Perched high atop a peak in the Santa Lucia Mountains, just off the winding route of California’s coast-hugging Cabrillo Highway, you’ll find a restaurant that provides visitors with a stunning panorama of rocky beaches and rugged oceanside landscape. Nepenthe is far more than a scenic overlook, though, with a history stretching back over half a century and involving the likes of Orson Welles, Elizabeth Taylor, and Henry Miller.
Nepenthe was started in 1949 by Bill and Lolly Fassett, who purchased the land from Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth whose intentions to use the property as a vacation home had ultimately come to naught. The restaurant was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright protégé Rowan Maiden and was intended to become a seamless component of not only the physical landscape, but also the creative cultural landscape that was integral to life in Big Sur.
As artists, writers, musicians, vagabonds, and new age monks moved into the area — attracted by the quietude, physical beauty, and presence of like-minded individuals — Nepenthe became central to this community, providing good food and drink, dancing and revelry. There was even a place to sleep or the possibility of trading work for food, should a person be in need. The restaurant’s name is a reference to Homer’s Odyssey, which described a drug of the same name that banished grief or trouble from a person’s mind. In the context of the restaurant, the name is often translated as “The House of No Sorrow.”
Guests of Nepenthe from this era include actress Kim Novak and singer Joan Baez. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton frequented the restaurant while shooting their 1965 film The Sandpiper in Big Sur; the film includes a folk dancing scene that was shot on a sound stage replica of Nepenthe. Henry Miller was a Nepenthe regular from its opening till he moved from Big Sur in 1962 and reportedly played ping pong with Bill Hassett. The restaurant was mentioned in Miller’s 1957 memoir Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch.
Nepenthe treats visitors to outdoor rail seating that overlooks Graves Canyon and a fifty-mile stretch of the Pacific coastline. Well-timed arrivals can enjoy a remarkable sunset view while they dine or drink. The redwoods and oaks making up the surrounding forest host a variety of bird species, who carry on playfully throughout the day and have been known to steal crackers and fries from the plates of surprised patrons.
Know Before You Go
Arrive just before sunset for spectacular views