November 10, 2020 – This might be the best local restaurant news in recent memory.
And that’s not the COVID talking, though that would be excusable given the buffet of bad news piled upon the industry of late.
The fact that Tim Wood of Carmel Valley Ranch and Bernardus fame has his own restaurant, Woody’s at the Airport, is uplifting on its own. That it’s reviving a local institution (the former Golden Tee) multiplies the magic—as does the fact it comes on the heels of his unceremonious dismissal at CVR that had many area eaters up in arms.
Mary Ann Leffel chairs the Monterey Airport District and speaks to a combination that feels quasi-cosmic.
“I’m so excited we have someone who understands the travel needs of the public, but also has such a good following in the community,” she says. “I think it’s a perfect fit for the airport and also for him. He can display his talents to the world.”
Bonus elements that sweeten the deal: Woody’s enjoys inelastic demand (including sister Woody’s Cockpit Cafe, which sits past security check downstairs); a big-kid kitchen that’s in great shape (with employee bathrooms and private exits); vending machine revenues; and natural potential for brand expansion (imagine a Woody’s in Carmel Valley that does tacos and cerveza).
Another pair of pluses are coronavirus-relevant: 1) Current safety restrictions will inspire Wood and company to craft all sorts of curbside and business catering options, to the benefit of Garden Road businesses, Ryan Ranch clients and to-go gourmands who frequent the Highway 68 corridor. 2) An expansive patio overlooking the tarmac allows ample outdoor dining, with a big tent on the way.
But back to the heart of this thing: Wood has a place to call his own.
“It’s on like Donkey Kong,” he says. “I’ve never owned my own restaurant. I’m jumping off the dock.”
It comes with a dash of destiny: Just weeks after he was let go at The Ranch, restaurateur Rich Pepe and Carmel City Councilperson Bobby Richards went looking for someone to help add some oomph to their airport operation. (They acquired it in summer 2019.) Richards turned to his friend Christopher Caul, longtime Carmel chef-operator, for some help on specials. Caul knew his pal Wood was hungry for a personal project, and loved what he saw upstairs and down at Monterey Regional Airport.
“It was a too-good-to-pass-up-type-of-thing, [especially] once this COVID ends,” Caul says. “It’s not some little Carmel restaurant where everything comes in and out the front door.”
Talks started in earnest. Caul—who Wood describes as his dream “consigliere”—started working on a seller’s permit, insurance, tax ID and the liquor license transfer, applying experience from opening five spots. By Nov. 1 Woody’s was officially open under Wood’s ownership, which restaurant pros will tell you is record time.
But make no mistake, Wood is careful to add: After years as a loyal local here—he and his wife’s go-to meals were sand dabs and NY steak—he knows what the place meant to people.
“We’re trying to bring back what the Golden Tee was years ago, bumping it up a little bit, using all the purveyors we know,” Wood says. “We don’t want to reinvent the wheel. People think it’s going to be a Christopher’s or Carmel Valley Ranch. We’re not going that route.”
He riffs on the Golden Tee charm that had faded across ownership changes—namely lots of sturdy rib-sticking value, little pretension, honest cocktails—in trademark Wood freestyle.
“I like the idea of the place I used to come to,” he says. “You’re coming here to eat, to catch up with people, not to chase the ‘next best thing.’ Leave that to the one-hit wonders. This is going to be the heart and soul of what I do: Make the food that brings people together, in a socially responsible way. Give them their favorite drink they always mess up at fancy places because they overthink it: If it’s a martini, it doesn’t need 17 steps; if it’s a Manhattan, it doesn’t need a guy with a beard to make it. Eighteen dollars for a glass of wine? Are you kidding me? I’m here to have dinner.”
His sourcing has elevated the classic menu immediately—think Swank Farms, Harris Ranch, Robbie’s Ocean Fresh Seafood, in dishes like the burrata mozzarella caprese, ribeye steak and grilled Pacific salmon filet. (The prime rib returns soon; the back dining room eventually opens pending health restrictions.)
“Between Chris and I we have a lot of connections,” Wood says.
He’s speaking to the supply side, but the same applies to the customer base, which includes members already migrating from CVR, and Christopher’s fans who will love the upcoming corner of the menu spotlighting his favorites, from seasonal soft-shell crab to chile rellenos.
Look for that base to swell as Woody’s develops its catering business, to-go options and delivery bundles for nearby businesses, with a weekly menu featuring a choice between items like a vegan garden curry with steamed rice and a grilled ribeye sandwich with caramelized onions and garlic roasted aioli.
“It’s not just the restaurant,” Wood says. “It’s a whole other way of thinking because of COVID. I’m gonna try to do things that haven’t been done yet, using my skills to do what people need right now. How can I fulfill it and make them happy? That’s what it’s all about.”
Early returns are good. The other day Woody’s Cockpit Café sold out its new breakfast burritos in a snap despite a trickle of travelers because the airport staff was all over them. (Wood quickly arranged a discount for MRY staff.) A recent taste test of several classics—the leafy Caesar, the Golden Tee Burger with smoked bacon and cheddar, the buttery fried calamari steak, the ribeye—earned straight A’s.
Meanwhile, Wood is simmering some specials in his head: Spaghetti Hill stew (his take on Italian-style cioppino), braised lamb shank, halibut chowder and short rib. He’s also planning box lunches to take aboard flights.
The other thing that seems clearly present in Wood’s head is a sense of arrival, which is only appropriate at an airport.
“As a young chef you strive to be better,” he says. “Then you prove yourself as an executive chef at a fine resort, which was always my goal, and there’s self-affirmation—‘I know what I’m doing. I’m a nut, but I know what I’m doing.’ What this chapter really is, is the next step.”
More at (831) 373-1232.