Wednesday, September 22, 2010

In Search of A Good Meal

By Mark W. Danielson

Two weeks ago, Lyne and I enjoyed a wonderful California vacation by first visiting my relatives in Napa, and then driving down the coast to Monterey, Carmel, and San Simeon. The weather was perfect. In Napa, we enjoyed a wonderful hike through Jack London State Park, and dined at a foo-foo restaurant near the Napa River. The wait staff here was highly experienced, but we weren’t real fond of the tiny uncooked squid floating in green brine below our fish entree. After saying good bye to our family, we headed to Monterey Bay, where a high fog hung over us. Our visit to the aquarium was fantastic, but lunch at Bubba Gump’s was less than stellar. We truly enjoyed visiting the Mission Carmel, but dining at Clint Eastwood’s Hog’s Breath Inn was quite disappointing. We loved the nostalgic Carmel Mission Inn, but our dinner there was odd, thanks to our bizarre waitress. The hotel was perfectly preserved in the ‘60’s, but so was our waitress. In fact, she spent as much time talking to the bartender, our drinks literally in hand, as she did tending to us. With the exception of the Napa restaurant, our dining disappointments had one thing in common – the wait staff knew little about providing good service. We certainly didn’t expect that our best meal would come from a diner named Sebastian’s Store, which resides inside an old whaling station located across the highway from Hearst Castle.

Constructed in 1852, this small wooden building is a registered State Landmark and has been owned by the Sebastian family for over fifty years. Inside, it’s also a general store, a post office, and a Hearst Vineyards wine tasting bar. Everywhere you turn, you find timeless relics such as an old fashioned milk shake machine, Coca Cola napkin holders, and a variety of trinkets for sale. But what keeps Sebastian’s going is they know how to treat their customers. You see, these folks have figured out that if you serve good food in a friendly atmosphere, people will talk about it and more customers will follow. Lyne and I both ordered the French dip sandwich, which is made with all-natural Hearst beef. Truly, it was the best sandwich either of us has had, and the presentation was equally superb. And though our order was served through a pick-up window, it was delivered with a genuine smile. You see, dining should be an experience, not merely the consumption of food, and it’s up to the wait staff to ensure the dining experience is enjoyable. That’s the key difference between our experience at Sebastian’s versus the so-called fine dining establishments we dined at.

Perhaps one day our less experienced wait staff will learn how to serve with dignity and create a memorable evening. Then again, in tourist towns, perhaps they feel there’s no need to put in the effort. After all, tourists will always come, right? Maybe. But then there’s that old saying, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” That’s right – people talk, so maybe they won’t be back. So think about it, -- if it takes 98 percent effort to do your job, why not put in the extra two percent to do it well? Aside from earning better tips, you’ll have more fun and so will your customers.
Our drive back to Oakland was interesting. Since the low coastal fog had caught up to us, we decided to drive El Camino Real (101) rather than risk a knuckle-curling drive back along Highway One. We were glad we did because the entire area surrounding Paso Robles has been transformed into vineyards, and those vineyards continued nearly all the way to King City. We stayed at the Hayes Mansion in San Jose, which was a really classy place. (photo below) We made the mistake of dining downtown rather than at the hotel, and our experience at McCormick’s was very disappointing. You see, we were seated across from the bar where the wait staff constantly congregated to socialize to kill time as they weren’t busy. In spite of walking by us numerous times, not once did our waitress check on us or offer to re-fill our drinks. I have spoken with their manager and he is very eager to correct these deficiencies. Interestingly, my e-mail to the Hog’s Breath Inn manager generated no response.
We drove over 600 miles in our sunshine-yellow Rental Bug in six days and took back fond memories of visiting family and Hearst Castle. Interestingly, out of all our meals, Sebastian’s remained the best, which is why it’s worthy of this post. If you’re planning to visit Hearst Castle, be sure to include Sebastian’s in your trip.


Jean Henry Mead said...

I envy you your trip, Mark. Northern California is one of my favorite ares. I especially enjoyed visiting Hearst's Castle in San Simeon.

Mark W. Danielson said...

It was a great trip, Jean. A week after our family reunion, Mom had hip replacement surgery. She's doing great and walking much better now. It's amazing what modern medicine can do. Almost as amazing as what the craftsmen did to create Hearst Castle.

Beth Terrell said...

I would love to eat at a place called Hog's Breath Inn, even if the service was poor, just so I could say I'd been there.

I guess that's how they get away with the poor service. But you're right. There would be no repeat visits.

Mark W. Danielson said...

Beth, we actually had two meals at the Hog's Breath Inn. It's a very cozy setting and the food was okay, it's just the wait staff that made it a poor dining experience. Since the restaurant sits a level below the street and has outdoor and indoor dining, many people would go to the overlook, take a photo, and leave. No need to eat there at all -- we have the picture to prove we were there:) Since we dined outside both times, we might be in a travel brochure now.

Anonymous said...


As if I don't already miss California enough, your blog had to go and me me miss it even more.
The California coast is the best of all possible worlds. The only other place I've ever been that compares is the Dalmatian Coast in the old Yugoslavia. (It's in Croatia now,I think. Ben would know.)

My husband died almost 8 years ago.If I had the first 2 of those years to do over I might never have left California. Then again -- who knows?

Pat Browning

Mark W. Danielson said...

Pat, as the only family deviant who no longer resides in California, it's always great to return for a visit, but the California I grew up with is far different from what exists now. I suspect that if you were to return, you might find it's changed, too. Thankfully, the beauty of the California coast remains untouched.