Long Weekend Road Trip Report: Three Days of Eating Along El Camino Real
My boyfriend, my dog and I got back last night from a 3 day road trip from Fresno to Santa Barbara and back. We didn't leave until Saturday afternoon, due to a mix-up with the rental car, so we drove straight to our hotel in Carmel Valley. The general plan was to drive down the coast along Highway 1, checking out the historic missions along the way. We were on a fairly tight budget, so we brought sandwich supplies and picnic snacks for lunch and planned to only eat out for dinner.
Day 1: Dinner
We booked our first night at the Los Loreles Lodge in Carmel Valley. The lodge is absolutely beautiful and out in the middle of nowhere. It was a bit more upscale than we're used to, but their more affordable rooms were on the high end of our price range and they allow dogs. I don't mean to get off topic, but the peaceful atmosphere carried over into the on-premises restaurant and saloon where we ate dinner.
We ordered from the saloon menu (entrees from around $8-$13), but they also have a restaurant menu (around twice the price) that looked amazing (the guy sitting next to us got the rack of lamb...). We were promptly seated in the pub area and ordered our drinks: a negroni for me, a beer for my boyfriend. We were brought complementary rolls in a number of flavours (the cheese and herb one was particularly nice) and ordered our meal. I got the grilled salmon salad and my boyfriend got the manicotti with spinach and cheese. Over all, I was very impressed with the food, especially considering that we had ordered off of the saloon menu. The portions were large and everything was fresh and delicious. The chef was obviously skilled and had put a lot of thought into the components of each dish. My salmon steak was cooked perfectly, flaky and juicy. While the salad portion appeared to be a standard pre-mixed lettuce combo, it was dressed with a really nice vinaigrette as well as marinated onions and cucumber wedges. The cucumber sauce on top of the salmon was also quite good. My boyfriend said his manicotti was also excellent -- fresh, homemade sauce, lots of spinach and cheese. You couldn't ask for more for less than $10 a plate!
The atmosphere in the saloon was also really nice. A combination of vintage-classy and casual-relaxing. The bar tender was playing this really great Cuban piano album and we talked with him about music for a while. This was definitely a great place to have a drink or a bite to eat and relax at the end of a long day of travel. We've already been talking about saving up enough money to spend a week at the lodge, explore the walking trails all day and eat at the restaurant every night (the duck on the restaurant menu looked particularly tempting). I would absolutely recommend this place if you're in the area, even if you aren't staying at the hotel.
Day 2: Lunch
We had a picnic lunch in Carmel before going to the mission. Not too much to report here, since it was just sandwiches and potato chips, but we did find a really nice, tiny park in the downtown area. No dogs allowed, sadly, and no proper picnic tables, but if you don't mind making sandwiches on a bench, or if you have brought a blanket to sit on, this is a nice, shady place for a picnic.
Day 2: Dinner
We spent most of the day driving and made it all the way to Santa Maria a little after dark. We stopped into a Starbucks to get online and find some accommodations and somewhere to eat and ended up talking to some other people who were in there. One of them recommended Jocko's, back up the road a ways in Nipomo. We thought we'd be fine without a reservation, since it was 8pm on a Sunday night, but we were horribly mistaken. The place was packed and the hostess told us that if we wanted a table, we'd be there for 2 hours. She suggested we try The Swiss (formerly The Swiss Chalet) back in Santa Maria. For the record, Jocko's appeared to be the lovechild of a dive bar and a cafeteria. It was clearly a popular place, though, and I've heard only good things about the food.
Which takes me to The Swiss. The sign said "established 1941" and I'm pretty sure that all of the original decor is still there (in spite of the fact that both our server and the internet have told me that it was "recently remodeled"). The seating choices were long, family style tables or tall, red velvet booths. We took a booth and scoured the menu. I was still craving seafood after my excellent meal the night before, so I ordered the maple-glazed salmon with garlic mashed potatoes and green salad with lime-cilantro dressing (they were out of the crab and scalloped potatoes I had wanted to order). My boyfriend got prime rib and a baked potato. His meal also came with a salad, "Santa Maria style" beans, salsa and garlic toast. I'm not sure why the seafood entrees came with only two sides and the other entrees came with five sides (since both were over $20 a plate), but there was enough to share, so I got a taste of everything. First of all, I should say that the meat and fish were cooked perfectly. If nothing else, these people knew how to cook a piece of meat. More subtle skills, such as plating and seasoning with complex flavours, however, seemed to be more of a challenge. My large plate arrived with a blob of potatoes on one side, a piece of salmon on the other, and a lot of white space in between. The maple glaze on my salmon seemed to be little more than maple syrup and salt -- syrupy sweet and unbalanced. The salsa was just canned tomatoes and chopped onion. The cilantro-lime dressing on my salad contained so much raw garlic that it burnt my mouth (and I'm a garlic lover) but it was otherwise quite tasty. The beans were a bit on the salty side, but were otherwise fine. They told us they were making some fresh garlic toast, and then forgot to bring it entirely. In the end, though, my only real complaint was the price. The food was tasty, if not great or particularly complex, and we came away completely stuffed full. But with 2 beers each, we ended up paying almost $70. There's nothing wrong with simple food and basic flavours, but for that much money I expect a bit more effort to be put into things like seasoning, presentation and atmosphere.
Day 3: Lunch
Another picnic with sandwiches and chips, this time out near the Lompoc mission. A word of advice: there is no picnic area or proper seating at the visitor's centre. This is not a good place for a picnic. I would recommend eating somewhere else (although this was by far our favourite mission).
Day 3: Dinner
We had originally planned to eat dinner in Santa Barbara, but we weren't hungry, so we held off until we reached Paso Robles on our way back to Fresno. Appropriately enough (considering the theme of our trip), we ate at Mission Pizza. This was our second time eating there, the first being on the home stretch of a similar road trip almost 2 years ago. Their pizzas are relatively affordable and have a nice cracker crust. They don't skimp on toppings and they seem to have pretty good deals on beer every time we go in (although I wasn't in much of a beer mood last night). We got a bacon, artichoke and pineapple pizza and it was as good as we remembered it being last time we were in. We'll definitely make it a point to come back here.
Los Laureles Lodge
313 W Carmel Valley Rd, Carmel Valley, CA 93924
625 12th St, Paso Robles, CA 93446
The Swiss Restaurant and Bar
516 N Broadway, Santa Maria, CA 93454
Thanks for the report. Good to get the feedback and to get new tips about places some of us had never heard of in our "backyard". It's a lonely road out there but Mission San Antonio del Padua off Highway 101 via a winding back country road to Highway 1 near the Hunter-Liggitt Military reservation is our own all time favorite remote mission. Apparently one can eat at the mess hall or snack bars and stay at the Army military lodging called The Hacienda (Jolan, CA), which was the architecturally significant trail ride retreat palace for Wm Randolph Hearst for his friends when visiting his nearby "castle" on Highway 1.
Nice report BBL. For future reference both Carmel River Beach and the main beach are near the mission, though not sure if the former has picnic tables, but the main one at the end of Ocean Ave does.
In Lompoc you were very close to the Wine Ghetto, which is a must visit if you're into wine. Also just a few miles off Hwy 1 heading south is Jalama Beach where they make a tasty burger and have great picnic views.