By Meredith May, SFGATE
Lovers Point in Pacific Grove is indeed a romantic spot for paramours, but the outcropping that juts into the Monterey Bay was originally named for a different kind of attraction – Lovers of Jesus Point.
Devout Chautauqua Methodists escaped the Central Valley heat for ocean fog in the late 1880s, where they built simple A-frame canvas tents on 25-foot lots and turned Pacific Grove into their annual summer retreat.
God was the main draw, but a close second was the beach, where they built a simple changing room called “the bathhouse.”
Lovers Point has been a happening spot ever since, but especially now with the June 2013 opening of the Beach House restaurant – a remodel of the iconic Bath House restaurant that occupied the same spot for three decades until 2005. Just a few days before the Beach House opened, so did the long-shuttered public pool next door, along with a new sand volleyball court.
There’s even talk of bringing back the Victorian-era glass-bottomed boats carved in the shape of swans that offered beachgoers a view of bay kelp and sea creatures until the mid-1970s.
“I’m a Pacific Grove High grad, so this is like my homecoming,” said Beach House owner Kevin Phillips, who owns two other seafood restaurants on Fisherman’s Wharf in Monterey.
“There’s a real renaissance here,” he said.
His latest restaurant is decorated with sepia-toned photos of Lovers Point’s first residents, culled from the more than 22,000 historical photos of Monterey Bay kept by local archivist Pat Hathaway.
The images show corseted beachgoers in wool dresses, gloves and hats, who came to the shore in the late 1800s for 25-cent hot saltwater baths.
By the early 20th century, a Japanese tea house was built, then an arcade with restaurants and parlor games. A steam engine locomotive that ran along what is today’s shoreline recreation trail carried lumber, along with sand that was sold to make CorningWare.
A public pool opened in the 1930s, and a host of eateries operated at Lovers Point until the iconic, upscale Bath House with a French-inspired menu opened in the mid-’70s, holding the spot until 2005.
For decades, the Bath House was the three-fork fine dining place where locals held weddings, impressed their prom dates, and celebrated Mom on Mother’s Day.
So in 2011 when Phillips and business partner Jim Gilbert began remodeling the venerable restaurant with an outdoor deck and wraparound windows along with a plan to stay open until midnight, Pacific Grove residents began expressing concern that their quiet town was going to be turned into a raucous Margaritaville.
Discussions were had at city council meetings, and a compromise was struck: The Sunset Supper.
Phillips offered an olive branch to the community: If they agreed to be seated by 5:30 p.m. and place their orders by 6 p.m., they could eat $9.90 entrees such as bacon-wrapped meat loaf, sole almondine and flame-broiled pork tenderloin, dishes that sell for nearly twice as much later in the evening. The deal included soup or salad for an additional $2.90, and a glass of house wine or beer also for $2.90 more.
Lines started forming by 4 p.m. Now it’s a mad rush, seven nights a week.
“It’s a big hit with my book club; when we do restaurant dinners we need to watch the cost,” said Linda Winchester of Seaside.
At their table, Winchester and her sister, Pat Burdullis of Folsom, watched the swimmers frolicking and traded memories of Monterey childhoods spent at the public pool and on the beach.
Although the Sunset Special is geared toward locals, tourists can also get the deal.
“We don’t check people’s IDs to see if they are Pacific Grove residents – as long as people get here in time for the Sunset Supper, they can have it,” Phillips said.
The bargain has done wonders to ease the worries over a late-night restaurant in Pacific Grove. The Beach House serves 350 dinners a night, seven days a week. By 5:30 p.m. one recent Wednesday night, all 132 tables were filled. Diners can watch sea otters, gray whales and dolphins from their tables.
When the early rush clears, a second wave of locals getting off work arrive, Phillips said.
“I like my Manhattan at the end of the day,” said Alex Lopukhin, who makes the eight-minute walk from his home to the Beach House five or six times a week, but he waits until the Sunset Supper crowd starts to thin out.
Toward 8 and 9 p.m., the restaurant is full again with a different clientele that likes multiple courses, bottles of wine, and long conversations that last until the midnight closing time. There have been no complaints of diners causing late-night disturbances in the streets.
Phillips’ son Jeremy, a sommelier-in-training, is the general manager. His wife, Julie, runs the office.
Co-executive chefs are Briana Sammut, trained at the Culinary Institute of America and a former sous chef at il vecchiorestaurant in Pacific Grove; and Guillame D’Angio from Marseille, France, who opened Provence Bakery in Prunedale and Monterey, and worked as a sous chef at Cantinetta Luca in Carmel.
The two met in the kitchen at Beach House. In less than a year, they fell in love and are now engaged.
Which is the point of Lovers Point, after all.