Tillie Gort's has become a cultural landmark and a happy reminder of gastronomic days-gone-by.
Thursday, January 10, 2002
Tillie Gort''s Cafe, founded in Pacific Grove in 1969, is a restaurant born of a happy revolution. It was smart and fun in the late ''60s to reject American political culture-with its stiff repression, its war- mongering, etc. Similarly, it was smart and tasty to reject the bland American food culture-with its overcooked meat and potatoes, overcooked canned vegetables, overcooked eggs, etc.
Being a brave young American in the 1960s meant more than marching for peace and smoking pot: it also meant growing a garden and baking bread. It meant traveling and learning about the food of the world. Operating on these counter-cultural values, Tillie Gort''s and similar-minded restaurants set the first course toward the newer California cuisine (popularized by fellow-radical Alice Waters) with its fresh-and-organic everything and multi-culti fusion.
But while nouveau American cuisine flourishes, it is becoming harder to find the hippie food that spawned it. Tillie''s is a genuine vestige of this era of love and protest, of tofu and granola. The dining rooms are woody and funky-comfortable; the ambiance is look-you-in-the-eye friendly; and the menu is right-on Northern California eclectic. Tillie''s offerings include home-made hummus, fat quesadillas, No-Meat Loaf, veggie stir-fry, eggplant parmesan, brown rice and steamed vegetables-a globe-spanning list, all of which have been comfortably Californian for more than 30 years.
Tillie''s is just down the hill from my neighborhood, so I like it best for breakfast. One thing about me: Breakfast in a restaurant must be exactly perfect or I freak out. The potatoes must not be mealy or greasy or cold. The eggs must not be rubbery. The coffee must be pretty good (I am a coffee snob, but I do not know of a restaurant in Monterey County that serves great coffee, so I don''t demand it). There must be excellent breakfast meats for the times when I''m in the mood. There must be one very special something-a signature dish. And there must be at least one very good sweet dish (pancakes, waffles, or the like) for my frequent breakfast companion Penelope, who likes a sweet breakfast.
The folks at Tillie''s do all that. I prefer my home-fried potatoes without the melted cheese (hippies put melted cheese on everything), but the cook will do them without it if you ask. And they can do eggs easy. (Always, always order your eggs, especially scrambled eggs, easy, wherever you eat; it will change your life a little for the better.) The coffee is fine. There is bacon cooked the way I like it (more chewy than crispy) and chicken apple sausage.
There are two extra-special breakfast specials: the chicken hash, which is fantastic, and the fresh hollandaise sauce, which is perfect, and comes on a variety of Benedicts. For Penelope, there is cinnamon raisin French toast.
The omelettes are also quite good. I recently had the cook build me a build-your-own of spinach, bacon and Swiss cheese, and it was simply perfect, which is all it had to be to make me happy.
I could go on, but that''s enough.
Lunch at Tillie''s is equally good; I occasionally drive the 10 or 15 minutes from my office all the way out to PG, passing along the way many fine lunch spots. Again, the menu is circa-''69 California fare to a world beat. The Turkado sandwich is what you would suspect, real roasted thin-sliced turkey with plenty of avocado, plus tomato and melted jack (natch) served on (or in) Middle-Eastern-style pita bread. The first time I had one, I was pleased to find that the slices of turkey were grilled-a nice touch.
The B.L.A.T. is also self-explanatory, and typically simple and perfect. It''s that good chewy bacon, the tomatoes are always ripe, and there''s enough avocado to make the sandwich fattening. The chicken salad is the fancy kind the hippies invented back in the day-with walnuts and grapes! Even the tuna salad is spiced interestingly.
Be aware, though, that unless you ask specifically that they be left in their jars in the kitchen, alfalfa sprouts are likely to appear in your sandwich. Alfalfa sprouts have the texture of sewing thread and taste like tin cans, so I recommend subbing lettuce. But if you like sprouts, go ahead and freak freely, as one of my buddies from back in the day used to say.
In addition to great hot and cold sandwiches, Tillie''s lunch-and-dinner menu offers a slew of Mexican dishes (the Quesadilla Supreme is massive and tasty) a bunch of huge, fancy salads, veggie burgers, turkey burgers, and big, plain-old pre-''60s hamburgers. Also some Cal-Italiano plates (pastas, ravioli, lasagna).
And in the spirit of indulgence which also characterized the hippie era, Tillie''s features a flotilla of big, rich desserts (remember when people giggled about "the munchies?").
Finally, at the end of the meal, Tillie''s again hearkens back to an earlier time, to a time when Americans began eating rice-and-beans and shopping in thrift stores. The quasi-international plates, the fancy sandwiches and salads, the awesome breakfast specials, are all priced in the $5 to $7 range. That''s so cool, man, right?