Brand-new Bar Sebastian in Monterey reveals a stylish spot that takes advantage of historic riches.

By John Sammon | Photos by Manny Espinoza

Early explorer Sebastian Vizcaino sailed into the Monterey Bay on Dec. 13, 1602, and gave the city — and its adjacent blue waters — their present-day name.

So there’s some poetic symmetry that the brand new bar/tapas spot at the freshly reinvented Tides Hotel, Bar Sebastian, takes on his name and benefits so mightily from the bay view.

The 400-year gap in name-changing harmonizes with the timelessness of the look out over the water.

A broad and seemingly endless beach extends in both directions, looking north toward Moss Landing, and to the south a stunning view of Monterey’s waterfront and sunset over Point Pinos. Whitecaps whip in the wind and waves pound the shore, as they have for eons. At a recent sunset, pelicans glided by just inches over the waves, followed by dolphins undulating in pods doing the same search for dinner.

Because of its rare location — there’s no other hotel on the sand in the county, which enjoys more coastline than any in California — there’s no better spot on the bay for more direct enjoyment of the sea’s sweeping majesty.

But Tides often goes overlooked in favor of far more famous, and more swanky, Cannery Row venues. Given its history as funky/ghetto-fabulous Best Western, it is understandable.

But that, therefore, makes it quite a discovery itself.

Located in the lobby of the Monterey Tides Hotel at 2600 Sand Dunes Drive in Monterey, Bar Sebastian has been reinterpreted by Joie d’ Vive, a boutique hotel, spa and restaurant company based in San Francisco. Now that the company — the same luxury house behind more than two dozen destinations like Ventana Inn and Spa in Big Sur, The Phoenix in San Francisco and 50 Bowery in New York City — has taken the reins, it’s no longer rough-around-the-edges, suddenly transformed into a destination for all the area events, including weddings on the remade patios or the wide beach itself.

So don’t expect it to be an undercover gem for long.

Vizcaino also gave California its first taste of tapas. Translated in Spanish meaning “to cover,” tapas served hot or cold were intended to provide cover the table with culinary samplings and generate fellowship and conversation as guests were not so focused on consuming a single item, but on a combination of tastes that could equal a full meal.

As diners grow more sophisticated and adventurous, eager to try more dishes in smaller portions, tapas have grown into a hot modern trend with old-school, circa-1300s roots.

Long communal tables with high-backed chairs help encourage convivial shared dining, as do easy chairs and sofas with low tables for those who wish a more deep-seated, softer space. The large picture windows extend along the entire length of the space, floor to ceiling, maximizing the magnetism of the Pacific. A fireplace occupies one end of the room and a bar with eight stools anchors the other.

While tapas have been around for a long time, new Executive Chef Jose Velasquez gives them a fresh perspective with pop on the palate to match.

Originally from a village in Jalisco, Mexico, Velasquez taps into atypical nuances that honor the creativity of the tapas tradition while channeling recipes he inherited from his family.
“I learned to make mole [sauces] from my grandmother,” he says. “We would butcher our own pigs and chickens and…just the aroma of the food cooking — I miss it all.”

Standout dishes include the Spanish-style seared scallops, beer-battered tempura-style broccoli on a crispy slice of jicama that works as a taco shell and the 12-hour-braised pork belly. Other highlights: the rustic guacamole, papas bravas and the mole chicken wings.

Diners can also assemble their own tacos using a variety of fillings on a stylish tabletop rack of ingredients, including carne asada, chicken, pork carnitas (crispy on the edges, moist and tender in the middle), shrimp, chorizo and more.

Other servings at Bar Sebastian are authentic recreations of ancient Aztec and Mayan recipes Velasquez learned by studying museum archives before updating them with his own intuitive twists. Locally sourced farmers market fare and relationships with area farmers help noticeably.

“We put our heart and soul into every dish we serve,” he says.

Smart mixed cocktails and an ever-changing sangria list (starring the tinta, with sparkling red wine, apples and orange slices) add intrigue; the drinks include the rum-running strawberry basil smash and gin-driven Barcelona Night. Live music happens Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights.

The elements all contribute to a buzz that defies the fact Bar Sebastian has only been open two months, as locals and tourists alike discover it with the same wonder with which Vizcaino did Monterey Bay. >

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