Travelogue: Carmel-by-the-Sea

3 Nov

We arrived in California today for our week-long vacation. Everything went smoothly until we went to pick up our rental car. For some reason, the line at Hertz was worse than airport security. It took 50 minutes of standing in line before we were given a car assignment. But if that’s the biggest complaint you can lodge after a full day of travel? Not bad at all.

When we went to retrieve it, the car was NOT in slot 161 as promised on our paperwork – so a scavenger hunt commenced to find it. Finally it turned up – a grey Malibu with no pick-up in slot 282.  Maybe this was karma’s way of paying us back for driving through a flash flood in Charlottetown, PEI last year and almost ripping the underbody off our rental.

Oh – I haven’t told you that story? Another time. Still waiting for the statute of limitations to expire.

Once we got our car, we zipped out of town, heading to Carmel, about two hours south of SFO on the Monterey Penninsula. If you’ve never been, it’s an adorable ocean-side town with cute shops, tasting rooms and restaurants that all look amazingly homey. The architecture probably has something to do with that – the town has a funky Bavaria-meets-smurf-cottages kind of vibe. Don’t believe me? Check out these photos.

We were starving when we arrived – with the time difference and the flight, it was approaching 7pm Eastern time and our last meal had been a 9am burger at the airport Five Guys. Fortunately, I’d happened to check TripAdvisor before we tumbled out of the car, so instead of blindly choosing the first place that looked halfway good (and there would’ve been no shortage), we made a beeline to Dametra Cafe.

It’s funny – neither Alan nor I were particularly feeling mediterranean food, but the TripAdvisor reviews were so overwhelmingly positive, that we felt we should give it a go. I’m so glad we did – if I were dying, I might make a special trip to this restaurant for my last meal.

Let me set the stage. The place is tiny. There are approximately 18 tables which can each seat two people. The decor is simple but warm – it feels like you’re a guest in someone’s overly large kitchen. Perhaps part of why you feel like you’re in someone’s home is because of the hospitality the owners show.

Bashar, one of the owners who also serves as the host, welcomes everyone who sets foot into the place as if they’re a friend, placing his hand on your shoulder while he looks around to see if they have a table for you. Unfortunately, the answer to this query is usually, “Sorry – we’re completely full. Do you have a reservation?” Alan and I somehow managed to snag the last unreserved table (probably because we arrived 4:45pm) and felt incredibly lucky every time we heard him turn away another couple.

This photo doesn't do it justice.

This photo doesn’t do it justice.

After spending a ridiculous amount of time debating what to order, we decided to split two of the most basic Greek staples: spanikopita and chicken kabobs. It was the right decision. They were so different than any other version of those foods I’d eaten before that – had my eyes been closed – I wouldn’t have recognized them. The spanikopita was huge – imagine getting served two perfectly golden, flaky poptarts sprinkled with sesame seeds and filled with garlicky spinach hugging little gems of salty feta unlike any feta you’ve ever tasted. Delish.

They split our entree in the kitchen, bringing us each a generous plate with rice, Greek salad and a kabob of chicken, tomatoes and onion, drizzled with a garlic aoili. This sounds like a boring line-up, so you’ll just have to trust me when I say that it was amazing. The chicken was beyond tender, and I don’t know what they marinated it in, but it was magical. The homemade salad dressing and the aoili completely transformed the meal – and I’m normally very finicky when it comes to sauces.

Midway through our meal, as we were marveling over how something so simple could be so mind-blowingly good, we heard someone begin to tune what sounded like a guitar. Then, from the kitchen, Bashar emerged, playing some kind of Middle Eastern guitar, followed by two servers banging drums. They shuffled through the small restaurant playing and people rose from their tables to begin dancing. It was like a party had just broken out, and everyone was up for it. It felt like being included in a secret.  Here’s a snippet:

When we finished our meal, they brought us a plate with complimentary baklava drizzled with honey and whipped cream. I had no room for it, but managed to choke it down since it is tied with fried ice cream as my favorite dessert of all time. One our way out the door, we thanked Bashar for having us. “Every time you turned away someone, we felt so lucky that we had managed to snag your last table,” Alan told him.

Bashar countered, “No – the luck was ours. We were lucky to have you dine with us tonight.” And with that, he asked our names and said he hoped to see us again soon. And like a good host, he truly seemed sincere.

After dinner we walked down Ocean Avenue and it’s adorable cottages to the beach. We arrived just in time to catch the tail-end of the sunset as we smelled the wood smoke from various bonfires dotting the beach. Not a bad way to end our first day of vacation, though it does set a high bar for the rest of the trip.

Sunset in Carmel

 

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9 Responses to “Travelogue: Carmel-by-the-Sea”

  1. David November 3, 2013 at 12:04 pm #

    Bavaria meets Smurf? Best, most accurate crazy explanation yet! It’s so true, sometime even true of the locals.

    • pithypants November 3, 2013 at 12:06 pm #

      I think if you haven’t visited, that explanation won’t make sense. But if you have? It all kind of fits, right?

  2. Bonnie November 3, 2013 at 12:55 pm #

    Next time, I’m coming with you

  3. Lorna's Voice November 4, 2013 at 4:51 pm #

    I love the reply they gave you when you said you felt so lucky to have snagged the last table. There are truly gracious people in the world! Sounds like a great start (minus the rental snafu). 🙂

    • pithypants November 5, 2013 at 1:08 pm #

      Definitely. And while those words COULD sound totally cheesy, I actually think that was the guy’s attitude.

      • Lorna's Voice November 5, 2013 at 4:28 pm #

        I’m sure it was. I bet that was as good as the Baklava! 🙂

  4. thesinglecell November 5, 2013 at 8:39 pm #

    I’m a huge fan of Bavarian Smurf Huts. And baklava. And stumbling luckily into a great restaurant right when starvation is threatening to make me hangry. You hit the jackpot – I think the luck was on both sides!

    • pithypants November 5, 2013 at 11:37 pm #

      What’s not to love about Carmel?

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. 40 x 40: Progress & Failures. | pithypants - November 11, 2013

    […] Explore wine country with Alan. CHECK. You’re read about our adventures in Carmel, Monterey, and Hearst Castle – but we spent the last five days tooling through Paso Robles, […]

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