In keeping with this issue's theme of exploring "hidden" wonders of the North Bay, we offer with a flourish our short-list of fabulous overlooked spots that offer surprising outdoor appeal, are locals-only, morph from one vibe to the next or simply shouldn't be missed. Contributing are Brett Ascarelli, Gretchen Giles, Patricia Lynn Henley and Amanda Yskamp.
"Tell me again where Valley Ford is," my husband doggedly demands. A Brit who's lived in Sonoma County for 11 years, reads a map like it's Dostoevsky and knows that Montana abuts Idaho (a revelation to me), Valley Ford has somehow remained a Valhalla of mystery to him. I impatiently remind that it's on Highway 1 between Petaluma and Bodega Bay, that the town's post office is a glory of Running Fence memorabilia and that there's that super little restaurant with the awkward name smack amid the blink-and-you-miss-it and that he's to be there by 6pm. Located in the old Valley Ford Hotel, Rocker Oysterfellers is a revelation, a great eatery with a fabulous outdoor space that plays host each Sunday in good weather to free live music. A split-level wooden deck allows visitors to either sit facing the band or enjoy being tucked away behind the speaker's blast and actually converse. Local oysters certainly abound, but the menu also includes marvelous preparations of wild salmon, Sonoma lamb and pulled pork, the wine list is heavy on North Bay boutiques and the mixed drinks are a steal. The kind of out-of-the-way spot you think you're sneaking into, Rocker Oysterfellers is very much a place where half your friends are already in the bar when you do sneak in. "You came the long way," my husband smugly announces when I arrive at 6. "I'll show you the fast way back." Rocker Oysterfellers, 14415 Hwy. 1, Valley Ford. 707.876.1983. --G.G.
Those who go looking for Stella's Cafe in its former location next to Mom's Pies on Sebastopol's Gravenstein Highway will stare into the windows of a vacant building, beholding a reflection of their own disappointment. But don't be so sad, Stella's isn't gone. Not at all. It's just picked itself up and moved not even a mile down the road. The new digs, on the grounds of the Russian River Vineyards, former site of Topolos, allow Stella's to stretch its sizeable limbs and achieve a kind of landed-gentry grace it aspired to on that cute but puny outdoor veranda but never quite could.
The new patio is simply splendid, on several levels, some parts shaded by wisteria, others by vast, green market umbrellas, with heat lamps for cooler evenings. What hasn't changed are Stella's offerings and the good eye the restaurant has for local wines. Chef and owner Gregory Hallihan continues to blend flavors from Asia, the Middle East, New Orleans and Europe, using the freshest ingredients to please both those who have sought the restaurant out for the first time and those who keep coming back. Stella's Cafe, 5700 Gravenstein Hwy. N. Forestville. 707.887.1562.--A.Y.
Drakes Beach Cafe
Although it's not necessary to circumnavigate the globe, skirmish with hostile natives or brave Pacific storms as namesake Sir Francis Drake did on his Golden Hinde, a trip to Drakes Beach Cafe is sure to be an adventure. Travel over a fog-draped wash through historic ranch land into the Point Reyes National Seashore park to what is arguably the nicest beach on Point Reyes, backed by a stretch of cliffs (so resembling the white cliffs of Sussex that Drake named this place Nova Albion or New Britain).
The food, however, didn't have to travel so far. Jane Kennedy and Ben Angulo, the young local couple who've recently taken on the venture, are dedicated to keeping their offerings organic and local. Their front window bears testimony to their efforts, showing an aerial photograph of where they get their delicious handcrafted bread (Brickmaiden Bakery), organic ice cream (Straus Organic Dairy), oysters and grass-fed beef (Lunny Farm), and fresh produce (Star Route Farms)--all within a few miles of the beach. Bring your own booty of wine along, though; they have no liquor license. Housed in a weathered wood structure adjoining the visitor center and with a view of the ocean that rivals some ships, Drakes Beach Cafe is unlike any other National Park food counter, making it a New World discovery worth seeking out. Drake's Beach Cafe, 1 Drakes Beach Road, Point Reyes National Seashore. Reservations necessary. 415.669.1297.--A.Y.
Headlands Center for the Arts (Or: Make my Mother's Day, Punk)
During my mom's first visit to California, she exhaustively worked her way through two Moon travel guides and one Frommer's. As Mother's Day approached, so did her second visit. How to fete her? A discussion on composting toilet art was the best I could offer.
The talk was being sponsored by Sausalito's Headlands Center for the Arts, practically the only attraction she hadn't seen yet. We'd go in time for dinner, as I'd heard that the Headlands serves a famously mouth-watering buffet before all of the artist talks there.
Flushed with the impending embarrassment of the night's conversation topic, we first found our way to the Mess Hall and lined up at the kitchen counter. Wriggling into a couple of empty seats at a long, wooden table, we set in on sesame noodles, greens with a savory dressing, tender chicken and tumblers of wine.
It was awkward at first--even for my mom, who is a social Charlemagne. To one side of us sat a clique of punks, faces drooping with metal, skin besmirched with ink. My mother's inner conqueror finally emerged when she miraculously found a conversational in with them. The slight young man seated to her left with coarse peroxide locks that protruded from his otherwise shaved scalp, admitted to residing in her native New York.
"Are you an artist-in-residence here?" she asked.
"Well, they pay me to be here," he sneered, hardly looking up from his fork.
Unfazed, my mom continued to chat with him.
Meanwhile, I turned to the other side, where the diners looked less intimidating. Hoping for warmer reception, I struck up conversation with a clean-cut twenty-something wearing a cowboy shirt who turned out to be Nat Keefe, the guitarist and vocalist for the bluegrass band, Hot Buttered Rum.
The band typically spend about 180 days a year touring in a 40-foot bus that runs on vegetable oil. On a break, Keefe had come to the Headlands to visit the assistant chef, an old high school buddy. Trying to feel out whether it would be bad form to leave the Headlands directly after dinner, thereby sparing my mom the WC-inspired portion of the evening, I asked Keefe if he would attend the composting-art lecture.
He wasn't sure. He had a party to go to that night elsewhere, but he encouraged us to go; the last Headland's lecture he attended was mind-blowing.
Meanwhile, my mom was still chatting up the punk. I overheard something about Vegas nuptials for him and his pink-haired companion.
When she asked what media he did, someone piped up that he did paintings and drawings with watercolor. He quickly corrected, "I don't think I've ever done a fucking watercolor in my life!" He uses acrylics and ink.
"His work must be pretty hot shit if they're paying him to be here," I later said, making sure he was in earshot.
"Actually, I think everyone gets a stipend to be here," he conceded.
We said goodbye to our new friends and walked into the salty wind. "That was fun!" mom said. "When would I ever in my life have talked to someone who looked like he did?"
Because this is how life goes, the young punk was Zak Smith, the Yale-educated artist whose work was honored at the 2004 Whitney Biennial before he was 30. Not only is he an artist, but under the name Zak Sabbath, he is also a porn star.
"What!" my mom exclaimed. "And here I was asking him, 'So, how do you like Brooklyn?'" Headlands Center for the Arts, 944 Ft. Barry, Sausalito. Mess Hall open in conjunction with any artist talk at 6pm. $15. 415.331.2787.--B.A.
By day, St. Helena's swanky sushi joint C.C. Blue metes out Godzilla rolls like nobody's business. But on Fridays and Saturdays after dinner service is eighty-sixed, chef Remington Cox and his staff prepare for a quick-change act that they brag is now down to 15 minutes. Hauling out the chairs and tables, they race to a carless hot-rod trailer that Remington leaves parked out back. This is where he stores a second set of furniture. After a few heave-ho's, along with mood lighting and music, C.C. Blue becomes an octopus' garden nightscape. Happy, hungry fishies who've swum in to chill can devour cold sushi and wildly creative desserts from a special late-night menu. Making do without a liquor license, the staff fill glassware with saketinis and fruit purées, but drinking like a fish is discouraged. This is the only lounge we know of that's open so late in St. Helena--and possibly the entire Napa Valley. But please don't tell anyone. The chef isn't advertising it. C.C. Blue, 1148 Main St., St. Helena. Late-night service from 11pm to 2am-ish, Friday and Saturday. 707.967.9100.--B.A.
Gen X-ers and Y-ers aren't usually equated with the middle-aged Napa Valley landscape. But surprisingly, a healthy number of them burrow there, toiling away for the county's ever-hungry service industry. From time to time, comparative herds of them gather, shedding the stress of side work and wine-spieling. But where to party in an area where nightlife is scarcer than cork taint?
Domaine Chandon, that's where. Come evening, the Yountville winery and restaurant exhales into a lounge, étoile--a name that successfully attracts Francophiles (and perhaps the occasional e.e. cummings buff?).
As a DJ spun dance-pop one recent night, youthful, glitzy patrons gathered by heat-lamps on the deck and poured bottles of effervescent rosé into flutes for each other.
Naturally, étoile doesn't have a hard-liquor license, though it can serve any grape-based liquor on the property. So the lounge relies on Chandon's sparkling productions to fuel the stress discharge. (As a subsidiary of the luxury brand LVMH, the lounge also stocks a glamorous selection of wine from its sister companies, from St. Helena's Newton Vineyards to New Zealand's Cloudy Bay.)
Wine cocktails also abound. The California Sunshine, for example, mixes blood orange, vanilla syrup, red brandy and sparkling wine. Noshy minglers can indulge in serious appetizers, like lobster beignets with chipotle mayo ($12), or homey desserts, like a chocolate "gooey" cake ($15, a price which had better include the whole damn cake), while sophisticates whirl brandy snifters and nose cigars. étoile (Wine Lounge at Domaine Chandon), 1 California Drive, Yountville. Nightly from now until November, 6pm to last call. Bubble (happy) hour from 6pm to 7pm. 707.204.7529.--B.A.
Highway 29 Cafe
If it weren't for its location, Highway 29 Cafe would be nothing special. It's just an ordinary greasy spoon, where red-aproned waitresses greet most of their patrons by name and call the few they don't know "honey." It's the kind of place where the mugs are all mismatched and where the menu simply offers a choice between Chardonnay and Cabernet. But the cafe--more of a diner, really, considering its reliance on eggs and stacks--carries out its humble business in Napa Valley, and that makes it damned special. Somehow, the cafe has managed to hang on to its small-town feel, despite the valley's pervasive tourist upscaling.
During a lull one recent morning, "Rhiannon" plays on the radio and a middle-aged man drinks coffee out of a Tigger mug. Nearby, a young woman with a hearts mug plows into a cheese omelet, which has come with some very generously buttered rye toast.
The waitresses take turns eating their breakfast at the end of the bar, hopping up at intervals to check on their customers. One of the waitresses flips through the Napa Valley Register and remarks, "So-and-so got a 4.0!" For a minute or so, they discuss whether or not the student will be able to maintain her grade point average. They hope so.
Then their attention is pulled away by something happening outside. One of their regulars is parking his truck. Badly. He takes several passes, and in the final attempt flattens a large patch of shrubbery. They giggle. Highway 29 Cafe, 101 Cafe Court (off of Highway 29), American Canyon. Open daily for breakfast and lunch. 707.224.6303.--B.A.
Quick dining snapshots by Bohemian staffers.
Winery news and reviews.
Food-related comings and goings, openings and closings, and other essays for those who love the kitchen and what it produces.
Recipes for food that you can actually make.