Tucked into the heart of downtown Monterey is a whale bone sidewalk that borders The Old Whaling Station. Despite its central location, not a lot of locals know the beautiful and uncommon piece of architecture exists.
The whale bone walkway is part of a fascinating property that contains a magical garden, a historic building and a quirky destination full of intriguing details, including a burglar’s stair that’s unevenly tall to trip up the uninitiated (and uninvited).
It’s also a fitting metaphor for the Monterey Bay Food Tours that often include a visit to The Old Whaling Station and other memorable sites like Casa de Oro Gardens and California’s First Theatre. Both the Whaling Station and Monterey Bay Food Tours are hiding in plain sight. Both are thoroughly of and about Monterey. And both represent outright revelations.
Monterey Bay Food Tours owner-operator Casey Aguilar enjoys those reveals as much as any part of her job.
“About 50 percent of our customers are local and they are surprised within the first five minutes as they learn things they never knew,” she says. “One couple was born and has lived in Monterey for over 70 years, but at the end of the tour they expressed how much they didn’t know about the town they call home.”
I’m going to shoot you straight: I did not see that coming.
Sure, MBFT scored $10,000 at CSU Monterey Bay’s 2019 startup challenge for its plan to give the city its original walking food tour. But I was still skeptical. After writing about the city’s culinary scene for the better part of two decades, I was not optimistic the tour would illuminate much. When I learned Aguilar is from Georgia and our guide for the day hailed from Illinois, that stoked my suspicions.
And I was totally wrong.
We walked and talked and ate and drank for four hours with our guide Lance, and it flew by.
To start we traversed Custom House Plaza to peek into the Dali 17 museum’s memorable back patio. There Nitro-Cycle 831 poured nitrogenized hibiscus teas and coffees from its bicycle bar to pair with Paris Bakery almond croissants.
After exploring The Old Whaling Station grounds we walked over to Fisherman’s Wharf and a place now most famous for its appearances on HBO’s hit series Big Little Lies, but more deserving of attention for its timeless Italian fare.
Paluca Trattoria’s linguini and clams proved a study in tasty understatement. The textures were just right, the salt and citrus applied expertly to enhance the freshness of the pasta and shellfish, and wedded well with a Scheid Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc. A classic bruschetta also pleased our group of four.
We moved up Alvarado Street to Aabha Indian for a far-ranging smorgasbord of lassis, curries, samosas, fried fish dishes and sweet gulab jamun dumplings. The quantity and quality of tastes spoke to the primary danger the tour presents—partner restaurants over-serving guests who will visit several more stops to eat and drink. In fact, Aguilar invites her participating restaurateurs on the tour to get an idea of the scope of the day and limit how much they serve.
Next up was Epsilon Fine Greek Restaurant for a snappy salad and traditional soup to pair with pine barrel Retsina wine and more gracious family-owned hospitality, followed by divine desserts at Alta Bakery hand-delivered by chef Ben Spungin.
From there we stayed sweet with a “bee’s knees” sundae at Revival Ice Cream down the block while creamery staff took us through a presentation of how they do their handcrafted goodies.
The final stanza came at Puma Road wine tasting room overlooking the Monterey Conference Center for a handful of signature red vinos, Schoch Family Farmstead cheeses and Big Sur Salts. All told it was an artfully choreographed day that feels like a very defensible value at $95.
Aguilar et al tweak the itinerary depending on group size and seasonality. She is starting to offer tours again in June, including the Old Monterey Tour described here and a Local Seafood Tour along Cannery Row. In the wake of COVID-19 she also plans to offer more private tours.
In the meantime, she is using her platform to sell many of her favorite local products and merchandise in bundles that include everything from candles and marmalades to syrups and soaps. MBFT offers local delivery, shipping and free local pick at Melville Tavern, another tour partner.
Enthusiasm for the city’s homegrown purveyors is a clear guiding light for Aguilar.
“While supporting MBFT you are helping other local business owners sustain their businesses and grow,” she says. “Our tour partners feature what has made Monterey what it is today.”
More at montereybayfoodtours.com/.