Tried & Tested: Sure Wins When You Pass Through Carmel-by-the-Sea
There’s just something about towns with prepositions in it. ‘By-the-sea’, ‘upon-Avon’ - okay, those are the only two I can think of at this moment. But, because the town is relative to a place, it already gives you something to visualize.
I've been coming to Carmel for years, but always just passing through - either while staying at Monterey, or to drive people along the 17 mile drive in Pebble Beach. For a three-day getaway to the California coast, this time, we decided to stay in the quaint artistic town of Carmel-by-the-Sea.
We had eaten at Dametra before and now I know more about food, I sent a message to a friend and asked if he had any recommendations. He didn't have any and I thought, “Wait a second, why don't I have a must recommend place in Carmel?”. In Monterey, I always say, order the scallops at the C Restaurant, because you won't find anything so buttery. So for this trip, I was determined to come back with a sure win recommendation.
And sure enough, I did! With more than one, too!
This was recommended by our hotel staff. I asked them what they would recommend for our anniversary dinner since I hadn’t made any reservations yet. They asked what we’re in the mood for, and we both said Italian.
Casanova is Italian-French, and ambience-wise, it did give me the French countryside and rustic Italian feels. Food-wise, I’d say it’s more on the Italian side, with that distinctive California homegrown taste too. The winner for the night for me was the osso bucco! The veal was so tender, it fell off the bone. And the bone had that oh-so-good-but-bad-for-you marrow soaked in the flavors of gremolata. It had the comfort of a home cooked meal with the professional finishing touches.
Casanova now houses a table that was used by Vincent Van Gogh when he boarded at the Auberge Ravoux. You can book a dinner in the private room and dine on that table that Van Gogh dined on, and it comes with a tasting menu. We couldn’t get reservations for this table the day of, but now I know what to prepare for next time!
For lunch, we were looking for something lighter but a bit more special than a sandwich at a coffee shop. We’ve had Italian food already and we’re set for a French dinner, so I looked for something else. So Mexican food it was! And we stumbled upon a gem that only opened in May 2016.
Cultura is more specifically Oaxacan food, so, despite being married to a Mexican and having eaten my fair share of authentic Mexican food, there’s definitely new things for us to try. And our favorite was the Oaxacan tlayuda, a pizza looking dish but with baked tortilla as a base covered with refried beans spread and topped with the classics, avocado, cabbage, tomato, carne asada, and some quesillo Oaxaca. The carne asada was cooked to a glorious medium rare that made this dish very special. Our meal concluded with a mini cup of hot chocolate, which apparently is a Oaxacan custom. It was very sweet to my taste, but you can taste the cinnamon in it, which I really like.
The food is great but give yourself a moment to look around at Cultura. The dark walls with modern pops of color are both elegant and refreshing. The paintings too are whimsical with a dark feel to it because of the masterful brushstrokes - I wish our server knew the name of the artist, but she did mention the artist has had a few gallery openings in Carmel.
It’s places like La Bicyclette that make Carmel give off that European vibe. This charming bistro comes with the hanging copper pans, a wood burning oven, and even a table in a small house under the stars within the restaurant. It’s quite another of the Italian-French fusion, as I found out La Bicyclette is owned by the same owners as Casanova. This, though, is actually Belgique, where the family hails from, so naturally I had to order moules-frites to honor their heritage.
They didn’t have escargot that night, I wonder why though because as I look at their menu online now, wood-fired escargot is one of the hors d’oeuvres. I asked specifically because I ordered the champignon Provençal, which were my favorite that night, and they were served on those escargot serving dishes. I thought the mushrooms were a brilliant alternative though. The olive oil and the herbs each mushroom was swimming in made each bite both powerful and light at the same time.
As we were sitting near the wood-burning oven, it was also only fitting to order a pizza. My husband ordered one with the 60 minute egg, more because of his curiosity of the 60 minute egg. It was a breakfast pizza because with the pancetta (that my husband requested to be added to only my half of the pizza), it’s my normal morning protein!
A. W. SHUCKS
I’ve said it before, me and oysters, it’s a love affair. I’m in the California coast, naturally I was going to have my oysters. A. W. Shucks is right on the main street, Ocean Avenue. We were so lucky to find a seat at the oyster bar next to the window! For oysters, I like it simple: raw and fresh. On the day we went, they had Chesapeake and Miyagi oysters. I love the combination of the slightly salty east coast oysters and the sweet west coast ones. It was so fresh, their menu said it right: “only otters eat fresher oysters”! Because I love oysters so much, I was a bit sad to learn that they didn’t have an oyster happy hour.
We also ordered a bowl of rosé clam chowder - a blend of the white New England clam chowder and the red Manhattan clam chowder. I can’t quite distinguish the difference, but I am happy to report there’s a good amount of clams in it!
I would highly recommend a stay at Hotel Carmel on 4th and San Carlos. If it had not been raining, we would have just walked everywhere from the hotel. It has that cozy feeling, with the plantation shutters and rattan outdoor furniture and all. Free wifi was appreciated especially because my AT&T signal was weak in the Monterey Peninsula for some reason. Breakfast is served at the lobby / living room. There’s bagels with a good selection of spreads (cream cheeses, jams, peanut butter), cereal and granolas, juices, coffee and teas - enough to get you ready for the day. The staff is wonderful - they took care of all my dining reservations and upgraded us to a room with a fireplace upon learning we were there to celebrate our anniversary.
There’s a hot tub too but it was raining so we skipped this. That area did look like a good place to unwind.
IMMERSE YOURSELF IN ART
Carmel-by-the-Sea has long been an artists' haven. They're so artistic, they don't even have numbers for their homes, instead, they name them. They're so artistic, that superstar Clint Eastwood served as their mayor back in the 80's. You cannot deny that the community allowing one to be one with nature can get those creative juices flowing. So it's natural that Ocean Avenue is lined with art galleries. This was the first time we actually went in to check out some galleries because we finally were not just passing through. Although I'm not in the market for $15,000 pieces, and the selection was a tad bit on the realist side than my contemporary/abstract taste, I just love the idea that artist congregate here. I did learn that January is the best time to buy fine art. Galleries are trying to close the books and offer sizable discounts.
GO TO THE END OF OCEAN AVENUE AND BREATHE IN FRESH AIR
At the end of Ocean Avenue is the ocean. 😉 On a weekend, this is where most people would end up and parking is difficult. But I realized, the turnover for these spaces is fast anyway because most people would check out the beach from the platform, and then move on. I, myself, have done only this several times. This time, I had the opportunity to play around a bit. And what I made sure I did was take time to breathe in ocean air. Moments like this remind me of my dad because he would always roll down the windows when we drive by the bay and tell me to breathe in the ocean air to clean my lungs. I love it, I love to fill my lungs with the smell of the sea. It reminds me of oysters, which I love so much. 😁
From there, drive down the Scenic Route. Sure, look at the ocean, but look at the houses too! They are named by the owners and the styles range from the English cottage to the super modern.
Check out the video below of our 3-day getaway! As it's very possible for me to pass through Carmel-by-the-Sea again, I would love to hear your recommendations too!
Note: This post is in no part sponsored by any of the establishments mentioned. We checked out places that piqued our curiousity!
Bianca is one of the founders of get there | get lost. She is an avid writer and photographer based in Northern California. Her love for history, literature, architecture and food culminate to her passion for traveling and learning about different cultures. She advocates for accessible travel, and continues to explore with her husband and travel partner, Jesús, despite physical limitations. Follow their adventures on Instagram as @gettheregetlost and @coffeeandtherapy.