The time traveler’s life
By Lisa Crawford Watson
Photography by Michelle Magdalena
In the early 1930s, Helmuth Deetjen, using reclaimed wood from Cannery Row, built a barn in the vernacular architecture of his native Norway near the tent home he and his wife Helen Haight Deetjen had erected on Castro Canyon Creek. In 1939, following the completion of Highway 1 right out front, the barn was converted into the restaurant that remains today. Together with the board-and-good batten guest buildings Deetjen also built to create his Big Sur Inn, the restaurant has remained a beloved retreat for locals and visitors alike for more than 80 years.
Big Sur isn’t short on iconic dining destinations— after all, it’s home to Post Ranch Inn, Ventana Inn, Big Sur Bakery and Nepenthe. But for the price of a meal—and, if you’re lucky enough to have the time, budget and andgood fortune to book an overnight stay before it’s fully occupied—Deetjen’s also offers a sense of stepping back in time to Big Sur’s early days.
“People come because they understand what Deetjen’s is—a rustic place with a lot of history and even more soul,” says general manager Torrey Waag. “People come to disconnect from technology and connect with themselves and each other, to get a whiff of the past and take in the ambiance of the place.”
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Deetjen’s is one of the last remaining Big Sur businesses of its era. It is still operating in large part thanks to the very intentional decision of “Grandpa” Deetjen, as Helmuth was known, to bequeath it to a trust. Under the trust’s terms, Deetjen’s is run as a nonprofit organization by the Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn Preservation Foundation. Surrounded by redwoods and perfumed by the wisteria that drapes its arbor, the heart of the inn is the restaurant.
If you arrive in the evening, you’ll find the lighting low and warm. The wood tables are worn but not weary, set with brass candlesticks, a floating camellia and linens. The walls are covered with paintings and photographs and the shelves are laden with collectibles from another century. Guests can’t take it all in at once, but they can absorb the spirit of the place. The room is filled with guests, as it is at every meal, every day.
“Back in the day,” says Waag, “the menu was written with calligraphy, and everything was wildly inexpensive. There were just two seatings. They’d open the door to Vivaldi playing, and people would parade in. Deetjen was a connoisseur of classical music and a good jug of wine. In those very early days, if the chef was cooking a lamb stew, then lamb stew’s what you got.”
Today, chef Domingo Santamaria’s menu reflects a diverse palate and breadth of experience. Of Mayan descent, he learned to cook in his grandmother’s restaurant near the base of the Pyramids in Chichen Itza. From there, he came to California and worked in San Francisco, gaining experience in sushi, Thai food, California cuisine and the Italian flavors of North Beach. After cooking at Ventana Inn, he took over the kitchen at Deetjen’s. “In some ways, we are cooking for people the way they used to,” says Santamaria.
“The produce is delivered from local farms, the grassfed beef grazed in this area and the fish is fresh from the bay. When people ask what fish we’re serving for dinner, we say we’ll have to wait till the fishermen come in from the water.”
Dinner, served from 6–8:30pm, might begin with a fresh arugula salad with heirloom tomatoes, drizzled with a Meyer lemon vinaigrette.
The entrée may be sautéed cod or rigatoni pasta with shrimp, or perhaps the braised pork chop, medium, but totally tender. Dessert might be a warm, crumbly fruit crisp with housemade ice cream.
In the morning, sunlight streams through spaces between the curtains, ushering guests in to a home-style breakfast at the inn—and the chance to sit down, to eat and to linger.
Local residents Clovis Harrod and Grady Cook often start their day with breakfast at Deetjen’s. The setting, the service and the price make it both nostalgic and affordable. Harrod worked there for a dozen years, doing décor—mostly anything that required a needle and thread—but now she just goes for memories and a good meal.
“Everyone who works for Deetjen’s is an innkeeper,” says Harrod. “Everyone who comes here takes care of it. That’s just how it is.”
48865 Hwy. 1, Big Sur
Lisa Crawford Watson lives with her family on the Monterey Peninsula, where she is a freelance writer and an instructor of writing and journalism at California State University Monterey Bay and Monterey Peninsula College.