For a careful observer, twenty minutes at Nepenthe is enough to learn all one needs to know about Big Sur. Sit down for a sunset cocktail and listen as the lawyer on your left explains why he's allowed to grow marijuana in California. Ask the rolling-stone bartender where he's headed next, and don't expect him to know. Don't forget to notice the blue-blazered investment banker across the bar from you. He's probably stopping off for a drink before dinner at the spectacular Sierra Mar, down the road.
Nepenthe is living proof of the dichotomy at the heart of Big Sur, a secret betrayed in print by the same beatniks who discovered it. The cliffside bar and restaurant has a clientele that includes occupants of $50-per-night tent cabins in the woods and guests from $1,500-a-night luxury resorts along the ocean. They all walk up the same steps, past an old-fashioned telephone booth, under a string of jalapeno-shaped lights, to Nepenthe.
Gallery: Big Sur's Nepenthe
Founded more than 60 years ago, Nepenthe has long been associated with both glamour and grime. Designed by a student of Frank Lloyd Wright, Nepenthe was originally purchased by Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth on a whim. As legend has it, the pair – whose relationship was stormy as a Big Sur winter – spent one night in the area and never returned, eventually selling the property to the family that currently owns Nepenthe.
Today, patrons still enjoy panoramic views of the Pacific from copious indoor and outdoor seating. Unlike some of Big Sur's fancier locales don't bother making a reservation unless there are more than four people in your party. Highlights on the menu include the signature Ambrosia Burger and Lolly's Roast Chicken.
For the best experience, arrive before night falls and watch the sun slip into the Pacific. Enjoy a drink from Nepenthe's considerable wine list, or let the bartender cook up a delicious cocktail. And make sure to chat up at least one stranger before heading out – there are few better places to meet fascinating folks.