Half Moon Bay’s coolest new eatery operates out of a train car

Written by Elena Kadvany // Photographed by Michelle Le

Former Saison chef Scott Clark and Alexis Liu opened Dad’s Luncheonette together so they could spend more time together as a new family.

For evidence that work-life balance is relative, look no further than Scott Clark.

On a recent afternoon, the tattooed, 30-something chef was constantly moving in and out of a 100-year-old red train caboose in Half Moon Bay that houses his new restaurant — bringing out burgers served in cardboard boxes to an outdoor patio, chatting with customers, helping co-owner Alexis Liu (also the mother of his one-and-a-half year old daughter) carry a propane tank to refuel a heat lamp, necessary for dining outside in that ubiquitous Half Moon Bay fog. At Dad’s Luncheonette, Clark is at once co-owner, line cook, waiter, busser and handyman.

Dad’s is a far cry from where Clark was just months ago: working as chef de cuisine at the three Michelin-starred Saison in San Francisco, where a $398 tasting menu with caviar and foraged herbs helped earn the restaurant a spot on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list last year.

But that’s the point. After the birth of his daughter, Clark decided to leave Saison to strike a better work-life balance. He’s found it at Dad’s.

Before opening Dad’s Luncheonette, Scott Clark worked in the Michelin-starred kitchens of Saison and Benu in San Francisco.

“Your whole energy changes when you are a father and you have a family,” he said in a recent interview, sitting in the Dad’s patio. “For me personally, the energy that it took to run that kitchen and then what it took to be a father were two very different things. I couldn’t find a happy medium between the two.”

Clark and Liu, who also co-owns a coffee shop in North Beach in San Francisco, where the couple live with their daughter, opened Dad’s in February. The bright red train caboose, located just off Hwy. 92, was the first and only location they looked at when thinking about opening a restaurant together.

The Dad’s hamburger is served sandwich-style, on two slices of grilled sweet white bread with a free-range egg, lettuce, cheese, pickled red onions and Dad’s sauce.

Was it a conscious decision to only open Dad’s Thursday through Sunday?

“Hell yeah,” said Clark, whose affability is imprinted on the burger joint’s vibe, service and food. Clark is now home for dinner on a regular basis. He, Liu and their daughter can spend full days off as a family. A small corner of the Dad’s caboose is crowded with children’s toys for when their daughter spends time there.

“It’s just a lot more balanced,” Liu said.

Left: The hamburger sandwich, herb salad and homemade chips at Dad’s Luncheonette. Right: Meyer lemon blondie — Don’t overlook the daily sweet on the menu at Dad’s.

The Dad’s menu is short and simple: a $12 hamburger and a $11 mushroom sandwich plus sides like homemade potato chips (seasoned with salt, pepper and nutritional yeast), mac and cheese, herb salad, soup and a dessert. It’s also no frills: burgers wrapped in red-and-white checkered paper, plastic utensils, canned wine, pay at the counter, fetch your own water.

But a closer look reveals Clark’s fine-dining roots. The perfectly-proportioned hamburger is made from grass-fed beef sourced from local, family-run companies. He uses oakleaf lettuce grown at a hydroponic farm down the road, a free-range egg from Half Moon Bay’s Ben’s Coastside Farm and pickled red onions he makes himself. (All condiments are also made by Dad, the menu reminds customers.)

Dad’s Luncheonette is housed in 100-year-old train caboose on Hwy. 1 in Half Moon Bay.

The burger is served sandwich-style, on two slices of grilled sweet white bread from Moonside Bakery, a five-minute walk from Dad’s. The mushroom sandwich is made with maitake mushrooms. Rotating soups range from chicken Italian sausage to Thai curry with carrots, ginger, lemongrass, garlic and lime-infused yogurt.

The couple said Clark didn’t leave Saison thinking, “I’m going to open a burger joint,” but settled on the concept based on what would fit best with the community, locally available products and the caboose’s cooking limitations. They tested several iterations of the burger before settling on the final components. They opted for sandwich bread instead of a bun, in part because Clark grew up on Wonder Bread in his native Virginia, and to avoid a bun that would outweigh the other ingredients.

Scott Clark draws on local produce and ingredients to create the menu at Dad’s.

The burger and mushroom sandwich are staples, but items like the herb salad ($5) and soup ($6) change based on what’s available. On a recent afternoon, the bright herb salad was served in a plastic container overflowing with parsley, chives, fennel, mint, red orach, chickweed, chervil and mustard flowers, all tossed in a Meyer lemon vinaigrette.

For drinks, choose from wine ($10), Fort Point beer ($4.5), La Croix ($2), Coke ($2 for diet in a can, $2.50 for regular in a glass bottle) and Four Barrel coffee ($3). For dessert, don’t skip the blondie of the day, made in a cast-iron skillet ($3.50).

Clark said he’s been floored by the response to Dad’s. Their first day, there was a line about 50 deep, he said. As they find their bearings, they continue to sell out of some items, particularly on weekends.

But does Clark miss the white tablecloths and prestige of his former culinary life? Not really.

“I think that in order to really fully be a part of something you have to not look back at what your past was like,” he said. “We have a super wacky little family down here now. That takes up the place from the brothers and sisters that I worked with in three-Michelin star restaurants.”

The scene at Dad’s on Hwy. 1, a new dining destination for Half Moon Bay locals and visitors alike.

//Dad’s Luncheonette, 225 Cabrillo Highway South, Half Moon Bay; dadsluncheonette.com. // Open Thursday-Friday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., and Saturday-Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Sometimes sells out and closes early, call to check//

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