When in Salinas, Do as the Locals Do: Have Lunch at John Steinbeck’s House

John Steinbeck House shown in SalinasThe next time you’re in the Bay Area, be sure to visit John Steinbeck’s birthplace in his home town of Salinas. It’s only two hours south of San Francisco, a hour or less from Santa Cruz, and no more than 20 minutes from nearby Monterey. Unlike other literary shrines, it’s also a great restaurant, so come for lunch any Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, or Saturday. (Closed Sundays and Mondays to give the volunteers who staff it a well-earned rest.)

Located a stone’s throw from the National Steinbeck Center, the Steinbeck House is a living, breathing memorial, not a stone-dead monument. Steinbeck was born and raised there, almost died there from an adolescent infection, and wrote his earliest stories in an upstairs room. Other historic buildings line Central Avenue, including the homes of several childhood friends of the author, most dating from the Victorian period. If you’re into old houses, it’s fun to walk off your Steinbeck House lunch with a stroll down the street. (Desserts are to die for.)

The people who run the place—hardworking members of the Valley Guild, a nonprofit organization—gathered together to buy the property 40 years ago and accomplished everything they set out to do. They rescued the house from rack and ruin after decades of abuse and neglect. They retrieved furniture and fixtures from family members, primarily descendants of Steinbeck’s formidable sisters Esther and Elizabeth. They got expert advice from Steinbeck scholars, friends, and enthusiasts on how to make the Steinbeck home place an educational experience for visitors without boring them to death.

Most important to the bottom line, the Valley Guild volunteers who wait tables, lead tours, and serve guests Victorian high tea once a month made the restaurant that occupies the first floor a profit center to support maintenance and operation. If you’ve ever owned an 1897 mansion with three floors and more than a dozen rooms, you know what that means. (Remember the definition of a yacht? A hole in the water you throw money into.) Fortunately for the Steinbeck House, the corner location is spacious and conspicuous—a big plus for access and security—and the California weather is kind. Neither storm nor quake has laid a hand on this lovely Victorian lady!

Designated as a literary landmark by the National Register of Historical Places, the Steinbeck House opened for business as a restaurant on February 27, 1974, the author’s birthday. When we visited recently we got more than a warm welcome, tour, and lunch: a chance to hold examine rare items from the Steinbeck family’s personal book collection, including Steinbeck’s father’s autograph book—dating from his childhood in Massachusetts before his German dad and Yankee mom moved to California—along with the child-sized Episcopal prayer book and psaltery (inscribed “Esther Steinbeck”) belonging to John’s sister.

We arrived at the peak of a busy Friday lunch crowd that included a pack of happy tourists from China, Japan, and Germany—the kind of visitors any town likes, especially one like Salinas, where produce is king and nightlife is modest. Tucked in a sunny corner was a table of local residents. All of them were friendly, and we had time to talk. Why the Steinbeck House, we wondered? Surely Salinas has other places to eat lunch without the . . . um . . . happy tourists? “Why not?” they answered. “It’s the best food in town!”

Also priced right. Our lunch for four was less than $50.

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  1. Carol Robles says:


    Thanks, excellent article on our lovely Steinbeck House.
    Very well written.

    • Thank you, Carol. You, Toni, and other Valley Guild members have succeeded in building a model nonprofit cultural enterprise. Congratulations in advance on your upcoming 40th anniversary. We’ll follow your activities on this site.

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