“The look has to be the surprise,” Gina Phinny told me in May. “Everybody will see why.”
I didn't want to wait to take a peek at the massive overhaul happening at the troubled (and landmark) property at Tyler and Franklin in Monterey, but figured Phinny has steered Carmel Valley’s Baja Cantina (625-2252) for a generation with her husband and fellow car fanatic Pat Phinny, and has opened a half dozen restaurants in her career, so she knows what she's doing.
She took that hard-to-get line on just-opened Turn 12 because she wanted the cumulative oomph of months of knocking down walls, walling off patios and reinventing no fewer than three businesses as one giant 8,000-square-foot restaurant-bar-grill to take maximum impact.
I can see why. The custom bar alone is epic, seemingly as long as a Laguna Seca straightaway, all shiny and pewter with tire tracks embedded. The dining rooms are modernly sleek and well-appointed with race photos. Vintage motorcycles perched at height simultaneously supply history, hipness and sense of place. (See slideshow, right.)
But what is equally as stunning is what isn't there. Like the wall that would've cut the bar in half. Or the front door to the defunct Doc Rickett's Lab. Or the coat closet. Or the dancefloor. Or the...
Eli Severson—who's spent time at Rio Grill and Lokal—is doing drinks like the tasty Tropical paradise ($11) I tried, with Prohibition vodka, agave nectar, lime juice, Grand Marnier and the key, guava juice. I like the look of the Pale Moon ($10) with Absolut wild tea vodka, local honey, lemon juice and Violet liqueur—and the Sicilian margarita ($10) with Milagros blanco tequila, blood orange liqueur, fresh OJ and a splash of Luxardo limoncello.
Draft beers include Scrimshaw, Estrella, Erdinger dark, Ninkasi IPA, Red Nectar, Great White, Mission India Pale and Big Leaf Maple. The wine list is solid, with a nice handful of half bottles ($20-$40) and bubbles plus 20 bottles each of whites and reds spanning local vineyards, Northwestern wineries and a touch of south Europe and South America.
The introductory food menus prove inviting, and in sync with the professed modest price point/something-for-everyone ethic.
From the dinner lineup, starters include fried oysters ($8), steamed clams with garlic bread ($12) and lobster-corn chowder ($10). Salads range from a basic blue cheese wedge ($10) or Caesar ($8)—which gain chicken for $4, four prawns for or four fried oysters for $8—to more involved ahi-kale-cashew ($19) or warm tenderloin-baby greens numbers ($19).
The lunch menu is essentially the same as supper, with a couple fewer entrees and a few more sandwiches—think Laguna Seca burger with jack, avocado and arugula ($12 with choice of fries, truffle fries, slaw or salad) and the house made meatball hero with mozzarella ($11)—and an apple-curry chicken salad ($13) too.
Five pizzas star one with proscuitto and arugula ($13) and another grilled chicken-artichoke pesto ($12).
Entrees cover the American classics, with spaghetti and meatballs ($15), 16-ounce N.Y. steak and prawns ($30), braised short ribs ($22), chipotle-rubbed chicken breast with mango-chili salsa ($15), Corkscrew burger with balsamic onion compote, blue and Swiss cheeses ($15), pan-seared Alaskan halibut ($24) and Colorado rack of lamb ($24).
Weekdays 4-6pm, happy hour hooks up small plates like the Colorado rack of lamb lollipops ($6), Margarita flatbread ($8) and fried oysters ($7 for three) for less, plus house wines and upper shelf well cocktails for $5 and drafts for $1 off. I tried the calamari frito mixto and a lollipop. Both were spot-on.
The layout and the roar from the stone floor should make for a good place to take kids, as will a kids menu with salmon and broccoli ($8), mac and cheese ($6), burgers ($6) and more.
Then there's brunch 9:30 am until 2pm—think bacon-egg pizzas ($13), waffles ($8), polenta-chorizo ($10) and steak and eggs ($15)—and a limited late night menu (until midnight) on the way. Dinner until 11pm Friday and Saturday already comes standard.
I can almost hear my appetite go vroom vroom.