- Flora Tsapovsky
- LET THE SUN IN New owner Stephen Compagni Portis has given the Jenner Inn a new life.
Jenner occupies a prime piece of coastal real estate between Bodega Bay and Fort Ross at the mouth of the Russian River.
Hundreds of tourists stop here every week year-round to photograph the stunning views and enjoy the world-famous Highway 1. And yet for the last few years the front-and-center Jenner By the Sea Inn was ghost-town empty, its restaurant and bar perpetually closed, leaving visitors with the small, day-time Cafe Aquatica or the upscale River's End.
This spring, however, locals and tourists woke up to a new reality.
Bay Area entrepreneur Stephen Compagni Portis, "just a guy trying to do stuff that's meaningful," bought the property from Richard Murphy, and the business underwent a revival.
"I've been coming to the area for 40 years, and this place was essentially dead when I talked to the owner and found out he wanted to sell," says Portis. Along with an extensive renovation of the rooms, the crown jewel of the inn is its restaurant, a bright, inviting space offering breakfast, lunch and dinner all week long.
Entrepreneurial spirit is infectious. Monica Padua, a chocolatier and chef who worked across the highway at Cafe Aquatica at the time, felt moved to take part in the inn's rebirth and approached Portis with a food-centered business plan. Soon enough, Padua and her team took over the kitchen. A menu was built, the facilities remodeled, the space reimagined and groovy music started welcoming the intrigued clientele. Communal sitting, big plants and bright colors came to replace the cluttered, old-fashioned furniture and the supremacy of dark brown wood. The bar received the playful name "Mermaid Cove," and you can now say "Jenner" and "DJ" in the same sentence, thanks to the music events held on weekends.
"We're trying to create a space that offers wholesome food, a place to rest, things that nourish the soul," says Portis. "The nature here is off the charts, so it's a good place to channel your spirit. Food and shelter are the basics."
This spiritual attitude, as well as the benefit of working and socializing locally, attracted Jenner's small, youthful population.
"The previous staff didn't feel they fit the culture of youth and family we're trying to create," says Portis. The younger population embraced the opportunity to contribute. Other Cafe Aquatica veterans, including Padua's partner, Robert, and twenty- and thirty-somethings, now staff the kitchen and reception. The vibe at the new eatery is fittingly upbeat, cozy and efficient—one counter reads "Ask" and the other, "Receive." The menus are plainly laminated like at a fast-food diner, but the ingredients are anything but plain.
"We try to bring casual comfort food to the coast," says Padua.
With a degree from the Culinary Institute of America and previous experience in building restaurants from scratch, Padua has created an affordable, crowd-pleasing menu designed to cater to the international tourist as well as the mindful West County foodie. All products are organic and sourced from local farmers and ranchers, in order to create "familiar flavors, done in a different way."
A perfect example is the bowl of wild smoked salmon chowder, made with fingerling potatoes and bacon ($8). The broth has a beautiful rusty hue, and the taste, well-rounded and borderline sweet, is something you crave days later. From the breakfast menu, the Goat Rock crêpe ($9) is made with regular and buckwheat flour and smothered with Niman Ranch bacon and cheddar, runny egg on top. This is a mild, satisfying and comforting dish that won't change your life, but will keep you full and happy until noon.
For lunch, it doesn't get any better than the turkey club burger ($12). The patty is flavorful and juicy, and the avocado, cheddar and bacon toppings dress it up. Everything, from the bun to the ketchup accompanying the crispy, spicy fries, is made from scratch. For dessert, options revolve around crêpes and sundaes, but why not get a luscious, healthy smoothie to go? Surfer and Starfish ($6) are not too sweet and delightfully creamy, perfect to take to the beach.
As if delicious food in a gorgeous setting and spiritual atmosphere isn't enough, the whole experience comes with a very West County community angle. Both Padua and Portis stress the "collective" aspect of their new venture. "We're not trying to make money," says Portis, "just to make sure everybody's involved and be as hospitable and warm as we can."
Padua reveals that all kitchen staff members receive the same salary and make decisions together. The occasional traveler might not know that, but at least the prime real estate is now backed up with something to remember it for.
Jenner By the Sea Inn & Eatery, 10400 Hwy. 1, Jenner. 707.865.2377.