Think Morro Bay and a few defining, iconic features inevitably and reassuringly seize the mind. There is, of course and indubitably, the Rock — a massive seaside mound of volcanic unrest, actually more massive before historic landmark status in 1968 staved off mineral quarriers. The Rock sits mightily, monolithically, just a Herculean stone’s throw away from the archaic triple-smokestacks of a ‘50s vintage power plant (closed since 2014 and now in limbo). There are also the ever-ready prospects of seafood done right alongside the peaceable bay, and the sure temptation of that civic palindromic vessel — the kayak.
But recently, when my wife, Peggy, and I opted to ceremoniously end our hunker-at-home sentence with a close-escape road trip, with dog Harper in tow, new features loomed. Take, for example, the cormorant condos and the Cold Shoulder. The former is a striking suburb — a k a rookery — of cormorant nests in tall, eucalyptus-tree perches adjacent to our dog-friendly room at the Inn of Morro Bay. The lanky, neck-y birds kept busy building and tending nests, and issuing their strange, atavistic croak, like wee dinosaur roars (or so we’ve been programmed to imagine).
And the Cold Shoulder? That’s one of the tantalizing sandwiches — this one piled high with pork shoulder and other goods — at the Morro Bay Butcher and Deli. The ambitiously sustainable “toe-to-tail” butchery, which opened in December in the proudly old-school edifice of the Streamline Moderne building on Main Street, is a must-to-visit new Morro destination. I had to return to try the BBQ-beefed-up “Hot Mess” sandwich. Lo, it was those things, plus a feast for the meat-eater’s taste buds. Peggy opted for a healthier menu at the well-established vegan compound of the Shine Café/store, two blocks away (everything is nearby in this fishing village of 11,000 residents).
In other inter-species eating news, the kindly Butcher and Deli co-owner Jillian Montgomery came out with raw meat scraps for Harper, who ate them with an animalistic ravenousness and gave a little shiver of ecstasy, as if thinking, “I have been wanting to eat this my entire life!”
On our few mostly fog-enshrouded days in town, the sound of foghorn bleating kept an ultra-slow-mo tempo and anchoring aural presence. We heard it wherever we went, taking a happy Harper to the Elfin Forest, with its curious Pygmy Oaks, and to the ample spread of Del Mar Park, with a fenced-in dog park and the newly ubiquitous site of pickleball courts on the rambling property.
During the past year’s forced hiatus and tourist moratorium, the famed Inn at Morro Bay has been busy with renovation, redoing the rooms in a laudably nouveau nautical décor theme. An expansive collective patio outside our back door allowed for idle wandering and admiration of the cormorant rituals and nest-keeping next door. With no dog bed in the room, Harper was bestowed the special treat of sleeping with her peeps on the king-size bed.
Being there now, just as travel is beginning to get its groove back, makes for a tranquil stay by the Bay, especially if you can manage to go midweek, between weekend tourist bursts. Surreal reminders of pandemic times and social-distancing protocols serve as reality checks, including the enforced closure of the lovely hotel bar and restaurant with a glorious bay view, off the radar for now.
Lodgings abound in this tourist-fueled city, but the Inn has a special allure, situated as it is on the edge of “town,” across the street from the Morro Bay Golf Course, and above that, the panoramic vista point atop Black Hill. Farther on up the road, we find the loveably charming Museum of Natural History (presently closed, but hopefully not for long) the main kayak dock, and campgrounds of Morro Bay and Montana de Oro, offering their own earthier accommodations.
Morro Bay remains a special getaway option for Santa Barbarans, who can feel effectively transported to an “other” location, within a two-hour drive, but far enough off of the centralizing artery of the 101 to detach from clichéd Cali-centric ambience. It also still feels like something of an enchanted, slightly funky-around-the-edges town from a simpler time and place. The gentrification marauders, so invasive in Santa Barbara and elsewhere in California, haven’t yet gotten the memo about Morro Bay.
Spend some time browsing and intellectually carousing at the Coalesce Bookstore (founded in 1973), a proudly independent and evocative bookstore right downtown, where you might also be silent witness to a wedding in the back garden wedding chapel (as we were). Pop by the Top Dog Café and Beer Garden next door, where loaded, attitude-adjusting liquids are freshly brewed and poured, with a vibes-led jazz trio on the weekly entertainment calendar.
Down by the Bay, along the Embarcadero, tourists (like us, sometimes attached to canines) mill and saunter in a daze, poking lazily around the yard ’n’ garden emporium Garden Gallery or the frozen-in-time Shell Shop. The Maritime Museum, dwarfed by the eerily dormant power plant next door, has grown up and gained a compact but jam-packed building added to its display of landed ships.
Surveying eating options, we considered the hoary hilltop Dorn’s Breaker’s (b. 1942) but wanted closer Bay proximity. We had to cross The Galley off the list after being informed that dogs were not invited (a biting/litigation incident put their dog-friendly policy in the doghouse), but ended up at the vintage Tognazzini’s Dockside, whose logo/mascot is a comely mermaid. (Somehow, the unclad siren doesn’t seem so kitschy fun in the Me Too era.) Suffice to say, gastronomically, my seafood quesadilla there was a crescendo of deliciousness. Harper, my assistant food critic, agreed.
Speaking of the convergence of seafood and Mexican cuisine, if you don’t yet know about Taco Temple, a pilgrimage is in order. Set along Highway 1, with its festive, extroverted signage, the Temple dishes out locally famous variations on Mexican cuisine, with jumbo portions and a fetching style. Crab-cake tacos never tasted so good. The next morning, a visit to another new-ish MB establishment, the Buttercup Bakery, rewarded my epicurean curiosity with the sumptuous (and healthy) Brent’s Breakfast Sandwich.
After all is eaten and trekked over, and its ample wide-open spaces and small-town charms appreciated, Morro Bay is mainly an unpretentious balm for the senses. Especially in these hopefully waning days of the pandemic, healing pleasure can be found in the mere acts of strolling around The Rock or watching your pooch gleefully romp along the beach north of said Rock. And a bellyful of seafood doesn’t hurt.
Get thee to the Rock!