The Running Iron, Carmel Valley

“Fortune knocks at every man’s door once in a life, but in a good many cases the man is in a neighboring saloon and does not hear her.”  

–Mark Twain (author, humorist, misquoted man)


Call me a sucker, but I have fallen for it—the Carmel Valley charm.  Wine country meets Old West, the little village is my go-to spot when the coastal fog sweeps in.  And on this especially gloomy Fourth of July, this gal was out of town as soon as the morning traffic thinned.  The holiday stop was The Running Iron Restaurant and Saloon.

Long timers will regale you with their tales of tequila driven nights and rowdy brawls, but those cowboy bar days of the Stirrup Cup Saloon are long past.  With the change of ownership and rebranding in 1980 (Get it? A running iron was an iron often used by rustlers to change the brand on livestock.), came a sense of respectability.  The restaurant is still a locals’ hang out and a great place to have a drink. However, the bikers on the patio are more often touring clubs taking a rest after the twisting ride north from Arroyo Seco, and the ranchers are more likely looking to do a bit of bragging over a football game.

Patrons can enjoy the bygone ambiance of the bar or the eclectic décor of the dining room with its menagerie of farm tools, ranch tack, and boots (lots of boots!), but the sun-cravers like me head for the patio.

The protective fence is just enough to soften the prevailing breeze from the mountains, and I get a chance to toast my coastal-white shoulders a bit while I people watch. On this visit, I sat between two tourists from “the City” who are busy discussing stealth paint (“I mean, how is a stealth bomber ‘stealth’ without stealth paint?”) and a local couple whose dogs have been served bowls of ice water and await their order of chopped chicken (did I mention that this is a pro-dog town?).

Whether a visitor or a long-timer, the service is always friendly.  These aren’t mindless servers who plunk down your food to move you along. They’ll give you your space if you want it, but should you want to shoot-the-shit, they will.  These folks love their customers.  So much so that one patio bench includes a plaque for a special set of regulars, Liz and Bob, who sat right there for many years. Right beside is a wood-burned “Flackmeier” for a man who frequented the joint well into his 90s.

If this is a “real” review, I guess that I should speak of the food.  If your looking for fine dining, this is not the place for you. But if you are looking for good food with generous portions, this is the right place.  In past visits I have enjoyed their traditional dining options (grilled fish, large salads, steaks), weekend brunch menu (huevos rancheros are killer!), as well as their pub fare (fish and chips, deep fried artichoke hearts, buffalo wings).  But on this Independence Day, I was ready to have someone else do a bit of all-American grilling for me.  I ordered a traditional burger that came cooked to medium-rare beauty and paired with a pile of crisp French fries.

Even though I am a wine drinker, I never drink wine here (though their list is pretty varied for a “saloon,” and there is a full bar).  No, for me an afternoon at The Running Iron means beer.  And they offer more than the classics. On this visit I paired the burger with a couple of Anderson Valley Summer Solstice (which I recommend if you are into cream ale style of beer with a malty finish). I harkened back to those opaque DumDums of my childhood.  I think the brewery actually calls it, “cream soda for adults.”

In any case, it was a nice finish to another sunny day in the Village.

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