When most Californians think Pismo Beach, they conjure images of wide, sandy, clam-holed beaches, sky-high dunes ripped to shreds by ATV-riding Mad Max incarnates, sea cliffs lined with countless hotels, and a salty, quaint, and quirky beach town full of tourists from Fresno and Bakersfield. For some (like myself), the qualities are endearing; for others, they’re a turn-off. But no matter which side of the clamshell you balance on, few consider Pismo Beach to be the place for a luxurious five-star experience, at least until the Dolphin Bay Resort & Spa splashed onto the scene three years ago.
Nestled between The Cliffs (also genuinely nice, but cheaper) and the Spyglass Inn (more historic, great Bloody Marys), and technically located north of Pismo in Shell Beach, Dolphin Bay opened in April 2006 and features nearly 70 rooms, all of them a 10-minute walk to the sand, five-minute shuttle to downtown Pismo, and 20-minute drive to the Edna Valley’s wine country. The rooms-including the two-bedroom spread I recently stayed in (at their expense) that was bigger than my house-were actually developed as “residences,” meaning that they range from 985-2,000 square feet and all feature the needed amenities to survive opulently: full kitchen with quality appliances, eco-friendly washer/dryer, plasma flat-screen TVs with surround sound, wireless Web access, travertine floors, wool carpets, granite countertops, Jacuzzi tubs, stylish furniture, tasteful art, custom cabinets, and beds that, according to one of my friends, feel like “sleeping on clouds.”
With ample separation between units, thick walls, double-paned windows, and set-back balconies overlooking the ocean, the level of in-room privacy is unparalleled. (Indeed, that would be my only complaint; that it’s so private it comes off as a tad sterile, though I stayed the night on a slow Sunday, so perhaps weekends are more lively.) The overnight price, of course, is comparable to the comfort, and ranges from $300-$2,000 an evening, with the penthouses starting at $1,200 a night.
Assuming you’re not just gonna hang around the room, Dolphin Bay is also home to La Bonne Vie Spa, which I didn’t experience, and Lido Restaurant, which was the underlying reason for my recent stay. I’d eaten at Lido once before, on another slow Sunday night about a year after it opened, and paid $24 for a hilariously tiny disk of abalone. Nonetheless, it was enjoyable to peruse the well-designed menu, discuss the regionally oriented wine list, and bask in the gourmet glow of a restaurant clearly dedicated to delivering a product that could rival the best that Los Angeles and San Francisco had to offer-even if the sparse crowds meant too few were catching on to this coastal gem. So when I was asked to sample their fall menu, which debuted last weekend, I should have been fed to the San Luis Bay sharks for almost turning down the invitation.
But my better senses kicked in (the free beds didn’t hurt either), and so a couple Mondays ago, I found myself with some other Central Coast press folks listening to the cool, calm, and confident Chef Evan Treadwell explain what’s on tap for the next few months and why the restaurant changes its menu each and every season: essentially, to reflect the best in locally grown produce and sustainable seafood.
Our tasting menu began with the halibut “tiradito,” a sashimi-like preparation involving a ginger-laced pomegranate vinaigrette, set on an avocado, topped with a jalape±o shaving, served with a 2006 Stevenot verdelho, and reflective of Japanese influence in South American cooking. The house favorite flatbread pizza also started the meal, topped with wild mushrooms, fontina, duck confit, and more. Treadwell then led us into the prawns atop pappardelle pasta, a spicy concoction washed down nicely by Caymus’s 2005 “Conundrum” white wine blend. Next up was the vegetarian’s dream, a butternut squash and mascarpone cheese ravioli, topped with sage and (like every dish we got) microgreens grown hydroponically in a nearby garage, and complemented by the Stephen Ross 2005 pinot, which a fellow food journalist described as one of the best deals going right now. The meat course was slices of expertly grilled filet mignon, sitting next to a bleu cheese potato souffle and paired with the Bin 36 cabernet of 2005 from Paso Robles. Then dessert, from Pastry Chef Benji Puga: a kabocha pumpkin flan, nicely cake-like in consistency (compared to often overly egg-y versions), and adorned with orange-dyed “flames” of caramelized sugar.
After lunch, as we sipped espressos laced with honey and Frangelico, Treadwell discussed his lingering dismay that the locals had not yet caught on in any reliable fashion with the restaurant, despite his pride in serving the best food, wine, and service there is to offer on the Central Coast. They will come, he is sure, and they should, because whether you’re forking over the dough for a weekend of resort lavishness or just visiting for an evening of special celebration overlooking the ocean while eating red abalone from Cayucos, the Dolphin Bay is the headquarters of luxury, just north of Pismo Beach.