…Though cheap doesn’t mean you have to skimp.
The AT&T hasn’t been this noteworthy since Lemmon could hit a punchline during his backswing. From the B-minus-listers of yore to Alfonso Ribeiro and William McGirt (OK, so we all can’t be Justin Timberlake and Jordan Spieth…) the erstwhile Crosby as a trend-spotting event hasn’t happened since Bing himself hitched that nine-iron in the name of impossible vistas and improbable birdies on the par-three of the Pebble 17th. This Presidents’ Day Weekend, Spieth will be joined by other top duffers like Justin Rose, Jason Day, Bubba Watson, Dustin Johnson and Kevin Na in pursuit of their share of a $7 million purse.
Since you’re not one of them, below how to do it and do it well on a budget.
The Monterey Peninsula is a creature both strange and rare in coastal California. Unlike San Diego or Laguna Beach or even Santa Barbara, there hasn’t yet been a careful removal of its heart. Most places we refer to as coastal jewels in the West have been bulldozed and washed over and plucked and plumped to unrecognizable and unfathomably expensive portions. Visiting these places is akin to observing present-day Meg Ryan. It’s difficult to recognize the purity you once knew through the precision of a surgeon’s scalpel. In the majority of coastal towns, corporations took the real beauty and somehow manufactured a lesser version of it. Turned them into tasty poison.
But the gateway to the Central Coast remains as singular as it is untrammeled; dented yet preserved like a pocket watch. It may not be at all times working, but it is a glorious thing to gaze upon and roll through your fingertips. Considering the area is a mere 75 miles from Facebook/Google campuses, it seems almost unfairly ignored. And then you remind yourself that it is the last pawn to fall on this coast’s chess board. And it is still your secret—for now.
I have love for the history and present-day sweat of Salinas. I give props to the allure of Old Town Monterey. One can enjoy a snifter of Smithwick’s at the Crown & Anchor back patio where everyone is DTF after 10 p.m.—especially the Navy guy who’s grabbing Arabic at the Defense Language Institute while trying to pull some on-shore strange out of waves of marketing girls from the Hyatt Carmel Highlands or Quail Lodge. I am awed by the daring inconvenience of 17-mile Drive—which inadvertently has become a time capsule of Mid-Century industrialist California.
…But nothing compares to Carmel.
Think of Carmel as the last house on the street of homes that were built pre-World War II and have all been, one by one, bleached by remodel. Stripped of their character: Built-ins replaced with center islands. Granite for tile. Where once there was a place to wash hands and do dishes there is now a kiddie pool-sized farm basin sink. Extra rooms turned into master closets and hidden attic nooks that became media centers. Character exchanged for convenience and homogeneousness. Strolling through the curvy grid of central Carmel—even though there are more than a handful of Tuscan-inspired nightmares—underneath the verdant-yet-fading canopy of Coast live oak and Monterey pine, lies a spirit of something lost.
I imagine Beverly Cleary, yes this one, all 99 years of her, still rocks in the shade of the Canary Island Pine filtering sun through her sitting room window here. She refuses interviews and is left alone. One-time mayor Clint Eastwood still dines here uninterrupted. I last caught a glimpse of him out for a late supper on Super Bowl night 2014. Upon exit, I watched him take a bite of his gnocchi and a sip of his red wine, perfectly and unironically placed beneath a black and white still of The Man with No Name.
Of the non-famous variety, there are still a distinct number of red Mercedes 560SL convertible drivers—repping the pantsuit and bronze statue-collecting sect. Thanks to a family friend and their four-generation Hobbit house on Dolores, itself untouched for a century but for working plumbing and electricity (there is no wi-fi or cable or TV or any appliance of convenience beyond a toaster oven there), I have been visiting the area since I could crawl out of the crib. To this day, the ghosts that align the dim-lit paths and the hidden foot bridges of Carmel still do feel comfortable coming out at night. And the two-story motels that refuse to rise anywhere near the tree tops still offer rates guys like you and me can afford.
I do so encourage you to go, before the preservers of the mystique completely die off and their collective inheritors invariably sell off that tiny little music box of a town—one ancestor’s dream at a time. Whether it’s an impromptu trip this weekend or a let’s-do-one-more-night summer stay, here’s how to do Carmel-by-the-Sea (as if you could mistake it for the one in Indiana) on a budget. And by that I’m talking under $350 for three days, two nights including lodging, drinks and meals. That’s approximately one-quarter the cost of a double at the Four Seasons Santa Barbara…on a weeknight (low-season).
Here then, the recommends:
Hidden behind foliage that makes it easy to walk by once, twice…three times, Brophy’s Tavern on San Carlos is the closest thing Carmel has to a townie bar and features ample whiskey, good tap handles, lots of seating and lots of TVs. Very much not the Carmel you’re thinking of, but much different than the Bud Light, Coors Light and Shock Top you were paying $8/pint for at the hotel bar. Last visit over the summer, I ordered a Dale’s and the keg kicked halfway through the pour, so I got that on the house. The new keg was shaken not stirred during its journey from the walk-in, so I scored two more free pints, albeit coughing foamy ones. And yes, a complimentary backer of Jameson (OK, it was Jameson, but still) for my trouble. That’s how they roll at the Broph. Bartenders aren’t eye-rollers and they take care of tourists like they’re locals. The menu is pub fare and the best time of day/year to go is breakfast on a college game day Saturday, but a little pre-gaming there before you break out the lanyard for the AT&T will do just fine. Brophy’s also provides a low-lit spot for a nightcap and maybe a glimpse of SportsCenter after dinner and a stroll downtown.
As mentioned, last time I drank there I drank for free and if you time it right and sit betwixt the caddies just after dusk, that might be the case for you too. Best bet is breakfast (try the chicken and waffle or the El Niño’s burrito—both will run you $12 and fill you up for the entirety of your stay) garnished with a bloody and a beer or two. All in, you and a friend are still in the $40 range and will be powered up till happy hour.
Hofsas House Hotel
Brophy’s is tucked just behind the Bavarian-themed Hofsas House Hotel which features freakishly spacious rooms with a peek of the ocean above the treeline and a little bit of deck space to enjoy it from. The motif makes you feel like you’re standing in line at Disney’s Matterhorn (in a good way). If the hotel itself is frozen in the ’50s, rates are still very much in the early ’80s. Rooms start at $100 for weekdays, including Fridays and spike to $125/$150 night on the weekends. They’re sold out online for the AT&T, but the front desk usually keeps some rack space open for stragglers. The hotel also gets bombarded with cancellations from folks who missed their connector to SFO, so walk-ins can usually score something for the night. Just be sure to secure your spot before making your way across the road to the bar.
The Monterey Peninsula is famous for being a place that, you know, used to produce the nation’s (world’s?) biggest ration of fish in the most harmful-to-humans (and the ecosystem) way. Yet it is strangely devoid of sushi restaurants serving local fish. (Note to restaurant investors: If you’re thinking of putting in an exclusively local and sustainably fished sushi joint in a place that’s craving it and gets the right amount of year-round tourist traffic to make it go, hit me up.) Instead, the Monterey Peninsula is rife with the kind of mall sushi joints you find at prefab basecamp villages at ski resorts or in terminal food courts at major Midwestern hubs. It’s a damn dirty shame. I won’t name names, but get your google on to separate your pretenders from contenders.
The lone exception, the sushi spot that comes close (though there’s still a good supply of dark red tuna flown from a disgusting number of timezones away to please the gaping maws of the monied) is Akaoni. It’s tucked in an a realtors’-office-looking space on Mission and 6th a couple blocks from the storefronts of Ocean Avenue. The shotgun-style restaurant is barely wide enough to stretch out your arms between the glass case of the sushi bar and the plate glass windows which feature vistas of a small gallery-jewelry shop alleyway.
Live Monterey prawns are in the tank and they’ll roll out two or three varieties of locally fished sashimi on the regular. Last time I was there in November, our brave dining neighbors were treated to some local sea urchin served live. It was a (ready?) moving experience for the whole bar.
This place seems to be starting to attract a handful of itinerant young Turks form SF who are into the fish and the fish only—no saki bombs or funky/fun/new-agey vibe here. The place is not dirty, but just sort of oldish with nothing more atmospheric than the faded soy sauce stains on the white tablecloths. As one Yelper put it, “Don’t go here for fun. It’s not fun.” But what you don’t get in low lighting and patrons with veneers is a sushi experience for under $40. Last visit, my partner had a roll and an order of amberjack sashimi and I had a six-piece assorted sushi. Even the egg elicited head-nodding approval. Coke and hot tea and we were out the door with tip for $36. Be sure to call day-of for reservations or roll the dice with lunch.
Hog’s Breath Inn (back patio/bar only)
Do you have children? Do you like to drink in front of them? Good. Hog’s Breath Inn is for you. Do you not have children? Do you like to drink in a bar that feels more like an exclusive miniature wood-paneled clubhouse, complete with taxidermy, that is about five seconds away from being (re)discovered? Good. The Hog’s Breath Inn is for you.
I’m partial to the Hog’s Breath because, frankly, when I was little the dads used to get the nod from the chard-popping moms and scoop us up to go there sometime in the late-afternoon to start in on a couple Anchor Steams and listen to the game. They’d give us a few bucks to run up and down Ocean in search of jawbreakers or Koosh balls or a tree to climb. We’d come back to the Hog’s Breath, seemingly hours later (and by the tale of foam-lined empties, it might have been), and the dads would still be there. The Giants game would still be on. And their donations to fund our—um—release back into the streets would be more generous. Dunno where the moms were. Didn’t care.
…I know we live in the 2010s not the 1980s, but much to my surprise, last summer, my buddy and I tucked into a couple cold ones and some calamari on the back patio, Giants above on the flatscreen and his kids, well, they knew what to do. They even brought us back some only-half-sucked-on gummy worms. A couple apps and three beers each ran us just under $60 with tip. A much better option when the Giants are at home than an actual trip to AT&T where that doesn’t cover the face of a single ticket on club level.
I’ve done enough on the old school, so here’s a spot that opened within the last half-decade. On Dolores a block off Ocean, this simple Italian deli does the few things it sets out to do right and on the cheap. More of a spot to get a.m. provisions on the way down to the beach, or to just enjoy midday while sitting on the bench in an adjacent courtyard and watching the knit blends and their tiny canine charges stroll by. Salumeria Luca is even a nice to-go spot to stock up if you don’t want to pay $18 for a hot dog and Bud heavy during a round at Spanish Bay. The Calabrese sandwich is the signature, but take the recommend from the counter over whatever’s on the menu. If you hit it during the pre- or post-lunch rush, you can avoid the crowds…and don’t forget to check in on the carefully selected and economical flight of wines.
Last trip there in October, a pair of sandwiches, a couple breadsticks (we’d just gotten done with a run and were hungry) and a Sanpellegrino—plus a small gratuity—still left me with change jangling in my running shorts from the sweaty $20 I was carrying.
If you are staying at the Hofsas House, you should continue the Bavarian theme with a stop a few blocks down the hill at 6th and Dolores at the Little Swiss. If Hofsas House is the Matterhorn, then Little Swiss is definitely A Small World. You’ll feel like Alice who just shrank to a child-like repose in order to duck in here and take in the comfy woody booths and the frescos on the wall. And the food is how your grandma made breakfast (if your grandma didn’t use Bisquick). Seriously, the pancakes and sausage would be like if Spielberg made a movie about pancakes and sausage—you know, just a little better than you’d ever hoped for in real life.
Breakfast for a family of four will probably take you out the door at just under $50. Overall, about what you’d pay for the same meal but a very different experience at the Monterey Denny’s.
So that’s it. Now go. Seek. Find. Enjoy. But do get to Carmel fast. Global warming and an Anthropologie store have chased away the fog that once blanketed the village’s secrets—and nothing so sacred can stay.