Don and I dined at Nepenthe 40 years ago.
We finally made it back and it was better than I remembered!
High Above the Sea
Don and I revisited Nepenthe while traveling the California coast, last fall. The drive along scenic Highway 1 in Big Sur, was our favorite. I kept my eyes glued to the west, so I could spot the iconic Nepenthe restaurant.
In my photo, you actually have to look above the more obvious building, which holds Nepenthe's newer cafe and shop. The original restaurant sits even higher, perfectly perched on the hillside, 800 feet above the sea, It's been sitting there since the 1940's.
First... A Log House
This is the log house that originally occupied the same spot. It was built in 1925. (I was excited to find a photo display near the restaurant's restroom!)
In 1944, Orson Welles and his wife Rita Hayworth, discovered the cabin while stopping to picnic. They purchased the cabin with hopes of making it into a romantic retreat. But they divorced and sold the cabin to the Fassett Family, before they had a chance to enjoy it.
I'm assuming there were no stairs, when Rita and Orson explored this area nearly 80 years ago. When Don and I arrived last October, there was an impressive set of steps, winding upward through the lush growth.
I'm guessing that Lolly and Bill Fassett put in the stairs at some point, after they bought the property. The rocks and railing looked like they'd been there a long time.
Lolly and Bill bought the 3-bedroom cabin with surrounding 12 acres, in 1947. They moved in with their 5 kids, but soon realized the setting was too beautiful to be enjoyed by just one family.
They hired Rowen Maiden (once a student of Frank Lloyd Wright) to build a structure surrounding the cabin. They called the finished creation Nepenthe, which comes from the Greek word for no sorrow. In 1949, about 500 guests attended the opening. The combination home/restaurant soon became a gathering place for travelers and locals. A place where guests could forget their sorrows and worries.
To the Top
I was excited to once again experience this magical place of no worries. We headed up the winding walkway and passed an old red phone booth, with a man actually talking on the phone. There's very little cell service in the Big Sur area.
As we neared the top we could see blue skies and colorful umbrellas and an interesting bird sculpture.
The curious Phoenix was created by an artist, from the trunk of a coastal live oak that once stood at the end of terrace.
Looking past the sculpture, you can see the spread out seating on the terrace and the slanted roof of the restaurant structure. Little has changed over time.
This vintage photo shows the oak tree before it died in 1972. The image captures the modern glass and wood structure, that housed the restaurant. The Fassett's lived in the connected, original cabin. It's just out of the photo, above the stair-step seating on the right.
Big Sur was not a huge tourist attraction, when Nepenthe opened 73 years ago. But the oasis above the sea, attracted some interesting, bohemian characters. The open air pavilion was designed to encourage gatherings. The stadium seating (think Greek amphitheater) gave guests a good view of the terrace happenings... dancing, music, poetry readings... The round adobe fire pit kept guests warm after the sun went down.
The Terrace Today
During our visit, I didn't spot any belly dancing or bongo drums, not even a beatnik beard. But there were people sitting on colorful cushions above the terrace and there was a wonderfully calm vibe. It was nice to see people looking at each other or studying the view... not their phones.
Today there are plastic chairs instead of director's chairs. They still have the have the fire pit, but they've also added standing heaters.
I wondered about this mosaic table and who created it. So many artists contributed their work to Nepenthe. Lolly even made some of the adobe bricks that were used in the construction. Sadly the old log exterior is now hidden behind an updated exterior. It's fun to look at those windows and know that the Fassett's children and grandchildren often watched the parties and patio activity, from above.
My memories from our visit years ago are very vague. I honestly don't remember the view being this stunning.
Maybe the weather was foggy on that day in 1983. It was perfectly clear on October 5, 2022.
Nepenthe takes no reservations and no food is served between 4:30 and 5. So we arrived at 4:30 to avoid crowds and get our name on a wait list for dinner. Don headed inside to get us drinks, since the bar remained open.
In the summer, I'm sure it would have been packed inside. It was nice to look around without crowds and see all the curves and angles... glass and redwood beams! I can't imagine what it must have been like for the Fassett kids, growing up in this setting. They helped with chores from cleaning wax off candlesticks to chopping vegetables. Was this space their playground, when the restaurant was closed?
Once we had our drinks, we found some seats and made a toast to more than the view. It was Don's birthday!
This guy really deserved a special birthday outing. Don's birthday adventure the year before, had been to the hospital for open heart surgery. What a beautiful spot for toasting to Don's birthday and good health!
Time to Dine!
After only a few minutes of enjoying the view, we were called to our table.
The inside dining room was fun with enormous windows and retro brass candle sticks... clean of candle wax! The original fireplace had a welcoming mid-century vibe. But we could hardly pull ourselves away from our view. We said we were in no hurry and would wait for an outside table.
Table for Two
There were a few tables set up along a walkway, leading back to a (closed off) patio. We got the table at the very end, beneath an umbrella!
This may have been a temporary set up, so I'm not sure we'll ever dine at this spot again. It was lovely!
I think we had the best table that night!
Eddy Takes Our Pic
And I'm also quite sure we had the very best waiter. Eddy, was knowledgable and comfortable and enthused about his work.
When I asked if he would snap a photo of us, he had us stand up to get the view behind us. He couldn't have been nicer.
We ordered a bottle of local wine and took our time with the menu. You have to love this phoenix, with his crown and curly feathers!
"Forget your worldly cares at Nepenthe's gay pavilion Where the Phoenix bird repairs..."
I'm pretty sure we did just that! At least I forgot my worldly cares!
As we sipped our wine, the light grew more golden.
We enjoyed the view and then enjoyed some conversation... with the people behind us.
It began when the man stood to take a photo. We shared enthusiasm about the view, then ended up swapping travel stories. The California couple said we were invited to their vineyards anytime, for a wine tasting. They were much more Bohemian than us, so I'm pretty sure we had a proper Nepenthe Experience, with our enjoyable socializing. The Fassetts would be pleased.
The food was quite amazing, from the bread basket and salads, to our entrees.
Don ordered Diver Scallops, pan-seared with polenta cakes and sautéed asparagus.
He was happy!
Lolly's Roast Chicken Dinner
I placed my order with Eddy, telling him, "I'm ordering the roast chicken! I'm sure I can trust Lolly's old recipe!" He sort of laughed, but then seemed pleased that I had an interest in the restaurant's past.
But actually I really liked the idea comfort food in such a comfortable setting! Roast chicken, served on a bed of sage stuffing! Gravy and cranberry sauce or course! It was just right!
Sneaking a Peek
The deck area that was closed off for renovation, was just behind Don. I couldn't help myself and popped up when the coast was clear. I dipped under the caution tape and snapped a photo.
The quiet deck looked so appealing and retro, with the glowing lanterns. I could picture Ernest Hemingway enjoying a drink with this view. He was one of the many famous past guests.
As the sun lowered, the scenery became more and more dramatic.
The sky grew darker and we suddenly had some added entertainment, when an owl began hooting nearby.
I got extra giddy when I saw the glow of the nearly full moon, reflected in the water. I don't think we were the only guests, sighing over the view.
By the time our meal was done, the air was cool and our jackets came on. I insisted Don order dessert. He made a good chocolate-y choice.
Then suddenly Eddy delivered a wrapped box, with an attached lit candle! We hadn't even mentioned Don's birthday, but Eddy overheard us talking to the California couple. What a fun surprise. A blue Nepenthe coffee mug gift, for the birthday boy!
We gave Eddy huge thanks. He had made our evening extra special. Nepenthe's has a history of memorable staff and again, Lolly and Bill would be glad to know he did a great job.
I wish I could have thanked Lolly and Bill in person, for creating this wonderful place. I obviously couldn't do that, but as it turns out, their grandson ( I believe) runs the restaurant now. I should have left him a thank you note!
As we headed off, I snapped some photos of the lit patio and the huge fire pit. They are blurred, so I almost deleted them.
There's a nostalgic, dream-like quality to these patio pics. They remind me of the blurred photos from my childhood, in family albums. Those photo seem magical, too.
The photos below are also blurry. I took these pics of our TV last night, when we watched the movie The Sandpiper, from 1965.
This film was shot on location, in Big Sur. I studied this scene eagerly pointing, out the guitar, the fire pit... and some dancing! And of course Richard Burton and Liz Taylor having drinks on Nepenthe's terrace. The movie was not their best, but what a hoot to see the setting!
We ended up spending a total of 4 hours at Nepenthe. I enjoyed every minute.
I was glad we only had a 5 minute drive to our cabin at Ripplewood Resort, which has been around longer than Nepenthe.
Cafe Kevah and Phoenix Shop
We detoured partway down the stairs to peek at the buildings that hold the cafe and gift shop, which were added years after Nepenthe was built.
Both were closed, but I heard they are very much worth a visit. Next time!
On the stairs, we paused to chat with a young man who was smiling at his phone. No he wasn't on Instagram, since there was no cell coverage. He was admiring a photo he'd just taken of the moon. He shared it with us and we talked a while.
I started to share the moon picture, that I'd just taken. The moon seemed to float above the Phoenix. But I just listened instead. The young guy was so happy, explaining how he'd propped the phone still... It was a sweet encounter.
Maybe that was a Nepenthe Moment... a positive encounter at Nepenthe. I just made that up, but surely those nice shared moments happen more often here. A beautiful and friendly setting, where phones are only good for taking photos!
As I write this post months later, I'm feeling eager to go back! We won't wait 40 years this time. I might not be able to do those stairs at 105!
The Dining Blog
This is a blog about Dining Adventures. Sometimes, I talk about food. Below, you can read how this started.
On July 4th 2011, I set a goal to try 50 culturally diverse restaurants in one year! (I knew that was possible, living in the Houston area) I spent the year pulling in friends and family to join me, on some unusual dining adventures. I met some curious people, tried some scary foods and explored places and cultures I never would have otherwise. Even though I met my goal, I learned too much to end my adventures in dining. I have continued blogging about memorable dining adventures of all kinds, near and far... and all the discoveries and funny things I've learned along the way!
Locations and types of dining adventures, are listed further down.