Chest Oyster Bar & Seafood Restaurant on Moonstone Drive. The ambiance is rough coastal sea food restaurant; the décor is New England shanty – no reservations, no credit cards. But the food always has been terrific. Unless it is particularly cold or rainy, we often walk there from our B&B.
For the longest time that was about it. Most of the rest of the places in town didn’t come up to our personal tastes. Linn’s in the East Village was more than adequate for lunches and served up very good pies, cakes and pastries. But dinners were a challenge.
Now, all that has changed. The culinary scene, though still passionately informal, has improved dramatically and there are enough choices to fill a visit of several days.
Let’s start with Linn’s, which has been in the East Village as long as we’ve been visiting Cambria. The old Linn’s gave over a large portion of its space to the sale of wine, oils, vinegars, aprons, pot holders and other similar items. Fire destroyed the restaurant in April of 2006. A 20-month rebuilding program transformed the space. The market area, now called Gourmet Goods, moved to another site during reconstruction and remains there. Also during reconstruction, owners John and Renee Linn opened Easy-as-Pie Café around the corner at which they continue to sell their fabulous desserts as well as light lunch type fare.
The new restaurant opened in December 2007 and offers an expanded and exciting menu. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are served. Much of the food travels a direct line from the Linn’s own farm five miles away to their restaurant kitchen in Cambria. And the kitchen is up to the challenge of maintaining the quality as it arrives at your table.
Next, let’s talk about Robin’s, also in the East Village. It, too, has been there as long as we’ve been visiting. For many years we would go to Robin’s and feel we were settling. The food was uneven and quirky, yet better than most of what else was available in town. No more. The motto of the place remains “handcrafted global cuisine.” But the menu has matured as has the quality of the food being served. The dinner menu includes Vietnamese, Peruvian, Indian, Korean, Thai, Japanese and American dishes. There’s also an extensive list of vegetarian and vegan offerings. The smells that waft through the place are dizzying. The starters and the entrees cry out to be shared around the table, even if there are just two of you.
The Sow’s Ear is yet another East Village place that’s been there as long as we’ve been visiting. We would dine there occasionally and usually found it acceptable. Most often, however, we would opt for an extra night at the Sea Chest. New owners took over The Sow’s Ear in 2001 and revamped the menu. The ample offering of comfort foods survives. But now they are joined by some interesting fish and seafood dishes and a greater assortment of appetizers.
Finally, there’s the allure of Buono Tavola beckoning from down the road in San Luis Obispo. It’s been there since 1992 but just came into our lives in 2010. Owners Antonio and Casey Varia are personal friends of a friend of ours. Under the heading of full disclosure, with a measure of braggadocio, I will admit that on our first visit we were hosted by the owners and their daughter and joined by our mutual friend.
This is an outstanding northern Italian style restaurant. The food we were served when we dined with Antonio and Casey was no different than what was being served to others. Nothing put before us was not available to any other guest. From the handcrafted, artisan salumis prepared personally by Antonio, to the quality of the anchovies on the Cesar salad, to the originality of the pappardelle with flat iron steak in a slightly spicy tomato based sauce with peppers and capers, there was not a flaw in the experience.
Antonio and Casey have a second restaurant – Buono Tavola 2 – in Paso Robles. The menu differs slightly. But having spent an evening dining with Antonio and talking about food for nearly three hours, I have every faith Dui will match the original. Take a look at the creative menus at http://www.btslo.com and as you do you can know that the food on the table lives up to the promise on the menu. It may be 30 minutes down the highway from Cambria, but how many times do we drive that long or longer for dinner when we are at home. It may be Highway 1 instead of city streets or freeways, but it’s still just 30 minutes.
So, now when we think of a long weekend getaway to Cambria, doing nothing for a few days is no longer be the only goal. There also is the continuing adventure of our constant quest for the next great meal and the confidence that we are likely to find one in Cambria.
You can read full recommendations for The Sea Chest, Linn’s, Robin’s and the Sow’s Ear at http://www.atLarrys.com. Go to my page and select Central Coast as the region. There you also will find links to each of the restaurants and their menus.