California travel

Birthday lunch at Nepenthe Restaurant, Big Sur, CA

Nepenthe Restaurant, in Big Sur, was opened by Lolly and Bill Fassett in 1949. The restaurant, with its magnificent view, was built using native materials – redwood and adobe — honoring the owners’ vision that it “become one with the landscape and the earth it stands on.”

Teal blue menu cover from Nepenthe Restaurant, Big Sur, California

Nepenthe has long been a favorite place for Hess family celebrations. So it was no surprise that Carrieanna Hess chose to celebrate her 30th birthday at Nepenthe’s, accompanied by her sweetheart, Greg, her good friend, Tammy, and me, her stepmom and friend.

One man and two women, one in wheelchair, sitting at deck railing with view of ocean in the background.

(Because Carrieanna gets around via wheelchair – due to her diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis – I have attempted to pay particular attention to accessibility. Tammy also has MS, and uses a cane to steady herself when walking.)

About Nepenthe

“Nepenthe” refers to a medicine that “chases away sorrow,” and the restaurant symbol is the phoenix (“reborn / rising from the ashes”). Both name and symbol are well-chosen.; as usual our experience was both delightful and refreshing!

The restaurant is located on Highway One in Big Sur, approximately an hour’s drive south from Monterey. We entered the parking area and veered to the right, following the “handicap parking” sign which directed us up a slight hill and behind the restaurant. Two handicap parking spots are located adjacent to the easily-navigated ramp that led to the courtyard.

Handicap Accessible parking spot at Nepenthe Restaurant, Big Sur

It was a warm and clear day, and we chose to sit at the bar on the patio (under brightly-colored umbrellas) where we enjoyed the ocean view — and bird-watching!

Closeup profile of head of brown bird, with bokeh background.

The patio bar is easily accessible via wheelchair, by going around the phoenix statue …

Woman in wheelchair on restaurant patio, with metal bird sculpture in background.

… although Tammy took the shortcut, stepping down one step from courtyard to the patio deck.)

Birthday Food and Wine

We started with an order of fries and a bottle of 2008 Adelaida Syrah.

Bottle and glass of red wine, with foliage and ocean in background.

Woman in wheelchair, and her friend, smiling and sitting at wooden restaurant deck.

We toasted Carrieanna, and after placing our order we snacked on fries – occasionally leaving a few on the edge of the bar to feed the birds.

Blue bird swooping to snatch french fries on wooden railing at restaurant.

Restroom Accessibility

A visit to the restroom – found by rolling around the curve and to the right of the inside bar – taught us that while there is a “handicap” stall, it’s not large enough to accommodate a wheelchair. Fortunately, that wasn’t an issue for us – although it would certainly be a problem for any handicapped woman unable to walk even a few steps.

Bar area inside restaurant.

Mural-painted restroom stall door and wall at Nepenthe Restaurant.

Lunch was delicious, and portions were abundant. Carrieanna and Greg had The Famous Ambrosiaburger, Tammy enjoyed her French Dip sandwich (although her soup was tepid and she had to send it back to be heated); I had the yummy Vegetarian Burger.


Nepenthe Restaurant Menu.

Bird Watching – And Feeding!

Ha ha! This sample menu reflects long-ago prices!

The local birds (blue jay, scrub jay and black bird, to name a few) are brave and brazen, and will snatch food from an unwatched plate. Naturally, we were initially protective of our lunches. However, we eventually laid out bits of bread and pieces of French fries to entice the birds – and they entertained us in appreciation of our generosity.

Closeup of blue and white bird holding crumb of bread in its beak, with bokeh background.

Our waiter was aware that we were celebrating Carrieanna’s birthday, and at the end of our meal he presented her with a gift – a “Happy Birthday” mug with Nepenthe’s logo.

Smiling young woman holding "Happy Birthday" coffee mug.

After lunch we strolled and rolled down the path to the edge of the deck, and enjoyed another wonderful vista. Patio dining, and the view therefrom, is four steps up from the deck (or one step down, if you’re coming from the inside bar area).

Wooden corner bench and railing overlooking Pacific Ocean from Nepenthe's Restaurant in Big Sur, California.

There is also a brunch café and small wedding venue (Café Kevah) as well as a gift shop (The Phoenix) next to the lower level of parking. Although Greg slipped away to do a little shopping at the Phoenix — and came back with a pretty-little-something for Carrieanna – we ladies chose not to venture down.

One deterrent to shopping: The entrance to The Phoenix Shop has four steps (and a handrail) but we did not see a ramp for wheelchair access. Carrieanna determined she did not have the energy to walk down the steps that day.

So we headed north, back to Monterey.

Three people, one in wheelchair, moving along outdoor walkway at Nepenthe Restaurant, Big Sur.

Traffic stopped on Pacific Coast Highway between Big Sur and Carmel, with view of ocean to the left.

Happy Birthday, Carrieanna!

By Jeri Murphy

Traveler, writer, photographer, former wedding officiant, mother, friend, explorer and new Texian ... that's just a little about me!

4 replies on “Birthday lunch at Nepenthe Restaurant, Big Sur, CA”

What a heartwarming story and gorgeous photos. Thank you and Happy Birthday Carrieanna. I love Nepenthe and the California Coast so much. I found your story whilst searching for “wheelchair access Nepenthe” to add to my Tripadvisor review and added the link to your website/blog to assist fellow travellers.


Thank you for your kind comments (and the birthday wishes, which I will pass along to Carrieanna).

I’m glad you found the Nepenthe post helpful. If you love the California Coast, I would also highly recommend that you visit Point Lobos, which is located between Carmel and Big Sur. I’ve mentioned its accessibility numerous times on this blog, and I hope the posts and photos will inspire you to visit!


PS: I’ve visited your lovely city and loved it!


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