Duarte's Tavern

202 Stage Road, Pescadero, California, 94060, United States

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Pescadero is a sleepy little community in a surprisingly rural part of California. Palo Alto may be a 45 minute drive away, but here there are just small farms, with Pescadero having a total official population of 643. Although notionally on the Pacific coast, the centre of what I will generously call the town is a little way inland. Hence do not expect a sea view if you come here, though there is a beach with the waves lapping in just two miles or so away.

This unlikely location is home to one of the oldest restaurants in America, Duarte's Tavern, set up by a Portuguese family in 1894 and still run by the descendants of the founder, a fourth generation family restaurant. There are a few venerable restaurants in this relatively young country. North of here in San Francisco is the Tadich Grill (established 1849), and in Newport Rhode Island there is even the White Horse Tavern, which has been running since 1673, and appears to be the oldest restaurant in the USA. For context, Rules in London was set up in 1798, and the oldest restaurant according to the Guinness Book of Records is Botin in Madrid (1725). However this pales into insignificance next to noodle bar Honke Owariya in Kyoto, a sixteenth generation family restaurant running continuously in one form or another since 1465.

The restaurant is an unassuming place on the main street, with a bar as you enter and dining rooms adjoining this. It seemed, at least in the off-season, to be very much a local's place. As I walked into the bar the conversation stopped dead and and everyone stared at the stranger who had appeared in their midst. If you recall the movie "American Werewolf in London" it was a bit like the scene at the start in the Yorkshire pub when the two American hitch-hikers walked in: if there had had been a dartboard here then darts would have stopped in mid air as I walked in.

The main dining room is wood-panelled and has a stuffed blue marlin mounted on the wall, a nod to the local interest in fishing. The restaurant specialised in seafood, and apparently has a little garden where they grow some of the vegetables used in the kitchen. There was a short wine list priced from €31 to $56, with labels such as Au Bon Climat Chardonnay 2014 a very fair price of $35 compared to its retail price of $28, and the Windy Oaks Pinot Noir 2014, located down the road in Monterey Bay, at $44 for a wine that is not easy to track down but can be procured locally for $31. 

The signature dish of the restaurant is an artichoke and green chilli soup, which came served with a very pleasant local sourdough bread from Moonside bakery, who are based eighteen miles north of here up the coast in Half Moon Bay. The test of a soup for me is the intensity of its flavour, and this was pretty good, the artichoke taste coming through, lifted by the mild bite of the chilli (13/20). It does not remotely compare with, for example, the superb soups produced at Steve Terry's The Hardwick, but it was nice enough. 

The main course was less successful. Fish taco is a common dish in California, here made with snapper and served with shredded cabbage, sour cream, Mexican coleslaw, home made salsa and some rather unnecessary rice. The snapper had not been properly prepared so there were a few bones lurking, and the fish itself was a bit overcooked. The salsa was decent and the other elements were acceptable, but this was not an especially good fish tacos (barely 11/20).

They do make the desserts in the kitchen here, so I tried a slice of apple pie. The pastry will not be winning any awards but the apple was cooked well enough, though the dish was not quite warmed through (11/20).  Service was friendly but inattentive, the dining room frequently left without staff, and I had to wander round to the bar to get a second glass of Sierra Nevada beer. However this is very much a casual diner rather than a formal restaurant, so it seemed somehow in keeping. The bill came to $64 (£51) before tip, just drinking beer, so if you had a wine then a typical cost per head might be around £60. This seems an awful lot for a simple meal in rural location where you may need to fetch your own drinks. There was a steady stream of customers, even early on a chilly Monday night in February, and they claim to serve over three hundred customers a day on average, so they are clearly doing something right. I have a soft spot for really old restaurants, but even if this was at the end of my road I would still look quizzically at the size of the bill relative to what appears on the plate, and maybe stick to the soup.

Overall I can just about get the overall score to 12/20 if I am being kind, so this is not somewhere that is worth a detour. However if you happen to be passing by on the coast road and want to sample a little slice of American history then it is worth a stop.

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