Pilot Light Cafe offers a unique dining experience in the Bay Area


As another small blue plane soared into the air, I sank my teeth into a decadent cheeseburger piled high with toppings, letting the juices run down my fingers as I watched the private plane’s ascent through the sky. The angular figure grew smaller and smaller until it disappeared completely as it headed north along the coast, hovering over the ocean, toward a destination I wouldn’t know never.

There are plenty of places with unique scenery to enjoy a meal in the Bay Area, but Pilot Light Cafe, a restaurant at Half Moon Bay Airport, is one of the few places in the area. from the bay where aviation nerds, enthusiastic kids or any other locals missing from a bygone era can enjoy lunch with a side of high-flying entertainment. The cheeseburger was good, a quintessential smashburger with a slightly thicker patty, topped with a high quality cheddar cheese, a generous slice of tomato, several pickle chips and a soft toasted bun, but the standout part of this dining experience is that it’s one you can’t have anywhere.

It would be easy to miss the roadside shelter if you weren’t looking for it. The restaurant and airport are off Highway 1, just past Moss Beach, with a few signs warning you as you approach. The yellow and blue restaurant set to the side of idling planes and concrete runways appears to have been there for decades, and it has, although it has had a fresh coat of paint, an intentional decision by owners husband and wife Sachin Chopra and Shoshana Wolff. Wolff said they liked the nearly 80-year-old building and didn’t want to change the vibe too much, both because it was a beloved local hangout and because the simple building fits perfectly into the landscape.

Of course, the couple had to do some major renovations after taking it over from previous tenants. They gutted and expanded the kitchen and tore down the walls in the dining room, but wanted to retain the laid-back, laid-back vibe of their predecessors, 3-Zero Cafe, which had thrived there for 25 years until the owner wants to get out of the restaurant business entirely.

At the Pilot Light Cafe, patrons can dine and watch planes take off and land at Half Moon Bay Airport.

Brandon Harper

Wolff is a local herself, residing just a five-minute drive from the airfield. The only reason the duo found out the restaurant space was going to be available to rent was because they had been driving by one day.

They have an affinity for old, quirky buildings with lots of character – their first restaurant, All Spice, which held a coveted Michelin star for three years, is in a converted 116-year-old Victorian house in San Mateo – and Wolff have said he saw the same kind of charm in the old, chunky rectangular building.

Owners Shoshana Wolff, left, and Sachin Chopra stand outside the All Spice restaurant in San Mateo, California, January 11, 2022. The restaurant is in a historic 1906 Victorian home.

Owners Shoshana Wolff, left, and Sachin Chopra stand outside the All Spice restaurant in San Mateo, California, January 11, 2022. The restaurant is in a historic 1906 Victorian home.

Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

Additionally, Wolff saw the potential for an airport restaurant. She had always loved the restaurant at Watsonville Airport, near where she grew up, and thought she could give her own take on the concept.


The restaurant opened on January 29 and six months later she feels they are finally coming out of the learning phase. Being right next to an airfield without much wind protection can be risky with an outdoor patio, and much of their original porcelain broke in those first few months. They have since moved to more durable melamine tableware and they have also continued to refine the menu. They’ve also introduced special weekend events like a recent Father’s Day BBQ menu.

She said it might have taken even longer to get their bearings, but they were lucky enough to be able to not only move some staff to Half Moon Bay, but also try some dishes before the restaurant opened. During the pandemic, All Spice introduced the Brunch Service, where they worked for months on the Baby Hollandaise Recipe, the signature brunch dish that takes 20 minutes to prepare.

One menu item they knew they needed to include was the “$100 cheeseburger,” a staple of many small private airport restaurant menus. “A $16 lunch becomes $100 when you add the cost of fuel and landing fees,” Wolff said with a laugh. “It’s a standard pilot’s joke.”

At the Pilot Light Cafe, patrons can dine and watch planes take off and land at Half Moon Bay Airport.

At the Pilot Light Cafe, patrons can dine and watch planes take off and land at Half Moon Bay Airport.

Brandon Harper

I don’t think anyone would dispute that air travel has lost its glamour. In the 1950s and 1960s, people visited airports to go to gourmet restaurants and watch airplanes over a leisurely lunch. Not everyone could afford to fly, but they could sit and eat a meal while watching planes take off and land. A 2014 CityLab article cited a 1965 Cleveland Plain-Dealer ad that invited nearby residents to Cleveland Airport for New Year’s Eve celebrations. A 1941 Seattle Daily Times ad urged customers to “watch the planes come and go while you enjoy Thanksgiving dinner in the unique ‘Sky Room’.”

In the 1970s, air travel became more affordable. People have become busier. Attitudes towards airports have changed. I was 14 when the attacks of 9/11 changed air travel forever, eventually wiping out the experience of not only its presumed safety, but the leisure and excitement that precipitated travel. I had never visited a restaurant to watch planes take off and land.

At the Pilot Light Cafe, patrons can dine and watch planes take off and land at Half Moon Bay Airport.

At the Pilot Light Cafe, patrons can dine and watch planes take off and land at Half Moon Bay Airport.

Brandon Harper

Wolff said she hopes their restaurant captures even a small part of that excitement that once surrounded air travel. She said anecdotally that they had heard airport landings had increased since the restaurant opened, and although airport spokesman Davi Howard could not confirm this due to the short opening time, he said the parking lot was full every day. and the restaurant seems very popular.

“[People] I just want to come in and have a good breakfast and watch the planes take off and have a good time with their families,” Wolff said.

At the Pilot Light Cafe, patrons can dine and watch planes take off and land at Half Moon Bay Airport.

At the Pilot Light Cafe, patrons can dine and watch planes take off and land at Half Moon Bay Airport.

Brandon Harper

Pilot Light Cafe, 9850 Cabrillo Highway, Half Moon Bay. Open Tuesday to Sunday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Closed on Monday.

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