It took me a long time to pay my first visit to the Moss Beach Distillery. I had been wanting to take a meal at this establishment ever since I first learned about it when it was featured on NBC's Unsolved Mysteries several years ago and had in fact made a couple of aborted attempts to do so in the past. They have one punter, the Blue Lady, who had such an attachment to the place during the Prohibition not even death keeps her away. The distance from my home in San Jose was the major obstacle that kept me from visiting, as it takes around an hour's drive to go to Moss Beach. As a birthday treat, I made the effort to indulge my fancy. While I enjoyed the excursion and the food was good, I found the prices outrageous and doubt I'll visit their dining room much in future. Fortunately, the Distillery has a cheaper alternative at the patio, even though that is still a bit on the expensive side.
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For those who are unfamiliar with its background story, the Moss Beach Distillery originally opened in 1927 as Frank's Place. It was located near the cliff of a secluded cove along the Northern California coastline, a little southwest of San Francisco, making an excellent location for Canadian rum runners to unload their cargo during this senseless period of U.S. history. Needless to say, portions of those deliveries found a home in the garage of Frank's Place and it was one of the most notorious speakeasies in the Bay Area. The owner, Frank Torres, had excellent political and social connections, so his place was never raided during the remaining seven years of Prohibition. (It was also a rather secluded and remote area at the time, so it probably escaped the notice of people who would complain.) Amongst the regulars at Frank's Place were film stars and politicians. Dashiell Hammett was another punter who even used it as a setting for one of his stories.
Needless to say, being a speakeasy was an invitation to trouble, especially when the demon alcohol can attract all sorts of dubious characters. Phenomena have been heavily documented there, with the apparition of a mysterious woman in blue being most frequently seen, although a few psychics who have visited claim she has company. One type of incident that reportedly recurs is that of little boys who ask their parents about a beautiful woman in blue—sometimes covered in blood—in spots around the premises. (Legend has it that the Blue Lady had a small son when she was killed nearby in a car accident.) One co-worker of mine has a daughter who has the ability to sees ghosts. When the daughter visited the Distillery, she not only saw the Blue Lady, but was forced to walk through her when caught in a crowd. Hearing the plethora of paranormal stories that came out of the place, I paid little attention to the prices the management was asking when I planned my trip there, especially when my best friend, who is a medium, said she'd come along too.
My Moss Beach Distillery experience
Last April, I received an email inviting me to have my birthday meal at The Moss Beach Distillery. Although it offered no discounts, it promised I would receive a free dessert and the server would take a Polaroid photo of the entire party. The dessert was something I could do without, but the prospect of a picture was appealing. Besides, the view offered a pleasant dining experience, if nothing else. I sent out an email to several friends asking if they'd like to join me. It was busy period for several of them, so I was unsure how many would be able to make it. I was having a hard time trying to find a spot in my own schedule and would have to wait until after my birth month. I was taken by surprise when my best friend, who I'll call Janice, and her husband, Ian, agreed to come as well. I don't usually ask her to join me when I go searching for ghost stories because her experience dealing with them had been traumatizing. The one ghost she truly exorcised during her youth had nearly killed her by having her reenact the process of his death, so she prefers to avoid anything like that again. On the other hand, this was going to be the b-day celebration with my friends and I wanted her company. She was aware of the ghosts, but was willing to come regardless. After all, she is older and wiser to dealing with these lost souls now.
One of the quirks I found in the Distillery is how it handles reservations. On a previous aborted attempted to go there on Mother's Day last year, I had to insure my table by giving them my credit card number and approval to charge it $45 if my group did not appear or cancel within 24 hours, minimum, beforehand. Considering how busy restaurants are on Mother's Day and how fickle some guests can be, I can cut them some slack on that one. From what I understand, it's becoming SOP for many restaurants nowadays.
In order to fully enjoy all of its attractions, the best time to go to a remote seaside restaurant like this one is during daylight hours. Originally, I had been trying to arrange a Sunday brunch, probably because it would be less expensive, but after a vacation in Florida, my memory slipped. It was proving more convenient to take an early evening meal on Saturday instead. I asked Russell to make the reservation as I was preparing to leave, and he was told they could fit us in. No credit card request was made that time, indicating it was made only when the management anticipated days of hectic business and not its usual procedure. However, he inferred that the tables could quickly fill up before we arrived and we may have to wait a little while. We met up with Janice and Ian at my place late that afternoon, then made the long drive to Moss Beach together. There is no denying that the drive up Highways 280, 92, and 1 is a scenic one. 92 has a few sharp curves and one of them may well have been where the Blue Lady met her death. When we reached 1, we passed a sign indicating the Moss Beach Distillery was four miles north and also promoted its food, wine, and ghost. (On subsequent trips, the sign had been whitewashed, then colorfully repainted without any mention of the ghost.) A large sign indicated where we needed to turn off 1 into a residential area. A couple of signs in the streets of the quiet neighborhood made finding the place easy.
On our arrival, I was taken back by the size of this creme colored building. After all of the photos and documentaries I had seen, it was smaller than I had anticipated. From the parking lot, it appeared to be about the size of a three-bedroom house and looked like one too. I felt like someone returning to a building I had frequented during childhood, then seeing it was smaller than I remembered. A sign indicating it was an official California point of historical interest was adhered to the wall underneath its main entrance. We climbed the short flight of stairs up to its front door, but I noticed that some remodeling had been done to allow handicap access to the dining room. Wheelchairs needed to go around the back to the patio deck to find it.
The inside is decorated primarily with blues. Light blue on the walls and darker for the carpet. The outside walls that faced the ocean all had large picture windows in them. Chandeliers were a Tiffany style. There were two dining rooms, with the bar area in between them. The tables were all set with white tablecloths. The bar was made of a dark, varnished wood. Large, framed, black and white photos hung on the wall showing the Distillery and locale in bygone days. The decoration was a bit conventional, but still pleasant. It definitely kept the management's promise that there was a great view no matter where a guest sat.
Russell and I were a little surprised to see that there were only about a half a dozen parties seated in the dining rooms. All four of us raised our eyebrows over that one. I later learned from other friends who visited the place they thought the attitude of the hosts when it came to reservations and seating quite odd as well. However, our party was seated promptly and our server was quite attentive.
It was the prices that made us gag. It had a nice variety of meat, seafood, chicken, and pasta to choose from, but the main entrées ranged from $24–$39, not including the items that were at market prices. Another thing that astounded me was that the beef items were set at "market prices." What was up with that? I could understand why lobster and crab would have a variable rate, but finding a steak in California is easy enough. As our server went through the daily specials with us, we asked what the rates for the beef entrées were. She reminded us that they always used the best quality beef and quoted us fees ranging from $41–$60-something. Most of them were generous portions, but their asking prices were rather steep for anyone less than affluent. Soup and salad starters were also an additional fee.
As luck would have it, I was in the mood for beef at the time. Since three or more weeks had passed since my birthday, I opted for the Seared Center Cut Prime New York Steak and paid for it myself. It was the cheapest of the beef choices and I couldn't handle more than eight ounces regardless. At these prices, I doubted I would be eating in their dining room again and wanted to make the most of it. The others selected seafood dishes. Aside from ordering soft drinks, we were all in unspoken agreement about ordering any extras. Our meals did come with a basket of San Francisco sourdough bread, which is my favorite.
As we surveyed the dining rooms, which looked more than half empty, we noticed a large serving staff that had little to do. It was still very early on a Saturday night, so that could dramatically change within 10 minutes.
Our meals were delivered within a reasonable time. Despite previous reviews I had read about this establishment, I found the food good. The appearance of the plates made little impression on me. My steak was served with mixed veggies and garlic mashed potatoes. It was dished up without any particular adornment. The steak was medium rare, just as I ordered it, although there was a bit along the edge that missed the heat of the grill and was rarer than the rest of the portion. It was tender, juicy, and tasty. The mashed potatoes had a subtle undertaste of garlic. They were smooth and without any offensive lumps. The veggies appeared steamed, but held little appeal to me. The mix included lima beans, wax string beans and cauliflower, among others that I'm neutral about, but at least it had no red bell peppers. I picked out the ones I like, but my appetite was not so huge to consume everything on my plate that evening. The food lacked something special to make it exceptional, but I had been led to believe that other reviewers were ready to return it to the kitchen.
After finishing our meals, I was asked what I would like for dessert. Of my choices, I selected the mudpie. Janice agreed to share it with me, because it was certainly nothing I could finish by myself. The coffee flavor ice cream with the chocolate wafer crust was rich, but good. It was topped with whipped cream. Although it was taste bud decadence, a few bites were more than I could handle as my tolerance for rich food is limited. The server took our picture as we plunged into it, yet a portion remained uneaten as we paid our bill. After a quick trip to the rest room, we made the journey home.
Since Ian had no obvious interest in lingering at the Distillery while I collected more background info, I made a couple of more visits. Although the dining room prices are outrageous, I made a special point of going to the patio, where drinks and light fare are served. Prices range from $7.95 for New England clam chowder to $22.95 for Japanese littleneck clams. Other items can be categorized as salads, sandwiches, seafood, and "specialties."
This is a less expensive than the dining room and guests may sit on the patio as long as they like during the Distillery's open hours. If going to the deck, guests should be prepared to dress warmly as the winds on the cliffside can make it quite chilly, especially in the evening when temperatures can drop dramatically in the Bay Area. Chairs, benches, and throw covers are provided for comfort as visitors enjoy the view. A calico cat, dubbed Chowder, frequently wanders around greeting people as they relax and, according one of the other patrons, she is there quite frequently.
For $15.95, I tried the Seared Salmon Sandwich, which came with fries, and iced tea. Its presentation was mediocre. It was cut diagonally and laid spread eagle on the plate. The fries was set between the two halves and lemon wedges were used as garnish as well as a condiment. This sandwich was a more creative than the previous steak I had. Instead of tossing a filet between a couple pieces of bread, it comprised four different layers between two thick slices of toasted egg bread. Aside from the shredded salmon, the other layers were smoked pepper aioli, avocado relish, and jalapeño coleslaw. The mixture of flavors and textures was an adventure for the palate. It was a bit spicy, but not overly so. The fries were thick cut and fully cooked without a hint of browning. The iced tea had a crisp, slightly smokey flavor and I detected no blemishes in the water used to brew it.
All in all, the light fare is commendable, but $9.95 for a plate of Cheesy Garlic Bread is a little pricey.
The ghost stuff
Unlike my frustrating visit at the Sir Francis Drake, the staff at the Distillery show no reluctance to talk about its resident ghosts. As a matter of fact, a complimentary newsletter was supplied with our menu, giving any patrons who weren't already aware of the restaurant's background full disclosure of its phenomena. The Blue Lady is a major contributing factor of the Distillery's ambiance. Some resources say she has even been known to touch men at their tables in the dining room.
Despite reported paranormal activity in the dining room, one male staff member tending the counter by the deck said most of it occurs downstairs. He added that one day, when it was a bit slow, he was straightening out the chairs on the deck. He accidentally knocked over a chair, disturbing the two punters who were eating their food. He apologized, adding flippantly that he was making racket to wake the dead. He moved back to the spot to turn the chair upright again. When he turned around again, every other of the lightweight garden chairs was upside down. A few minutes later, when he was upstairs, he saw the two guests leaving and asked what they thought. "That's a little too weird for us." When he went downstairs to clean up, he found the food they had ordered partially eaten.
When I was sitting in the dining room with my friends, Janice immediately picked up impressions on "the joint." She counted five ghostly occupants—one man, two women, and two children. Although she sensed they had once been very angry, all that lingered in the premises was sadness. Janice quickly determined that one of the adults had committed suicide and the newsletter backed up her feeling. One of the children was a newborn infant, bound to one of the women, its mother who would not let it go. She believed the baby was either stillborn or died shortly after birth, then was buried in the basement. When I wondered why a baby that was stillborn would still have a spirit to linger, Janice explained that some people, like its mother, have strong wills that hold it back.
The restroom was decorated with colorful broken tiles in its floor. Small relics, such as bus tokens, were embedded in the grouting between them. One of the items was a skeleton key, which Janice says was once an important item in the operation of the restaurant.
During one of my trips to the Distillery, I took pictures to use as a point of reference. One of the photos was in the breezeway between the counter and the deck. It has an idiopathic glare of white, yellow, and red light that might be considered an overexposure in the film, yet it was shot number 20 in a roll of 24 and none of the following exposures show any defect in them. Looking in the edges of the glare, the faint image of a man well dressed for an evening out appears. Anyone looking at it close enough can see a good portion of his face and torso, faint as it is. The most prominent detail of this figure is the corner of his left shirt collar, which also creates a shadow against the room's wall. Ironically, when we were having our picture taken in the dining room, Janice said she asked the ghosts if any would like to join us, but they declined. I guess the man of the troupe was willing to make up for "the ingraciousness" later. Despite violating the Prohibition laws of his time, this fellow must have been a real gentleman. Janice said it was one of the best spirit photos she'd ever seen.
One of the background stories revolving around the Distillery is that the Blue Lady was having an extramarital affair with the piano player there. It has been said that they were caught on the beach together and he was murdered.
After this photo was developed, I had to return to the scene to see if any of it could be explained. I also wanted to show it to management to see their reaction. Roughly estimating where the figure would have been standing, I might conclude that the white bar along the top could be one of the horizontal beams in the ceiling. The manager believed the man's face was that of one of her staff and the shadow against the wall was one of the safety spots adhered to the patio door's window. However, she had no explanation for the glaring bright light. Her quick reaction to why the image of the man would be so faint and incomplete does not quite satisfy. A picture hangs in the patio breezeway. It depicts a couple of the musicians who worked at Frank's Place during the Prohibition. Was one of them the Blue Lady's lover? Could one of them be the mustache man in my "defective" photo?
The bottom line
In summary, The Moss Beach Distillery's dining room serves continental style food with set prices ranging from $24–$39. On our visit, market prices for some items, like the lobster, went into were in the $70 range. Lunch entrées go from $10.95–$24.95. Sunday brunch is $27.50 per adult, $18.95 for each child under 12. Thirteen brunch entrées, which either contain eggs, seafood, or both are ordered off the menu, but the items that accompany them—champagne or mimosa, assorted muffins, coffee or tea, and orange juice—are unlimited. Looking for vegetarian dishes completely escaped my thoughts. They do have a few veggie dishes to choose from, but not a lot. At the Distillery's website, http://www.mossbeachdistillery.com, interested folk can also subscribe to news of any specials they offer. The Distillery is open from noon to "closing," seven days a week. None of the promotional literature is specific on when the Distillery closes, but when I asked for specifics, I was told 8 p.m. This was during the winter, so anyone interested might want to call first to see if that changes. Lunch is served from noon to 3 p.m.; dinner from 6 to 8 p.m. On weekends, seating for dinner starts at 4:30 p.m. On Sundays, the Distillery opens at 10 a.m. for brunch. It has also been open on Thanksgiving and Christmas. The bar and light fare is always available during opening hours. It is located at 140 Beach Way in Moss Beach, California.
It is only fair to note that there are quite a few restaurants along California's Highway 1 with steep prices. Despite being remote from major metropolitan areas, they attract many tourists who travel this route to enjoy the scenery, which can be majestic. The Distillery has the added advantage of nationwide publicity because of its Blue Lady and she is definitely exploited as an attraction. The Moss Beach Distillery can be a pleasant place to dine, but be prepared that it comes dear. One of the managers told me they have seen little phenomena after the building went through some major remodeling, but who knows? Janice said five ghosts still take residence there.
UPDATE 26 JANUARY 2010: Yes, the TV show, Ghost Hunters, filmed an investigation here a few years ago and TAPS concluded it was not haunted. Despite the rigged special effects the team uncovered, it is really haunted. Most locals who keep up with haunted locations have been aware the polytechnics since their installation. Local Paranormal Investigator Lloyd Auerbach, M.S., addresses the weaknesses in TAPS investigation here:
It's something to keep in mind regarding all of TAPS's investigations.
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Kid Friendliness: Yes
Notes, Tips or Menu Recommendations The Seared Salmon Sandwich is delish!
Best Suited For: Romantic Evening