Pisto Out

John Pisto opened The Whaling Station in 1971, remaking it with Kevin Phillips’ help in 1997. Phillips calls it the “cherry on top” of his group’s deepening roster of restaurants.

The Mount Rushmore of Monterey County Food and Wine has long included the happy face of John Pisto.

Suddenly it needs an update.

The Whaling Station (373-3778), owned for years by the Cookin’ Pisto Style TV show host and regional celebrity, is now finalizing a sale to the Jim Gilbert-Kevin Phillips restaurant group.

That’s the same team behind Abalonetti’sCrabby Jim’s and Gilbert’s. The group’s most recent moves include two even more high-profile acquisitions. Step one was transforming the iconic and dilapidated Old Bath House into the vigorous and value-rich Beach House at Lovers Point last year, earning our readers’ vote for 2013’s Best New Restaurant among a crowded field. Step two: Acquiring huge Rappa’s Seafood Restaurant at the end of Fisherman’s Wharf this winter. Insiders tell me the property will get a makeover and new name in the coming months.

But something tells me they’re not exactly auditioning for a face up there in the stonework with Bert Cutino and Ted Balestreri, who happen to be the Whaling Station landlords.

The sale comes after Pisto didn’t renew his lease for Paradiso Trattoria in February. The sizable high-ceiling space overlooking the water on the north side of Cannery Row will be occupied by Lalla Oceanside Grill in 2015, from the same family behind Lallapalooza in downtown Monterey, Lalla Grill at Del Monte Center and Lalla Lounge in Salinas.

Pisto says the restaurant evacuation doesn’t necessarily reflect a new chapter in his life, but the fact that he’d like to “take a whole year off and just recoup, then go into whatever direction I feel.”

Taking a year off, though, doesn’t mean any sort of stasis for an appetite with the energy and intensity of Pisto’s.It means 365 off from the day-to-day drain of the business.

“Restaurants are one thing,” he says. “Food is another. You think they’re the same thing, they’re not.”

He elaborates from there: “Food is an adventure. It provides the ability to travel all over the world. To go places. It’s not employees. It’s not a business.”

Then he launches into tales of roasting 90-pound pigs up in the mountains of Nicaragua, and 500-year-old Croatian kitchens with wood-fired stoves where the family sleeps in the winter.

In other words, taking a break means less time for rest and relaxation and more time for romp and recreation through his AmericanLife-Comcast show.

“The lucky thing Cooking Pisto Style has given me,” he says, “is I can go anywhere in the world and make friends immediately, just because I like to eat and try new things.”

He travels with a lean crew of two camera guys and a robust hunger for unique technique and authenticity.

“They see the cameras and feel our interest in food,” he says, “and just open their hearts like you wouldn’t believe.”

The next extended jaunt will be a major tour of the American Gulf Coast, scouting for film and other potential projects. In the mean time, Pisto has started experimenting with charcuterie.

“I love the food industry,” Pisto says, “and I love the restaurant industry. But it’s tough. I just want to pursue my passion.”

The Whaling Station has dominated the Weekly readers’ votes for Best Steakhouse for years. The osso bucco, the bar, the bar menu, the dry aging room, the prime rib cart and the locals specials are all among the top in the area code. It sits next to The Sardine Factory, forming a brick-and-mortar mini Rushmore of sorts.

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When a property of this visibility changes hands, it’s big news. When those hands are some of the most powerful in the area, and most mysterious, the intrigue mounts.

Phillips worked with Pisto for 13 years at the Whaling Station. In looking for a worthy new steward of a community institution Pisto sought out his old GM.

“Kevin knows the operation inside out,” Pisto says. “I’m sure it’s going to be a beautiful transition.”

Phillips is also the far more public face of the restaurant partnership, just how the money side of the operation enjoys it.

“Gilbert’s extremely low-key,” Pisto continues. “He doesn’t need a statue built of him. He’s a keen mind who knows how to put deals together.”

The rumored sale price was $1.2 million, though neither side would confirm nor deny the figure. The lease is for 20 years.

“Jim is a very different kind of cat,” Pisto says. “I’ve done business with him for a long time. He’s an absolute 100-percent straight shooter. One of the top businessmen in this area.”

For many he remains an elusive cat, particularly compared with the likes of the Sardine Factory fellas and Pisto himself. Like them, though, he is an industry lifer. After buying a tavern in the Sacramento Delta area at age 20, he had to wait until he was 21 to open it. Six decades later, the intuition and epicurean evolution is ongoing.

“He loves the industry,” Phillips says. “It’s a joy to meet with him every day. His business acumen is incredible. Attorneys, CPAs are all in the meetings, but he’s the smartest guy in the room.”

Which is probably why he’s avoiding getting too big a head, on a statue, a mountain or otherwise.

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