The Shoals Restaurant at The Cliff House
6602 Old Pacific Coast Highway
I often forget about the Shoals, even though I drive by it quite often. Located on the most scenic curve of the Pacific Coast Highway, where the highway hugs the coast and the mountains, Ventura — Santa Barbara commuters pass it daily. Yet Tthe Cliff House Inn and its restaurant the Shoals, is slightly more obscured since the highway was widened, which makes it easier to whiz past.
I recently met my friends Lisa and Ron there for a wonderful, relaxed lunch on a super, sunny day.
There are really two “stars” at the Shoals Restaurant situated on the coastal bluffs of Mussel Shoals. One may be obvious to passers-by: the mesmerizing views of the Pacific and Channel Islands where, on a clear day, you really can see forever. I will tell you about the other in a moment.
Ron, entranced by the scenery, couldn’t take his eyes off the surfers catching waves — and even went to grab his binoculars from his car; Lisa noted that the hotel would be a perfect trysting spot, despite the fact that it “needed a facelift.” But we were happy campers as we settled into the teak outdoor furniture with unobscured views.
Lisa ordered the tasty, very cheesy cheese enchiladas ($14) with rice and beans that arrived properly cooked on a very hot plate. Ron went for the seafood spinach salad with shrimp and scallops ($18) — a bit on the small side and disappointing. (I suggested he try the Tahitian shrimp and mango salad, which looked much more appealing as it went to a neighboring table). I think I was the winner with perfectly prepared wild salmon flavored with dill and laden with flavorful artichokes, roasted onions, bell pepper and zucchini atop white rice with a lemony sauce that had just the right amount of zing.
The wine list features a lot of Santa Barbara and Paso Robles wines. I had a generous glass of always tasty and complementary-with-seafood Brander sauvignon blanc, Lisa had the Meridian chardonnay from Paso.
We all shared one of the homemade desserts — a very appealing-looking tiramisu, which tasted fine but which I wish had been soaked in more espresso.
The Shoals does a weekend brunch (eggs Benedict or huevos rancheros) with the same lunch items: sandwiches, burgers, salads, fish and chips, and an array of entrees ranging from wild mushroom risotto to cioppino.
The other “stars” here that I mentioned earlier are perhaps less apparent, unless you dine outside on a glorious day as we did. Here’s a hint: There was an Alfred Hitchcock movie named for them, The Birds. My mother, who has a bird phobia, would never be able to dine outside here when they are in residence. (There is an indoor dining room, but that’s not quite the point.)
During lunch we watched the plump seagulls land on other people’s tables, squawk and generally behave naughtily. Our super-efficient waitress brought us a plastic spray water bottle to chase them off with if they dared to visit out table, as she swiftly moved the bread basked to a safer spot. (These guys know what they are after and how to get it!)
After Ron and Lisa left, I lingered to soak up the sun, unable to tear myself away. I was enjoying watching the green waves curl, as surfers rode smoothly along perfect breaks. Suddenly, I was startled by the sudden “crash!” of two seagulls landing on my table and knocking over my water glass. (Fortunately, it didn’t break.) Another seagull made himself quite at home in the sparkling blue pool. Soon, all was calm again. I stayed almost two hours; it was difficult to leave.
The food may be secondary to the views, but having a full stomach while enjoying the treasures of our California coastline is a winning combo. I would go back in a heartbeat for sunset dinner (Sicilian lamb chops lure) as the days get longer, another leisurely lunch or to try the Sunday brunch.
Another note: Arriving or departing can be tricky, depending on which direction you are traveling. I came from the north, and it’s an easy exit off the Coast Highway. But I had to head south and loop back around to return north. The opposite is the case for those coming from the south. This being said, you may want to temper your alcohol consumption.
If you want to feel as though you are on vacation, just a 10-minute drive from downtown Ventura, this is your spot. Should you not be able to tear yourself away, book a room, as they say, and chase the birds and any blues away.