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A Visit to Old California

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I grew up in a small Southern California beach town when Orange County was still blanketed by its namesake orange groves, and narrow inland roads wove among small farms with rustic wooden fencing, eucalyptus trees, and the fields along the coast were planted with truck farm crops. Streets and towns had Spanish names, the architecture was a mix of Spanish, wooden cottages, Victorian, and low-slung mid-century buildings. The most striking feature though was the Pacific Ocean. You could see it from wherever you were, it seemed, and you could stand on the beach, with nothing in your line of vision but rocks, the ocean, sand and sky. It was easy to imagine that it was just like that a hundred, a thousand, ten thousand, years ago.

I can’t exactly find that same sense of space and history now in my old hometown, but visiting the outskirts of Monterey on California’s Central Coast comes close. Maybe it’s because I can stay at the Monterey Tides, a hotel that stands alone on a long stretch of beach, just north of the city, where there are miles of unobstructed views of open water, shifting sand dunes, and a short set of stairs down to the beach itself. From there, it’s only a 10-minute drive to Monterey and the heart of California history.


The communal dining table at the Vizcaino Waterfront restaurant at the Monterey Tides Hotel

Monterey has become a destination for tourists from all over who come to visit the world-famous Monterey Bay Aquarium, Cannery Row, and Old Fisherman’s Wharf. They come to whale watch, kayak, and to visit the art galleries and museums, and perhaps, like me, to bask in the nostalgia generated by the early California buildings, historic monuments, old wharves and fishing boats.

Native Americans fished the abundant waters of the bay for more than 3,000 years before the first Spanish explorer, Juan Rodríquez Cabrillo, arrived in 1542 and gave the bay its first name, The Bay of Pines. In 1602 the bay was given its lasting name of Monte Rey Bay by Sebastián Vizcaíno who became the first European to set foot on the shores of the bay and he claimed it all for Spain.

Monterey became the capital of both lower and upper California, a territory owned by Spain until Spain lost its war with Mexico in 1821. Under Mexican rule, Monterey became a major trade center for hides and others goods. Then, in 1848, Mexico lost its war with the United States, and the United States claimed California as its own.

With the waves of immigration that came to California during and after the Gold Rush, a large contingent of Italians came to Monterey where they established the fishing industry that remains strong today, in spite of ups and downs over the years. One of the promontories in the heart of the city is fondly nicknamed “Spaghetti Hill” in reference to the many Italians who settled and lived there within reach of the bay and their livelihood.


A calamari sandwich at Phil's Fish Market and Eatery.

Not surprisingly, many of the restaurants in Monterey are Italian, specializing in Italian style fish of every kind from cioppino to seafood-rich pastas. Many of the restaurants tout the local calamari which comes from Monterey Bay and a few even have the famous Monterey sardines, grilled, as a special of the day. That’s what I had as an appetizer when we had lunch at Domenico’s near the far end of Fisherman’s Wharf during a recent visit. It was a sunny, slightly warm day, and our table was upstairs on the outside deck, right above the water. As we were starting to eat, our waitress came over and said, “Look, there’s a whale out there,” pointing out into the bay, where we caught sight of a huge grey tail starting to slide into the water.

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After a long day of sight-seeing that included a visit to the not-to-be-missed Monterey Bay Aquarium, explorations of Cannery Row, and Colton Hall, the site of the signing of the 1849 California State Constitution, and a general drive around the area, soaking up the atmosphere, we were happy to get back to our hotel for a long walk along the ocean toward the dunes, the only sound the slapping of the surf on the sand.

Since Monterey Tides has one of the top rated restaurants in the area for ocean views, the Vizcaino Waterfront, it made sense to eat dinner there. The entire ocean facing wall is glass with panoramic views in every direction. The menu reflects the chef’s Spanish heritage with an assortment of tapas, with a focus on California fresh, including guacamole made tableside, which, of course, we had, plus glazed pork belly, and calamari.


The dining room before lunch service at Phil's Fish Market and Eatery at Moss Beach.

The restaurant is open for breakfast and eating there, with a huge vista of the Pacific, good, strong coffee and a menu that included poblano omelet, huevos rancheros, avocado toast, and so much more, was a peaceful way to begin the day. We would have happily stayed to lunch, but we had heard about Phil’s Fish Market and Eatery up the coast at Moss Beach, just beyond Sand City and its famous dunes, the largest on the coast.

Driving along Highway 1, headed north, a little sand blowing across the road from the oceanside, and acre upon acre of artichokes and strawberries on the other side, the main structures being farm stands was a continuation of the old California theme, like stepping back into the past. We stopped at one of the stands, and I walked away with 10 pounds of artichokes for just about $10.

By the time we got to Phil’s, I was ready for lunch, and Phil’s didn’t disappoint. It’s an old-fashioned fish market on a working commercial fishing pier, with a casual, diner-style restaurant with expansive indoor and enclosed patio seating behind the market. The menu has it all. The fish and chips is cod or halibut, or oyster, shrimp, scallop or squid and chips. There’s charbroiled fish, breaded and fried fish, specials like Sicilian salmon and stir-fried calamari. Artichokes were on the menu, of course, and there were seven different options — I chose the basket of deep fried hearts. Cioppino is a big favorite at Phil’s and you can even get it to go — just bring your own pot — and next time I will. Bringing home the bag of artichokes was bringing home a tangible memory of old California and a big pot of cioppino would be even better.