Good thing I got there early. Six hours earlier, we departed San Clemente, California, in the TGJ Van, fired up about our first trip to play Monterey Peninsula CC, and eventually a dream weekend at Gearhart Links on the Oregon coast. But after a series of hard-to-believe phone calls, my plans suddenly changed. I found myself standing in front of a restaurant that might be more well-known than the golf course, meeting a man for whom a statue was erected down the street.
“Leon’s late,” grumbles Ted Balestreri, showing up 20 minutes earlier than promised. By Leon, he means Leon Panetta— whom you might remember as Chief of Staff for president Bill Clinton, or possibly as CIA Director and Secretary of Defense under president Barack Obama. The two longtime friends, along with Panetta’s wife, Sylvia, and their golden retriever, Bubba, are scheduled to have dinner following our chat. And Ted has insisted they join us.
We never quite know where the Van will take us, but this was an entirely new route. Through some mutual friends, and an overriding sense of hospitality I would soon learn intimately, two of the most powerful men in one of golf’s great meccas agreed to be on our pod.
Today, Cannery Row is a bustling waterfront street that has served as the setting of Eastwood films and Steinbeck novels, and as the post-17 Mile Drive scene of choice for some of the world’s greatest golfers. But Balestreri remembers when that wasn’t the case.
The street’s name derives from its original purpose: sardine canning. But the industry dried up in the late 1960s and by 1973 the last of the canneries had shuttered. It’s hard to believe now when seeing B-roll of it during glossy telecasts, but at that point Cannery Row had been dismissed as the wrong side of the tracks.
Enter Balestreri: a smooth-talking son of Italian immigrants who left Brooklyn to work for his uncle in Monterey following the death of his father at 16 years old. With some formal hospitality training, a $1,000 loan and a sharp culinary partner in Bert Cutino, Balestreri transformed a condemned building into a 72-chair restaurant called The Sardine Factory.
On October 1, 1968—the night before its grand opening—Balestreri sat on the steps of his restaurant and pondered to his wife: “I wonder if anybody will show up tomorrow.” Fifty-two years later, a parade of names from sitting presidents to major champions have come to drink, dine and trade stories.
For these special guests, most nights have ultimately led them past the inconspicuous iron gate in the dining room and down four flights of spiraling wooden stairs to The Sardine Factory’s famed wine cellar. The room, with stone walls and yellow lighting bouncing off red stained glass, is eerily reminiscent of a Game of Thrones set. The long table running through the center of the room is made from a rare fallen Redwood, and the high-back chairs tucked neatly around it send off major illuminati meeting vibes. The brick catacombs are stuffed to the brim with nearly 20,000 bottles—some worth more than the imagination can muster—and the personal wine lockers sport household names like Nantz, Schwarzenegger and Eastwood.
Panetta’s got one too. Outside of Balistreri, no one has had a better view of Cannery Row’s revitalization. He was born in Monterey, attended Monterey High School and now runs the Panetta Institute of Public Policy in town. But that’s not the only reason Balistreri wants him there for our chat. He wants his old friend by his side as he tells the story of how their on-course trash talk ultimately turned into a bet over killing Osama Bin Laden, which ultimately cost Balestreri the most expensive bottle in his cellar: An 1870 Chateau Lafite Rothschild valued north of $15,000.
It’s quickly evident why everyone from local regulars to global superstars have made The Sardine Factory a must-visit. Moments after meeting a wide-eyed 26-year-old journalist wearing wrinkled khakis, he’s apologizing for the tardiness of someone who holds more national secrets than Nicolas Cage. Yes, they may come for the brilliant menu—tonight’s specialty is a calamari steak served atop a bed of prawns—but they almost certainly come back for Ted.
“If we’ve made you feel at home, we’ve made a million-dollar mistake,” Balestreri says. “Our job is to make you feel better than at home, or else why would you go out?”
He stresses the formula has always been that simple: good food and even better service. Balestreri spends a large chunk of the evening explaining how the art of fine dining has been lost. How in the old days, folks would budget up to three hours for cocktails and multiple courses. And how a proper suit and white glove treatment was the standard, not the exception. I really need to buy an iron.
Well into his 80s, Balestreri is still as sharp and active as ever. He or his partner are present almost every evening to greet guests and work the dining room. He still plays golf at least once a week, and his Monterey course rankings reflect the same fiercely independent thinker that once started a restaurant in a ghost town: “Pebble, MPCC, and then Cypress.” And the hot takes don’t stop there.
“I’ve played everywhere,” he says, throwing his hands in the air. “Pine Valley, Cypress, Augusta, you name it. There’s no place crazier than Tobacco Road. That Strantz was a madman!”
With four, arguably five, of the country’s top courses all less than 10 miles away, Balestreri knows all too well the role golf has had in the rebuilding of Cannery Row. For wherever great golf is offered, there will always be a need for great hosts. Even for a couple young guys in a van.