One hundred years after its incorporation, little has changed in the far-from-forgotten village of Carmel-by-the-Sea, California. Here’s an up-to-date look at the town that once elected Dirty Harry mayor.
Conceived as an artist’s colony after the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, the one-square-mile “Golden Rectangle” of fairytale cottages, eateries, galleries and artisanal shops maintains its iconoclastic charm through a crazy quilt of ordinances that protect its ideals and camouflage the march of time. Recently, Mayor Steve Dallas and Chamber of Commerce CEO Monta Potter offered their opinions on what’s changed, what hasn’t, and which of the town’s quirkier rumors are fact or fiction.
No heels without a permit?
True! Because much of Carmel is without level sidewalks, and the entire enclave is without street lamps, wearing heels over two inches tall or less than one-inch wide is prohibited to prevent injury (and lawsuits). Unless, that is, you head to City Hall to secure your personal permit. They’re free, and all you’ll need is current picture ID and three minutes to sign a couple of forms. It’s a good excuse to visit a City Hall that looks like a Once Upon a Time set piece and score a unique souvenir. On your way back, pick up a copy of The Carmel Pine Cone, the weekly paper that’s been scooping the local comings and goings of Carmel for 101 years, and whose police blotter doubles as a the town’s personal comics section. Front page news when we visited? “Cat That Fled Fire Is Still Missing.”
No street addresses in the Golden Rectangle?
Also true. Though Carmel-by-the-Sea managed to hold off paving its main roads much longer than most of America (and still doesn’t have a single traffic light), there’s no home postal delivery for the very good reason that there are no street addresses. Many of the original artists to settle in Carmel chose names over numbers, and it’s a tradition that lingers on, with Carmelites considering it bad luck to change the name of a house even if it changes hands. Because the village is perfectly gridded and oh-so-small, it’s impossible to get lost. And how do the residents get mail? The story goes that the founding artists wanted a strong sense of community encouraged by everyone coming to the post office and socializing regularly, but this may be more romance than history. Still, locals do amble into the post office to grab their mail to this very day.
No action after 6?
Somewhat true. The majority of shops close at 5 or 6 p.m., and even with more than a dozen wine tasting rooms each shutters early on weeknights while restaurants continue to serve through the evening, and restaurants there are numerous. By ordinance, chain restaurants are not allowed in Carmel-by-the-Sea, and fine dining options pack the tiny hamlet, competing for the discerning attentions of foodies near and far. Among the favorites: Affina Food and Wine, where locally sourced and always fresh ingredients are prepared with artistic flair in a comfortable, modern setting with clever nods to the town’s history and obsession with local authenticity. How fresh can fresh be? Affina doesn’t even have a commercial fridge. When it’s bought, it’s prepared and served, not stored.
Carmel is for the dogs?
The most true. Not only are dogs welcome in most stores and permitted leashless on Carmel’s mile-long stretch of pristine white sand beach, they may be more loved than the town’s human residents. At Cypress Inn, Doris Day’s elegant lodging long famous for being among the world’s first pet-friendly properties, Terry’s Lounge hosts a daily Yappy Hour as popular with the local dogs as it is with their whisky sour sipping companions. Local lore holds that in Carmel’s early days, if new neighbors moved to town without a dog they were quickly presented with one because no family was considered complete without a pooch. It’s unclear if this ever actually occurred, but it’s certainly indicative of how just how crazy for canines Carmel is.
With upwards of 90 galleries and studios, 42 secret passages and hidden courtyards, and retail spaces just as regulated as the rest of town (shops are strictly apportioned to ensure variety, and no commerce is allowed within a half mile of the ocean to keep bikinis out of town and money off the beach), Carmel-by-the-Sea continues to lure the world’s creatives and bon vivants to its fiercely guarded haven for a one-of-a-kind escape from the weltering world around it.
Last modified: June 30, 2017