I Want it All, and I Want it Fast-Casual

By Zachary Michael Jack — I admit it: I was a skeptic about the whole fast-casual dining “thing” on the Monterey Peninsula.

First, like a true curmudgeon I objected to the food fad simply because it was new. Second, I was envious of the fast-cas entrepreneurs in places like Marina and Monterey, geniuses destined to grow decadently rich while I spent my peak earning years clipping coupons. Third, I objected in advance to any business premise founded on a paradox. I asked myself: Can something really be both fast and casual? Isn’t that a bit like the oxymoronic “healthy” deserts, “hands-free” texting and friends “with benefits?”

Mind you, I was a skeptic, too, about seedless grapes, plumcots, mandatory digital television and the friendly plastic playground equipment that replaced the torturous steel monkey bars that lent Boomers and Xers our “marks of character.”

Grapes without seeds? TVs without rabbit ears? Bars without monkeys? Too new! Too easy! Too painless! In a phrase, too good to be true.

And isn’t fast-casual just a euphemism for the get ’em in, get ’em out food-court assembly line we tend to eschew whilst at the mall or airport? “Fast” as in move ’em along ASAP, but for heaven’s sake be causal about it. A veteran of the Chipolte Wars, I’d battled Peninsula tourists in bitter campaigns for the one cramped seat remaining at the space-age chrome-swirl table nearest the men’s toilet. While the thought of a customized bowl prepared to my liking had me salivating, the long lines and scarce seating of what I call “The Burrito Years” in Monterey filled me with anxiety. Soon, I’d have to plan my fast-casual sorties with the same impeccable timing with which I planned my customer service calls. (“We are experiencing an unusually high demand. Please try your burrito at another time.”)

But after Saffron and Poke Lab took Alvarado Street by storm in recent months, I realized if I can’t beat ’em I should probably join ’em. Lately, I’ve surprised even myself by just how fully I’ve jumped on the chuckwagon. I’ve decided I want it all, I want it fast-cas, and I want it right fast now!

Imagine the scintillating possibilities of fast-cas played out among the discerning residents of our fair Peninsula, a people once known worldwide for our fine tastes and tolerance for delayed gratification. Rather than pull off on the shoulder for my long hike out to Point Lobos to drink in the majestic sight of waving kelp forests and the barking seals, we would fast-cas it instead. Imagine the timesavings! We’d pull over on Highway 1 and order up, drive-in style, the precise list of natural wonders and customized nature we were craving. A moment later a helpful docent would arrive at our car door with a slippery wet strand, a sample of fresh elephant seal guano and a side of poison oak. “Hold the oak today,” we’d say in the self-satisfied way one does when the world is their oyster, “but double up on the cypress cones, please.”

While we’re remaking our parks with zip-lines and other customizable adventures sure to whet the appetite of visiting insatiates, why not remake Carmel? Rather than simply outlawing high heels, formal wear could be outlawed altogether; all who enter the Village in the Forest would have to come dressed in button downs and khakis, leaving casual onlookers to guess…are we here for a funeral, a weekend fling, a church service, a board meeting, or a quick eighteen holes (now there’s an oxymoron) at Pebble? “All of the above!” we would merrily reply when asked, bedecked in our fast casual clothing. “We’re here for it all…in a bowl or burrito!”

Once Carmel-by-the-Sea and Pebble Beach have fallen before the fast-cas tsnumai why not ask our fine Peninsular colleges and universities to do likewise…offer a customizable menu of low-maintenance, low-commitment, low-calorie intellectual sustenance under the catchphrase “Get a fast-casual education!” An order-online customizable associates degree in a nine months…we’ve got that; an add-on Masters degree in fifteen with a side of chips and guac…we’ve got that too! Your education will happen so casually and quickly we’ll hardly know you were here, and you’ll be hungry for another degree by the time you’ve realized you’ve finished your first. You’ve been edified by our educational edibles and left nary an impression or carbon footprint.

Out in Carmel Valley and Arroyo Seco, imagine what fast casual could do for the fussy, fusty process of tasting oak-aged estate wines. Who has time to stick around to see if the finish to a cabernet is juicy, sharp, balsamic, austere, peppery, lean, edgy, lively, or Poke.

Who has time to finish at all?

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