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Downtown Pacific Grove & Lunch at Red House Cafe | California

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During my stay in Carmel last fall, I took a couple exploratory side trips to nearby Pacific Grove. Set smack in the middle between Monterey and Carmel, Pacific Grove is especially known for being one of the Monarch butterfly sanctuaries where these colorful butterflies stop during their southbound migrations. The Monarchs start arriving in PG towards the end of October and their numbers peak at the beginning of December. Which is why I checked the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History website regularly for updates, and also scheduled my visit on a sunny morning, around noon, as recommended.

The Monarchs spend their sanctuary time clustered in the eucalyptus trees, and need their wings warmed by the sun in order to be able to fly. Hence the sunny and noon timing. Except last December was particularly cold, and even around noon the sun had clearly not warmed the butterflies enough to spark a flight, neither time I went there. I hear it is a sight to see.

 

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I did, however, see a couple of lovely deer strolling past along the pathway, so that was my consolation prize. The sanctuary is essentially a grove of trees, mostly eucalyptus, where a path has been created for people to walk around with their heads tilted up in hope of seeing the Monarchs. And I did see a couple, as in two, literally. Unless, of course, it was the same one that changed place, in which case I saw one. The two photos below are all I managed.

I did wait patiently, slowly walking around the place. Then, as I headed back to the car, I ran into some people who mentioned that a cluster was visible from the yard of one of the private houses along the street. I walked that way, and several of us stood outside said house looking up. Indeed, once I knew where to look and what to look for, I found a large cluster of butterflies on the branches exposed to the sun. Because, of course, just because the sanctuary is here, it doesn’t mean that the butterflies won’t move a little over there. I did try a few photos, but they were still too far for my lens to reach them. If you do get to PG during Monarch season and wish to take photographs, I suggest buying or renting one of those super telephoto lenses. It is the only way.

FYI: there is an established etiquette for visiting the sanctuary that is intended to assure everyone’s enjoyment, especially the butterflies’. Pacific Grove takes the protection of butterflies seriously, and in 1939 the city passed an ordinance making it a misdemeanor to molest a butterfly.

 

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After saying goodbye to the Monarchs, I figured I might as well explore the town a bit. I moved my car closer to the center of things, and took a walk down the main strip, which is Lighthouse Avenue, a treasure chest of Victorian buildings, as is  all of Pacific Grove, really.

This lovely historic Victorian cottage is now the home of Butterfly By The Sea, a colorful gift shop where you will find all things butterfly, many in the form of locally created art, as well as an eclectic collection of vintage items. Take a peek!

 

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In my browsing, I found a beautiful sheer scarf in orange tones with Monarch butterflies on it – yes one of those in the image above. It made me think so powerfully of my friend Cindy, so I bought it for her.

 

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In the back room is where you will see the vintage items, and as you continue on through the back door and outside, you will find more eclectic items in the garden along with some beautiful arrangements of succulents.

 

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I don’t recall now what day of the week it was, but it was certainly not a Friday, Saturday or Sunday. In touristic areas, I tend to leave weekends to the visitors. Therefore, PG was not crowded, and I was able to cross Lighthouse Avenue back and forth taking pics to my heart’s content.

 

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The short strip above is, of course, my favorite part, as I love Victorian buildings. These could be PG’s own painted ladies. Beautifully maintained, these ‘ladies’ house some lovely shops and cafes.

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The building housing Victorian Corner restaurant is undeniably the most spectacular. Just look at all those colors and decorative touches!

 

In the image below is the Holman building. One guess what this building originally was? Indeed, it was a cousin of Selfridge’s. Built in 1918, Holman’s was the largest independently owned and operated department store between Los Angeles and San Francisco, also receiving mail orders from around the world because of its reputation and large assortment of merchandise.

 

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Now the Holman is in the process of being transformed into “the most sought-after luxury address on the Monterey Peninsula.” When finished, it will feature 25 ocean view residences and four penthouses. It will be interesting to see. This is what it looked like in December 2016. I did not realize I was taking a historic photo, as I just found out about these plans.

 

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The pretty peach-toned building above is Lighthouse Cinemas. While below you can see our next destination. Because after three hours of staring at invisible butterflies and walking up and down Lighthouse Avenue, I was hungry. What you will see featured are two meals on two separate visits, but I thought I would group them into one.

 

The restaurant I was hoping to catch turned out to be only open for dinner, and there was no way I could wait that long. When I asked, at least three people directed me to the Red House Cafe.

The “Little Red House” is a  historic building and a local landmark. This charming Victorian cottage was originally a residence built in 1895 two blocks up the street, and then relocated to its current site. In 1995, the cottage was restored to its original conditions, and a year later the Red House Cafe opened, and is still going strong.

 

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Red House Cafe is very popular with locals and visitors alike. I showed up just past 2pm and it was still busy. There is usually a line waiting outside on a regular day, and on weekends or high tourist times, the line is rather long.

The interior is as charming as the outside, and you have the feeling that you are having lunch at a beloved grandmother’s who knows how to cook. That is not only because of the vintage and warm style of the rooms, the brick fireplace which keeps you warm on chilly foggy days, and the covered porch, but also because of the friendliness of the servers and, most of all, the food.

 

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Red House Cafe is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, except on Mondays when it is closed for dinner, and weekends feature brunch. The cuisine is (almost) contemporary American, and to that description I add grandma-style, because in that contemporary bit there are still quite a few old-fashioned quirks, and a lot of comfort. The food is not fancily prepared or presented, but it is fresh and flavorful, and features locally-sourced seasonal ingredients. Beyond the menu (see it here) there are also daily specials which vary with market availability.

On my first visit, the day of the butterflies, I ordered their BLT ($11.50) with a side of fries ($3.50). I was about to order a latte as well, but the menu boasted a Hot Chocolate with Real Whipped Cream (made with milk as a subtitle) ($3.50) and it sounded really good, so I went for that instead.

 

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The BLT was excellent: from the beautifully toasted bun to the sauce used to smear it, everything was delicious. I can say it was among the best I have ever had. Interestingly, it came with a side of pasta salad. I did take half of it home, as it was on the large end of the spectrum, and I wanted to finish my yummy fries, which are best eaten hot.

 

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The hot chocolate turned out to be a blast from the past. Aside from the little dollop of very real and fresh whipped cream, which was already sinking by the time it reached my table (may have needed a bit more whipping time), the (quite large) hot chocolate turned out to be Nesquik in hot milk. Not only the flavor tapped into a memory from childhood, but I actually heard one of the servers explain this to another client nearby who wanted to order it for her child.

 

I just had to ask about their desserts, how could I not. The desserts are all home made, and on that day included, off the top of my head, bread pudding, a couple of seasonal pies, brownies, ice cream, and rum cake (I am sure I am forgetting something). A very classic American series of desserts, where the rum cake was unexpected, and consolidated the grandma-twist. Consider I grew up in Italy, and without particular grandma food-related memories (long story). But since I was 18-years-old, I did have an adoptive American grandmother in my friend Valerie’s Mom, Betty. Betty was many wonderful things, and we miss her a lot. Among those many, she was also the quintessential 1950s American home-maker. Many of her recipes reflected that, jello included, and she certainly made the best pies!

 

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Anyway, back to the rum cake, which I ordered for two reasons: the server said that it was home made by the wife of another server, a very nice elderly gentleman I had seen taking care of the tables in the other room; and I had recently had rum cake made by Valerie, and then again made by her friend Nancy – both from the same recipe and using cake-mix and pudding-mix as a base – and I wanted to know if this would be the same. It was!!! It came beautifully presented with a dollop of fresh whipped cream and fresh fruits, but the cake was exactly the same, nuts and all.

 

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Before I get to my other meal, I have to point out the bathroom at Red House Cafe (image above). When I opened the door I had such a surprise! It was one of the loveliest, most spacious and light-filled bathrooms I have seen in a restaurant or business. I had to take a photo. Ladies, I know you understand.

 

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I made a point of going back to Red House Cafe on a Sunday because I had seen Dungeness Crab Cake Benedict ($13) on the brunch menu. It is a favorite, so that is what I ordered, along with the latte I had passed on the previous time. The latte was, I am sorry to say, nothing special, as I have certainly had better – as you know – but it came with a chocolate cookie.

 

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I asked for my Benedict with scrambled eggs as usual. Sometimes I am tempted to order it as is for the sake of the photo, but I really don’t like runny eggs. The Crab Cake Benedict was delicious as were the oven roasted potatoes. The toasted croissant on the bottom made for a richer version of the dish, and went really well with the other flavors and textures. Again, I took half of it to go, and this time I was even too full to order dessert. I was bummed because I had planned on tasting one of the pies. Something to enjoy next time.

 

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During my pre-visit on-line search, I had stumbled upon The Quill, a stationery shop that looked beautiful both on the outside and the inside. That is where I headed after my lovely lunch. I spent quite a bit of time inside The Quill, where I found some beautiful notebooks (which I devour), and exquisite Christmas cards. I even returned a second time just for the pleasure of looking at a beautiful space filled with beautiful things, and I let myself be tempted by a new planner, which I love and use for my personal notes.

Incredibly, The Quill does not sell any quills. I asked. Anyway, take a peek and enjoy.

 

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Despite being a little overshadowed by its more famous neighbors, Carmel and Monterey, Pacific Grove is definitely worth a visit. Besides continuing the stunning coastline, it also offers many lovely Victorian Inns where you can stay. You will see a few of those in a future post. And if you explore the side streets off of Lighthouse, you will find more little shops, as well as artists workshops worth exploring, too. Overall, the whole Monterey Peninsula is a treasure trove of artists.

I hope you have enjoyed our little exploration of downtown PG. Know that there is more to come.

 

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If you are in the Carmel & Monterey area, you might also enjoy these posts:

 

 

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