Ah, Carmel. My “happy place.” Carmel holds a very special place in my heart, as it is where my parents were married in 1973, where my family and I celebrated their 20th wedding anniversary in 1993, where Jack surprised me with our first weekend getaway in 2007, and where Jack and I were married in 2012. We make a point of visiting Carmel at least once year, and we have yet to tire of this magical place.
Carmel is located in the county of Monterey, about a 2.5 hour drive south of San Francisco, give or take depending on traffic. The charming “downtown” known as Carmel-by-the-Sea is a popular tourist destination, and for good reason: the shops and cottages in this foggy little seaside village look like they’re right out of a storybook. The town is very walkable and is full of great shops, restaurants, wine tasting rooms, and beautiful homes. Carmel-by-the-Sea is quirky: there are no addresses (which is quite inefficient, if you ask me), no street lamps (warning: don’t wear high heels at night), and is full of crazy dog people (myself included). What’s not to love?
Just east of Carmel-by-the-Sea is the quieter, sunnier Carmel Valley, which boasts wineries, fancy resorts and spas, and a pleasant climate (sunny and 75 degrees throughout the summer). The lodging in Carmel Valley far outshines the overpriced kitschy inns and motels in Carmel-by-the-Sea, in my opinion. We prefer to stay in the valley because the hotels offer so many more amenities, though Carmel-by-the-Sea is where we dine and drink.
We were married at Bernardus Lodge in the Carmel Valley; however, this resort has since been purchased by a large hospitality company, renovated, and saw its rates skyrocket. I still think it’s worth the price, but only in the summer months when you’re planning to spend a lot of time at the resort. Otherwise I recommend Quail Lodge, which is closer to Carmel-by-the-Sea (and therefore gets more fog) and is much more affordable. Carmel Valley Ranch is another beautiful (and pricy resort), though I’ve never personally stayed there. If you prefer to stay in Carmel-by-the-Sea, I recommend L’Auberge Carmel, which is a cozy and elegant hotel right in the heart of town.
We drove down to Carmel on the rainy Saturday of President’s Day weekend. We took a slight detour through Hollister to stop at Calera Winery to try out their famous Pinot Noirs, then we continued on to Carmel Valley. After we got settled in our spacious hotel room, we headed to dinner at Il Grillo, the sister restaurant of our favorite restaurant in Carmel, La Balena. The owners are husband and wife Emanuele and Anna Bartolini. Emanuele is often working at La Balena when we go, and he couldn’t be more warm and inviting. He is originally from Sardinia, and we love to chat him up about all the places we need to visit in Italy.
This was our first visit to Il Grillo and we were overall impressed by the food. We started with the Polpo Grigliato (grilled octopus) with potato, wild boar sausage, mint, and lemon. We enjoyed this dish – the octopus was tender and the flavors melded well together.
Il Grillo has a more casual menu than La Balena; the menu includes several different pastas and sauces that can be mixed and matched to your liking. We opted for the pappardelle pasta with wild boar pancetta sugo, as well as the ricotta gnocchi with wild mushrooms and sage. I’ve said this before, but gnocchi (potato as well as ricotta) is one of my go-to menu items that I always order. It did not disappoint this time. This creamy pillows paired perfectly with the rich mushrooms and bright sage. The sugo, however, was underwhelming. Our expectations for sugo have been set so high by Scopa (which just closed its doors! But its sister restaurant Campo Fina still serves the sugo!), and most pale in comparison. The sugo at Il Grillo seemed to be lacking the depth of flavor that we’ve come to expect from a good Italian meat sauce.
We also ordered a side of Brussels sprouts with pancetta. I have to say that these were a bit disappointing as well, as they were very large and lacking the crispiness that I’ve come to expect from restaurant Brussels sprouts.
After dinner we headed to the rooftop bar at Vesuvio. This is where we gathered with our dearest friends and family after our rehearsal dinner five years ago. It’s a fun spot with plenty of seating and heat lamps to help you forget that you are on the foggy central California coast. We sat at the bar and drank a couple cocktails while we fantasized about the next big trip we want to take (Morocco? Mexico City? Back to Italy? Planning is half the fun!)
The next day we went to Carmel-by-the-Sea for some brunch and wine tasting. Our favorite spot for brunch is a casual spot called Carmel Belle. It’s a large café that specializes in comfort food made with seasonal, mostly local ingredients. We love their Open-Faced Avocado toast with McEvoy Ranch olive oil and sea salt, as well as their Roasted Mushroom Melt with poached eggs, white truffle oil, and chives. This visit we decided to try some new menu items; our favorite item by far was the bowl of hot polenta with truffled mushrooms, poached egg, roasted tomatoes, and creamy goat cheese. It was delicious and served steaming hot. I want to try to recreate this at home.
Jack ordered the poached egg sandwich with Grafton cheddar and Hobb’s bacon on ciabatta. It was tasty, but a bit heavy on the bread. The BLT was a disappointment for me. BLTs are another one of my go-to orders; there’s nothing like crispy bacon, juicy tomatoes, crisp lettuce, and lots of mayo on toasted bread. But this BLT just wasn’t working for me. The bacon seemed like it had been made ahead of time and wasn’t hot or crispy. The tomatoes were underripe, and there wasn’t even any lettuce on the sandwich (the side of arugula doesn’t count). The bread wasn’t toasted and there was no mayo to be found. Luckily we had ordered too much food anyway, so I could focus solely on my delicious bowl of polenta.
When we first started visiting Carmel in 2007 there were just a handful of tasting rooms in town (most were in the valley), but this has changed in recent years. It is now really convenient and safe to drink to your heart’s content while walking from tasting room to tasting room. Our two favorite wineries in Carmel right now are Smith Family Wines (home to three labels just to make things super confusing: Paraiso, Alexander Smith, and Irie) and De Tierra. Both of these wineries offer a variety of varietals including delicious Pinot Noir from the Santa Lucia Highlands. De Tierra makes a killer rosé (at a great price point in a beautiful bottle).
If you like big inky reds, be sure to check out the Wrath tasting room on the lower level of the Carmel Plaza mall. It’s next door to The Cheese Shop, and you can purchase cheese to munch on while you taste!
After we rested up at the hotel, we headed to dinner at our favorite restaurant in Carmel: La Balena. There are so many tourist traps in Carmel – don’t get stuck at a spot with bad food! We have generally been underwhelmed by La Bicyclette (it used to be much better before they expanded) and their sister restaurant Casanova. Dametra Café can be a ton of fun (music! dancing!) but the food is nothing to write home about (and their menu is way too long). For breakfast, spare yourself the wait for Katy’s Place (soggy eggs Benedict, anyone?) and opt for Carmel Belle, From Scratch Restaurant, or Lokal in Carmel Valley. A.W. Shucks is a good spot to grab oysters and champagne or a martini at the bar. If you’re looking for a very special dinner, make a reservation for the tasting menu at Aubergine at the L’Auberge hotel (just don’t make the same mistake we did by bringing a bottle of wine listed on their wine list – they won’t open it for you!)
We had a fabulous meal at La Balena, as usual. There was a table of four spunky seniors sitting next to us who were a ton of fun; they told us that La Balena serves fried chicken on Thursdays and Sundays only, and we had to order it. We started with the Caprino salad with fennel pollen, lavender goat cheese truffles, pistachio, arugula, and lemon agrumato (lemon olive oil). We also ordered La Balena’s version of the Polpo Grigliato (grilled octopus) with Cannellini bean purée, onion, Big Sur Meyer lemon, and olive oil. Both of these items were delicious.
For our entrées we ordered the Bistecca: marinated bavette steak with crispy potatoes and aioli – it was divine. We have ordered this before and it is always perfect. The steak was medium rare and the potatoes were crispy and salty. We also took our neighbors’ advice and ordered the Pollo Fritto: half an Arborio rice-crusted Fogline farm chicken with sautéed Swiss chard. It was served steaming hot and crispy and was full of comforting goodness.
I’m not a huge fan of Italian desserts, but I love me some ice cream, so we shared an Affogato (vanilla gelato “drowned” in hot espresso). A perfect ending to a perfect meal!
The next morning was stormy and grey. We packed up our things and made a few stops on our way out of Carmel. First we stopped by the Robert Talbott outlet in Carmel Valley Village. The men’s dress shirts are made of great quality fabrics and the prices at the outlet can’t be beat. I usually read while Jack shops.
For brunch we headed to From Scratch Restaurant right outside of Carmel-by-the-Sea. We discovered this restaurant the last time we visited Carmel and loved it so much we had to go back. Since our last visit, From Scratch apparently appeared on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, so they are quite popular! Seating was a bit limited because of the rain, but the delicious food was worth the wait.
Jack and I both ordered the From Scratch Skillet with baby red potatoes, topped with melted cheese and two eggs any style. I opted for poached eggs and filled my skillet with bacon, spinach, and mushrooms. I chose the famous homemade cheddar biscuit for my side and all was well in the world. We also splurged on a banana walnut pancake with real maple syrup. Delish.
This visit to Carmel was a pretty typical “Laura and Jack eat and taste wine” vacation for us, especially given the rain. But there are plenty of non-food activities to do in the Carmel and Monterey area. We’ve taken some great hikes at Garland Ranch Regional Park and Point Lobos State Natural Reserve. We’ve also driven a bit further south to Big Sur for some hiking (Pfeiffer Falls Trail and McWay Waterfall Trail). The Monterey Bay Aquarium is great for adults and kids alike, especially on a rainy day. Cannery Row in Monterey is fun as well (it reminds me of Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco – it’s full of energy, just don’t expect to get a great meal there). If you play golf, the area is full of excellent courses, including the famous Pebble Beach. I highly recommend driving along the stunning 17-Mile Drive through Pebble Beach; be sure to pack a picnic and some wine, as there are some great spots to sit along the beach.
Carmel is such a special place. It’s full of charm, great food, tasty Pinots, and plenty of activities for the whole family. Each time we go, we discover something new that makes us love the area even more. I’m looking forward to returning once the rain ends and we can enjoy the outdoors as well.