Go for the Pebble Beach Food & Wine festival. Stay for everything else.
The dignified, well-spoken culinary professionals addressing us from the stage appear ready to stab each other to death with their lemongrass lamb shanks. Such is the level of passion – and, perhaps, self-importance – at the Pebble Beach Food & Wine festival.
Titled “Brewed for Food,” the midday seminar started out pleasantly enough, with quadruple flights of Goose Island craft beer paired with fragrant nibbles of upscale Vietnamese cuisine. The idea was for the audience (about 30 of us) to trade impressions with the moderators (two of them, a chatty brewery rep from Chicago and a dour sommelier from somewhere) while we sipped on the beer and noshed on the grub and considered complementary aromatics and sweetness profiles and so forth.
There was a little of that, at first, before the moderators launched into a curiously heated debate about whether the Goose Island constituted a “beer” or a “brand.” No joke. They gabbed away, pounding each other with insults and semantic vagaries, while the rest of us traded bemused looks and drained our glasses.
So did the snit spoil the afternoon? Gracious, no! It was incredibly entertaining – exactly the kind of testy, palate-proud one-upsmanship you might see on Hell’s Kitchen or Top Chef. The more it seemed likely the brand rep would dump a bottle of the farmhouse ale on her opponent’s head, the more fun it was.
Staged every April near one of California’s most insanely gorgeous stretches of shoreline, Pebble Beach Food & Wine has become something of a food snob Super Bowl – four days of omakase lunches, Opus One tasting flights, and cheese-tasting marathons, populated both by civilians and a deep roster of Food Network stars and celebrity chefs. It’s a one-of-a-kind epicurean treat, made even more appealing by its perch on the Monterey peninsula, a mystically lush nub of Central California coastline located about two hours south of San Francisco.
You certainly don’t need to synchronize a trip with Pebble Beach Food & Wine to enjoy the Monterey coast – after all, those epic fairways and first-rate restaurants will serve you year-round – but April is an especially splendid time on the peninsula, full of crisp seasonal energy and a lot of tipsy foodists.
On the southern elbow of the Monterey Peninsula, just below Pebble Beach, lies Carmel – or, if you prefer, Carmel-by-the-Sea – famed stomping grounds of Clint Eastwood, who held the mayorship of the tiny city for three years in the 1980s. Blanketed in Monterey cypress trees and elegant beach homes, with a hilltop town center that slopes excitingly to the serene beach below, Carmel was a famed art colony in the early 1900s, when the likes of Jack London, Ambrose Bierce, Mary Austin and Sinclair Lewis decamped from San Francisco after the great 1906 earthquake.
Today, Carmel is quite plainly a one-percenter colony, but echoes of the old bohemian glory days remain. On Fridays and Saturdays, visitors can take guided tours of the Tor House, the hand-built love nest of poet Robinson Jeffers and his wife, Una. Erected from granite stones that Jeffers inventively sourced from the beach below, the two-story cottage was eventually dwarfed by Hawk Tower, a four-story overlook based on Irish castle designs. Led and narrated by knowledgeable Tor Foundation volunteers, the tour ($10 adult, $5 child; torhouse.org) is a great way to treat oneself to some humbling views of the Pacific, while enjoying a nice bite of local history.
If you’re in the mood to bite something more tangible, Carmel is as packed with quality restaurants as a town of 3,700 souls could reasonably be. Set in a German cottage at the top of the hill, chef-owned Grasing’s (Sixth St. and Mission Ave., 831-625-1199, grasings.com), is a classic American chophouse with predictably excellent steaks, but you’d be remiss not to try the abalone ($27), that once-plentiful mollusk that fueled the local fishing industry for decades. Farm-raised and served dore style with a light egg-wash batter, it’s dreamily tender, like some crazy lovechild of a clam and free-range chicken. Other dining options include Mission Ranch Restaurant (26270 Dolores St., 831-625-9040, missionranchcarmel.com), set in a historic resort that Eastwood purchased several years ago (and where he sometimes gives impromptu jazz piano performances, if you believe the rumors); and the Dametra Café (Lincoln St., 831-622-7766, dametracafe.com), an energetic Greek place where the workmanlike moussaka gets an added dash of charm by the restaurant’s serenading owner.
The pleasures are generally simple in Carmel: lovely coastal sunsets, picturesque streets, and flawless air that you can devour by the lungful while hiking the legendary Cypress Grove Trail at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve (parks.ca.gov). For a walking tour of the town with a little something extra, purchase a Carmel Wine Walk by-the-Sea Passport ($65), which includes vouchers for a flight at each of the town’s 10 tasting rooms and their respective stocks of Monterey County wines. You’ll never have more fun getting your passport stamped (carmelcalifornia.org/things-to-do).
Once the territorial capital of Alta California, Monterey – an easy 10-minute drive from Carmel, on the north side of the peninsula – also boasted the state’s first newspaper, public library and public school. Later, it was sustained by California’s most abundant fishery, immortalized in all its hardscrabble glory by native son John Steinbeck in the classic novel Cannery Row.
Monterey’s main claim to pop culture fame is the Monterey Jazz Festival (montereyjazzfestival.org) in the early fall (September 19-21), but the town is never lacking for displays of artistic craft. Craft beer, for example. At the aptly-named Cannery Row Brewing Company (95 Prescott Ave., 831-643-2722, canneryrowbrewingcompany.com), art fans are treated to Northern California’s largest selection of draft beers, including a list of Belgians that would make a monk blush, along with 30 small-batch bourbons. Up the road a bit, Restaurant 1833 (500 Hartnell St., 831-643-1833, restaurant1833.com) serves as the peninsula’s answer to Jared Porter’s Petite Maison back in Scottsdale – upgraded versions of European country food, like gnocchi with pancetta-wrapped braised rabbit, and an English pea soup so refined and refreshing it tastes like vegetable rain. You can hunt for a better meal on the peninsula, but won’t find it. Unless you visit on a certain week in April.
Less a city than a golf colony, Pebble Beach – located on the tip of the peninsula, between Monterey and Carmel – is pleasantly cut off from the world by the Del Monte Forest, a serene wilderness of Monterey Pine and cypress that hugs the town like a leafy fog. Once inside the affluent enclave, visitors find five storied golf courses with unfairly gorgeous views of the Pacific, including Pebble Beach Golf Links (pebblebeach.com/golf), ranked the number one public course in America by Golf Digest.
Because of its golf pedigree, Pebble Beach is perhaps best known for its annual PGA Tour events, including the occasional U.S. Open. But as claims to fame go, the Pebble Beach Food & Wine festival (pbfw.com) is gaining fast. Staged at several event spaces in Pebble Beach, but primarily at the handsome Inn at Spanish Bay (2700 17-Mile Dr., 831-647-7500, pebblebeach.com/accommodations), the festival is now one of the most lavish epicurean events on the West Coast, with a population of food pros and celebrity chefs as plentiful as the abalone that once blanketed the bay. Festival events are offered à la carte, from relatively affordable quickies like a cooking demo with Michelin-starred Greek cuisine specialist Donatella Arpaia ($100 per ticket) to the $1,250-a-plate Grand Finale Dinner. There are also spendy ticket “packages” ($995-$4,750).
Blue-chip winery Opus One is a yearly partner, and a great personal source of excitement for me as I sit down to a vertical Opus One tasting seminar, featuring six cabernet vintages stretching all the way back to the early 1980s. The mood in the 50-person conference room is initially sales-meeting-somber, befitting the act of opening wine bottles that cost as much a new refrigerator, but loosens considerably as we move into the 1990s vintages. Winemaker Michael Silaci even cracks a few jokes. It’s enormously instructive, but ultimately just a high-toned booze-off – by the time we’re sniffing the 2010, I might as well be drinking Three-Buck Chuck.
I also attend a scene-y but spectacular “omakase lunch” with Iron Chef legend Masaharu Morimoto and Roy Yamaguchi, and a “cheese and wine” seminar with the “first lady of fromage,” food author Laura Werlin, who talks us through an intriguing spectrum of cheese offerings, from mild goats milk to the pungent Ziege Zacke Blue from Wisconsin. And then the beer tasting brouhaha, naturally.
Perhaps the hardest ticket to get at Pebble Beach is the one that’s not for sale – the invitation-only VIP party on Friday and Saturday night, where the likes of Guy Fieri and Andrew Zimmern drain an open bar with industry insiders and other well-connected folk in a nightclub setting. Common journalists and food fans stand very little chance of admittance, but where there’s a will – and a few glasses of Opus One for courage – there’s a way.
If You Go
What: Pebble Beach Food & Wine
When: April 10-13
How much: À la carte pricing starts at $100; ticket packages start at $995
Where to Stay
Tradewinds Carmel: This upgraded two-story lodging features plantation windows and comely views of downtown Carmel, with individual room water features to conjure a Zen-like chill. The feature beds are unbelievably comfortable, and the complimentary continental breakfast makes for a good start to a Monterey adventure. Mission Street at Third Avenue, 831-624-2776, tradewindscarmel.com
Quail Lodge: Located 15 minutes inland from Carmel in the town of Carmel Valley, this sedate golf resort allows visitors to stretch out a little, with capacious rooms. Gotta love the bocce ball court near the pool. 8000 Valley Greens Dr., 831-620-8866, quaillodge.com
Shoreline Inn: Looking to cap off your trip to the Monterey coast with a visit to the legendary Hearst Castle (hearstcastle.org) in nearby San Simeon? Feel like driving a little farther in San Luis Obispo County to see more of California’s Central Coast? Stay at this charming mom-and-pop beachfront motel in the town of Cayucos, where the breakfast is free and the staff will gladly direct you to any hike or winery in the area. 1 N. Ocean Ave., Cayucos, 805-995-3681, cayucosshorelineinn.com