A year ago, anticipation was building for the opening of two spots in the historic Cooper Molera Adobe. Alta Bakery + Cafe became a hit. Cella Restaurant? Everyone is still waiting. Now as December – and the year, and the decade – come to a close, many wait eagerly for The Pocket in Carmel to welcome its first customers. That is expected early in the new year.
Roll the calendar back a decade and there was great anticipation for the opening of a taproom and restaurant called the Cannery Row Brewing Company. Last month, the place shut down suddenly. Maybe it was a fitting gesture, capping off a decade of openings and closings, stability and change in Monterey County’s culinary scene.
Before we give a send-off to the old, however, let’s take a moment to welcome the new.
The Best New Restaurants of 2019
1. Villa Azteca (Salinas)
Chef and owner Susana Alvarez prepares everything from scratch, by hand, with a devotion to methods handed down through generations. Yet she is inventive and quite willing to give classics her own updates. In our words from earlier this year, Villa Azteca “leaves you weakened by bliss.”
2. Mezzaluna Pasteria and Mozzarella Bar (Pacific Grove)
Made in-house is a theme at veteran chef and restaurateur Soerke Peters’ newest spot. Even the pancetta is cured by Peters’ team. As we observed, “small plates are as carefully concocted as entrees.”
3. Big Sur Smokehouse (Big Sur)
“We’re not trying to mask the meat,” pitmaster “Big Mike” Lipscomb told us after we visited the new barbecue joint. “We try to do things simple.” But there’s also a lot of thought and patience that goes into each dish.
4. Alta Bakery + Cafe (Monterey)
Alta’s setting in the historic Cooper Molera Adobe may be old. But the menu – food, drinks and baked goods – is both fresh and original. They dress some dishes with herbs from the garden outside, a hint that the menu changes seasonally.
5. The Butter House (Seaside)
There are other restaurants to consider for the number-five slot, but it’s hard to argue with the splash The Butter House made on opening, drawing big crowds. And it’s even tougher to resist their fried chicken (with eight herbs and spices; no need for 11).
A few places began serving a little too late in the year to find their way on this list. But with Sur Burger, Pho #1, Yeast of Eden (the latest successful creation by the Alvarado Street Brewery team), 101 Wine Press, Pangaea and other appealing new additions, there are lots of culinary reasons to celebrate 2019.
2010 Again – A Decade Ago in Food
What did the dining scene look like in 2010? Well, Harumi celebrated its first year. Peppoli’s turned 15, as did Montrio Bistro. Red’s Donuts was 60 that year. Habanero’s Grill & Cantina celebrated its grand opening in October with $3 margaritas and “live Latin influenced music,” whatever that means.
It’s no longer around, nor is Amir’s Kabob House, where you could watch belly dancing. Woody’s Bayview Grill – gone, along with the all-you-could-eat pancakes.
There were cringe-worthy events, like Moss Landing Inn’s monthly pole dancing contest. Beer pong tourney at The Hippodrome, anyone?
No, it wasn’t all that prosaic. Aubergine’s then-chef Christophe Grosjean hosted a farm-to-table dinner in March, although “locovore” was the preferred term. Robert Kirkland’s Monterey Bay Salt Company was new but catching on quickly as people began to look for more local ingredients. And Pebble Beach Food & Wine, then in its third year, attracted the likes of Wolfgang Puck, Charlie Trotter and Michael Symon. Meanwhile Allegro was on the leading edge, developing both gluten-free and vegan pizza.
What 2020 brings began a decade ago. Aubergine’s devotion to fresh, local and seasonal was worth boasting about then. Now chefs committed to local and sustainable are a common feature. Fresh, local and organic produce has become increasingly accessible to all income levels. The county now hosts farmers markets daily and year-round. And Aubergine – with Justin Cogley at the helm – now wears a Michelin star, the first such award to a Monterey County restaurant.
Vegan and gluten-free dining options were just catching on 10 years ago. Happy Girl Kitchen Co. opened in Pacific Grove in 2010. Now, restaurants are obliged to include options for both. Sur Burger crafts their own plant-based burger from scratch. And Happy Girl became the favorite of Big Little Lies cast members.
Pubs were paying attention to the menu, as well. When Penny Farthing Tavern reopened in Salinas, the Weekly noted that its kitchen “trends toward gastropub.” (That’s before it became the since-closed Salinas Sports Tavern.)
Estéban Restaurant brought tapas, small plates and shared plates to the fore. In 2010 Jacks – not yet Jacks Monterey – promoted a small plates menu. With the growing popularity of this option throughout the decade, dining out became more relaxed. Fast casual restaurants populated restored downtown strips (Alvarado Street in Monterey then, Broadway in Seaside now).
Speaking of downtowns, it was also before Oldtown Salinas recovered from the depths of the 2008 recession, before Starbucks and Portobello’s opened in the Taylor Building, before Farmers Union Pour House and the Beerded Bean served beers and Patria merged elegance with a homey European menu.
Barbecue and French restaurants were everywhere a decade ago, or so it seems. There was Central Texan Barbecue in Castroville, Curly’s Oak BBQ in Seaside and Henry’s BBQ on Lighthouse Avenue in Monterey. Le Normandie occupied a spot on Lighthouse in Pacific Grove. There was Bistro Beaujolais in Carmel. The Weekly raved about Carmel’s Le St. Tropez: “The Huberts [owners Jean and Mary] appear to have gauged the pulse of the community.”
And so it goes. Maybe a quick nod to the souffle at Le St. Tropez, sheep dip at Carmel Valley’s Downunder Deli or Paradiso on Cannery Row, where you could pause over paella. Kula Ranch was the readers’ pick for best restaurant in Marina then. It’s gone now. Readers voting Crazy Horse as best salad bar? That hasn’t changed… although one wonders why the “mega” salad bar at Jersey’s didn’t fare as well.
Some familiar faces occupied different places. Chef Jerry Regester (Schooners Coastal Kitchen) directed the menu at C Restaurant + Bar. Matt Bolton (now at C Restaurant + Bar) joined the team at Pacific’s Edge. And Pacific Edge chef Mark Ayers left to steer the kitchen at the much-anticipated Cannery Row Brewing Company. The taproom’s ownership group, Coastal Luxury Management, also lured Tom Mosblech to lead the team at Restaurant 1833.
Maybe a little foreboding music is fitting here. CLM shuttered 1833 unexpectedly in 2017. It sits with chairs and barstools eerily vacant today. In November, Cannery Row Brewing Company met the same fate – closed without warning.
Neon signs still shine from inside, a reminder of what once was. But as we enter 2020, it’s also a promise of something that will be.