Pumpkins. Foggy beaches. Golfing at the Ritz-Carlton. That's pretty much the image that comes to mind when someone mentions Half Moon Bay, right? But for the dedicated boozehound, the stretch of coast between San Francisco and Santa Cruz is a quirky, whiskey-soaked Shangri-la, populated by ghosts, Harley gangs, Hemingway-hating barmen, and other colorful characters with decidedly different stories to tell.
During Prohibition, this area — known as the Coastside — was the go-to spot for rum runners from Canada, who found the fog-shrouded shoreline perfect for smuggling hooch in by sea and funneling it up to San Francisco. Speakeasies sprang up all up and down the coast, from Pacifica to Pescadero.
One of the more famous illicit drinkeries is the Moss Beach Distillery — famous because Dashiell Hammett used to hang out here back in his Maltese Falcon days, and also because the joint is supposedly haunted. Unsolved Mysteries even shot a whole episode here documenting the story of the Blue Lady, the bar's resident ghost. Legend has it that she was a fine young thing who met and fell in love with a dark and mysterious fellow, who was apparently the distillery's resident piano man back in the 1930s. Though she had a husband and son at home, the woman — always dressed in blue — made frequent trips to Moss Beach to rendezvous with her man. One night, apparently coming or going from the cliffside bar, she died in a fiery car wreck, and has been prowling the beach ever since, looking for her lover.
The owners claim the Blue Lady has been rattling around the distillery, too, making phones ring, levitating checkbooks, stealing patrons' earrings — and maybe, just maybe, helping to sell a few extra Blue Lady cocktails (vodka, triple sec, blue Curaçao) in the process.
It's noon when I belly up to the bar with Dave, my dutiful designated driver. Over a Blue Lady (for me), a Pellegrino (for Dave), and a basket of greasy popcorn shrimp, we chat up the barkeep. When the lamp above our head flickers and jostles, the barman gasps in mock-surprise.
“Is this place really haunted, or is it all just levers and buttons?” I ask.
Throwing a cautious glance over his shoulder, the bartender whispers, “There's a lot of buttons.”
The next stop on our tippling tour is Pescadero, about half an hour's drive south on Highway 1 past Half Moon Bay and two miles inland. There's a certain clock-stopping slowness to the town, and as Dave pilots the car down the dusty main drag of Stage Road, I'm half-tempted to peek behind the facade of each building to make sure it isn't a Hollywood set.
Pescadero's tiny downtown is lined with a few antique stores, a funky little art gallery, and a grocery complete with butcher “shoppe.” There's a mint-condition Chevy Bel Air parked out front of Duarte's Tavern, another landmark former speakeasy where it wouldn't be altogether surprising to see Wyatt Earp strut through the door.
The bar's neon sign and Johnny Cash–filled jukebox seem lifted right out of 1955, but the joint actually dates back a lot further, to 1894, when great-grandpa Frank Duarte (pronounced “DOO-art”) brought a barrel of whiskey up from Santa Cruz and started selling drinks for a dime a pop, three for two bits. Prohibition shut the bar down for a spell in the '20s, but Duarte's later reinvented itself as a combination sandwich counter, soda fountain, and barbershop. Grandpa Frank did double-duty as a barkeep and barber, while grandma baked her famous pies.
In the '50s, a third generation added its touch, incorporating the crab cioppino and artichoke dishes that would come to be Duarte's signature. Veggies are still grown in the garden out back, and the seafood comes from local fishermen. The James Beard Foundation declared Duarte's an American Classic in 2003, and the place now boasts feeding 13,000 folks a month. Four generations later, Duartes still sling whiskeys across the same 100-year-old slab of wood — just not at 19th-century prices, sadly.
From Pescadero, Designated Dave doubles back on Stage Road, which winds northward through the foothills to San Gregorio (population 150). About the only game in town here is the San Gregorio General Store, which is just about as general a place as you can find. Walk in the front door, past the old-fashioned wood-burning stove, and you'll see an Old West–style mirrored bar on your right, its stools being warmed, most likely, by a couple of well-whiskered locals who smell of Basic Lights and musty motorcycle gloves.
Toward the back is where they keep the grocery stuff and the hardware-store stuff, anything from lanterns and raccoon traps to organic garlic, cheesecloth, beeswax, and, according to the store's Web site, “wines fine to rotgut, bullshit, toys, cowtechnician hats.” In the middle is a book section worthy of a university library, containing tomes by Gertrude Stein, Gabriel García Márquez, F. Scott Fitzgerald, but no Hemingway. Deliberately no Hemingway.
“Owner doesn't like Hemingway,” the barkeep tells me. “Too macho.”
Too macho? This is a place whose parking lot looks like a Harley dealership on weekends.
However, it's quiet when we roll in on a hazy, lazy weekday afternoon. I pull up a barstool next to Mike, a retired government chemist living in them thar hills. Over a peppery Bloody Mary, he schools us on the Coastside's divergent cultures, explaining the differences between the longtime locals, whom he calls “lokes,” and the wealthy newcomers to the area, whom he dubs “the transplants.”
The general store is most definitely a loke hangout, a staunch holdout against the Ritz-Carlton-ification encroaching from the north. It's the kind of storied, memorable place from which you'll want to send “wish you were here” postcards to all your friends. (Which you can do, by the way: The San Gregorio General Store is also a post office, naturally.)
Finally arriving in Half Moon Bay proper, we stumble — well, I stumble — into the San Benito House, a wood-and-brass-bedecked century-old corner saloon, and order a beer from the gruff-looking barmaid wiping down the long wooden bar. A few minutes later, she blurts out: “African eland. Been here since 1932.”
She's caught me eyeing the enormous taxidermied antelope head eyeing me from its wall mount just above her head. It's huge — at least twice the size of the caribou on the opposite wall. “You should see the poor guy at Christmas,” she adds. “We put tinsel and garlands on 'im. Flags on the Fourth of July.”
Turns out these stuffed beasts used to be mounted on the walls of the Museum of Natural History in Santa Barbara. I'm thinking their view got decidedly more interesting when they made the move north to this swingin' saloon. The stories taxidermied animal heads could tell, if only they could talk …
In fact, after another couple of beers, I swear they are talking to me. Good thing San Benito House doubles as a B&B — I think it's time for a nap.
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