The iconic ocean-view property just north of Cambria formerly known as Centrally Grown is about to undergo another transformation.
The main building is now essentially bare of furnishings, equipment, décor and most accessories. Georges and Daniel Daou of Daou Vineyards and Winery are the new owners, and they’re leading what portends to be an extremely ambitious makeover of the expansive restaurant and event complex.
The Daou brothers paid $4.3 million at a Dec. 18, 2018, bankruptcy auction to buy the large, two-story restaurant, other buildings and gardens on 3 acres on Exotic Gardens Drive, across Highway 1 off the northern end of Moonstone Beach Drive.
It has spectacular views in all directions.
Now, according to Georges Daou, their team is focused on bringing the dream and drama of the brothers’ winery and vineyard from the Daou mountaintop in Adelaida to what they’re calling Daou Ocean.
The Cambria location has been cherished for decades by locals and visitors alike — ever since The Hamlet restaurant relocated there in the 1980s — not only for the views and welcoming atmosphere but the food and a series of jazz concerts that began in the 1990s.
Daou hopes to have at least some areas open to the public by June, he said, depending on the licensing and permitting process and the constraints of what has to be done, such as making sure the facility’s self-contained sewage-treatment system is working.
The former Centrally Grown restaurant operation, most recently leased by Mauricio Lopez of Black Cat Bistro in Cambria, won’t be returning, according to Daou.
“I never knew I wanted to have a restaurant,” Daou said with a laugh. “But here I am, and I really do.”
San Luis Obispo County Supervisor Bruce Gibson was on site Friday chatting with Daou, winery executives and consultants inside the property’s vacant main building. Even relatively empty, the space evokes history that has played out through the decades: Weddings. Reunions. Parties. Proposals. Ladies’ lunches and business meetings. Sunday concerts.
The vision for the restaurant’s future is at an ephemeral stage now, but it’s beginning to gel. At the meeting, a first-draft set of floor plans was rolled out on a counter, still weeks away from being made final.
The enthusiastic Daou explained to Gibson why two 50-something expat brothers from Lebanon then France — who made a fortune in tech and then spent the last decade-plus developing a top-level winery — bought the property, what they hope to learn from their new community and what they expect to accomplish with the new venture.
Maeve Pesquera, Daou senior vice president, said it’s premature to give a lot of specifics this early in the process because there aren’t many yet.
“We want Daou Ocean to be a place where people have a sense of belonging, a passion for our story and the wines and a sense of peace, joy and appreciation for the beautiful Cambria coast,” Pesquera said.
Daou and Pesquera stressed that plans for their “hospitable sanctuary” in Cambria should encompass primarily what the community wants.
If the Daou crew can pull together a partial opening of the Cambria property by June, they want to host wine-and-cheese listening sessions in a smaller, separate building on the property, so management can sit with residents and learn more about what they hope to have at Daou Ocean.
Daou wants people’s comments, memories and suggestions, which can be emailed to email@example.com.
Many people from the North Coast often frequent Daou Vineyards and Winery, he said. It’s approximately 14 miles from Daou Ocean as the crow flies, but about an hour’s drive and 38 miles via a sometimes steep, twisting route along Hidden Mountain and Adelaida roads.
Daou believes those customers want the same quality experience in their own area.
He said the Daou brothers and staff are confident that “the majority of our traffic will be local people who like our wine and who want to experience it in their own area and in the same kind of dramatic setting we have at Daou Mountain … It’s all about how we embrace people and make them feel welcome and cared for.”
He acknowledged that, “The needs and wants of locals and our wine- club members are different from what tourists are looking for.”
While his vision includes providing great food, wine and special memories for all three sets of customers, he said locals and members likely will have a much stronger influence on what Daou Ocean ultimately becomes.
If that means burgers and pizza in the restaurant’s lower level, exceptional food and wine upstairs and the sort of experience current Daou patrons expect, then that’s what the ocean site will offer, he said.
But first, “we need to learn, get an education.”
The decor and history
Daou acknowledges that realizing his vision for the property means replacing some of what’s already there.
The team has collected some things that won’t fit into the new décor and design. Many of them were from the tenure of now-bankrupt Centrally Grown Off the Grid owner Dave Robertson, who reportedly had put $12 million into his project.
Daou said they want to always respect the work of the artisans and craftspeople who made those items, as well as honoring the history behind the creations.
So Daou will be donating those things — from chairs and tables to décor items — in a variety of ways, whether as a direct gift to someone with fond memories of an item, or to a person who would simply enjoy having it, or by donating it to a nonprofit that could sell the item to raise funds.
The Daou plan seems to reflect a deep respect for the continuing influence of the restaurant’s founders and former longtime owners Maggie and Norm Hamlet and Roy Ford.
The Hamlets launched their eponymous restaurant in Harmony in 1975. Three years later, they relocated to San Simeon. In 1981, they began converting the property on Exotic Gardens Drive into a restaurant oasis overlooking Highway 1 and the ocean.
They moved the restaurant to the new locale in 1982. They added the jazz concerts more than a quarter century ago. The eatery soon gained a reputation for its gorgeous view, stunning backyard gardens and good food.
Maggie Hamlet died in 1997 and Norman Hamlet in 2007. The restaurant went to Ford. After his death in 2009, Ford’s three daughters kept the operation going for a while, with the help of loyal employees. They sold it to Robertson for $2.475 million, almost exactly seven years ago on Jan. 25, 2012.