Pine House Café serves up hospitality and home-cooked food

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WEBPine House Cafe on January 7, 2016.jpg

With 2016 as the year for inclement weather, the mountains of San Diego County are sure to be a destination spot for revelers in the snow. After snowman building, a big appetite for comfort food and hot cider kick in. Getting something wonderful to eat and drink at the Pine House Café and Tavern is worth the journey to the mountains for both kids and adults. 

With 2016 as the year for inclement weather, the mountains of San Diego County are sure to be a destination spot for revelers in the snow. After snowman building, a big appetite for comfort food and hot cider kick in. Getting something wonderful to eat and drink at the Pine House Café and Tavern is worth the journey to the mountains for both kids and adults. 

Nica Knite, owner of the café, makes the place smell amazing with her homemade Mac ‘n Cheese and Apple Cobbler. For her, the café has been a journey as well. It is based on her love for the mountains and trees, which she learned from her beloved grandfather. 

“He taught me a deep love for our natural world and even though I lived in the city, I knew by the time I was 6 or 7 that I would live in the mountains and forest because it’s the only place I’ve ever felt at home,” Knite said.  

Her life’s journey didn’t go as planned. As a single mom for more than 25 years, Knite lived in various urban and suburban areas in California, Nevada and the Pacific Northwest, the latter “where my intense love for forest environs reached new heights,” she said.

When she returned to southern California in 1994 to care for her parents, Knite rediscovered the Cleveland National Forest. She spent hours camping, hiking, and picnicking in the Laguna Mountains. 

Knite eventually bought her own 20-acre piece of property. “Pristine forest, meadows, chaparral and even the edge of a creek here in Mt. Laguna,” she said.

Soon after moving into her dream property, she heard of the Sunrise Café being up for sale. Her friends and family members encouraged her to look into it.

When she walked into the Sunrise Café and saw the big tree in the middle of the building, she fell in love with the place.

Knite was a professional environmental activist throughout the decade, using endangered species’ protections, laws and rules to save and restore large masses of natural wild lands and rivers & streams.  

“I loved the work. “Enviros” lose more than we win—but when we win it’s so gratifying,” she said.

In taking over the restaurant and renaming it Pine House Café and Restaurant, Knite has also restored a deeper sense of community of the Mt. Laguna area, both for visitors and locals. She serves up hospitality as warm as her favorite apple cobbler. This time of year is her busiest.

On January 7, Kite was scrambling to get more servers and helpers to accommodate the hungry hikers. “We’ve gotten over a foot of snow since last evening with more coming fast,” she said.

In fact, the hikers and others exploring the Pacific Crest Trail have been the regulars at the café since Knite opened in 2009.  But in 2014 the publication of the book “Wild” led to an uptick in the number of people on the trail. Many of them were not experienced or well enough prepared for serious hiking.

So Pine House started the tradition of opening for weather stranded hikers carrying heavy gear of sleeping bags and tents in 20-degree temperatures. Caught in snowstorms, they often were soaked to the skin.

“Mt. Laguna is a remarkable place and I would never want our part of the Pacific Crest Trail to have a reputation for anything other than as an epic hiking destination,” Knite said.

The hikers had “slumber parties” on the Pine House Café floors.

In the spring of 2015, with the release of the movie “Wild,” the number of PCT hikers increased by 500 percent. A series of small but icy cold storms stranded hikers by the dozens.

“So we again opened up for slumber parties. We had 47 hikers on one night sleeping on the Pine House Floors,” Knite said.

Pine House Café is normally open Thursday through Sunday, but stayed open seven days a week for April and May. The hikers helped out by moving furniture in and out, cleaning bathrooms, washing dishes and even prep cooking. 

“You see, Snow Days in Mt Laguna are our busiest days of the year. Spectators from all across Sothern California come to sled, build snowmen, and enjoy our fleeting winter wonderland.  

“So our level of busy and spread thin is at an all time high when there’s snow. Without the gracious help of the PCT hikers, we could never have pulled it off,” Knite said.

Pine House Café’s hospitality keeps bringing hikers around and the food warms their hearts as much as their stomachs. All of the foods are recipes created by Knite herself. A favorite of everyone’s is her signature cobbler. 

“I came up with the recipe when I was 14 years old. The idea came from a recipe my Auntie Joan made using boxed or canned items. I wanted to make it from scratch. So I have Buttered Pecan Crumbled Crust over Brandy and Brown Sugar Simmered Fruit,” she said.

Knite has big plans for Pine House Café’s future, which includes cabins, and upgraded RV campground, an events center, a community garden, horse stables, a microbrewery and a small store.

The café’s famous live music programs will continue every weekend. 

“So all in all, we will be developing a beautiful destination resort in San Diego’s own Sierras,” Knite said.

Pine House Café is located at 9849 Sunrise Hwy. Check the website for more details at www.pinehousecafe.com.

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