How once-sleepy Pacific Grove is becoming a hip dining destination
PHOTOGRAPHY BY MARGAUX GIBBONS AND GENEVA LIIMATTA
Pacific Grove is known for many things, not the least of which is its designation as Butterfly Town USA and the place where John Denver touched down one last time. A whopping 75% of the homes are considered historical, the most of any town in California, except for Bodie—a ghost town in the Eastern Sierra. It also prohibits fast food establishments.
Founded as a Methodist retreat, PG remained a dry town long after Prohibition, until 1969, with nary a saloon, dive bar or wine room within its sacred bounds. No wonder Cannery Row was such a popular watering hole for those who chose to commiserate with their friends Jack, Johnny, Jim and Hiram.
But times have changed. Pacific Grove is no longer dry, nor wanting for terrific dining choices. Just in the last few months, Monarch Pub, the first British-style bar ever to arrive in the town, opened its doors, serving solid pub food—the fish and chips gets raves—and beer. Wild Fish and Poppy Hall also came to town this year, featuring truly creative, original cuisine. They join long-time favorites like Fandango, il vecchio, Passionfish, Red House, Peppers, Victorian Corner and Petra, which have long been attracting locals and visitors alike, many for more than 30 years.
“People have owned these places for decades. I’m now meeting with their kids and grandkids,” says Moe Ammar, president of the Pacific Grove Chamber of Commerce for the past 26 years.
In the last several years, Jeninni Kitchen + Wine Bar, Crema and Happy Girl Kitchen have added to the underpinnings of a destination food scene. And let’s not forget Bistro Roux (formerly Fifi’s), undergoing a complete remake by owners Fabrice and Jennifer Roux.
It’s safe to say the town is reaching critical mass on its way to becoming a true dining destination.
Wild Fish owners Kelvin and Liz Jacobs (top left) on their sidewalk terrace and (below right) Carissa
Fritts, Brendan Esons and Phillip Wojtowicz of Poppy Hall
“This is the busiest I’ve been in 26 years,” says Ammar, a Pacific Grove resident. “There hasn’t been this much development since I’ve lived here. We have the Hotel Durrell coming downtown with 120 rooms, a restaurant and banquet facilities, expected by 2021 and a new 200-room hotel at the American Tin Cannery in the planning stages.” Just like in Carmel and Monterey, no additional hotels can be built in Pacific Grove unless approved by voters.
Of the new dining establishments, Ammar says, “There has been an exceptional reception for new places. The Monarch Pub has great pub food. Poppy Hall is very creative—I love the $1 oysters on Monday nights. And Jeninni has a great happy hour.”
Ammar notes that pubs were not allowed in Pacific Grove until 2016. “We worked so hard to get the Monarch Pub. There are now three people trying to open new brewpubs.” Is business picking up? Jordan Champagne— who, with her husband Todd, opened Happy Girl Kitchen in Pacific Grove in 2010—certainly thinks so. “We’ve had a big response to our appearing in Big Little Lies,” she says. “I think Pacific Grove is experiencing a renaissance. Yet, there are always people who don’t want change. I think we can all be part of thoughtful change.”
Thamin Saleh of Jeninni Kitchen + Wine Bar, formerly the sommelier at Bernardus Lodge and Highlands Inn, among others, thinks Pacific Grove has attractive assets that set it apart from other nearby tourist destinations: “It has art, architecture and charm.”
But there is always room for improvement. “The town still needs fixing up. Like this old gas station next door, it needs to go,” he says. And go it will, if the proposed 522 Lighthouse Ave. redevelopment project, set to add 10 new residences and shops, comes to fruition.
Saleh knows locals are cost conscious, as he is himself. “I couldn’t afford this business in Carmel,” he admits. He purposely keeps his eclectic wine selection, which includes many half bottles, affordable.
“A big positive change is for locals
to want to visit PG for food. This
wasn’t always the case, so that
is a fabulous improvement.”
Thamin Saleh of Jeninni Kitchen + Wine Bar (upper left) and Cindy and Ted Walter of Passionfish (left). Passionfish photo by Geneva Liimatta and others by Margaux Gibbons
“I want people to enjoy a horizontal experience, moving from sparkling to white to red, rather than a vertical of just one big bottle,” he says. “Locals are still finding us for the first time after four years.”
Saleh especially welcomes the new luxury residences going in above him in the Holman Building. “I’ll provide room service,” he jokes. According to chef Tamie Aceves—owner of Crema, a hip, happy place on Lighthouse with Verve coffee, bottomless mimosas and allday brunch—business was pretty rough when it started in 2012.
“So many closed spaces and lots of thrift stores,” she says. But the influx of new eateries has definitely made an impact. “A big positive change is for locals to want to visit PG for food. This wasn’t always the case, so that is a fabulous improvement. We want locals and out-of-town guests to know we are a happening spot for great food. Stay here. Play here. Eat here.”
She notes that Crema has become so busy, she had to add a separate commercial kitchen in Pacific Grove for her catering company, La Crème. With boundless energy, she hints at a new fast casual restaurant coming near Asilomar Beach, too.
Co-owner Liz Jacobs of the newly opened Wild Fish—a sister to the acclaimed Wild Fish restaurant in Mendocino County’s Little River— realizes that Pacific Grove is not quite yet the dining destination it could be, but notes there are many newcomers arriving on the scene. She points to Poppy Hall, which she describes as the perfect neighborhood restaurant, and to Jeninni, which she loves for the wines and the atmosphere. She also mentions a piano bar going into the lobby of the Holman Building, along with a great new organic café. “I feel really positive about all the buzz,” she says.
Poppy Hall, founded by Big Sur Bakery and restaurant chef, Philip Wojtowicz, and Big Sur Roadhouse chef Brendan Esons, is quickly becoming known for its rustic California- meets-Mediterranean cuisine. Well-priced food as well as wines and beers, plus $17.77 corkage, guarantee diners will return. Copper-topped tables and subtle poppy murals on the walls are part of the clean and modern, yet warm, design created by local architects de sola.barnes.
Both chefs are now happy PG residents. “This is such a different experience from Big Sur,” admits Wojtowicz. “I feel so honored by the reception. I’m working a lot with the front of the house, which is new for me, and I love it. Most people say they walked here from home. Some have returned seven or eight times already. The Monday night oyster special is like a big happy party. We had 58 people last Monday, and went through 264 oysters!” He hopes to add brunch, and perhaps lunch in the coming months. “Just like we did with Big Sur Bakery: start small and keep adding.”
Ted and Cindy Walter of Passionfish look back on their 20 years in Pacific Grove, noting it took a “slow three years” for people to get excited about what they were doing. Not only is Passionfish one of the most highly regarded restaurants on the Monterey Peninsula, it also spearheaded the local, sustainable cooking movement and developed an award-winning wine program with prices close to retail.
Says Cindy, “Our first decade of success was without competition, it seemed. We just got better and busier each year with really no new restaurants to challenge our originality and creativity. Now, multiple hot new and well-done restaurants are opening every year.”
She loves the idea of a piano bar: “We have the right demographics for that to work. Otherwise, you would have to go to Carmel.”
Asked if she thinks more brewpubs and bars are inevitable, Crema’s Aceves says, “I hope so. The beautiful thing about visiting Pacific Grove is that you can walk everywhere.
We have one of the most gorgeous ocean walking paths in the world. Add in golf, ocean activities, great B&Bs, hopefully a new hotel, the aquarium and being able to grab a pint or a cocktail then walk back to your spot, it is a pretty ideal mix.”
Laura Ness is a longtime wine journalist, columnist and judge who contributes regularly to Edible Monterey Bay, Spirited, WineOh.TV, Los Gatos Magazine and Wine Industry Network. Her passion is telling stories about the intriguing characters who inhabit the fascinating world of wine and food.
Laura Ness is a longtime wine journalist, columnist and judge who contributes regularly to Edible Monterey Bay, Spirited, WineOh.Tv, Los Gatos Magazine and Wine Industry Network, and a variety of consumer publications. Her passion is telling stories about the intriguing characters who inhabit the fascinating world of wine and food.