Our drive down the pacific coast highway from Monterey to Big Sur was hampered by a persistent rain. The road was slick and shrouded by patches of fog floating down from the hills to the ocean’s edge several hundred feet below. Although hoping for a clear view and some speed on the road, we took it slow and saw little. For months I had been hearing about a restaurant called Nepenthe and the more I heard the more it appeared that the restaurant was one part natural wonder, one part spiritual oasis and one part commune for the Fassett family who own the property. The rain provided a mysterious emotion to our drive to Nepenthe that was fitting as I soon realized when we arrived at the restaurant.
Nepenthe is located on a pitch hill in Big Sur in the middle of nowhere, the only culinary outpost of its kind for miles to the north or south on scenic highway one. We pulled into the dirt driveway at 11:45 in the morning and the parking lot was deserted and strewn with puddles of rainwater. From the parking lot, you can’t really see the restaurant perched on the hill above but the size of the parking lot and the double wide stairway leading up suggests a facility of substance. We started our climb in a light drizzle through a lush dripping canopy of redwood and oak trees with trunks painted with patches of bright green fuzzy clumps of moss. Halfway up the stairs to the restaurant on a concrete platform there’s a red enclosed phone booth, sliding door and all, tucked in the corner with a wooden park bench next to it. The evocative British feel of the phone booth paired with the rain, gloomy canopy of trees, fog, moss and prevailing grey cloud cover left me feeling like I was headed to the London docks in winter at sundown.
Ascending the final flight of stairs we arrived at an expanse of red-painted concrete that serves as an outdoor patio and seating area in better weather. The patio was slick with rain and long rubber mats leading to the restaurants entrance were laid out to assure secure footing. Even shrouded in fog the setting is astounding. The sound of waves crashing below whisper up revealing just how cantilevered the setting is on ocean’s edge. Curious, I sneak away for a moment and peer through the trees to see if I can spot the ocean below. For a brief moment the cloud cover breaks in some places and bits of sunshine illuminate patches of the seashore and the foaming greenish blue ocean. Time stands still.
I wander further from my group down another flight of stairs to Nepenthe’s funky Phoenix gift shop. Surrounded by bohemian splendor, I find myself out on the back deck staring at large terracotta shards of Buddha’s face laying along the slope, a small bust perched on the adjoining stone wall. The rain is falling harder and a strong ocean breeze is rushing up the slope forcing the rain to fall horizontally into my face, the wind chimes on the patio all ringing in unison. My clothes are starting to soak through so I head up to the restaurant.
Back inside they have a large fire going. It is warm, dry, and comfortable. Legend has it that Lolly and Bill Fassett along with their five children bought the location back in 1947 from Rita Hayworth and Orson Welles. The Fassett’s worked with architect Rowan Maiden, an apprentice to Frank Lloyd Wright, to design their vision taking full advantage of local red wood trees to frame out the two story post and beam interior. When you arrive at the center of the dining room, massive rough hewn redwood beams are assembled like Lincoln logs above allowing a long row of floor to ceiling windows along the entire south side of the room facing the ocean. We work our way past the main dining room to a cozy smaller room to the left with a large banquette and small fireplace.
We place our orders and I have the signature Ambrosia Burger, a six ounce burger that is grilled and served on a toasted soft steak roll topped with Ambrosia sauce (mayonnaise, tomato sauce, mild chile salsa). I have a side of bean salad and order my burger with lettuce and tomatoes. From where I am sitting I have a view over my right shoulder into the Nepenthe kitchen just on the other side of the knee wall that makes up the back of the booth side of the banquette. The kitchen is open to the vast dining room, is spotless and running quiet. We are one of two tables seated and our food comes out in short order. My burger is perfectly cooked and tastes fantastic. Nepenthe has Carmel Meats and Specialty Foods in Marina, CA custom grind its beef daily and you can tell when you taste it. The bean salad is tangy and well seasoned too. To finish things off I have a cappuccino and a slice of homemade banana cream pie.
Everything I taste is delicious if not overly simple. Looking the menu over, there are few items that are complicated and the prices are reasonable when you consider the setting (the Ambrosia Burger is $14.00). By the time I finish eating the restaurant is nearly full with a lunch time rush.
Reflecting back on my visit, Nepenthe is seventy percent location, setting, emotion, and aesthetic and thirty percent food and service. Menu items are reasonably priced but the view and setting comes at no extra cost and is worth a day’s wages let alone the $14-$37.00 entrée prices. My trip up the slippery winding stairway was worth every step, the meal worth every penny. The gift shop is funky and features something for everyone including the four Asian dolls picured below. Sometimes it’s more than the food that leaves me sated. The setting and the company I dined with at Nepenthe were spectacular and remind me why dining is one of lifes true pleasures.
48510 Highway One, Big Sur, California