Freeway Free in California: Tiny Town, Gourmet Mecca
Princeton-by-the-Sea (sometimes, especially locally, called Princeton) is an unincorporated community on the coast of San Mateo County, California. As of 2000, the population of the community is 297. So how does this tiny community manage to support at least three very classy restaurants with a total seating capacity of at least 400?
Old-time California coasters know Princeton mostly for its excellent boat harbor, and for the annual surfing competition Mavericks, which actually takes place in Princeton, although it is usually attributed to neighboring Half Moon Bay. But the same turnoff which leads to the Mavericks overlook also leads to a cluster of destination restaurants, each with its own atmosphere and specialty.
Oldest of the group is Barbara’s Fish Trap, which began in 1971 as a little shack by the side of the road serving fish and chips to the folks moored in the harbor. Over the years the Fish Trap has expanded, added a neon fish sign over the take-out window, picnic tables, an awning and sheltered outdoor seating, and some inside seating, but the fish and chips are still the same and still attracting a line of people waiting for their orders which is visible just about any time you pass by.
Mezza Luna, at the far end of the harbor, was opened in 1993 per their website but looks older. It has the feel of an Italian family restaurant that has been at the harbor for generations, and their house-made fettucini is to die for, especially served with the fresh clams or shrimp and cream sauce that is a standard. This is a white-tablecloth restaurant with an extensive wine list (and generous pours). The service is attentive but not oppressive, and if you want your entree with a side of fettuccine, they are happy to oblige.
Just across the road from Barbara’s Fish Trap is the Half Moon Bay Brewing Company, a more casual restaurant as you might expect, with dog-friendly outdoor seating as well as comfortable indoor tables, both with views of the harbor. Their list of craft beers is extensive, but what keeps me coming back is their fish tacos, served baja-style with shredded cabbage, and sides of black beans, salsa, and delicious guacamole. The standard plate has three tacos, but the smaller serving of two is ample for any but the largest appetite.
As you make the turn to Pillar Point Harbor, it’s hard not to notice the large newish buildings on the right. This development includes a hotel, and a small shopping center, but the anchor tenant is La Costanera, a large and lovely Peruvian restaurant boasting a celebrity chef, a Michelin star, two stories of beautifully appointed seating areas, and food which is flat out wonderful. It’s the priciest of the choices, but oh my, what a marvelous setting and with food and service to match. We asked our waiter about the desserts, and he steered us away from our first choice, the Suspira a la Limena “unless you have a really sweet tooth.” The Vanilla Bean Panicotta which we shared instead was the perfect end to a superlative meal.
There are a couple of small restaurants on the same short road which we haven’t tried yet. My question, though, is: these restaurants have a combined seating capacity of at least 300, not including outdoor seating. How do they stay alive? The answer, of course, is that they are very very good. So do your part to keep them going – you won’t be sorry you turned off Highway 1 onto Capistrano Road, no matter which one you choose.