What completes a drive in the country better than a welcoming repast at a historic tavern or roadhouse? There's little I relish more than coming upon such a place, windows all aglow, as seen from the byways. And so it was that I determined to explore the North Bay in search of the ultimate roadhouse.
There are several food types that can't be found in roadhouses, and those include haute cuisine, vegan options, diet plates, fusion foods and nouveau anything. This food is, with few exceptions, abundant, old-school, starchy, fried, carnivore-friendly and usually pretty dang soul-satisfying. So while there are few surprises, it's surprising how comforting it is to predict the meal to a T (bone). In most cases, the so-called dining experience surpasses the dining, the mood trumps the food.
Before I set out on my wayfarer's way, I decided that I would visit only those roadhouses that have served food and drink since before 1900. Many once provided lodging to the weary traveler, but with one exception, they no longer do. The list I came up with is by no means comprehensive, but was sufficient to draw me from my warm house to wander hither and thither for days. Hours vary, so it's a good idea to call ahead.
Adobe House Restaurant376 Soscol Ave., Napa. 707.255.4331.
History Housed in Napa's oldest building, circa 1840, Adobe House Restaurant occupies the old homestead of Don Cayetano Juarez, captain of the militia during the Bear Flag Revolt. As the story goes, Don Juarez tried to save General Vallejo by sending his brother dressed as a woman to offer help in Vallejo's escape. Vallejo refused, only to regret it later. And, as the saying goes, the rest is history.
The Drive After fields glowing with mustard and sorrel, vineyards like corn-rowed hair, grazing livestock and hunched-over emus, we entered Napa's charm and commercialization. The restaurant is on a busy intersection, right at the foot of the Silverado Trail.
Pickup-to-Foreign-Car Ratio 0/100. Inexplicably, every car in the parking lot was either cherry red or chromium yellow, sporty beyond belief and shined to within an inch of its late-model life.
Menu Mostly bar food, the menu is bare-bones basic but priced right, with snacks (garlic fries, onion rings, buffalo wings), burgers, sandwiches, fish and chips, caesar salad and spaghetti--none of it over $9.
Décor and Ambiance This place is the real deal. Outside, a tumble-down porch is crowded with huge terra cotta planters, rusted urns and boulders. Bits of grass and twigs compressed in the 167-year-old adobe bricks stick out. Inside, the thick dark walls, the five-foot-high doorways (watch your head!), the crackling fire and a friendly, beery stink wrap you in a sensurround experience so strong you'll blink like a matinée-goer, stepping back into the modern era.
"Hon" Factor High. Our waitress, Mary Ponte, informed us that she is also the owner, the janitor and "just about everything else" (this said with a genial, go-figure roll of her eyes). Although there was not one, but two menu notes demanding no substitutes, it was Mary herself who prompted us to go ahead, substitute away.
Dead Cow Count Only the odd one caught in a veritable henhouse of chicken dishes.
Grease Alert Don't ask, don't tell.
Distinctions Oldest. Coolest. Cheapest. Biggest contrast with environs.
Kid Appeal/Tolerance The food appeals to kids' usual palate, and if they don't eat it all, you haven't blown too much dough. The low doorways make them feel big.
Raising the Bar The place to be on a cool night and the reason to make a detour here. The bar has a fireplace at one end and is positively ensconced with echoes from early rancho life.
Eavesdropped "How's whosy doing? No, not that whosy, the other one."
Calistoga Inn1250 Lincoln Ave., Calistoga. 707.942.4101.
History Built in 1882, the Inn made it through the Depression, periods of neglect and five major wars. In 1987, the Inn launched Calistoga Beer and the Napa Valley Brewing Company, the first time in more than half a century that beer was brewed commercially in Napa County. The hotel, restaurant and brewery continue to be run by a mother-and-son team, Susan "Rosie" Dunsford and Michael Dunsford Jr.
The Drive We took the Silverado Trail past innumerable vineyards and multimillion-dollar estates, with amazing views of the Napa Valley and the lavender and slate-gray hills that surround it like two hands cupping a flame, then past all the boutiques and bistros that line Calistoga's main drag to the very end where the Inn anchors the town.
Pickup-to-Foreign-Car Ratio 10/90.
Menu At an entirely singular end of this venture's dining spectrum, with dishes that challenge pronunciation, attention to season (and creative seasoning) and an overall lighter touch. Country paella shoulders up against chicken abruzze, pot roast converses with duck pasta and the prices are between $16 and $29. Even a sandwich sets you back more than $12. In addition to a full bar, the Calistoga Inn features its own Napa Valley Brewing Company beers brewed onsite and does justice to the county with a respectable wine list.
Décor and Ambiance Isn't it just the way? The place that tries hardest to be the quaintest ends up with its effort at center stage? The dining room is celery with white wainscoting, adorned with antique turkey platters and mismatched floral plates, embroidered tea towels, paint-chipped porch doors, garden gates and window frames, all shabby-chic up the wazoo. The real treat is the large outdoor patio under the oak trees with a view of the creek, the chic passersby and the stainless steel beer tanks housed in the original water tower. It's the perfect place to while away a warm evening, listening to music, trying to recall the names of all the wineries you visited that day.
"Hon" Factor Zero. Our waiter was an elegant, bald Tunisian man, with steel-framed spectacles, the most genteel manner and consummate service skills.
Dead Cow Count The carnage is shared almost equally among mammals, fish and fowl, with a lesser, but not insignificant, toll on spinach and field greens.
Grease Alert Green. The fries that accompanied the kids' selections are the exception--grease used to great advantage, browning those skinny, crunchy things and helping the garlic bits and salt to adhere. Yum.
Distinctions Onsite brewery. Open 365 days a year. Live entertainment four days a week. The one place on the list that lets you lay your head after eating your fill. The rooms are small but nicely appointed, with a shared bath. At $75-plus, including a hearty continental breakfast, this might be one of the best deals going in Calistoga. They Knew What They Wanted, about a grape grower from Napa and his mail-order bride, was filmed here in 1940.
Kid Appeal/Tolerance A note at the bottom of the menu reads, "We love children, especially tucked into their chairs and behaving as we behaved as youngsters." As for appeal, there's a good children's menu and the patio for greater freedom.
Raising the Bar The English-style pub was going strong with sporty cheer around its multiple television screens (we visited the Inn on Superbowl Sunday). Still, for my money, I'd rather take my drinks al fresco.
Eavesdropped Said, pointing at the knickknacks and paddywhacks around the room, "How many estate sales do you think it took for all this?"
Dinucci's14485 Valley Ford Road (Highway 1), Valley Ford. 707.876.3260.
History Valley Ford stands at the foot of a native trail, the ford from which it takes its name. Back when, you might have seen "El Capitan" riding the trail on a half-tamed mustang to the ocean to feast on seafood and gather shells for wampum. Causing me to fudge on my own criterion (it was established in 1908), Dinucci's is a town institution, in the family for generations, first serving railway passengers as the Depot Hotel and in its present incarnation treating locals and weekenders to good solid Italian fare.
The Drive Through some of the most beautiful pastureland, with sweeping views and a sky 15 shades of blue and gray so you know the ocean isn't far off, you arrive into the cozy town of Valley Ford. Looking for authenticity? That olfactory aura of manure is 100 percent homegrown. Be careful after heavy rains. The roads in tend to flood.
Pickup-to-Foreign-Car Ratio 70/30.
Menu This is family-style Italian dining at its most abundant. Every entrée is accompanied with a tureen of Dinucci's "world-famous" minestrone soup and a huge bowl of salad, wheeled to the table on a metal cart. You're full before you even get your dinner. I ordered the fixings only and found that to be plenty, though it made our waiter grumble some. The standards get loving, familiar treatment.
Décor and Ambiance License plates, memorabilia, old photos, hundreds of liquor bottles of all shapes and sizes lining the walls, and low ceilings provide the perfect setting for this relaxing dining experience. You know you're in the company of every diner who has ever lifted a fork here.
"Hon" Factor Low. Actually, our waiter on one occasion was well nigh surly, then--oops--overcharged us. But I hear this is not the norm.
Dead Cow Count One or two, enough to keep the boys from grousing.
Grease Alert Yellow. Replace "grease" with "carb," and watch Dr. Atkins spin rotisserie-wise in his grave, but oh, do those pastas hit the spot.
Distinctions In 1976, Christo and Jeanne-Claude strung their 22-mile-long Running Fence of white nylon, said to look "like a dress on a suntanned girl," through Valley Ford and into the Pacific Ocean.
Kid Appeal/Tolerance Kids are treated like royalty. Owner Jeannie Garcia greets the tykes with a bag full of gifts, one to a customer. Kids also get to serve themselves at this family restaurant that almost demands the requisite 2.5 kids.
Raising the Bar Just the right level of darkness to light, hubbub to hush, serious drinking to tipplers. As the bar acts as a social hub for this small town, the clubbiness could be a little hard to penetrate, but it's nothing a few drinks can't remedy.
Eavesdropped From someone smoking outside: "At first I thought her hoof might be sand-cracked, but it turned out to be a stone bruise."
Rancho Nicasio1 Old Rancheria Road, Nicasio. 415.662.2219.
History Built by William James Miller in 1830 to house cattle traders, timber men and weekending San Franciscans, the Nicasio Hotel burned down in 1940. One year later, Rancho Nicasio was built and again became the meeting place for the townspeople and visitors. An announcement from 1868 says, "Special attention paid to families who may wish to rusticate for a time in the country." Today, visitors of all kinds continue to rusticate quite wantonly.
The Drive Boasting that it's "25 minutes from everywhere," this place, of all those we visited, still feels the farthest "off the map." If you come from the south or east, you drive through a series of established Marin towns, around the San Geronimo golf course and past Arabian horse farms until you punch out to a secluded valley with 360 degrees of heart-soothing vistas. If you come from the north, you will ride the rollercoaster of gentle green swells and languorous dips past a shine-bright reservoir and almost untouched terrain. No matter how you get there, you won't want to leave.
Pickup-to-Foreign-Car Ratio 20/80.
Menu Sampling Something for everyone: appetizers, both fancy and frank (from Dungeness crab cakes with chile remoulade and walnut-crusted goat cheese to buffalo wings and popcorn shrimp; $4.95-$9.95), with some of the freshest oysters on the half shell I've encountered ($9.50 for six), savory offerings from the grill ($15-$32), several salads and even a vegetarian dish or two, all handled with understated aplomb.
Décor and Ambiance The Spanish-style white stucco and red tile roof look right at home on the edge of the town square. The grounds include horseshoe pits, a grill, a lush lawn and picnic tables under the pines with views of the distant pastures and shapely hills. It is the perfect place to be married; even if you're single, you'll be looking around for possible candidates. Inside, it's rustic Americana with a twist, from the ox yokes and rusted scythes to the moose head wearing the fez in the great hall.
"Hon" Factor Low. Our waiter was friendly, informative and capable, but he wasn't about to sit down with us or pat any heads.
Dead Cow Count Most of them are nailed to the wall, but there's also a respectable showing of their cooked brethren.
Grease Alert Green. After all, this is country roadhouse ý la Marin.
Distinctions As the town's hub, Rancho Nicasio serves as post office, general store, bar, restaurant and social center. Music! They feature weekend performances from country, blues, jazz, Cajun, and rock bands, some in the Rancho Room (with a $15 cover), some free in the bar. Sunday barbecue concerts in the summer are winners. Fabulous grounds.
Kid Appeal/Tolerance A "Buckaroo" menu honors the little rope-spinners. In the tavern, my daughter danced with other girls, twirling their long skirts. My son ogled the dead animals. Outside, they both got to play horseshoes and be loud. What more can you ask for?
Raising the Bar On a Sunday afternoon, with Corinne West singing her heart out, there was barely enough room to squeeze in, but everyone seemed happy to admit more to the merriment. With walls covered in mounted elk, boar, bison and bear heads as well as knotty-pine paneling, a trussed ceiling and a brick fireplace (emanating solid heat), the bar draws you to its ample bosom and plants a wet one--and that's before you even have had a drop to drink.
Eavesdropped Snooping around, I just happened to venture "backstage" to the Rancho Room where Corinne West, resting between sets, was fanning herself by flapping her own blouse, saying "Wooo-hoooo." My sentiments exactly.
Stormy's Spirits and Supper6650 Bloomfield Road, Bloomfield. 707.795.0127.
History The town of Bloomfield is named after Gustavus Blume, a ship's surgeon who is said to have survived a shipwreck by clinging to the side of a whale. The harpoon that killed selfsame whale went through Blume's hand, which bore the scar until his dying day. It's fitting that Stormy's, built in 1854, feels so much like a port in the proverbial storm. Named after Stormy Cramer, who purchased it in 1961, it maintains the spirit of solid endurance, like the spirit of Stormy herself, who died just over a year ago.
The Drive Our drive took us over rolling hills punctuated by grazing dairy cows, around one of those strange graveyards with plastic flowers sticking straight out of the ground, then past an old schoolhouse, arriving at the hamlet of Bloomfield in the valley of the Estero Americano, utterly enchanted.
Pickup-to-Foreign-Car Ratio 50/50.
Menu Carnivores have reason to cheer: meat dishes dominate and for good reason; they are skillfully prepared and delicious, with prices ranging from $20 to $30. Meals are served family-style, accompanied with a righteous, thick clam chowder, nice salad and a vegetable side. The wine list is fairly limited, but the bar is full.
Décor and Ambiance Possessed of a distinct split personality, Stormy's is divided between an inviting, fire-lit tavern with wood paneling and the ubiquitous stuffed marlin, and a bright, impersonal dining room. Ask to be seated on the Mr. Hyde, that is the tavern, side.
"Hon" Factor High. Ours bore a salty edge of superior attitude, peppering her speech with a "frickin'" or two. Her 25 years' tenure resulted in efficient, if somewhat jaded, service. There was to be no question: this was her restaurant, not ours.
Dead Cow Count The whole herd is served up as prime rib, filet mignon, New York steak, porterhouse and ribeye steaks. One slab tips the scales at over two pounds! The cut my companion ate was so perfect it had him reciting cowboy poetry to a 4/4 beat.
Grease Alert Yellow. There are some fried dishes, such as the fried chicken, which is excellent, but most dishes are grilled.
Distinctions By far, the nicest feature of this place is the barroom's wall-long stone hearth in which an honest-to-God fire burns, complete with crackling, woodsy aroma and the perhaps inevitable fire battles, beginning pretty much when we arrived. Asked for a fireside table, the bartender seemed loathe to indulge us, maybe because we had a child in tow (I found out later that no children are admitted into the barroom--my bad) or maybe due to some thinly veiled nonlocal discrimination (no, I'm not paranoid). We insisted, and room was grudgingly made. Subsequently, when the fire had subsided, the three gentlemen at the center table wouldn't let us feed it. They were too hot, they said. In their primo spot, I said under my breath. Nothing like a little dinnertime contention to whet one's appetite.
Kid Appeal/Tolerance Juvenile pyromaniacs like mine will love the fire, and a kids' menu makes concessions to smaller appetites.
Raising the Bar Home is where the hearth is here, both for drinks and for food. The spirit of this place hugs close to the place of the spirits.
Eavesdropped From one older gentleman to another (somehow inserted into a discussion about Revelation and archangels): "You were sexy . . . back then. Of course, you've died recently, which would account for a slight decrease in sexiness."
The Union Hotel3731 Main St., Occidental. 707.874.3444.
History In 1879, Dutch Bill Howard sold lot six to Amelia Jones, who built a two-story structure and then resold it to Howard. In 1891, Howard sold the building to Giovanni and Giovanna Gobetti for $2,000 in gold, and the Gobettis operated it as the Union Saloon for nearly 35 years. In 1925, Giovanna sold it for $2,500 to Carlo Panizzera, whose "Union Hotel" offered boarding and sustenance to stopover railroad passengers. One morning, when waitress Mary Alberigi was carrying linens from the hotel rooms down the steep, narrow stairway, she tripped and fell. Carlo whisked her to the doctor. They married soon after, and in due course bore Lucille, whose children and their families run the Union to this day.
The Drive Bound by redwood forest, vineyards and open valley expanses, Occidental feels like an alpine village from a storybook. The Union Hotel stands proudly, flanked by other establishments like Howard's Station, also established in the late 19th century.
Pickup-to-Foreign-Car Ratio 40/60 (some nights, just the reverse).
Menu The pizzeria offers pastas, pizzas and salads, with a few meat entrées at family-friendly prices. The dining room takes on more airs, without being puffed up, offering such entrées as roast duck and chicken piccata, served family-style, with minestrone and salad for $20-plus.
Décor and Ambiance The pizzeria is down-home and intimate, with candles in Chianti bottles and those pizza-warming thingees that cast a homey glow. The dining room is more formal, decked out in wood paneling and a landscaped brick patio that will take you back to bella Italia.
"Hon" Factor Low. Although there are a few seasoned waitresses, most are college-aged, fresh-faced and very accommodating.
Dead Cow Count A few lone dogies. While they do serve burgers and steak, the emphasis is on Italian food, with a smattering of poultry dishes.
Grease Alert Yellow. Most meats are grilled, broiled or roasted. They offer four different salads. The pizzas tell another story (but what's pizza without the sheen?).
Distinctions The place is huge, comprising a daytime cafe (with excellent baked goods), bar, pizzeria and dining room, which also hosts various group meetings; game rooms, so kids can clear your purse of all those "extra" quarters; and the Bocce Ballroom, where the owners serve a free pasta dinner every year at Christmastime.
The pizzeria menu now lists single servings, quarts (serving two to three), and "family size" servings (for your eight- to 10-person family) of such offerings as soup and ravioli.
Kid Appeal/Tolerance From the wad of pizza dough kids are given to mold, to the crayons and board games kept on hand, to the kids' menu, to the arcade games, it's a veritable kid emporium. Nine out of 10 times, when asked where we should eat out, my kids chant, "Union!" loud enough to make Norma Rae proud.
Raising the Bar The center of social life for twenty-somethings in a 10-mile radius of the town, the bar is always happening. A world away from the restaurant, it preserves its slightly naughty aura.
Eavesdropped This place is at the heart of my kids' school district, which for me is both one of its pluses and its minuses. It's not what I overhear that concerns me, but what other folks overhear out of my beer-amplified mouth.
Washoe HouseStony Point and Roblar roads, Cotati. 707.795.4544.
History Established in 1859, the Washoe House was the site of "the Battle of Washoe." Toward the end of the Civil War, Union sympathizers were marching to Santa Rosa to attack Santa Rosa Copperhead. They got as far as the tavern, where they all got patriotically drunk instead. If only every conflict could be resolved in such a civilized manner. Once a stop on the stagecoach route, once a house of ill-repute and where Ulysses S. Grant once spoke from the balcony.
The Drive We took the back roads and byways through cow fields and stands of scrub oak and eucalyptus to find ourselves just a quarter mile from Larsen's Feed and Pet Supply (another place I'd always wanted to visit, and now I have!). Down the road a little farther you find Washoe looking so unchanged, you'll be checking your palm pilot for the year.
Pickup-to-Foreign-Car Ratio 60/40.
Menu Along with the burgers and many fried offerings (chicken, fish, scallops, oysters, shrimp; $7.50-$11), there are the obligatory steaks and prime rib dishes for slightly more. Save room for pie, homemade ($3), and reward the good boy or good girl you once were.
Décor and Ambiance The rose and teal wallpapered walls of the intimate dining room bear photographs of a bygone era, everything faded, sepia, eerily familiar. You'll feel like you're eating at Auntie Lou's.
"Hon" Factor High. Though our waitress was slightly harried, blowing a loose strand of hair out of her eyes, she empathetically said, "Oh, boo!" when I ordered the one thing they'd just sold out. Was she chewing gum? I can't remember.
Dead Cow Count Beef tokenism, but cooked right, and a buffalo burger that will take you home to the range.
Grease Alert Red. Call the cops! These folks were born to fry, baby, fry!
Distinctions At the end of last year, a high-speed car chase came to a dramatic end when the perp drove his stolen Cadillac right into the side of the Washoe. Do you think this august edifice was fazed? Not a bit. Furthermore, the Washoe House appeared in Clint Eastwood's movie True Crime, and it's got a "million-dollar" (or at least a thousand-dollar) bar. See below.
Kid Appeal/Tolerance Who can resist the hominess, the great burgers, and the friendly service? There's no special treatment, but sometimes that's what makes a kid feel most included.
Raising the Bar Midday and the bar was full of locals shooting the shit, playing liars dice and basically keeping their Naugahyde stools toasty. Over their heads fluttered several grand in dollar bills, nailed up from generations of drinkers who've visited this watering hole in various shades of golden age (the dollars, not the drinkers, but the same applies). Our waitress said they spray new additions with flame retardant to counter the fire hazard--a good idea by my lights. But we saw none of that action. When my daughter clambered up onto a stool to tack up her decorated (or defaced, your call) George Washington, everyone smiled indulgently. Like graffiti, this tradition practically guarantees a return visit, if only to say, "Look, that one there's mine."
Eavesdropped From the bar, "Did I drive here?"
William Tell House26955 Hwy. 1, Tomales. 707.878.2403.
History One of the two oldest saloons in Marin County, built circa 1877. In the early years, when the train stopped in town, it was a hotel/boarding house, serving dinner to ranch workers, railroad men and salesmen, with guest rooms upstairs. The original building burned down in 1920 but was rebuilt by the end of that year.
The Drive Tucked in the northwestern section of Marin, this little town preserves its charm, though the train doesn't run anymore and the small port doesn't operate--or maybe because they don't. To get here, you have to drive from the 21st century so far back into the 20th that your radio cuts out on you, and all you can see is rural curvaceousness, picturesque farmland and verdant growth. What a drag.
Pickup-to-Foreign-Car Ratio 50/50.
Menu With three beef, three sea, two chicken and four pasta entrées ($13-$22), along with burgers and sandwiches, the standards get heavy play. And I do mean heavy. They boast rancher portions. My chicken piccata left me deeply underwhelmed, but the Jack Daniels-spruced steak my partner ate was better. My son ordered the burger and fries ($8) and proclaimed them the very best he'd ever had in his whole life, nine years and counting.
Décor and Ambiance You enter through a foyer with a slight frisson of trespass, especially faced with a dark, closed door (keeps the heat in, no doubt). Make your way through the cheery bar and into the dining room, where I wish I could say we were delivered true historic punch. Though perfectly comfortable, with mustard walls, giant decorative stars, a huge wood-framed mirror and those ever-popular wagon-wheel light fixtures, this décor doesn't labor hard for an effect, nor does it achieve one. Save that for the back hallways: the setting for a gothic tale or rooming-house romance.
"Hon" Factor Medium. (Perhaps "hon" in-training?) Our young waitress sported sparkly blue nail polish, an easy-going efficiency and a sweet, if a little naÔve, demeanor. When asked about the name of the place, she said it came from the original owner, William Tell, you know--the apple on the head thing? (I later learned the original owner named it for his love of archery and to honor his legendary fellow countryman.)
Dead Cow Count Just the three beef dishes mentioned above, solid citizens all, and the ground beef in a boy's best burger.
Grease Alert Yellow. Fried calamari, chicken strips and those heavenly fries--skin on, crunchy, made fresh.
Distinctions Live music once or twice a week, special events and a ghost that reputedly wanders the winding hallways, playing tricks, switching off the bathroom lights, and generally giving everyone the William Tell willies.
Raising the Bar A jolly place to be, and I bet it rocks when there's music. Word has it that when a talent scout was sitting in the bar some years ago, he spotted Dionisio "Dio" Choperena, a native of Spain's Basque region, and pegged him as perfect to play a cell-phone-toting shepherd in an AT&T ad. So whether you're looking for a Basque shepherd or to be discovered, you just might get lucky here.
Eavesdropped No discernible words, just a faint and chilling moaning.
These roadhouses, inns and taverns are treasures, connecting us to the land, to the early settlers and to other wayfarers like and unlike us, who've stopped in to sup or browse their fill. They're a fine reason to explore the downy hairs along our neck of the woods. So get out there yourself and foot it or car it. Just be sure to bring your roadhouse appetite.
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