Savoring the Slow Life on California’s Central Coast
This food-fueled road trip with chef SCOTT CLARK will have you packing your bags for a drive down the Pacific Coast Highway.
This food-fueled road trip with chef Scott Clark will have you packing your bags for a drive down the Pacific Coast Highway.
Midway through breakfast, my traveling buddy, chef Scott Clark (opposite), disappeared. We were on the deck at Hidden Kitchen restaurant, a find in the California surfing community of Cayucos, devouring the house specialty: blue-corn waffles. Mine was piled with savory toppings—organic avocado, fried eggs, beans, salsa. Frost, Clark’s 5-year-old daughter, was demolishing a sweet one, her face smeared with coconut whipped cream. Around us, locals, some fresh from the waves, were eating with equal gusto.
But even the town’s favorite breakfast couldn’t keep a guy seated when he was determined to buy a boat. Clark, 34, and I were nearing the end of a fiveday journey with Frost and her mom, Alexis Liu, along the Central Coast—350 miles’ worth of tiny towns, small farms and endless waves that stretches from just south of San Francisco to Ventura, north of Los Angeles. It’s a sleepy part of California. Most drivers miss it, booking down the 101 Freeway between cities.
However, travelers who venture along Highway One (the Pacific Coast Highway, or PCH), the meandering, more picturesque road that hugs the shoreline, can sample its many charms. We had started the trip at Dad’s Luncheonette—clark’s restaurant, and his refuge—in Half Moon Bay, 30 miles south of San Francisco. There, in an old-time caboose, he whips local veggies
and dairy into crave-worthy lunch fare: seasonal herb salads, crispy maitake mushroom sandwiches, icebox Earl Grey pie. Clark had moved there in 2017 for a slower pace of life, and wanted to show me his favorite spots in the region. So we hatched a plan to caravan down the PCH. Clark could surf, and we’d eat all the good things along the way.
At Harley Farms Goat Dairy in Pescadero, a dusty farm town on the peninsula that shelters the San Francisco Bay, we sampled chèvre that was sweet from meadow grass and salty from the Pacific breeze. Farmer Dee Harley, a British expat, settled here 35 years ago and married the heir to Duarte’s Tavern, a town landmark founded in 1894— where the four of us stopped for a bite. Amid taxidermy and mounted fish, we spooned up creamy soup vibrant with the flavor of the local crop: artichokes. As we traveled the Monterey Peninsula on down through Big Sur to the surfer towns of San Luis Obispo County and the pristine estuary of Morro Bay, we shared meals made with local ingredients and local pride: crab Louie salad featuring Dungeness pulled from the Pacific, mushroom curry with foraged fungi, tangy olallieberry pie filled with fruit grown at the Linn family orchard in Cambria.
On a beach north of Cayucos, Spencer Marley, founder of Marley Family Seaweeds, took us on one of his
bespoke seaweed-foraging trips. Scrambling through tide pools, we munched as we went: tender sea lettuce; meaty kombu. Marley lit a camp stove and cooked seaweed ramen.
“Are you stoked, kiddo?” Clark asked Frost. “I’m so stoked.”
“Me too,” said Frost, slurping noodles against an orange sunset.
Maybe it was there and then, as he and Marley traded fishing tips, or while kayaking in Morro Bay, or visiting its same-named oyster farm, but somewhere along the way, Clark decided he needed a boat. The tug of the ocean here was that compelling.
After those morning waffles, Liu,
Frost and I took a stroll out onto Cayucos Pier to watch surfers and seabirds bob in the water. Eventually, we wandered back into town to a tiny, multicolored shack at the foot of the pier that Clark calls his “ignition point”: Ruddell’s Smokehouse, home to legendary smoked fish tacos. I had just ordered a mess of them—filled with albacore, ahi, salmon and shrimp, all dressed with aioli and a snappy apple slaw—when Clark rolled up in his truck, hauling a trailer holding a banged-up skiff. It was a heck of a souvenir.
Clark jumped out and took a seat at the picnic table where the rest of us sat with proprietor Kathleen Ruddell. “You’re the reason that I have a restaurant,” he told her. “This place changed the course of my life.” The first time he had visited Ruddell’s was in 2014 with Liu. At the time, Clark was a sous chef at a three-starred Michelin restaurant in San Francisco, and he had wanted a fine-dining experience. “But we ordered tacos, and sitting here, I was like, ‘Oh, this is it,’” Clark said.
Ruddell’s husband, Jim, who founded the restaurant 20 years ago, had been his role model, Clark told her. She understood what he meant. Before his death in 2018, Jim’s “office” had been a lawn chair facing the beach. “His quality of life was so good that he wanted to keep it simple,” Ruddell said. “He just wanted to smoke fish and watch the ocean.”
So it is with Clark. When Liu got pregnant with Frost, Clark decided it was time to make a change. The Central
Coast’s sea-meets-land vibe sold him. “Small farms where passionate people are doing their thing drew me,” he said. “Good people, good food, water everywhere.”
On the trip’s final morning, Frost ran along paths blazed by shorebirds on Pismo State Beach. “Dad, I found dinosaur tracks!”
“Dinosaurs? No way!” Clark kept one eye on his daughter as he tended a small fire on the sand. I had asked what inspired him most on our journey, so he was showing me by cooking our send-off meal, using ingredients picked up on our travels: grilled Morro Bay oysters, dressed in a mignonette deep with umami from shoyu and foraged seaweed, and bright from farm-fresh citrus and pink peppercorns scavenged from a roadside bush. Seagulls stood staring as our shell pile grew.
“Wow!” I said, reaching for more oysters, and for some surfer slang I picked up on the trip: “This has been epic.”
Clark laughed. “There are so many gems to discover here,” he said. “The Central Coast is just joyful.”