Chew-Choo: Dad’s Luncheonette

In Half Moon Bay, former Saison chef Scott Clark strips everything down to the essence.

In Freud’s Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, he has a throwaway line explaining why boys like trains so much. It’s because the vibration of the car on the tracks excites them during their latency period, when they aren’t yet conscious of their own sexual drive. Therefore, they often want to be conductors and attribute mystical qualities to railroads in general.

This is gender essentialism and probably total pseudoscience, but it’s hard to argue with Freud’s underlying premise: Many boys like trains. Some tech-overlord types want to build low-pressure tubes to propel passengers from San Francisco to Los Angeles in half an hour, while others want to flee high-pressure kitchens and make a new life for themselves cooking out of a vintage locomotive.

Scott Clark, formerly a chef at Saison and Benu, is that guy. Dad’s Luncheonette, his 18-seat restaurant in a train car on the side of Highway 1 in Half Moon Bay, is a low-intensity, high-reward eatery. If, following Freud off the psychoanalytical deep end, a career shift this metaphor-rich represents some kind of mid-life crisis, it’s probably the best kind there is. Why buy a Corvette when you can forage for wild radish flowers and serve them to people whose other options, up and down the coast, consist pretty much only of fast food?

Clark was Josh Skenes’ deputy when Saison became the only Bay Area restaurant on the World’s 50 Best list, but he and his business-and-life partner Alexis Liu gave it all up several months ago. (They haven’t officially relocated down there yet, Clark later mentioned in the parking lot, because buying a train car is expensive.) He was wearing almost head-to-toe pink, calling everybody “dude,” and cheerfully violating a cardinal rule of every restaurant I ever worked in, which is not to touch the patrons. Clark’s a charmer, and being present front-of-house is probably like oxygen to him. You don’t want to address him as “Chef.” You want to call him “Dad.”

In any case, at Dad’s, caviar pudding is out, and restroom keys on long slotted spoons are in. There’s only one other customer-facing employee, a cashier. Herbs grow in barrel planters at the foot of the barn-red train car, painted with foamy waves and a yellow moon. Everything is local but the cheese, and you only have a few options to choose among: a burger and its vegetarian alternative, mac ’n’ cheese, a salad, a soup, and a dessert. All the beer and wine is in cans, and the coffee is Four Barrel.

The $12 burger was very good, but I liked the $11 sauteed oyster mushroom sandwich even better. Each comes on buttery toasted white bread with pickled red onions, egg, and cheese, but the beef patty was more crumbly than fatty and the mushrooms seemed to bond with the cheese at a molecular level. I can deal without fries, but the two things I love most on a burger — bacon and mustard — aren’t offered. The other minor drawback was structural. Toasted bread or not, these sandwiches are messy — especially that egg.

A cup of mac ’n’ cheese ($5), piled high with homemade potato chips and a palmful of chives, was rich without seeming like it had a long ingredient list, and if you crumble the chips a little with your fork, they inch closer to a panko crust. Carrot soup with homemade ricotta ($6) was a sort of stealth winner. I’d imagined something closer to a puree, and when the broth appeared, it felt a little thin — but after a few spoonfuls, something came together. Simply put, it landed right at the intersection of nourishing and satisfying. Plus, the chunks of carrot were still tender.

The $5 herb salad was the biggest surprise, and not just because the same thing could plausibly go for three times the price in the city. Haute rabbit food with a Meyer lemon vinaigrette, it was heavy on parsley. It was basically a parsley salad, in fact. There was what appeared to be broccoli flower, plus fennel, a bit of mint, and wild radish flower, and you could practically taste the tiny radius inside of which every component originated. The vinaigrette was strong yet lightly applied, and the entire thing was snappy and spicy, the colors of Mardi gras. The sweet of the day was a wedge of caramelized white chocolate and pumpkin seed blondie ($3.5). It was a little on the dense side, but plenty nutty.

Dad’s is closer to a stand than to a luncheonette or a diner. All 18 seats are outside, shielded from the ocean winds by Plexiglass screens, but open to schmutz from the Monterey cypresses falling on your meal (which is kind of nice). In spite of the heat lamp, this is probably not where you want to be in heavy fog, although on a day with a cool breeze and hot sun, it’s magical. Between the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge demolition and the giant landslide in Big Sur, Highway 1 is getting less traffic than ever. But this is the embodiment of fresh food, and the antithesis to the industrialized monoculture lining Interstate 5.

And it’s just so refreshingly casual. After ordering coffee, I pivoted to grab another sheaf of napkins, apologizing to the woman taking orders that we were burning through Dad’s entire supply.

“That’s normal,” she said. “I think it’s our biggest expense.”

Dad’s Luncheonette, 225 Cabrillo Highway South, Half Moon Bay, 650-560-9832

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