For nearly a decade, Monterey has been on my bucket list of United States destinations to visit. The picturesque seaside town always seemed to pop up on my social media feed just when I needed a vacation. I decided this year would be the year I ventured to Monterey. I flew into San Jose airport where I met up with Joey Suarez, a friend and EDM musician who decided to tag along for this journey. It was also Joey’s first time visiting Monterey so we had the opportunity to explore the city for the first time together, which was quite a fun experience.
The first thing we did upon arrival was check in to our hotel, the beautiful Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa, located right on the water in the Cannery Row district of Monterey. The district got its name for being home to dozens of sardine canneries and was also the setting of John Steinbeck’s novels Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday. Steinbeck was born in nearby Salinas, and his father served as Monterey County treasurer. The area is adorned with tributes to Steinbeck with statues erected in his honor and buildings bearing his name.
If you have a chance to visit Monterey Plaza, ask for the owner’s suite which comes complete with a baby grand piano, dining table for 8 guests, two full bathrooms and three wrap-around porches. Not to mention unobstructed views of Monterey Bay. We did not even need an alarm, as each morning we were awoken (not too early) by the barks of the sea lions that gather along the coastline.
Monterey is home to a ton of sea life. We had the opportunity to take a guided kayak tour of Monterey Bay given by a company called Adventures by the Sea. During our one-hour excursion, we passed dozens of seals, otters, sea lions and other marine animals.
At the time of my visit, California had strict COVID-19 restrictions, so masks were required everywhere, and restaurants were only allowed to offer outdoor dining, but since many have great views of the water, I did not mind dining al fresco. Monterey has a cute downtown with many locally owned shops and restaurants. If you are in the mood for a pre-dinner drink, swing by Montrio Bistro for one of their signature cocktails.
Schooners Coastal Kitchen & Bar is located in the Monterey Plaza Hotel and offers a wonderful selection of fish entrees. When dining by the sea, why not order the specialty? Joey and I began our meal with the “Fresh Catch,” which consisted of Morro Bay pacific gold oysters, black tiger prawns and octopus ceviche. I fell in love with the prawns and the homemade cocktail sauce. While Joey decided to go with a panini as his main course, I stuck with fish. One of my favorite dishes is Cioppino. I first tried the dish during a visit to San Francisco many years ago and I order it every time I can find a restaurant that offers it. Each establishment has their own twist on this entrée. Schooners’ version of Cioppino contained shrimp, clams, mussels, calamari, and seasonal fish—all in a delicious saffron-Dungeness crab broth.
Walking along Cannery Row is like taking a walk through history. Many of the old buildings still exist, although they are repurposed into hotels and retail establishments. There are dozens of cute boutiques and hidden gems in every nook and cranny. Soap Confections makes hand-crafted soaps available in a variety of shapes and scents, while Global Candle Gallery creates one-of-a-kind custom candles right in front of your eyes.
Along the way, we stopped at Coniglio Brothers Italian Deli for a delicious charcuterie platter. One thing is for sure, they do not skimp on the meat and cheese. There was so much prosciutto that we had some to bring back to our hotel for an afternoon snack. That being said, we needed a nice bottle of wine to pair with our leftovers, so we stopped by A Taste of Monterey, a wine market and bistro which offers an extensive collection of local wines from Monterey County winemakers.
Since many of the indoor attractions, such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium were still closed due to COVID-19 restrictions, we had a lot of free time to walk around the town and eat…and boy did we eat. The Fish Hopper is a family-owned restaurant founded in 1950, which offers stunning views of the bay and incredible cocktails. Since I was on vacation, I went for the Toasted Coconut Colada, made with Skyy Pineapple vodka, pineapple juice, a splash of Amaretto, and a house special piña colada mix. It was the perfect way to enjoy lunch with great company.
To cap of our culinary journey of Monterey, we visited The Sardine Factory. Do not let the name fool you. The establishment is one of the most incredible fine-dining experiences I have ever had—all underneath a tent. Although customers are not allowed inside the building (except for restroom use), we got a private tour of the property, which includes an elaborate wine cellar fit for king, complete with a custom wooden table large enough to seat 24 guests. The Sardine Factory is known for its extensive wine list, one of the finest in the world, complete with over 2,000 labels and 20,000 bottles. The restaurant offers private wine lockers for their frequent patrons. I will not disclose all of the celebrity names adorning the lockers, but I will say one goes by the nickname, “The Governator”.
I was already in heaven and dinner had not even begun. We had the great pleasure of meeting two of the owners, one being the head chef. I told him to bring us whatever he wanted. The rest of my party seemed a bit perplexed by this, but having written many dining reviews in my career, I found this request to be not only fun for me, but also exciting for the chefs as they get to prepare their favorite dishes – some of which I probably would not have ordered on my own.
We began with their famous Abalone Bisque, a smooth bisque prepared with bacon, chives, and Madeira wine. This specialty was served at President Reagan’s Inauguration. Talk about historic. The bisque was followed by one of the day’s specials, a pan-seared sea scallop over foie gras. I will admit, I am not a big fan of foie gras, but I do love scallops. They paired perfectly together. Next came one of the chef’s favorite dishes, Linguini Carbonara, homemade pasta prepared with Parmesan & Romano cheeses, egg, scallions, chives, pancetta, and black pepper. Growing up in New York, I had this dish many times, but this was the best I have ever had…and my favorite dish of the entire trip.
Chef Cutino decided we had not tried enough of his dishes, so he brought us his version of surf and turf which in this case was veal and lobster. To end the evening, he brought us delectable Chocolate Dipped Bonbons served over dry ice—which made for great Instagram photos and videos—in addition to his homemade Chocolate Kahlua Cinnamon gelato, and “The Factory” spumoni. I am still dieting!
It was the perfect way to end a much-needed vacation by the sea. Being by the water always relaxes me, and of course being surrounded by great people and great food never hurts either.
Joey Amato is the founder and publisher of Pride Journeys, an LGBTQ travel website and syndicated column. For more LGBTQ travel ideas, please visit www.pridejourneys.com.