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WEEKEND ESCAPE : Camping Out in Cambria Meant Eating Out, Too : Sampling an array of good local restaurants was a fine complement to living in a tent.

June 28, 1992|DON SHIRLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Shirl e y covers theater for The Times' Calendar section

CAMBRIA, Calif. — We wanted to watch the Fourth of July fireworks in Small Town, USA. But not just any small town. We wanted to camp. And we wanted a small town where the scenery--and the eating--were more spectacular than the fireworks.

Cambria, of course. At the southern end of the fabled Big Sur seaside drive, halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, this picturesque town has a sophisticated sheen that promised a wider selection of good eats than you might find in most small towns. A quick call to the Cambria Chamber of Commerce confirmed our hunch that there would be a fireworks show on the town beach.

Furthermore, there's a campground at San Simeon State Beach, just about a mile north of town. The campsites look out on pond and field, not the ocean, we were told by the state parks reservation clerk. But you can get from your tent to the beach by strolling under the highway bridge that crosses San Simeon Creek, just before it empties into the sea.

Leaving Los Angeles on the morning of the 4th, we reached the campground in midafternoon. While we battled a strong sea breeze in order to put up our tent, our young daughter, Veronica, noticed a table occupying a prominent place in our campsite.

"What's that?" she asked.

"It's our picnic table," I replied.

"What's it for?"

"Some people use picnic tables when they eat," I explained.

This was an alien concept to Veronica. When we camp, we eat out--which doesn't usually mean outdoors. The way we figure it, we save enough money by staying in a tent instead of a motel or even an RV. Then we save time and mental health by stopping at local cafes on our way to or from the attractions, perhaps even meeting a few local folks, instead of lugging canned beans and portable stove to our picnic table, fouling the environment with disposable trash, meeting only other campers.

So, after a brisk, appetite-stoking walk through the wind, down the creek to the beach and back, we ventured out in search of our first meal. The state park ranger suggested the Main Street Grill, near beachside Shamel Park where the fireworks show was to take place.

The ranger was right. Although the Grill is owned by the same people who run Ian's, one of Cambria's fanciest restaurants, the Grill dress code is genuinely come-as-you-are, which is good news for campers. There are no indoor tables. You order at a counter, walk over to the outdoor oak barbecue pit to pick up your ribs or chicken, then sit on a patio. The ribs tasted great (better than the chicken). And we weren't far from a good view of the fireworks. After supper, we walked to a slightly better vantage point, and commenced with oohing and aahing the colorful display. Fifteen minutes after the show was done, we were tucked into our sleeping bags.

The next morning, while our neighbors were struggling with their camp stoves, we drove into Cambria and relaxed on the homey porch in front of a little cafe called Barbara's (new owners have renamed it Redwood Cafe since our visit). The filtered sunshine and fresh flowers created a nice glow, even before we dug into "breakfast burritos" (eggs, chorizo, guacamole, sour cream) and blueberry pancakes. We noticed another appealing breakfast place in the same little shopping center, and made plans to return.

That day, we did the same things that most camping families might do: feed the seals at the Morro Bay Aquarium, 20 miles down the coast, and play in the sand on the beach. We decided to forgo Hearst Castle, just up the highway. The grown-ups had already seen it, and we thought our child might appreciate it more in a few years. So we had a lot of time to contemplate where our next meal would be.

One much-touted restaurant, the Hamlet at Moonstone Gardens, is just about half a mile south of the campground, within easy walking distance. It's known for its three-acre cactus garden in the rear. People visit just to look at the plants. Should we go there for lunch, when prices might be lower, or for dinner, when the light of sunset might make the garden look especially exotic?

Decisions, decisions.

After showers and a nap back at the campsite, we decided to save the Hamlet for sunset and to get a light midafternoon snack somewhere else. Smack in the middle of Cambria's Old Town, we found Linn's Main Bin--a bright, high-ceilinged cafe that serves as the in-town branch of a famous roadside fruit stand. As soon as we got a gander at some of the desserts being brought to the other tables, our determination to eat sparingly vanished.

The final morning, after a hike and sand play on the beach, we stopped at the sunny patio of the Creekside Gardens Cafe, the Cambria breakfast place we had spotted the day before. Despite the name of the place, there was no creek view. But there was plenty of French toast, oatmeal with lots of brown sugar and good coffee.

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