A handful of businesses scream “Cayucos” with their unique atmospheres and long histories, and chief among them is the Sea Shanty restaurant.
Fronting Ocean Avenue across from Paul Andrew Park, the Sea Shanty has been the love of Carol Kramer and Bill Shea for some 40 years, and its cozy atmosphere inside under a sea of donated ball caps or in the outdoor patio with family-sized tables have become as comfortable as the comfort food Bill and the staff cook up every day.
“I love this little town,” Bill says of the adopted home they chose in 1983 — in a great escape from their former life in Southern California. “It’s like Corona del Mar; a small beach town.”
“Newport,” Carol chimes in, “was more like Orange County.”
The two were working at Chuck’s Steakhouse in Newport — he was the cook and she was the bartender, explains Carol.
They had been going together and were talking about making a bold move, maybe starting their own restaurant. Then one day a good customer at Chuck’s suggested his sister’s place up in Cayucos, which she was trying to sell.
“We came up and looked at it,” Bill recalls, “and hated it.”
The building, which dates back to the 1940s, was in rough shape and needed a ton of work to bring it back to life. Still, Cayucos has a way of hooking people.
“We hated the building,” Carol says. “It was just awful. Like something you’d see in Rosarita or Enseñada. Then we woke up one morning and decided to do it.”
“I gave my notice on a Friday the 13th,” Carol adds. “That was the last time I worked for someone else.”
“We moved to Cayucos the next day,” says Bill. They had nowhere to live and stayed at the restaurant while they worked feverishly to remodel. It took a week and they were good to go, opening the Sea Shanty in May 1983.
‘We opened the week before Memorial Day,” Carol says. “It was the Thursday before Memorial Day and by Friday we were very busy. We ran out of food that weekend.”
“It was nuts,” Bill laughs. The town, as per usual, was packed for the 3-day holiday and then, “Tuesday morning everyone went home. We sat in an empty restaurant and said, ‘That was weird.’”
Then on 4th of July, Bill says, people were in the restaurant eating and then rushing out to join the parade. “Everybody was in the parade and no one was watching it,” he says with a boisterous laugh. “That’s my kind of parade.”
Alas, it’s not that way anymore, as the 4th of July Parade is now attended by throngs of people.
For Bill, the formula to success was simple — find a good partner who’s a workaholic. “I found one in Carol Kramer,” he says.
“You have to have a good partner,” Carol responds. “Billy knows food and makes magic in the kitchen. He blows me away sometimes.”
How did the old shack become theirs? Bill says they had a lawyer friend write the original lease they signed with a local man who had a reputation for some rather shady business dealings.
He would lease a place and watch them fail, then foreclose and keep the money, explains Bill. They however, “Had an ironclad lease.” One thing led to another and soon the “crook” was in bankruptcy.
“Carol ran down to Santa Barbara and bought the property for $1 more than the asking price,” Bill says, as Carol laughs with the memory.
Major changes came after they were hit with an Americans with Disabilities Act lawsuit over their bathrooms and Bill, who was a professional gambler, hit a Pick 6 Lottery jackpot for $108,000.
The lawsuit put them in a favorable position with the County, as they were “forced” to remodel, which included a remodel of the too-small kitchen and outdoor patio. Because of the lawsuit, Carol reveals, the County couldn’t say “No.”
The two laugh now when they talk about Bill’s professional gambling, which he said he no longer does, including that he mostly won.
“It’s been a wild ride because of his gambling,” Carol says. “But it’s kept us afloat several times. And if he won big, he’d buy me jewelry.”
“I don’t gamble or drink anymore,” Bill says.
Another “gamble” they both took was opening a catering business out of the restaurant. “We were blessed with always being busy,” Carol says. “The catering was never Billy’s favorite thing.”
“It put a lot of pressure on that little kitchen,” Bill says. That pressure eased considerably with the kitchen remodel in 2008, as the ADA troubles actually did some good and led to an expanded business opportunity, albeit at a steep price.
That remodel ended up costing half a million dollars, Bill says. But it appears to be money well spent, as the patio is a big draw and greatly expands the capacity of that old building, which itself has seen a lot.
The building “opened as a meat market,” Bill says. It changed several times including stints as a Mexican food restaurant and a hamburgers and breakfast café.
The couple have been together some 43 years and married 20, with Carol’s three adult children and eight grandkids. Most have worked at the Sea Shanty over the years, including grandson Lucas who came to the area to attend Cuesta College.
“We always thought we’d ride this out and then sell it,” says Carol. “Then Lucas came along. He has embraced this and taken it over. That makes us a third generation-run, family business.”
So what’s with all the hats that hang from the ceiling and rafters and decorate the dining room’s ceiling?
Carol says the story goes back to Chuck’s, which was one of the first “exposition kitchens” where the cooks are out front and customers can watch them work. Bill used to never wear a hat and “People brought him a hat to wear,” she says. “He never wore a chef’s hat.” Bill says he used to be a trucker and had about 100 hats.
She decided to hang them up to air them out and people started donating them and the collection just grew from there.
“There’s 1,700 hats hanging in there,” Bill says.
“We were going to take them down with the remodel,” Carol says, “and paint the ceiling white.” But popular demand insisted they stay.
“People said, ‘You’re going to put the hats back up, right?’” Bill says. The hats and the familiarity they instill are probably one reason they are so popular to many folks. So too the old style decorations hanging on the walls inside and out and the unique pole sign out front that is pretty much a work of art; also the garden-like exterior landscaping.
“Motorcycle guys and car show guys love this place,” Bill says.
So too do the people of Cayucos, as Sea Shanty is that rare restaurant that appeals to locals as well as tourists. It helps that they’ve been steady and dependable with both the atmosphere, the employees and the food for so long.
“It’s comfort food,” Bill says of the menu they’ve crafted. “And we decided early on to be open all the time.”
“We were dependable,” Carol adds.
Even people who might eat elsewhere go there afterwards. “We get them for dessert,” Carol says. “No matter where they eat.” Carol is Sea Shanty’s dessert specialist and prides herself on what they call “Caroltini” desserts.
Bill teases that their old co-workers called her “Meanie Carolini.”
They’ve had so many employees over the 40 years. Depending on the season, they have 22-30 employees on the payroll, more in summer than winter.
“We started with five of us,” Carol says, one of Bill’s sisters was there from the start.
“The five of us ran the whole place for at least the first year,” Bill says. Carol adds that her children worked the restaurant too, though not so much for money. “They didn’t get paid,” she laughs.
All their employees have become extended family. “We get to be grandparents to all these adopted kids,” Carol says. “They’ve become a part of our lives.”
Numerous young people have worked for them for 6-7 years and after they’ve gone off to college, they came back in summer and worked.
“Last year,” Bills says, “we had 22 graduates in our family and working family. That’s a lot of $100 bills.”
What’s the best thing about their lives? “Living in Cayucos,” she says. “We would never have known what we were missing, what a special and magical place this is.” She likes that everyone can have a piece of Cayucos.
For Bill it’s location. “I can drive down to the beach and look at the Rock and the surf and say, ‘I’ve made it.’”
What’s the worst thing? “The worst is that everybody gets to have Cayucos,” Carol says. “It’s getting so people don’t want to share that anymore.”
When will they retire and turn the whole shebang over to their grandson? “Billy wants to still work,” Carol says. He still comes in to cut all their meats and fish but doesn’t have the same pressures as slaving over a hot stove brings.
Have they ever thought of expansion, maybe opening a second restaurant? They do have a winning formula. “No,” Bill says simply.
“Billy has always been content with this little world,” Carol explains. “I’ve always wanted to expand. That’s how the catering started.”
Bill praises his wife for her ability to handle the catering jobs, which have been as busy as three weddings in a weekend. “Carol does an amazing job with setting up the atmosphere, paired with the food.” Bill is a whiz at the menus and portions to make sure they have enough food for everyone.
“My food is my art,” Carol says. “People eat with their eyes not their mouth. It’s been fun, especially with how well Billy cooks. It’s always right on; an amazing magic show.”
The Sea Shanty is located at 269 S. Ocean Ave., Cayucos. Open daily for breakfast from 8-11:30 a.m., serving lunch and dinner from 11:30 to closing at 9 p.m.