Morning clouds float through downtown San Pedro like dandelions caught in a port breeze. In the distance, cranes sprout from behind stacks of cargo containers like trees atop a corrugated mountain range. It's a collision of industry and history, a nascent neighborhood of century-old stores and glistening new lofts. And feeding it all is Nosh Cafe, a homey hub of a restaurant that prepares simple, seasonal cooking with an Australian accent.
Tins of golden syrup (a viscous amber treacle) and jars of Vegemite are edible ornamentation. Squat bottles of Bundaberg ginger beer sit in kangaroo-clad four-packs. Nosh surrounds itself with these Aussie essentials, flavors of empire and independence alike. For owner Susan McKenna, they're tastes of home.
McKenna packed up her pantry and settled in San Pedro some 20 years ago. Having previously run a cafe on a rough-hewn Sydney street, she's brought a Down Under touch to San Pedro that flourishes at the nearly 3-year-old Nosh. Yet as the restaurant has become the criterion by which the harbor measures its cafe culture, McKenna maintains her humility.
" 'Restaurant' might be too grandiose a term," she laughs. "Nosh was just supposed to be a place to get coffee and some toast."
From that understatement often comes grace. It's a trait found in every bowl of breakfast rice pudding, as creamy and substantial as risotto. The pudding — a milky oatmeal alternative spiked with cinnamon — is horchata as breakfast, made complete with a poached pear or a cup of fresh fruit.
House-made croissants — weightless crescents baked to a tawny sheen — are excellent on their own or made into a sandwich stuffed with an egg and brown-sugar bacon. Mornings become inventive with what Nosh calls a breakfast pie, a kind of muffin-ized frittata McKenna developed to feed the mobile needs of her bike-riding customers. Suspended in a fluffy mass of eggs is a ribbon of ham, spinach, mushrooms and chunks of roasted tomato. It's baked in a muffin cup for maximum portability.
Nosh has something for every hour of the day, even between meals. Late risers might try fulfilling McKenna's vision with a piece of toast topped with bangers and caramelized onions or goat cheese, honey and dates. Those running on empty can snack on a sausage encased in golden, buttery pastry.
Afternoons are spent over sandwiches, soups and mint-kissed lemonades. Options are uncomplicated but elegant, like the chicken curry sandwich dotted with golden raisins and sweetened with mango chutney, or the turkey, poached pear and brie panino. Soups follow the ebbs and flows of the market. One month might bring carrot-onion and roasted corn soups, another watermelon gazpacho and vegan black bean chili.
The cafe doesn't do dinner, but customers can still make an evening out of Nosh's deli case. Aussie-style meat pies are meals in themselves, what feels like a pound of minced meat enclosed in a cushion-shaped shell of flaky pastry. If it's not too late, snag a few scoops of the day's prepared salads and some of the Mediterranean tart blanketed with artichokes, mushrooms, olives and bell peppers.
Dessert is an all-day affair. Start with a piece of apple-raisin cake and finish with a cup of bread pudding or a couple of Anzac biscuits, eggless Australian cookies of rolled oats, shredded coconut and golden syrup. Named in honor of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, the biscuit originated during World War I as a home-cooked treat that could survive the long trip to the trenches. Even a single Anzac biscuit satisfies like a rich, chewy granola bar.
For downtown San Pedro, Nosh Cafe is a transformative place, one defined by a nuance and thoughtfulness that eludes many of the neighborhood's blunter greasy spoons. McKenna says she's always been driven by the notion that commercial endeavors can change communities, and that philosophy takes on real-world relevance every morning at Nosh as diners arrive for a slice of quiche and a café au lait long before the harbor haze has had a chance to lift.
Location: 617 S. Centre St., San Pedro, (310) 514-1121
Price: Breakfasts, $2.50 to $9.50; sandwiches, salads and combos, $4.50 to $10; deli case items, $2 to $5.50; pastries and desserts, $1.75 to $4.25.
Details: Open 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Street parking. Credit cards accepted.