With all the travails and vicissitudes of modern life, we can all use a respite or safe harbor to which we can escape…where we can take a break from all our worries. Big Sur, California, which most would consider an escape in and of itself has a dining destination which has been nourishing diners both physically and spiritually for more than six decades. It’s called Nepenthe, a Greek word which can be translated to “isle of no care,” “a place to find surcease from sorrow.”
Lest you get the impression Nepenthe is a real-world Cheers tavern, it is oh, so much more. First, if there’s a true paradise on Earth (other than New Mexico, of course), it may well exist on the Central California coast in Big Sur, a seaside idyll which will take your breath away and calm you with its vast expanse of tranquil waters and spectacular views of towering redwoods and precipitous cliffs in a climate that can only be described as perfect. If such a seaside idyll has a heart and soul, it is Nepenthe.
The word “Nepenthe” first appears on the fourth book of Homer’s Odyssey, though its reference wasn’t as a place of respite, but as a drug that elicited a calming state of mind. Nepenthe was a potion used by the ancients to induce forgetfulness from pain or sorrow. Essentially, it was an anti-depressant or more precisely, an anti-sorrow drug. In the Odyssey, Nepanthe was first mentioned as having been given to Helen by an Egyptian queen to quell her sorrows with forgetfulness. Its use was widespread. Greek warriors wanting to dull their senses to impending danger took it before going to war.
The definition best befitting Nepenthe is “isle of no care.” While a visit may not guarantee all your cares will fully dissipate, you can almost be assured that for the hour or so of your visit, you won’t feel as weighted down. Today many of its visitors are tourists, some of whom may not fully understand the cultural and spiritual significance of Nepenthe. Most of them (the adults anyway) nonetheless find themselves virtually entranced by the magnificent views. Some, like me, feel more spiritually awakened at Nepenthe in a manner many report feeling at Sedona, Santa Fe or Taos. It’s been that way almost from the beginning.
The history of Nepenthe is much more than the story of a restaurant. It is the story of a family, a culture and a very special place and time. In 1947, Bill and Lolly Fassett relocated with their five children to Big Sur where they purchased a log home perched on a hillside overlooking the coast. The home had been owned by Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth. The Fassetts envisioned an open-air pavilion with good food, wine dancing and a sense of community for Big Sur residents. It took two years to realize their vision. Aided by Rowan Maiden, a disciple of Frank Lloyd Wright, they built their complex using native materials: redwoods hewn from area canyons and hand-made adobe bricks.
Before long Nepenthe became the epicenter of life at Big Sur, the hub of creative culture and the respite the Fassetts had envisioned. It was a home away from home for writers such as Henry Miller and actors such as Steve McQueen and Kim Novak. The variety of unique personalities and artists inhabiting Big Sur at its halcyon period for creative expression and Bohemian culture–people living on the fringes of mainstream and uninhibited by societal conventions–is probably best expressed in Miller’s Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch, his love letter to his adopted home. The people of Miller’s tome were the people of Nepenthe.
As a restaurant, Nepenthe established a reputation not only for its delicious food and the whimsy in naming its dishes, but for its commitment to exceptional caring service in a relaxed atmosphere. For Thanksgiving, Lolly would invite everyone in Big Sur, an extended family of flamboyant characters and bombastic personalities. Lolly’s granddaughter Romney “Nani” Steele chronicled the magical history of Nepenthe in a wonderful read called My Nepenthe: Bohemian Tales of Food, Family, and Big Sur. It comes very highly recommended by New Mexico’s own Deborah Madison, by the way.
You’ll want to get to Nepenthe early not only because waits can be rather long at peak times (12-1PM and 5-6PM), but because the best seating with the best views goes fast. Sure there’s ample seating indoors, but most will opt for some of the most spectacular al fresco dining in California with more than fifty miles of coastline visible on a clear day. The salubrious air and clear, cobalt skies are an elixir for whatever may ail you. It makes for some of the most relaxing dining anywhere as you contemplate the unmatched beauty of your surroundings.
The Nepenthe menu showcases the bounty of Big Sur’s local organic ingredients in serving simple foods redolent with flavor and freshness. Sandwiches and salads are featured fare for lunch with specials available daily. For dinner, the menu is a bit more upscale with steaks (premium naturally raised beef, free of chemicals, growth hormones and feed additives), grilled fresh fish, poultry and more. One commonality between lunch and dinner is the fabulous Ambrosiaburger.
Appetizers also showcase California’s year-round harvests and freshly prepared local ingredients. There’s a strong sense of local pride evident in such featured fare as slow-roasted Gilroy garlic (with Laura Chenel goat cheese from Sonoma), Castroville artichokes and a California Artisinal Cheese Plate, a selection of California artisinal cheeses (Humboldt Fog Goat Cheese, Point Reyes Blue Cheese, Monterey Jack when we visited), with quince jam, apple chutney, fresh seasonal fruit (grapes, apricots) and crostini. The interplay between strong, pungent cheeses with sweet fruits is a gastronomic delight.
The most famous item on the Nepenthe menu is aptly named the Ambrosiaburger. That’s ambrosia as in the food of the gods and burger as in the favorite food of Americans everywhere. The first thing you’ll notice about the Ambrosiaburger is that it tastes like a very good coal-based brazier steak and indeed, the beef is actually a ground steak sandwich. The beef is ground fresh every morning and procured from a specialty butcher. The six-ounce beef patty is perfectly seasoned and so pink and juicy even at medium, you’ll wonder if it isn’t a bit undercooked. The Ambrosiaburger is served on a delicious, buttered and toasted French roll with the restaurant’s famous “Ambrosia sauce,” a zesty mayonnaise-tomato sauce-salsa based concoction. You can add Swiss or Cheddar cheese for a pittance more. To add anything else would be to desecrate what is one of the very best burgers I’ve ever had. Perhaps it’s because of my affection for the Ambrosiaburger that In-N-Out seemed so very pedestrian in comparison. The burger is served with your choice of garbanzo-kidney bean salad, crunchy coleslaw or tossed green salad (the housemade bleu cheese dressing is fabulous).
The special of the day when we visited was a half-rack of ribs with a Hoisin barbecue sauce, corn-on-the-cob, Asian coleslaw and watermelon. If that sounds like the perfect ingredients for a picnic under one of nature’s most spectacular venue, that’s exactly what it is. The Hoisin barbecue sauce is slathered on rather thickly, but its sweetness is cut with ingredients which are more savory. The ribs are meaty and fall-off-the-bone tender. You’ll be happy to have your cheeks rouged with the sauce as you devour each delicious rib. The Asian coleslaw is made with a rice wine vinegar instead of a creamy mayo based coleslaw. It makes for a tangy-sweet coleslaw. The corn-on-the-cob is fresh and sweet with the flavor that says summer as does the sweet, juicy watermelon.
The dessert menu lists five items including the aforementioned California Artisanal Cheese Plate and a Triple Berry Pie (raspberries, strawberries and boysenberries). Our super attentive server recommended the day’s special, a banana cream pie. Interestingly, she suggested we have it with two scoops of Breyer’s chocolate ice cream. Her recommendations were spot-on in both counts. The pie is served cold and has a pronounced banana flavor that doesn’t taste artificial. It’s not an overly sweet pie, especially when it shares a spoon with the chocolate ice cream. Gilligan never had a banana cream pie this good (sorry Mary Ann).
In our week-long stay at Big Sur, we experienced several excellent meals and one transformative experience. That was at Nepenthe, a restaurant which truly is an isle of no care. It’s the idyll I’ll think about whenever the cares of the day become tough to deal with.
48510 Hwy 1
Big Sur, California
LATEST VISIT: 18 July 2012
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: The Famous Ambrosiaburger, California Artisinal Cheese Plate, Hoisin Rib Plate, Banana Cream Pie a la mode, French Fries