How a Hollywood retreat became Big Sur’s most famous restaurant

Henry Miller lived here. Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth owned it. Today, Nepenthe restaurant in Big Sur is one of the most beautiful places in America to enjoy a burger with a view. By default or design, the 73-year-old restaurant stands as a symbol of renewal and a place that is both “ever-changing but always the same in its consistency,” according to Kirk Gafill, its third-generation owner.The property, just off Highway 1 on Big Sur’s South Coast, has a storied history. Nepenthe started as a rambling cliffside retreat, a three-story log cabin, teetering on the precipice of the continent. It was built by the Trail Club of Jolon in 1925. After the Trail Club stopped using the cabin, the organization rented it out to a local writer, Lynda Sargent, who took pity on another penniless scribe, Henry Miller, when he moved to the area. Sargent let Miller stay at the cabin, and Miller would later become a regular at Nepenthe after the restaurant was built. The next owners were Hollywood actors Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth, who bought it on a whim in 1944 to use as a private getaway. A 1981 Associated Press story about Nepenthe reported that Hayworth — who loved the area but hated the isolation — would often join her husband at the cabin, reading with him or listening to music on the porch, while taking in the panoramic Pacific sunset. As soon as the curtain fell on that show, she’d retreat to an undisclosed location nearby to enjoy amenities like consistent hot running water and power that didn’t threaten to go out every time a coastal breeze picked up.The type of isolation Hayworth was trying so hard to avoid is exactly what Bill and Lolly Fassett, then both 36, were looking for when they purchased the property in 1947.Nepenthe family legacy dates back to the founding of CarmelThe couple were no strangers to the area. Lolly’s grandfather was Frank Powers, a financier who supplied the money to start the Carmel Development Company with partner James Frank Devendorf in 1902. Selling oceanfront lots, so coveted today, was a little harder at the turn of the 20th century, when Carmel had plenty of creative luminaries — but not so much in the way of everyday amenities. Its early inhabitants included author Robert Louis Stevenson, whose 1883 classic “Treasure Island” was inspired by his walks along Point Lobos. Those early days also saw writers Jack London and George Sterling, along with poet Robinson Jeffers, who lived there in tents and built fires to stay warm or cook their food. Others would soon discover the area. In the wake of the 1906 earthquake, a wave of San Francisco artists, leaving the city during the fallout from the disaster, headed south to the white-sand beaches and the temperate climate. They created a robust downtown enclave that still ripples through Carmel’s fabric today. Thanks to Powers’ efforts, the town was eventually incorporated in 1916. Lolly, born in 1911 to a San Francisco family that made its money during the Gold Rush, was sent to live with her grandmother Jane Gallatin Powers in Europe during the Depression. She returned to San Francisco, and in 1935, she met and married Bill Fassett. The pair moved around the area a bit, trying to find the right place to raise their fast-growing brood, Gafill explained. They started in San Francisco, then to Sausalito and then down around the Monterey Peninsula. By the time their children were old enough to begin to explore a little, they settled on Big Sur for a break from the norm. The Welles cabin was the “something a little different” they were looking for, Gafill told SFGATE, “They bought it out of the divorce settlement from Hayworth. It was going to be a home.”But Bill Fassett, an entrepreneurial type who went to Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration, decided that the property would become a place for the public to enjoy. “It kind of evolved at that point,” Gafill says. “Initially, they were going to build a very simple sort of hamburger stand at the highway. But the Monterey County planner looked at the place and said, ‘Why would you spoil that coast and the view? Put it up on the hill, where nobody can see it.’”Burger stand becomes architectural iconAnd so the Fassetts hiked up to the cliff’s edge where Nepenthe stands today. They decided that something tucked away from the street, rewarding those who make the extra effort to find them, with arguably one of the best vistas on the planet, could be the thing. That dramatic vista of Big Sur’s rugged coastline has made Nepenthe a regular inclusion on travel bloggers’ “most-Instagrammable” lists. Patrons often use their phones to make it look like they’ve climbed some giant peak as they gesture out over the Pacific. That stunning view has never gone unshared — even decades before smartphones and social media. “It’s too good not to share with everyone,” Lolly was known for saying. “We don’t own the view.”In 1948, the couple hired Rowan Maiden. Raised in Piedmont, he had attended the UC Berkeley department of architecture in the mid-1930s, and became a student of Frank Lloyd Wright in 1939, joining the famed architect’s Taliesin Fellowship in Arizona, where he studied for three years. Nepenthe stands today as a singular work from a designer who died at age 44, only a decade after designing the restaurant. “Maiden’s promise was never fully realized,” Alan Hess wrote in his book “Forgotten Modern: California Houses 1940-1970,” “yet the quality of this Taliesin-trained architect’s designs show both what could have been and the fertility of the Organic tradition.” The promise of a mid-century modern notable and the flourishes of the Fassetts’ ethos and sensibility are seen throughout the structure, which still stands today, looking as it did when it opened on April 24, 1949. The materials used to create its rock-studded exterior and redwood-lined vaulted ceilings were locally sourced, with the adobe bricks handmade by Lolly herself. She and her children — including Holly, Gafill’s mother — laid the bricks for the restaurant. Holly has now been at the helm of the restaurant since the 1970s, and these days, she still splits some duties with son Gafill. “ left to my mother and me, and it’s all I’ve ever done,” she told the Associated Press in 1981. Gafill agrees that Nepenthe is a family affair and a lifelong endeavor. “Everything, the name of the restaurant, the look of the building: the interior as exterior, the feel and image of the building — it has always been a collective effort.” Nepenthe’s fortunes turn with Hearst Castle openingNepenthe was far from an overnight success. Freeway culture, which would define how travelers moved up and down the state and divide communities, was still a decade away. In the wake of the Great Depression and World War II, the very notion of a tourism-based economy for a remote place like Big Sur seemed far-fetched. “The highway had only been open since ’37,” Gafill says. “It just wasn’t a place a lot of people came to or knew about.” But that would soon change. On May 17, 1958, Hearst Castle opened to the public. Suddenly, Nepenthe went from a little-known stopover — where you could sample a small menu from April 1 through Halloween — to a year-round destination. “It was really the moment that they started to see big uptick and sustained travel,” Gafill says. “Nepenthe was a real iconic and amazing destination between LA and SF.“At that point, we became an overnight success in the sense of notoriety and awareness. Suddenly people were here. Actors, writers, musicians, cultural icons.”Word especially got around Hollywood fast. The former stomping grounds of Hayworth and Welles became a playground for a new generation of Hollywood’s elite, including Kim Novak, Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood and Salvador Dali. Film scouts even began to take notice, and in 1963, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton shot “The Sandpiper” in Big Sur. The film included a dance sequence in Nepenthe, choreographed by Kaffe Fassett, Bill and Lolly’s son. “Nepenthe was at the center of Big Sur — if not was Big Sur to many people,” Romney “Nani” Steel, granddaughter of Bill and Lolly Fassett and author of 2009’s “My Nepenthe: Bohemian Tales of Food, Family, and Big Sur” told the San Francisco Chronicle (SFGATE and the San Francisco Chronicle are both owned by Hearst but operate independently of one another). “Nepenthe acted as a stage bringing writers, poets and musicians to speak and perform. Growing up there, the world came to us.”Nepenthe rises again (and again)While Nepenthe has had its share of sparkling moments, Gafill is quick to point out that the current climate in the world at large, and in Big Sur, presents a challenge to keep the business going. From the constant threat of fire danger, evacuations during wildfires and storm-related Highway 1 closures, to COVID-19, the cost of doing business and accessibility issues, there is no shortage of challenges in the day-to-day, he says. “Almost all employers here are really struggling,” he says. “There are things we try to do all the time — from providing housing to trying to pay a wage that’s fair to allow people to work in our industry, but that creates an enormous increase in just flat-out cost. All the inflationary pressures that we see in the supply chain, all the environmental concerns around us — every day we’re moving this Rubik’s Cube and how to get from point A to B. It’s about how to keep adapting and responding to structural challenges that have existed and trying to see the new ones as they come up.”That’s why the restaurant’s famed phoenix statue — designed and built by Big Sur-based sculptor Edmund Kara after an oak tree that stood watch over the restaurant’s ample front porch came down in 1975 — continues to be a redwood and brass reminder that there are always challenges to be met, even in paradise.As revelers sit on colorful oversized cushions that adorn the giant concrete stairs out in front or find a quiet corner inside to sip coffee or split the restaurant’s signature Ambrosiaburger, a ground steak sandwich served on a French roll that Lolly herself perfected, the ever-present challenges of the day-to-day still seem to fade as long as Nepenthe exists.Lolly Fassett loved Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven,” especially the line: “Quaff, oh quaff this kind Nepenthe, and forget the lost Lenore!” That notion — that all troubles and feelings of woe and loss could fade, even for a moment, with the right elixir — was applied to the restaurant. Being there, in the spirit of renewal, is the family’s long-standing business plan, Gafill concludes.“The overarching goal of guest experience is striving for respite and equality,” he says. “My grandparents decided early on that the property was too beautiful to keep to themselves. They articulated and believed that anyone from the most famous to the most humble could stop and get a cup of coffee and forget your worldly cares.“People were living this hectic kind of life, often in cities. This is a place to get away from it all, re-explore nature and leave it behind. It’s my job to continue the legacy of sharing it all. Nepenthe is not just for limited clientele, it’s for everyone — by design.”

Henry Miller lived here. Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth owned it. Today, Nepenthe restaurant in Big Sur is one of the most beautiful places in America to enjoy a burger with a view.

By default or design, the 73-year-old restaurant stands as a symbol of renewal and a place that is both “ever-changing but always the same in its consistency,” according to Kirk Gafill, its third-generation owner.

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The property, just off Highway 1 on Big Sur’s South Coast, has a storied history. Nepenthe started as a rambling cliffside retreat, a three-story log cabin, teetering on the precipice of the continent. It was built by the Trail Club of Jolon in 1925. After the Trail Club stopped using the cabin, the organization rented it out to a local writer, Lynda Sargent, who took pity on another penniless scribe, Henry Miller, when he moved to the area. Sargent let Miller stay at the cabin, and Miller would later become a regular at Nepenthe after the restaurant was built.

The next owners were Hollywood actors Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth, who bought it on a whim in 1944 to use as a private getaway. A 1981 Associated Press story about Nepenthe reported that Hayworth — who loved the area but hated the isolation — would often join her husband at the cabin, reading with him or listening to music on the porch, while taking in the panoramic Pacific sunset. As soon as the curtain fell on that show, she’d retreat to an undisclosed location nearby to enjoy amenities like consistent hot running water and power that didn’t threaten to go out every time a coastal breeze picked up.

The type of isolation Hayworth was trying so hard to avoid is exactly what Bill and Lolly Fassett, then both 36, were looking for when they purchased the property in 1947.

Nepenthe family legacy dates back to the founding of Carmel

The couple were no strangers to the area. Lolly’s grandfather was Frank Powers, a financier who supplied the money to start the Carmel Development Company with partner James Frank Devendorf in 1902.

Selling oceanfront lots, so coveted today, was a little harder at the turn of the 20th century, when Carmel had plenty of creative luminaries — but not so much in the way of everyday amenities. Its early inhabitants included author Robert Louis Stevenson, whose 1883 classic “Treasure Island” was inspired by his walks along Point Lobos. Those early days also saw writers Jack London and George Sterling, along with poet Robinson Jeffers, who lived there in tents and built fires to stay warm or cook their food.

Others would soon discover the area. In the wake of the 1906 earthquake, a wave of San Francisco artists, leaving the city during the fallout from the disaster, headed south to the white-sand beaches and the temperate climate. They created a robust downtown enclave that still ripples through Carmel’s fabric today. Thanks to Powers’ efforts, the town was eventually incorporated in 1916.

Lolly, born in 1911 to a San Francisco family that made its money during the Gold Rush, was sent to live with her grandmother Jane Gallatin Powers in Europe during the Depression. She returned to San Francisco, and in 1935, she met and married Bill Fassett.

The pair moved around the area a bit, trying to find the right place to raise their fast-growing brood, Gafill explained. They started in San Francisco, then to Sausalito and then down around the Monterey Peninsula. By the time their children were old enough to begin to explore a little, they settled on Big Sur for a break from the norm.

The Welles cabin was the “something a little different” they were looking for, Gafill told SFGATE, “They bought it out of the divorce settlement from Hayworth. It was going to be a home.”

But Bill Fassett, an entrepreneurial type who went to Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration, decided that the property would become a place for the public to enjoy. “It kind of evolved at that point,” Gafill says. “Initially, they were going to build a very simple sort of hamburger stand at the highway. But the Monterey County planner looked at the place and said, ‘Why would you spoil that coast and the view? Put it up on the hill, where nobody can see it.’”

Burger stand becomes architectural icon

And so the Fassetts hiked up to the cliff’s edge where Nepenthe stands today. They decided that something tucked away from the street, rewarding those who make the extra effort to find them, with arguably one of the best vistas on the planet, could be the thing.

That dramatic vista of Big Sur’s rugged coastline has made Nepenthe a regular inclusion on travel bloggers’ “most-Instagrammable” lists. Patrons often use their phones to make it look like they’ve climbed some giant peak as they gesture out over the Pacific.

That stunning view has never gone unshared — even decades before smartphones and social media. “It’s too good not to share with everyone,” Lolly was known for saying. “We don’t own the view.”

In 1948, the couple hired Rowan Maiden. Raised in Piedmont, he had attended the UC Berkeley department of architecture in the mid-1930s, and became a student of Frank Lloyd Wright in 1939, joining the famed architect’s Taliesin Fellowship in Arizona, where he studied for three years.

Nepenthe stands today as a singular work from a designer who died at age 44, only a decade after designing the restaurant. “Maiden’s promise was never fully realized,” Alan Hess wrote in his book “Forgotten Modern: California Houses 1940-1970,” “yet the quality of this Taliesin-trained architect’s designs show both what could have been and the fertility of the Organic tradition.”

The promise of a mid-century modern notable and the flourishes of the Fassetts’ ethos and sensibility are seen throughout the structure, which still stands today, looking as it did when it opened on April 24, 1949.

The materials used to create its rock-studded exterior and redwood-lined vaulted ceilings were locally sourced, with the adobe bricks handmade by Lolly herself. She and her children — including Holly, Gafill’s mother — laid the bricks for the restaurant.

Holly has now been at the helm of the restaurant since the 1970s, and these days, she still splits some duties with son Gafill. “[My father] left [the running of it] to my mother and me, and it’s all I’ve ever done,” she told the Associated Press in 1981.

Gafill agrees that Nepenthe is a family affair and a lifelong endeavor. “Everything, the name of the restaurant, the look of the building: the interior as exterior, the feel and image of the building — it has always been a collective effort.”

Nepenthe’s fortunes turn with Hearst Castle opening

Nepenthe was far from an overnight success. Freeway culture, which would define how travelers moved up and down the state and divide communities, was still a decade away. In the wake of the Great Depression and World War II, the very notion of a tourism-based economy for a remote place like Big Sur seemed far-fetched.

“The highway had only been open since ’37,” Gafill says. “It just wasn’t a place a lot of people came to or knew about.”

But that would soon change.

On May 17, 1958, Hearst Castle opened to the public. Suddenly, Nepenthe went from a little-known stopover — where you could sample a small menu from April 1 through Halloween — to a year-round destination. “It was really the moment that they started to see big uptick and sustained travel,” Gafill says. “Nepenthe was a real iconic and amazing destination between LA and SF.

“At that point, we became an overnight success in the sense of notoriety and awareness. Suddenly people were here. Actors, writers, musicians, cultural icons.”

Word especially got around Hollywood fast. The former stomping grounds of Hayworth and Welles became a playground for a new generation of Hollywood’s elite, including Kim Novak, Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood and Salvador Dali.

Film scouts even began to take notice, and in 1963, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton shot “The Sandpiper” in Big Sur. The film included a dance sequence in Nepenthe, choreographed by Kaffe Fassett, Bill and Lolly’s son.

“Nepenthe was at the center of Big Sur — if not was Big Sur to many people,” Romney “Nani” Steel, granddaughter of Bill and Lolly Fassett and author of 2009’s “My Nepenthe: Bohemian Tales of Food, Family, and Big Sur” told the San Francisco Chronicle (SFGATE and the San Francisco Chronicle are both owned by Hearst but operate independently of one another). “Nepenthe acted as a stage bringing writers, poets and musicians to speak and perform. Growing up there, the world came to us.”

Nepenthe rises again (and again)

While Nepenthe has had its share of sparkling moments, Gafill is quick to point out that the current climate in the world at large, and in Big Sur, presents a challenge to keep the business going.

From the constant threat of fire danger, evacuations during wildfires and storm-related Highway 1 closures, to COVID-19, the cost of doing business and accessibility issues, there is no shortage of challenges in the day-to-day, he says.

“Almost all employers here are really struggling,” he says. “There are things we try to do all the time — from providing housing to trying to pay a wage that’s fair to allow people to work in our industry, but that creates an enormous increase in just flat-out cost. All the inflationary pressures that we see in the supply chain, all the environmental concerns around us — every day we’re moving this Rubik’s Cube and how to get from point A to B. It’s about how to keep adapting and responding to structural challenges that have existed and trying to see the new ones as they come up.”

That’s why the restaurant’s famed phoenix statue — designed and built by Big Sur-based sculptor Edmund Kara after an oak tree that stood watch over the restaurant’s ample front porch came down in 1975 — continues to be a redwood and brass reminder that there are always challenges to be met, even in paradise.

As revelers sit on colorful oversized cushions that adorn the giant concrete stairs out in front or find a quiet corner inside to sip coffee or split the restaurant’s signature Ambrosiaburger, a ground steak sandwich served on a French roll that Lolly herself perfected, the ever-present challenges of the day-to-day still seem to fade as long as Nepenthe exists.

Lolly Fassett loved Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven,” especially the line: “Quaff, oh quaff this kind Nepenthe, and forget the lost Lenore!” That notion — that all troubles and feelings of woe and loss could fade, even for a moment, with the right elixir — was applied to the restaurant.

Being there, in the spirit of renewal, is the family’s long-standing business plan, Gafill concludes.

“The overarching goal of guest experience is striving for respite and equality,” he says. “My grandparents decided early on that the property was too beautiful to keep to themselves. They articulated and believed that anyone from the most famous to the most humble could stop and get a cup of coffee and forget your worldly cares.

“People were living this hectic kind of life, often in cities. This is a place to get away from it all, re-explore nature and leave it behind. It’s my job to continue the legacy of sharing it all. Nepenthe is not just for limited clientele, it’s for everyone — by design.”

Contributed by local news sources

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