Delicious hospitality and a Donner Party ghost
Photos by Philip Geiger
You can find it by wandering down Franklin Street until the path runs out of pavement and disappears into acres of growing fields, where row upon variegated row extend to the distant foothills, which seem to reach right up to God. You also can ask the folks in town how to get to San Juan Bautista’s Fault Line Restaurant and Gazebo, and they’ll point you toward “Edie’s place.” But even the best directions don’t guarantee you’ll be invited in for dinner.
The place, which had previously served Italian and German fare, was already named for its location when Edie Duncan bought the house, built by Donner Party survivors Patrick and Margaret Breen. Duncan, who was born in Poland and raised in Germany, had immigrated to San Francisco, ultimately settling in Santa Cruz. But a series of life changes and losses had sent her in search of a renewed sense of faith and a different point of view. She found both in the cottage, which is right next door to the Mission San Juan Bautista, and rests on the gap between the Pacific and North American plates, otherwise known as the San Andreas Fault.
“Mr. Patrick Breen lived in the corner of the living room for a long time,” says Duncan. “I could always tell where his ghost had been, by the shift in a spoon at the table or some other change in the room. But lately he seems to have departed.”
It wasn’t Duncan’s original plan to reopen the restaurant; her intention was just to live in the cottage. But then the earthquake of ’89 took down her fireplace and rearranged her life. “I was preparing food for the carpenters who were repairing the damage,” says Duncan, “when some people wandered in and asked if I was serving lunch. So, I said, ‘Sit down.’ After I thanked them for coming, they said, ‘This isn’t a restaurant? Well you need to open one; the food was really good.’ After that it kind of got out of hand.”
Duncan installed a polished-wood bar in the entry and shingled the walls—herself. She added a restroom and set up a workhorse of a kitchen, with eight gas burners, a Wolf grill and a wall of seriously seasoned pots and pans. Some 22 years later, she continues to cook, clean and serve by herself, as if hosting a few personal friends. By now, most customers are. And although she has served as many as 120 guests in one evening, she now sets six tables across the living room and hopes to serve just one or two.
“People ask when I’m open,” says Duncan, “and I tell them, ‘Whenever I feel like it.’ I only take reservations, and I don’t do kids, credit cards or coffee. Nobody wants coffee by someone who doesn’t drink it. If they need coffee, I send them down the street to Vertigo Coffee.”
Dmitri Fridman, who owns Vertigo, recently celebrated his mother’s birthday at The Fault Line. “It is a unique experience you cannot find elsewhere,” he says. “Edie is such a great cook and makes her guests feel like they are dining in a private home. Anyone looking for a little adventure for the evening will find it there. She serves a wonderful meal in a pleasant atmosphere, which has a cool collection of Russian art and other works throughout the house. And she has a gorgeous gazebo out back.”
The Japanese-style structure was designed by a San Francisco landscape architect, the late Tommy Church, Duncan says. Guests may sit in its shade before dinner, enjoying a sip of something as well as views of San Juan Bautista State Park and the mission’s bell tower. While Duncan’s dinners are generous, she doesn’t do dessert, and finds most people don’t miss it. She does introduce a little jar of chocolate-covered blueberries at the end of the meal, accompanied by the bill, along with a story or a joke she’s been saving. Ask her about “Timbuktu.”
“I don’t bake,” she says. “I can’t take orders from a recipe, and baking must be precise. I love cooking, but it has to be on my terms. I cook not by recipe but by taste. I fix food as I please, and let my guests decide.”
Fortunately for her guests, her tastes run both to the delicious and the healthful.
“I don’t do greasy food, and I use only fresh, organic, free-range food. It comes naturally to me. It doesn’t take a lot of experience to know that you put good things in to get good things out. I love fresh herbs, and I know how to make a good sauce. I don’t smother my food; I put just enough to dip, but people tend to lick my plates clean.”
Duncan’s menu shows up on an erasable whiteboard, listing her wild salmon, chicken schnitzel, rib eye steak or whatever she feels like making. Next to each listing she marks a few dots to signify how many servings remain available. She begins the meal with garlic bread and brie, followed by a fresh salad. Then she adds three vegetables to the entree — two green and another to add color to the plate. She’s known as the “spud queen” for her savory potatoes.
Duncan is attentive to her guests and sets the mood for the evening with their choice of music, preferably a little Leonard Cohen. Having installed big speakers in the yard, she can fill the air with his “Hallelujah,” and likely no one at the mission minds.
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.
The Fault Line Restaurant and Gazebo
11 Franklin St., San Juan Bautista
Open only by reservation; call at least a day in advance