At a magical intersection of the Pacific and the piney hills and dells just south of Hearst Castle, deep in the timeless, rustic heart of Cambria, thrives one of the finest international restaurants on the coast.
At first glance, one might think Robin’s was a lovely, vine-laced old home in Cambria’s historic East Village, and it once was – and still is. Robin’s continues to radiate that warm feeling because it was a home a long time before it became a restaurant, and owner Shanny Covey has cultivated that ambiance while also offering airy, contemporary, heated indoor and outdoor patio and garden dining.
But what truly sets Robin’s apart is the inspiring menu graced with intricate dishes that bring the world to little hidden Cambia. To trace the global influences and diverse flavors that illuminate Robin’s menu, one has to first understand that Robin’s is the sparkling reflection of the sophistication of its longtime owner and co-founder.
Raised in Singapore, one of the great food hubs of the world, Shanny moved to the US when she was 17. While studying at LSU she took the Greyhound west to meet a friend who was living and working in Cambria for the summer. Captivated by the beach and beauty of the area, she moved out to Cambria in the mid ’70s and met her former husband, Robin.
“He’s the reason we started Robin’s. The restaurant was named after him,” Shanny says. “He loved to cook and he loved to cook international food. He would learn how to make curries and different things like that.”
That international sensibility permeates all their dishes in one way or another. Curries are still a vital part of the menu. In fact, Robin’s menu hasn’t changed much over the years because people return for their favorites, and the menu is basically a collection of favorites.
“There’s a few things on the menu that have been there from day one, like a couple of the curries, the lamb curry, the curried chicken, the chows, and at lunch time the Mexican chopped chicken tacos – they’ve been on there for a long, long time. They’re very popular.
“We always have to have some staples on there that people come back time and time again for, like our salmon bisque. And then we have room to be creative and change other things out also. So it’s a nice balance.”
That’s why specialties like the salmon bisque (8 oz. $5/16 oz. $8), Crispy Vietnamese Spring Rolls vegetarian-style with tofu, kim-chee salad, chili oil and sweet chili sauce ($8) and Singapore Chicken Sate with pickled cucumber salad and spicy peanut sauce ($10) are carved in stone on the menu. At the same time you can also find an outrageously flavorful 100% natural angus-beef burger with tomato, grilled sweet onion, white cheddar, house sweet pickles and aioli, served with herb garlic fries ($13).
The dinner menu dazzles with an Ahi Tuna Poke with pineapple, chiles, coconut, sesame seaweed and siracha ($13), an All Natural Flat Iron Steak with garlic smashed potatoes, organic asparagus, crispy onions, cabernet peppercorn butter ($26); Slipper-Tail Lobster Enchiladas with lime crèma, avocado, white cheddar, tomatillo salsa verde, cumin black beans and brown basmati rice and cilantro-mint chutney ($21), Tofu Pad Thai Noodles & Prawns with cabbage, bok choy, green onions, cilantro, egg, bean sprouts, crushed peanuts, spicy tamarind soy sauce ($20), and four different curries: Roghan Josh, Indian lamb curry ($21); Tempeh Korma, Indian coconut curry with vegetables ($18); Thai Green Chicken in mild coconut curry ($19); and Malaysian Chicken in spicy coconut curry ($19).
A quick survey of some of the wealth of robust ingredients that go into their designer dishes, side dishes, salads , sauces, dressings, preserves, chutneys, butters and aiolis – all made from scratch – hints at the excellence of Robin’s. For example: the piquillo almond tapenade (with the Meze Plate); kim-chee (with the Spring Rolls); sambal aioli (with the Crusted Calimari); louie sauce (with the Crispy Crab Cake); ricotta salata (with the Grilled Tuna Asparagus Salad); house sweet pickles (with the Angus Burger); mango salsa (with the Halibut Tacos); candied pecans (with the Bloomsdale Spinach Salad); citrus pepita basmati rice (with the Grilled Sea Bass); saffron & dried fruit couscous with the Morrocan Duck Breast); sweet corn polenta (with the All Natural Pork Chop); and lemon thyme jus (with the Roasted Chicken).
Once the depth and richness of all the tastes and flavors blended into their “homecrafted global cuisine” are absorbed, the brilliance of Robin’s really hits home.
Shanny has set a high standard in both substance and style that has been refined over time and invigorated under Chef Michael Wood. But even in the beginning, before opening Robin’s, Shanny and Robin had established the direction they were headed in food quality.
“Before we opened the restaurant we owned a health food store, so eating fresh, healthy foods was always a priority for my husband, and it continues to be a priority, not just for myself but also for my guests,” she says. “I want to feel good about what I’m serving my guests.”
The health food store was located on Main Street, where Indigo Moon is today.
“We had a little café. People could take food out in the garden or to go. Then at one point we held once-a-month sit-down dinners, community, family-style in one of the rooms there. That was probably the birth of the restaurant per se. We developed a following of people who would sign up ahead of time and come to dinner. It was a really great experience.”
When they first opened the restaurant in 1985 it was on Bridge Street. Then they moved to Burton Drive to an adobe home built in the ’30s by a former concrete construction foreman who worked for W. R. Hearst. The original living room, foyer and fireplace are still there.
So from health food store to café, from Bridge Street to Burton Drive, Robin’s has always been committed to home and healthy food, and now with “farm to table” more popular than ever, the restaurant is riding the new wave.
“It’s definitely become more and more popular over the last five to 10 years, and as far as we’re concerned at Robin’s, we’ve always been farm to table. We’ve always gone to market from the health-food-store days and from when we started the restaurant,” Shanny says.
Robin’s has always been ahead of its time, and now almost 30 years later the world is catching up with them. Now, more and more people want to eat as organic or natural and fresh as they can get.
“We’ve always tried to source local as much as possible, especially with our produce, going to the markets. And when we go to the markets we always search out unsprayed and organic first.”
Robin’s goal is to create an enjoyable living room/patio dining experience and service for their special guests that match the quality of the food.
“We’re very dedicated to providing hospitality to our guests from the heart. Our purpose is to deliver warm hospitality and delicious global cuisine,” Shanny says. “I get excited, my staff gets excited, when we can make people get excited and enthused about the things that they taste here, the international flavors, and we want to make them feel warm and welcome.”
Shanny and her staff have made the restaurant a home away from home. “The ambiance fits what we do here because we want people to feel at home, the home that they come to when they join us for a meal.”
And it will be a meal with global roots, made with a world of goodness in the ingredients, prepared with an elegance, flair and attention to detail found in the finest restaurants in America.
“I feel that’s what makes us unique,” Shanny says. “We’ve gone from our tag line of ‘home cooking from around the world’ to ‘international fare,’ ‘farmer’s market fresh’ – it’s all about providing an eclectic experience to our guests. We can have a group of four people come in and they can all have some different dish from around the world, and I’ll be excited about it.”
Every Sunday in the summer Robin’s presents live music as part of their “Summer Nights in the Garden” series. They prepare a tapas menu, feature a local winery, and alternately offer mellow vocals, jazz, violin, and the flamenco-style guitar of LA-based Robert Longley.
“They’re magical evenings in the beauty of the garden,” she says. The luxurious gardens have also attracted local artists, and now Robin’s hosts Wednesday morning art sessions for those with paint, brush, canvas and easel.
The drive is a big part of the fun, one of the most scenic in the country, and well worth it from any point in the county. And it’s fun when you get there. Evergreen Cambria is an important, star-crossed California coastal town because of its central location – halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco on spellbinding Highway 1 between Morro Rock in Morro Bay, miles of ocean and beaches, and Hearst Castle, just south of Big Sur. It’s also important because of its unique land and ocean resources. Moonstone Beach in Cambria is a great place to view migrating whales, sea otters, elephant seals, and glorious California sunsets.
Entering Cambria Village for the first time is like stumbling into a western town from a bygone era – it’s even got a Main Street, a general store, antique shopping and local shops, but there’s much more to it. Take a look around and you will discover that Cambria is a contemporary oasis for excellent, high-quality restaurants, paced by Robin’s, a rich California-Asian garden of fusion delights in full bloom where the wide ocean meets the tall pines.
Robin’s Restaurant, 4095 Burton Drive, Cambria, California 93428. Hours: Open daily. Lunch Monday-Saturday 11:00 a.m. – 3:50 p.m.; Early Dinner 4:00 p.m. – 4:50 p.m.; Dinner Nightly 5:00 p.m. – 9ish p.m.; Sunday Brunch 11:00 a.m . – 3:20 p.m. Telephone: (805) 927-5007. Web: http://www.robinsrestaurant.com, www.facebook.com/RobinsRestaurant, https://twitter.com/RobinsCambria