If you've never been to Big Sur, California, pause for a quick Google Image search, if you will. There, now you understand its allure. Visitors travel to the craggy northern coast for spectacular views and outdoor adventure. After they've worked up an appetite, those in the know head to the much-loved Big Sur Bakery for a meal.
How do tiny, off-the-beaten-path gems like Big Sur Bakery develop cult followings? Here, Michelle Rizzolo recently shares what compelled her to uproot her life in L.A. for a town with a population of only 715.
"I really liked my life in L.A. I was at the top of my career at La Brea [Bakery], and I was working with incredible women," Rizzolo says. When a friend, Mike Gilson, convinced Rizzolo and her then-boyfriend, Phil Wojtowicz, to visit a mysterious space where he'd signed a lease, they had nothing to lose.
The drive up was quiet ("There was no one on the highway but us"), but they were smitten. "The space Mike found [an old ranch house] had a wood-burning oven, which no one had in those days." A few months later they were sleeping on the floor of the empty house, spending their days teaching themselves how to use the oven, testing recipes and cementing the foundation for their business.
"We weren't influenced by anything at the time," Rizzolo explains. "We were just in the woods, and we worked with what we had. We took this attitude of, 'If we fail, who's going to know?'"
Spoiler: They didn't fail. Today, the bakery serves hundreds of people per day, and sells out daily. What was once the restaurant behind the gas station (Rizzolo's words)—a discovery that held few expectations—is now the stuff of legends. People drive hours just to have a meal.
"We're so much busier than this place is meant to be," Rizzolo explains. "For every two steps you should take, we have to take about 25." But despite the growing pains, Big Sur has Rizzolo's heart: "It's such a different scene, but we're still that tiny house. I love this place. It grounds me." Her role is much larger these days, but she still bakes there three nights a week, because she can't imagine not. It's that dedication and love that infuses Big Sur Bakery with the irresistible energy that makes it what it is.
And then there's the food. The bakery serves three meals a day (the grab-and-go counter is always open), but the weekends-only sit-down brunch is a true spectacle. The menu has shifted throughout the years, with two exceptions: nine-grain pancakes and breakfast pizzas. "I wanted a pancake that looked like an actual cake: made in cast iron, an inch thick, super grainy, but with no sugar. It's actually similar to our nine-grain bread, but in pancake form. The pizza came about from an egg dish that we used to make for ourselves in the kitchen: bacon, three cracked eggs, cheese and scallions. No sauce. Fifteen years in, those two dishes have never changed."
Next time you find yourself in northern California, head up Highway 1. Follow the stream of people (or the scent of huckleberry scones), and you'll find Big Sur Bakery. There are few meals that are truly worth a long drive, but this is one of them.
Please check your inbox to verify your email address.