Travel: The Ghosts Who Come to Dinner

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Northern California restaurants tell their haunting tales.

Longfellow argued that all houses where people have lived and died are haunted houses. Few could disagree, yet the verdict’s still out on why some are spookier than others. That goes for restaurants, too. Now, with Halloween lurking ’round the corner, thoughts turn to the anatomy of a haunt. Where and how does it all begin?

San Francisco’s legendary Mansions Hotel and Restaurant was built as a home in 1887 by a silver miner who’d struck it rich. A pair of heiresses who couldn’t agree divided his proud mansion in two. One of them&emdash;Claudia&emdash;also was divided by a freak sawing accident. Historians can’t agree how it happened. A series of people lived in the double house after that&emdash;none for very long.

By the time Renaissance man Bob Pritikin bought the property in 1977, the showplace had degenerated into two run-down rooming houses. Pritikin harnessed his flair for interior design to transform the dilapidated relics into the elegant restaurant and hotel called Mansions Hotel and Restaurant. He decorated in crushed velvet, brocade and crystal. His talent as a musician made the place come alive. During the dinner show, in reference to Claudia’s accident, Pritikin performed renditions of Moonlight Sawnata and The Last Time I Sawed Paris on a saw.

The owner’s antics were enough to wake the dead. Perhaps they did. An obstreperous guest was decked by a heavy door that fell on him, a toilet seat ripped loose from its steel hinge, a crystal wine glass exploded in the presence of several diners and a diaphanous form of a lady was seen countless times on the grand staircase.

Pritikin was skeptical. Nobody in their right minds believes in ghosts! he maintained. Later the restaurateur was not too certain.  Seeing Claudia’s apparition on a dining plate was the last straw. He sold the place in 2001. The Mansions morphed back into two private homes. Frightened new owners refused to talk. It’s said that both houses now stand empty.  

Weird? Most assuredly, but unusual? Not really. There are so many tales of haunted inns, we take them for granted. Restaurants, on the other hand, seem an unlikely venue. They’re so active that ghosts would scarcely be noticed by eager, chattering diners or the busy staff who must juggle guest preferences, heavy trays and work stations.  

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But then one wonders . . . who is the mysterious blue lady who returns again and again to haunt the Moss Beach Distillery in Half Moon Bay, her high heels echoing a phantom Charleston eerily into the night?   

The chic restaurant, originally a shady speakeasy, was built in 1919, constructed on a steep cliff overlooking the sea during an era when Half Moon Bay was notorious as a shipping port for illegal Canadian liquor. The abundance of secluded coves along the isolated stretch of rugged ocean was an open invitation to rum runners. Bootlegging was dangerous business, murder and hijacking common. But that didn’t stop film stars, socialites and politicians from flocking to the Moss Beach Distillery.

According to legend, some 80 years ago, a beautiful young woman became passionately involved with the bar’s piano player. Their ardent trysts ended when the lady, dressed in her favorite blue, was killed in an automobile accident on her way to meet the piano player. That’s one story. Another is that the blue lady’s jealous husband stabbed her to death on the beach. Either way, that should have been the end of her . . . but was it?

Throughout the years, staff and patrons have not only heard someone crying but have seen her. Managers working late at night hear faucets come on. They go to investigate and return to find their offices locked from the inside. Once, a young man ran screaming from the restroom after being confronted by a woman in blue&emdash;covered with blood. One night, an out-of-towner asked the bartender, Who was murdered here? I feel strong vibrations, pointing to a corner where the piano once stood.

When John Barbour acquired the property in 1990, his attempt to take inventory was blocked&emdash;literally. 
The wine cellar, a windowless room, is built into the side of a hill. Though unlocked, it took three men to force open the one door. Once inside, the men discovered they’d been pushing against the restaurant’s entire wine supply. Who or what had shoved the cases into this position? How was the blocked doorway exited? Some say the blue lady has lots of muscle.

An even stranger tale was reported around that time by Sheriff’s Deputy Jim Belding after attending an impromptu sance with employees at the restaurant. The group felt a cold spot, watched a candle ignite but saw no ghosts. Belding and his partner left at 3:30 a.m., heading north on Highway 92. Suddenly, Belding’s car developed a mind of its own&emdash;veering right and left. A white light blazed before them. Belding swerved once again, smashing the car. Miraculously, both men survived the crash and went in search of help. When they returned, a tow truck was already on the scene.

Later, when Belding picked up his car, the tow truck driver asked about the lady. Belding looked blank, but the man persisted. The pretty girl in the blue dress, looked kind of like a costume. She was standing in the road bleeding and crying.

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If that story sounds far out, consider what’s happening farther up the Pacific coast at the Mendocino Hotel and Garden Suites’ restaurant. A previous existence as The Temperance House hasn’t dampened spirits any. In fact, ghosts are said to hang out at the bar.

It’s easy to see what attracts guests. It’s a beautiful bar&emdash;antique oak beneath a stained-glass dome. The bookkeeper wasn’t a bit surprised to see a small group of men lounging there one evening. The only trouble was that no one else saw them.

Monica Jurczynski, the bartender, has never seen any ghosts but feels their presence. Sometimes late at night I’ll be carrying a heavy tray into the kitchen. I’m the only one there, she says, but the swinging door opens for me. Obviously a helpful ghost.

Though often startled by ghostly reflections, guests have admired the antique mirrors in the dining room for years. Shimmering ladies are frequently reported to the wait staff who think they’ve heard everything. 

Dorothy Peer-Green, the restaurant hostess, is matter-of-fact about her own experiences. My ghost looks just like anyone except for her costume. Several times I’ve seen a beautiful young woman dressed like a Gibson Girl&emdash;long green skirt, high-necked white blouse, very elegant. I see her at a window gazing out toward the sea. After a while, she just disappears.

Peer-Green is a center of spirit activity. Often she hears voices calling her Dottie, a childhood nickname unknown to others at the hotel.  She turns, expecting to see someone, but never does.

The Mendocino Hotel has been around long enough to attract a legion of ghosts. It’s the only remaining hotel from a time when Mendocino was a booming logging port&emdash;20,000 people lived there then as opposed to 1,000 today. Loggers were a rowdy bunch. The town was home to 19 saloons and no shortage of pool halls and fast houses.

As The Temperance House, the hotel was considered the bastion of good Christian morals. Today, the 1878 the structure has a more inviting ambiance. It’s small wonder that some spirits never want to leave.

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Built in 1838, the Stokes Adobe was a grand mansion, the residence of James Stokes, Monterey’s first mayor. Today it’s an elegantly appointed restaurant filled with antiques. The adobe walls, planked ceiling and knotty pine floors recall a time when Monterey was the Spanish capital of California.

Many appointments were in the house when the city was menaced in the 1840s by the fearsome pirate Hippolyte de Bouchard. Other fixtures date from the tempestuous era of Monterey’s assault by American forces. Parapsychologists speculate that the building contains energy implants, remnants of bygone terror still attached to the restaurant.

Former owner Kara Caswell disagrees. Two kinds of things happened when I was there. One involved ghosts that people saw, the other things that happened couldn’t logically be explained. Maybe ghosts caused the happenings as well&emdash;they definitely appeared to be directed by some kind of intelligence. 

She explains, The victims seemed chosen for some reason. We’d learn that an employee hadn’t been quite honest. Before we could fire him, he’d quit. The stories were always the same. Something seemed to be shaking them, pushing them on the stairs or they’d hear footsteps late at night when the restaurant was deserted. It seemed like a force was literally shaking these people up, telling them to shape up or get out&emdash;and that’s what happened. 

Once, we had a cranky bartender. He fixed drinks well enough, but customers didn’t like him. It’s hard to fire someone on the basis of personality alone, but that seemed the only course to take.

Fortunately, we didn’t have long to worry. First, he complained of glasses sliding off the bar. No one paid much attention. Then one night, I heard him yell. Rushing into the banquet room, I saw that the whole back bar&emdash;a massive mahogany thing&emdash;was moving.  I thought it was an earthquake, but everything else was still. Not so much as a prism of the crystal chandelier moved. That was the last we saw of the bartender. He left immediately.

One night, Caswell’s son, Charles, was polishing silver in the banquet room when he was startled by the sound of someone crying. Looking up, he saw the figure of a young woman in a long white dress.  I’m so sad, she said, wringing her hands.

The restaurant changed ownership several times, once remaining closed for five years. The ghosts stuck around. Again and again, diners inquire about a lady in black. Are you having a costume party upstairs? a guest asked, explaining that he’d glimpsed an older woman in a long, black gown ascending the stairs. There was no costume party.

Another man felt a gown sweep the back of his chair. Turning to see if there was room for someone to pass, he looked directly into the face of an older woman who melted into nothingness as she reached the stairway.
The present owners and staff are certain that the restaurant, now called Stokes Restaurant & Bar, is haunted. Manager Dino Giannetta tells of being tapped on the shoulder by invisible beings. It happens when I’m standing in a doorway&emdash;as though I’m blocking someone, he says. Staff members hear voices calling their names, see eerie reflections in the mirrors.

Once, Giannetta and two waitresses were cleaning up late at night when the electric power went out. They’d left their purses upstairs, he recalled. I went up with them only to hear something heavy being dragged across the first floor. We knew there was nothing there, but we all heard the sound. We had to go back down&emdash;there was no other way. It was pretty scary. Finding nothing, the trio locked up and left. They drove separately to their homes, each feeling an unexplained presence.

Such experiences are surprising and sometimes unnerving, Giannetta admits, but whoever or whatever the presence is, we feel that it likes us.

Stories of haunted restaurants abound. These are only a few. Next time you dine out, look beyond the menu. There’s no telling what you’ll see!

If You Go . . .

• Moss Beach Distillery, 140 Beach Way, Moss Beach; (650) 728-5595
• Mendocino Hotel and Garden Suites, 45080 Main St., Mendocino; (707) 937-0511
• Stokes Restaurant & Bar, 500 Hartnell St., Monterey; (831) 373-1110
• The Mansions, 2220 Sacramento St., San Francisco