By Gretchen Williams, Dining and Cuisine Writer
Avalon in winter is the Catalina of old California. The quiet streets and clear skies are reminiscent of the days of Norma Jean and big game fish. Original Catalina tiles ornament the front street. Golden Garibaldi fish swim in the crystal waters of Lover’s Cove. Buffalo roam the hills near the Airport In The Sky. Gray whales are migrating offshore.
Catalina locals know the magic of Avalon in the cooler months. The wind and rain can be raging around the island, or socked in fog and Avalon will be bathed in sunshine. The ocean is a chill 58 degrees, glassy and clear to the bottom.
The voyage to Avalon from the mainland is a little over an hour, but feels like a trip back in time. Change is slow on the island. The gentle walk from the ferry into town is now crowned by the Trailhead, the Catalina Conservancy’s new headquarters, gift store, shuttle stop, restaurant, party space and gathering spot.
On the site of the old Catherine’s Hotel, The Trailhead is where all Catalina activities begin. The “gift store” is a far cry from the typical cards and knick knacks. Fantastic maps, books and guides start the fascinating look through the store, with excellent guides to local flora and fauna as well as the celestial wonders above the island.
Children and adults have an assortment of outside gear and warm hoodies; the best was a child’s explorer’s vest with loads of pockets, for girls and boys. The jewelry is lovely, made with natural shell materials and silver. The secret weapon of the Trailhead? The clerks at the gift store also sell tickets to the various tours and shuttle bus operated by the conservancy, and know everything about Avalon and the island.
The Trailhead is blessed with the Toyon Grill, a kitchen, bar and barista. Serving breakfast, lunch and dinner, the restaurant also has a terrific happy hour, with great coffee and munchies available all day. On the second floor of the Trailhead building, the Toyon Grill has an expansive view over Avalon Harbor, with a splendid shot of the casino. The Toyon Grill has an imaginative menu, with some unusual and delicious dishes as well as favorite classics.
Avocado Toast is a cliché in many circles; in Avalon, it is the basis for a beautiful breakfast with bacon and sunny-side-up eggs, charred scallion cream sauce, garnished with crunchy radishes, for $8. The Toyon Bay burrito is a formidable breakfast, scrambled eggs, chorizo, tomatillo salsa and cotija cheese, wrapped in a warm tortilla, for $11. Greek yogurt parfait is a light and gorgeous creation, with granola, berries, honey, pepitas and coconut.
Do not miss the incredible coffee. The baristas know how to tighten up the coffee with a shot of Kahlua for breakfast of champions, if you like. Cookies, scones, muffins, bagels and killer brownies are available all day, as well as coffee drinks, teas, sodas and The Boost, a spectacular smoothie made with banana, spinach, kale, apple, lemon, chia and coconut water.
“Appies” are appetizers and small plates meant to share, with snack potential as well as alongside a main dish or a sandwich. The standout of this list is tempura’d asparagus and green beans, crunchy finger food with nice dip, it’s fun for kids and adults. Mary’s chicken wings are state of the art. Mains are larger offerings, with a pleasing Asian chicken salad heading a star list. Napa cabbage, edamame, almonds, carrots and crispy wontons are tossed with a candied ginger dressing. The grilled fish tacos are the pride of Avalon, with fresh local fish, avocado, shredded cabbage, tomato, Cotija cheese and tomatillo salsa. Pulled barbecued bison and pork sandwich is a local special, served on brioche, with Swiss cheese, jicama slaw and chips. Slightly charred baby back ribs are also a local specialty, as is fried Mary’s chicken, which is always a favorite. Room for dessert? Brownie parfait or an ice cream and cookie sandwich hits the spot!
Toyon Grill is a low-key watering hole, with GR “Catalina Trailhead” Blonde, 14 Mile High Spot Pale Ale, 9 Mile High Spot Hefeweizen, 182 Mile High Spot IPA, Kona Brewing Lavaman Red Ale, Mission Brewery Shipwrecked DIPA and San Diego, all on tap.
The extensive wine list includes house wines by Grand Cru, a selection of California and international wines, as well as Rusack Santa Catalina Island Vineyards, $80 a bottle. Handcrafted cocktails are creative and novel, including Trailhead Prickly Pear Margarita, Old Ben’s Mai Tai, Toyon Gin and Tonic, Toyon Smoked Honey, Casino Kombucha Highball, Two Harbors Old Fashioned, Cold Brew Coffee Martini, Interior Fig Mule, Buffalo Bull or the Nopal Cactus Mary.
Toyon Grill (Trailhead Building, Catalina Conservancy), 708 Crescent Ave., Avalon Catalina Island, 310-510-8599