Anything can conjure it: a warm breeze, a catchy tune, too many obligations or complications, that nagging feeling that it's been too long since you've escaped the city grind. It hits in a moment, and you know it's time to head out on the open road.
A few weeks ago I drove south to check in with two of my favorite outposts of Old California cuisine, to see how the fickle restaurant industry had treated them over the years. I like historic restaurants for the same reason I like old hotel bars: There's an almost palpable sense of the past contained within their walls. I like imagining everyone who's sat in the dining room before eating the same dishes as me, what they were thinking and talking about, what they made of the flavors and ingredients.
A great old restaurant — that is, a place that doesn't trade on its past at the expense of its food — can tell you as much about a place as its ruins. And traveling to one is as good excuse as any for a road trip.
First stop was San Juan Bautista, a former stagecoach town about 90 minutes south of San Francisco that left its boom years behind when the railroad bypassed it in 1876. It's a town full of well-preserved wooden storefronts and a central mission that famously starred in Hitchcock's Vertigo. On the main street is a Pepto Bismol-pink, two-story converted hotel known as La Casa Rosa, a restaurant that has been serving California Casserole since 1935.
Legend has it that the original recipe came from the daughter of General Vallejo. Grand origins or not, the California Casserole is where Midwestern sensibility and local ingredients meet. It's basically a tamale pie, with a base of simple corn mush a little coarser than polenta, topped with a zesty tomato sauce studded with beef and a float of sharp cheddar. The dish's rustic appearance and simple ingredients belie its complex flavor, a medley of bright tomato acidity and the earthy notes of corn and beef — deeply evocative of home-cooking.
In its heyday, La Casa Rosa was written up in the iconic travel magazine Holiday and said to be a favorite of diners from moneyed Carmel, as well as Alfred Hitchcock and Kim Novak during the filming of Vertigo. Now the crowd is a mix of tourists and walker-rattling retirees, and the dusky pink dining room feels more like an antique shop than a bustling restaurant. Knickknacks abound: A rose-colored gramophone sits silent in a corner; a vintage doll stares creepily from a child-sized chair near the fireplace. If the quiet, leafy patio is open, ask for a seat out there.
There are only three other things on the menu besides the California Casserole, and though serviceable, none quite transcend the weirdness of the surroundings. The New California Casserole, an invention of current owner Charlie Shockey, has a too-heavy hand with Ortega chiles, and the Monterey jack on top doesn't have the same bite as the cheddar on the original. There is also a pair of soufflés, which come out as puffed and golden as instructors at Le Cordon Bleu could ask for. Out of its serving dish, the chicken version melted to a seductive puddle of mild cream sauce studded with tender poultry, citrus zest, and rafts of eggy crust.
All meals are $14.95 and come with soft, sweet rolls — there's an odd parade of house-made jams and chutneys on the grand piano in the corner to garnish them with — and a crisp butter lettuce salad with a lusty vinaigrette. Dessert is a palate-cleansing cup of raspberry sorbet. Service was scattered; tables around us were left uncleared for most of the meal. But it stopped mattering after a carafe of Ash Wine from France, a fortified aperitif that reminded me of a less-sweet Lillet, which infused the whole experience with the rosy glow of nostalgia.
The highway to the coast passed through fields of artichokes, cabbage, and strawberries. Though the tiny town of Pescadero is only a few miles from Highway 1, it was ensconced in a fog bank, and the main street felt like Brigadoon. The warm center of town is Duarte's Tavern, a truly excellent watering hole that's been in the Duarte family since 1894, when, so the story goes, Frank Duarte put a barrel of whiskey on the bar and declared it open. There's a bustling restaurant, but the creaky, old wood bar is still the place to sit. It doubles as the town's liquor store, and the lively conversations make for exceptional eavesdropping.
The thing to get at Duarte's is the cream of artichoke soup, a regional specialty. It's not a gimmick like Gilroy's garlic ice cream: The thick, velvety, dusty green soup has all the woodsy essence of artichoke hearts, and is deeply satisfying.
Less spectacular are the seafood dishes; there was a tragically dry filet of Half Moon Bay halibut that had all the juices pan-fried out of it, and fried whole smelt ("fries with eyes, I call them," said our charming and spectacularly mustachioed waiter) had pockets of grit. Artichoke ravioli fared a little better, cooked al dente with bits of poached artichoke hearts inside and out, in a fitting tribute to the end of artichoke season.
The other reason to come to Duarte's is the pies, which have a rich, flaky, bronzed crust and filling just sweet enough to bring out the natural flavors of the fruits. In the olallieberry version, the pie-maker let the sweet/tart interplay of the local berries speak for itself, while apple filling had a hint of warm spice and pliant fruit that seemed to melt into the buttery crust.
Fortified by soup, pie, and the comforting weight of the past, I paid my bill and headed back to the city.