NOT FAR FROM the well-worn track of Highway 1, it just might be the best place in Monterey County to soak your feet. Beneath the redwoods across from the greenback lawn of The River Inn — and conveniently located only yards from a bar that mixes sublime Bloody Marys — the sturdy Adirondack chairs in the Big Sur River is a perch-perfect break from the back-country adventures of Big Sur.
The family-friendly inn is more than another roadside attraction; it has become a draw for locals and visitors alike.
The rooms at the inn are rustic — no phone, no television and basic motel dècor — but the lack of telephone reception and TV is considered a huge plus in Big Sur, where the drama of landscape far outweighs modern convenience.
The inn dates back to Big Sur's modern history, built in the 1930s at about the time Highway 1 was first built through the remote coastal strip that is Big Sur. First known as "Apple Pie Inn," the place started with a few guest rooms and a kitchen famous for its apple pie.
As Highway 1 was paved, the River Inn was expanded to the west side of the road, gas pumps were installed and the place became known as "Redwood Camp" — the first resort in Big Sur. In the 1940s, the resort was handed down to Esther Pfeiffer Ewoldsen, who changed the name to The River Inn.
In the early days a small tributary to the river ran right through the dining room, between rows of tables. There was even an indoor bridge that guests could walk across to keep their feet dry.
This tradition of riverside dining is carried on faithfully at the restaurant, where Adirondack chairs are actually set up right in the river during the summertime. Guests are served from the water's edge as they soak their feet to cool the kick from The River Inn's famed Bloody Mary, made with their own vodka infusion — chile chipotle, chile de arbol and whole black pepper.
On Sundays during the spring and summer months, live jazz bands play music from the lower deck and the entire lawn is transformed into a sea of blankets, with children playing at the river's edge and adults soaking up the sunshine and jazz. There is even a barbecue stand where visitors can get burgers, tri-tip sandwiches and smoked meats. An outdoor pool is heated this time of year and is a big attraction for families with children.
The rooms themselves are simple, yet they are clean and comfortable. The two-story building to the west of the highway features two-room suites with decks overlooking the river. Across the highway, standard queen and double rooms are available.
For reservations or more information, call 667-2700 or (800) 548-3610 or visit The River Inn online at www.bigsurriverinn.com.
Other places to dine:
1. Big Sur Bakery and Restaurant
Hidden behind a gas station and tucked away beneath the redwoods, the bakery may be one of Big Sur's best-kept secrets. It's definitely a locals' favorite. It specializes in wood-fired oven creations, from delicious gourmet pizzas with creative toppings (like roasted eggplant with goat cheese and pine nuts to roasted chickens), suckling pigs and divine fresh-baked breads. Every-thing here is homemade, including the ice cream, pies, sauces and dressings. Arrive first thing in the morning for baked goods fresh out of the oven and an impressive variety of specialty coffees and teas. Open daily for breakfast; lunch and dinner (closed for dinner Sundays during off-season), it is located on Highway1 between the post office and The Post Ranch Inn. For more information, call 667-0520 or see www.bigsurbakery.com.
2. Big Sur Lodge Restaurant & Espresso House
This family- and camper-friendly restaurant has a casual mountain-lodge feel to it — and it is located at the entrance to Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. The dining area is situated above the Big Sur River, with outdoor seating available. Food is casual cuisine, with a variety of salads, sandwiches, pastas, chicken, steak and fish. The signature sandwich is the Big-Big Sur Chef Style Cuban Club Sandwich, with roast beef, turkey, ham, sausage, bacon, cheese, lettuce and tomato on a Texas roll. A variety of "grab and go" sandwiches are available — and the ice cream and espresso bar are a favorite of travelers. Open Daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Located at the entrance to Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. For more information, call 667-3111 or seewww.bigsurlodge.com.
3. Big Sur Roadhouse
The saying here is "California fare with a Latin flair." This former hardware store and soda fountain has been transformed into a festive restaurant filled with colorful art from local artists. It features a large fireplace in the dining room and outdoor seating on a patio strung with lanterns. A new and popular menu item is the crab cakes with tomato-basil sauce. Another, reminiscent of paella, is the fresh catch of the day served with saffron rice, sautéed spinach and white wine caper sauce. A local favorite? Pork taquitos with burnt chile salsa. Open for dinner only; closed Tuesday. Located at the southern end of Big Sur. For more information, call 667-2264 or see www.bigsurroadhouse.com.
4. Deetjen's Big Sur Inn
This place is regarded by locals as the best breakfast place in Big Sur but don't overlook their dinner menu, which features filet mignon, rack of lamb, seafood paella and cassoulet of vegetables. Tucked at the edge of a deep canyon, this eclectically decorated restaurant has a quaint bed-and-breakfast feel. Wintertime through late spring, Deetjen's features "locals' night discounts" on Tuesdays and Wednesdays (extended to Monterey Peninsula residents), with live music at 7:30 p.m. Try the blue-berry pancakes and eggs Benedict for breakfast. Breakfast and dinner are served daily. Located on Highway 1, just past Nepenthe at the southern edge of Big Sur. For more information, call 667-2378 or see www.deetjens.com.
Famous for its breathtaking view and its mythical history, Nepenthe sits atop a cliff 800 feet above the ocean. An enormous outdoor fire pit graces the patio, which provides a prime view of Big Sur's beauty. But the view from within the restaurant is almost as grand, with enormous windows facing the ocean. Family-owned and operated since 1949, Nepenthe's specialty dish is the Ambrosia Burger, a ground steak sandwich served on a roll with Nepenthe's signature ambrosia sauce. Their wine list includes more than 300 selections, featuring wines from the Santa Lucia Highlands. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Breakfast and light lunches are also available downstairs at Café Kivah, which has its own patio with a view (weather permitting). Located off Highway 1 at the southern edge of Big Sur. For more information, call 667-2345 or see www.nepenthebigsur.com.
6. Redwood Grill
Known locally as the "nightlife hangout," this place features live music every Saturday night, sometimes more often in summer. A disco ball hangs near the stage and all the locals seem to know Cali, the resident cat. The ambiance is casual counter service with a menu that offers a wide variety of barbecued and smoked meats, a burger bar (with buffalo, ostrich and salmon burgers) and hot and cold sandwiches. Walk out on the back deck for a surprise: Two redwood trees actually grow right out of the deck, near the picnic tables and fireplace. WiFi access and specialty coffees are available. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Located at Fernwood Resort on Highway 1. For more information, call 667-2129 or see www.bigsurcoastfoods.com/redwoodgrill.
7. Rocky Point Restaurant
Rocky Point is so close to the ocean that the waves can be heard crashing below. It's also not too far from Carmel — only a 15-minute scenic drive, which makes it do-able from Monterey even if you only have a few hours to watch whales from the patio while sipping a Bloody Mary. The menu features a wide variety of seafood, Mexican entrees, chicken, steak and hot and cold sandwiches. Open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Located on Highway 1, only 10 miles south of Carmel. For more information, call 624-2933 or see www.rocky-point.com.
8. Sierra Mar Restaurant
Diners here will feel as though they might walk to the edge of the ocean when they step into Sierra Mar. High atop a coastal bluff overlooking Big Sur and the luxurious grounds of Post Ranch Inn, Sierra Mar is where fine dining and Big Sur merge. The four-course prix fixe menu changes daily, with seasonal, organic offerings. The signature plate, usually included on the menu, is the foie gras. Signature martinis include the Hottie, with sky pineapple vodka with jalapeño and cilantro syrup, the Lavender Martini made from lavender harvested from the property, and the Ginger Lemon Drop, with a twist of lemon syrup. The wine list includes 4, 200 selections. Open for lunch, appetizers and dinner, reservations are requested. Located on Highway 1, about 30 miles south of Carmel. For more information, call 667-2800 or see www.postranchinn.com/dining.
9. The Maiden Publick House
Known locally as "The Pub," this spot offers one of the most extensive American craft and European beer selection in Monterey County. Known for its five rotating taps, it feature different varieties of IPAN, pale ale and pilsner styles of beer. The only exception is Guinness, which is always a constant at The Pub. It offers a nice selection of bottled Belgian beer, as well as many selections from California breweries. Their food is typical "pub grub," most priced below $10. Specialty items include the Pfeiffer burger and beer-battered salmon fish and chips, and Saturday night is taco night. Open for lunch and dinner daily, over 21 after 9 p.m. Located on Highway 1 in the Village Center. For more information, call 667-2355.
Learn more about the Monterey Bay area at MontereyBayAdventures.com.