“This is Monterey, we pound people with nice,” says Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) in one of the opening scenes of Big Little Lies. “To death,” adds her friend, Celeste (Nicole Kidman). These two fashionable moms are relaxing on the patio of a Blue Blues, a quaint coffee shop overlooking a sleepy harbor, along with Jane (Shailene Woodley), a new mom who they met while dropping their kids off at school that morning. “Sometimes when I’m in a new place, I get this sensation, like, if only I were here,” Jane says to her new friends after the coffee arrives. “It’s like I’m on the outside looking in. I see this life and this moment and it’s wonderful, but it doesn’t quite belong to me.”
That also applies to the experience of watching HBO’s hit drama. The women of Big Little Lies — which is returning for its second season on Sunday, June 9 — live in a world of seemingly endless wealth and natural beauty. They wear stylish clothes, live in stunning seaside homes, and drink their coffee at a charming little cafe with a view of sailboats gliding into the harbor. But despite this envious lifestyle, their world is far from perfect: The community of Monterey is prone to gossip, back-biting, and infidelity. Celeste’s home life is particularly awful, filled with her husband’s violent outbursts. And although the show begins with a friendly coffee date on the pier, it ends with these three friends and two other moms all dressed like various versions of Audrey Hepburn, standing over a dead body.
Like Breaking Bad or the Sopranos, Big Little Lies is a series that’s tied to a very specific place. Liane Moriarty’s source-material novel is set in a town on the Australian coast, but creator-writer David E. Kelley and his team decided to move the action to the picturesque Central California hamlet of Monterey. The town is a year-round tourist destination thanks, in part, to a world-famous aquarium and two historic piers. But what Kelley and director Jean-Marc Vallée created on-screen is a romanticized version, one where the sky is pleasantly gray and it’s always the right time to light a fire and pour a glass of red wine. As a viewer, the more that you become enchanted by the majestic houses, cozy cafes, and sweeping vistas, the more you realize just how much these women stand to lose if something goes wrong.
To create this stylized version of Monterey, Kelley and his production team filmed in the town itself as well as on sound stages and at locations around Los Angeles. Visually, the series makes a big distinction between domestic life (isolated mansions, perched on a cliff), and the community of Monterey (a bustling town, grounded at sea level). Although it’s technically located in Big Sur about 20 miles south of Monterey, the sweeping Bixby Creek Bridge is used to tie these two worlds together. And way down at the shallow end, far away from the messiness of home life, sits Blue Blues, the only truly safe space in the Big Little Lies universe.
“I’m going to fill you in on a big secret that I don’t think many people know about,” says Greg Alpert, the show’s location manager. “Blue Blues was actually shot on a stage in Los Angeles.” During scouting trips to Monterey, Alpert and his crew found their inspiration at an Italian restaurant at the end of the famed Fisherman’s Wharf: Paluca Trattoria. Open since the 1970s, the restaurant had the look they were going for — a snug hideaway that’s just a little bit rough around the edges. But instead of filming on location, the production team took measurements of the Paluca space, filmed the surrounding area, and recreated the restaurant at a studio using a green screen, so that they could fill in “plate” shots of the harbor in post production. “The fog rolls in whenever it wants to,” says set decorator Amy Wells. “It doesn’t ask permission, the cold and the wind comes with it, and it’s not that easy to shoot out on the pier in Monterey.”
Filming on a sound stage also allowed production designer John Paino to build a space that had a slightly different vibe inside. “I’ve done a lot of shows in Atlanta, and I’ve looked at a lot of cafes there that were run by women that had a lot of those silly knick-knacks that say, like, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,’” Paino explains. “I loved that aesthetic, that reclaimed farmhouse look, but in our case it would be reclaimed marine.”
The Blue Blues cafe set has a real, functioning espresso machine, and walls adorned with photos of old Monterey that Wells sourced from a local archivist. All of the woodwork and fixtures have a pleasantly worn-in feel, giving the space a bit more of a history: The time-worn look suggests the cafe might have been something else decades ago — perhaps a tavern — but the new owners never bothered to make any upgrades. Paino says that he wanted to evoke one of those Atlanta coffee shops where customers “knew that men probably would not go into that much and could actually talk openly and not worry about people.”
The recreation of the wharf-side restaurant’s exterior was so convincing that Paluca Trattoria has been mobbed by Big Little Lies fans since the show premiered two years ago. On a recent weekday at around noon, owner Sal Tedesco estimated that 20 fans of the show had already stopped by that day to take photos on the restaurant patio. “They just love it,” he says. “I tell people, it’ll make a great Christmas card this year.”
Tedesco says that when he was originally approached by HBO about filming in and around Paluca to recreate the restaurant on a soundstage, he had no idea who was involved — but now he’s certainly glad he agreed to work with them. A small framed sign hangs in the window bearing a photo of Kidman, Witherspoon, and Woodley from the pilot, along with the words, “Our little gem by the bay was selected as one of the filming locations for the HBO series, Big Little Lies.”
The moms of Monterey also frequent another restaurant throughout the show, one fancier than Blue Blues, and considerably less discreet. It’s here, at the Side Door Cafe, where, after sharing glasses of wine with Celeste one evening, Madeline gets into a shouting match with one of the most powerful people in her orbit, Renata Klein (Laura Dern). It’s also where Madeline has a lively conversation about parenting with her ex-husband, Nathan (James Tupper), that ends with him inviting her family over for dinner. Side Door needed to be a space where the different Monterey cliques could overlap; a bar that was both swanky enough to befit Renata the philanthropic tech CEO, but casual enough for Madeline and Nathan to share a beer and talk about the “traditional parenting paradigm.”
“When we were looking for that location, I remember Jean-Marc saying, ‘You know, something like Restaurant 1833,” Alpert says, referring to a Monterey restaurant with a spacious terrace that the production team visited while scouting. (The restaurant has since closed.) Alpert found a sandwich shop in Pasadena with a courtyard under a massive tree that they transformed into a facsimile of the Monterey restaurant, complete with fire pits and strings of twinkling lights. “When I talked to friends in Monterey afterwards, they were like, ‘Oh my god, you shot that in 1833,” Alpert remarks. “And I’m like, ‘No we didn’t we didn’t: We shot it in Los Angeles, but that was the inspiration.’”
Last summer, the cast and crew — including Big Little Lies newcomer Meryl Streep — filmed the second season on location in Monterey and nearby Carmel. And for the production team, a return to California’s Central Coast meant an opportunity to dive even deeper into the local culture, and bring products from some of their favorite small businesses on camera.
To further round out this stylized vision of Monterey, the show’s new prop master, Jane Gulick, scoured local wineries, markets, and restaurants, and filled the on-screen kitchens with the kind of goods that real-life Madelines and Celestes might have in their homes. “I had tons of vineyards involved, and there’s this kid who’s 12 years old who started his own honey company — the Carmel Honey Company — and we used his honey,” she says. “A local juice person crafted all the cold-pressed juices — they’re from Katie’s Coldpress — and I had local kombuchas on set.” Gulick also says that the kitchens will be stocked with pickles and jams from Happy Girl Kitchen, a restaurant that the cast frequented while shooting the new episodes. “It’s always those added things that help make it that much more authentic,” Alpert says.
A new season of HBO’s show is, of course, good news for Monterey business owners. “Big Little Lies has had a huge impact on the local area,” says Jessica Lessard of the Monterey County Convention & Visitors Bureau. “We like to think of Monterey County as one of the stars of the show, and it certainly has encouraged people to come to Monterey and walk in the stars’ footsteps.”
And if the new season of Big Little Lies brings even more fans of the show to Fisherman’s Wharf, Sal Tedesco will be ready for them at Paluca Trattoria. “I had to go buy a bigger espresso machine,” he says, “because I couldn’t keep up with the coffee sales.”
Greg Morabito is Eater’s pop culture editor.