After a recent spell of rainy weather, we had a few days of respite as the sun peaked from behind the clouds. My friend Steve and I were thinking about what we could do that included Jazzy, and he mentioned Muir Beach. I remembered hearing about the Pelican Inn nearby, so I decided to combine business with pleasure and check it out.
Just 30 minutes or so of windy roads from the Golden Gate Bridge, the Pelican Inn nestles between the ocean, Muir Woods, and the great redwoods of the Golden Gate National Recreational Area. When you drive up the gravel path, you feel like you’re in another world – it’s hard to conceive that a bustling city is a short jaunt from this idyllic country setting reminiscent of England’s southwest coast.
Muir Beach is small and sheltered by rolling hills, perfect for dogs to run and play. An hour or so later with an exhausted Jazzy, Steve and I parked my car under some shady trees in the Pelican Inn parking lot, cooled by the afternoon ocean breeze, and headed to the patio for a late lunch.
Set beneath a glass atrium covered in twinkling lights, big white paper lanterns, and fuchsia bougainvillea, the patio is warmed by heat lamps and a wood-burning fireplace. Our amiable server had a light Irish lilt and could be heard whistling in the kitchen.
We started with a pub grub classic: bangers and mash ($10), glistening pork sausages with a thin, caramelized outside and soft, moist inside. They’re served with HP (a British brown sauce named after the houses of Parliament; sort of a thicker A1), spicy mustard, mashed potatoes and, to my surprise, bright green fresh English peas, which, I found out from our server, are grown on a local farm. I was less thrilled with the mash because the skins were mixed in – I prefer my mashed potatoes without the skins, simply whipped with butter, cream and salt.
The fish and chips ($15) were quite good, made with farm-raised cod, which unlike Atlantic cod, is sustainable. Two hearty pieces are dipped in house-made ale batter and fried to order, producing firm but flaky white flesh swathed in a puffy, crunchy crust with little residual grease. The chips, unfortunately, disappointed. I like thick-cut potatoes without skins that are light gold in color, a little floppy but still crisp and soft within (the best I’ve had are at London Bridge in Monterey); the Pelican leaves the skins on medium-cut slices that are entirely too floppy. The secret to proper English chips (crisp outside, soft inside, the right amount of “flop”) is to double fry them (as they do at London Bridge and at Piccadilly in San Francisco) – once at about 300 degrees for a few minutes and again, with the oil about 50 degrees hotter, just before serving.
We were excited about the English Dip sandwich ($12) made with thinly sliced prime rib. There was good reason to be excited – the dinner menu features prime rib, so we assumed these slices came from the fresh roast. Instead we received flavorless brown shoe leather that had either been heated in the microwave or boiled in the au jus too long.
English sherry trifle ($6.50) ended our lunch on a sugar high note, with luscious layers of sherry-soaked sponge cake, creamy custard and raspberries. Tom and Dave’s, an award-winning coffee from San Rafael, was poured from elegant silver pots with lumps of raw sugar and cream alongside. Sitting back on the lovely patio sipping coffee and watching horses play at the stables across the way, I realized that the Pelican Inn is quite possibly the quaintest dining destination in the entire Bay Area.
Because we had so much fun, we decided to go back the next day. We parked under the same shady tree on a remarkably similar afternoon and headed back to our favorite table on the patio. This time we started with some of the most perfect shepherd’s pie ($11) I’ve ever had – freshly ground lamb and vegetables in hearty gravy topped with blessedly skin-free mashed potatoes and bubbling cheddar cheese. When ground beef is used, it’s called cottage pie, which is what you’ll find in most American pubs, but the lamb adds a gaminess and a richness that I prefer. While you might expect it to be heavy, the Pelican’s version is surprisingly not.
I’m not a big beer drinker (as in Bud), but the Pelican Inn begs for beer drinking, offering 7 on tap and over 30 by the bottle hailing from around the world. I loved the Morland “Hen’s Tooth” Bottle Conditioned English Ale ($7.50/550 ml) with its amber hue, frothy bitter head, and smooth, not-too-sweet finish. There’s also an international cellar list that highlights both New and Old World wines, with an emphasis on artisan producers utilizing organic or biodynamic production.
We decided to hike off the shepherd’s pie with another visit to Muir Beach and the surrounding trails. This time we brought a tennis ball, and another exhausted pit bull later, Steve and I returned to the Pelican Inn for dinner, this time in the cozy dining room.
Rustic wooden tables lit by taper candles in brass holders, walls lined with cushion-topped benches, a long farmer’s table on one side, and a blazing fireplace on the other add to the 16th-century charm. Busboys stoke the wood between picking up empty plates; seats tucked behind walls that drop down from either side of the huge mantle provide two private nooks for reading or cuddling (though with my Sicilian hot-bloodedness, close proximity to the flames was not appealing).
We started with the seasonal soup ($7), a straightforward button mushroom puree with butter and garlic topped with crunchy croutons. It was simple and satisfying, served with a basket of organic spelt flour rye bread from the neighboring Green Gulch Farm Zen Center and room temperature butter, which I always appreciate.
Breaded Dungeness crab and cod cakes ($15) have a fluffy filling that bursts with balanced notes of both crab and fish. The Pelican Inn kitchen has frying down pat (except for the chips). Tender greens from the Green Gulch Farm in a lemony herb dressing provide a nice contrast in texture and flavor.
Succulent mussels ($15) come in fresh on Thursday and are only available through Saturday, steamed with Pelican Ale (made by Lagunitas Brewing Company), kale, and herb butter, and topped with fries.
The only entrée that doesn’t contain meat, poultry or fish is the yellow vegetable curry ($15). It’s not a thoughtless throw-away like a lot of vegetarian options at meat-centric restaurants, but rather a tantalizing array of veggies with basmati rice, cucumber yogurt sauce, and an unexpectedly dramatic fried lentil wafer folded like a napkin and standing on end.
Steve’s plate-filling hunk of prime rib ($29) was pink and tender, served with a roasted medley of red potatoes, carrots, onions, and beets. A muffin-sized Yorkshire pudding was less successful – I make it at home often, and it should be airy with an almost egg custard filling. This version was far too dense and doughy.
Beef Wellington ($29) is worth the trip alone – seared filet mignon topped with finely chopped wild mushrooms and duck liver, wrapped in house-made puff pastry and baked. I cut into the flaky, steaming pastry to find medium-rare, juicy beef. Wellington, especially traditional Wellington, is nearly impossible to find at restaurants. Having made it at home, I know why: it’s a time-consuming task that requires skill and experience – once the meat is baking in the pastry, there’s no way to test doneness. This past New Year’s Eve, I overcooked mine (apologies to my dinner guests), which is easy to do.
I’m so tired of chocolate lava cake that you could chase me with it, but I must admit the Pelican Inn’s version ($6.50) – thin cocoa walls cracked open to release molten dark chocolate – was worth the 15-minute wait.
Unfortunately, the inn’s seven rooms don’t allow pets, so lingering for a nightcap beside the fireplace in the Tudor bar, filled with inn guests, locals and jolly laughter, was out of the question. Instead, Steve and I drove home to San Francisco; Jasmine Blue nestled all snug in her bed, while visions of tennis balls danced in her head.
Pelican Inn: 10 Pacific Way, Muir Beach (Marin County); daily lunch 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; dinner 5:30 to 9 p.m.; bar menu 11:30 a.m. to close (varies); 415-383-6000, www.pelicaninn.com
Special Nights: Pub Roast Carvery (with freshly carved meats) Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Buckshee Menu (starters and half-plates) Monday 4 to 9 p.m.; High Tea Menu (48 hours notice required).
Quite possibly the quaintest dining destination in the entire Bay Area – the charm of the English coastal countryside a stone’s throw from Muir Beach.
Peaceful on the patio by day; the same in the dining room by night (except for the occasional jolly laughter coming from the inn’s guests and locals in the pub).
Leave your Mini Maglite in the car for lunch on the patio, but you’ll need it for dinner – the typeface on the menu is pale, and the price for all that quaint charm is reading by candlelight.
NOT TO MISS DISHES
Beef Wellington, shepherd’s pie, fish and chips, English sherry trifle
WHAT THE DIAMONDS MEAN
Ratings range from zero to four diamonds and reflect food, atmosphere and service, taking price range and style of the restaurant into consideration.
OUR REVIEW POLICY
We conduct multiple visits anonymously and pay our own tab.