Step up to the counter at Dad’s Luncheonette, and two things immediately become apparent. First, the restaurant is an old train caboose, with no indoor seating. Second, the man who descends from the caboose every few minutes to serve his customers may very well be the happiest chef in Northern California.
“How’s your wife?” Scott Clark asked as he delivered a man’s hamburger. “Doing yoga? Staying positive?” It was a warmish Sunday afternoon in early April, and the restaurant’s 15-seat patio was packed. “T-E-D Ted!” Mr. Clark called out to another customer, a huge grin on his face. “Hey, brother!” he said, brandishing an order of chips.
Behind Mr. Clark, traffic whooshed along Highway 1, past the Half Moon Bay parking lot where the caboose has been sitting for decades. Dad’s Luncheonette has been there since early February, starting a couple of months after Mr. Clark quit his job as the chef de cuisine at Saison, a three-Michelin-star San Francisco restaurant that is probably the state’s most expensive. He and his partner, Alexis Liu, had recently become parents to a baby girl and wanted to spend more time together as a family. When they came across the caboose, which had previously been another restaurant, something clicked. “I saw it and said, ‘O.K., let’s go,’” Mr. Clark recalled.
Their version of a classic roadside stand speaks with a distinct California accent: There are homemade potato chips freckled with nutritional yeast; a vivid herb salad loaded with red orach, chickweed and oxalis flowers; and a statement on the brief menu declaring that all of the ingredients except the cheese are local and organic. But this is not food that puts on airs. If anything, it puts ideas in your head.
Chief among them is that a hamburger belongs on grilled white bread, particularly if it’s accompanied by pickled onions, red oak lettuce, melted cheese and Dad’s sauce, a tart, ruinously addictive condiment. White bread also swaddles the hen-of-the-woods mushroom sandwich, a vegetarian number with impressive brawn. Mr. Clark describes these sandwiches as the “two pillars” of his restaurant. The third could be the soups du jour, like a lusty, deeply satisfying curried Japanese sweet potato, tinged with lemongrass and topped with walnuts. All can be chased with cans of wine, beer or La Croix (along with weekend-only mimosas) or followed by Dad’s sole dessert, a crisp-gooey cast-iron-pan blondie whose changing flavors include matcha-white chocolate and snickerdoodle.
The question of what travelers might want dictated everything on the menu, Ms. Liu said. Judging by the lines outside the caboose, she and Mr. Clark have found some answers. And judging by Mr. Clark’s eternal good cheer, they’ve found what they wanted.