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Culinary Exploration in Marin, CA

Along Highway 1 north of San Francisco, T+L explores a foodie enclave with leisurely hikes, picnics, and an enticing California vibe.

By Oliver Schwaner-Albright

It’s just a 35-mile drive from the golden gate Bridge to Point Reyes Station. The distance is pocket change by California’s sprawling standards, but the trip takes forever—or to be fair, a little more than an hour—because the best way to get there is on Highway 1, a narrow ribbon of asphalt that twists along sheer coastal cliffs before plunging past Stinson Beach and finally jagging through Point Reyes Station, a dusty little town that’s outwardly unchanged from a century ago.

Point Reyes Station is the unofficial seat of West Marin, which, in turn, is the unofficial name for the hardscrabble coastal part of Marin County. It’s one of the most unspoiled corners of the state, a region that has more in common with the sun-faded, handmade California of the 1970’s than the wealthy nearby suburbs of Mill Valley and Sausalito.

Which isn’t to say West Marin isn’t welcoming or, to judge by the plush comforters at Manka’s Inverness Lodge, a collection of meticulously decorated cabins scattered along a wooded hillside, even luxurious. Whether or not you consider it appealing depends on what you expect from northern California. You won’t find $1,000 bottles of wine or a state-of-the-art spa. But if you want to pick up line-caught albacore tuna salad at the deli, go for a four-hour hike in a wild-elk reserve, or take in the sunset while throwing back a few dozen oysters harvested that morning from the estuary where Sir Francis Drake ran aground in 1579, that’s easy. And there’s the driving: the distances within West Marin are short, the roads are windy but smooth, and you’re always skimming along a nature preserve, the coast, or a picture book–perfect farm. Here, my wife, Christine, and I found, even running out to grab lunch can be an automotive pleasure.

I first started exploring west Marin more than 15 years ago, when I was a student at the University of California, Berkeley, and I traversed every corner of the Bay Area in my battered Honda Accord. When I returned this time, it was for the food and wine: Cowgirl Creamery’s cheeses; Sean Thackrey’s legendary Rhône-style reds; the grass-fed beef of Marin Sun Farms; oysters fresh from Tomales Bay. It’s a remarkable showing, even for a gustatory state like California, and more impressive still when you consider that the largest town around here has about 500 residents, and that much of the land in the area is a part of Point Reyes National Seashore, a 71,000-acre reserve.

Geologically speaking, Point Reyes is basically a mountainous stretch of Big Sur that migrated up the coast. The Earth, always unusually active in California, is still rearranging West Marin: the land has been grinding northward for thousands of years, lurching a full 20 feet during the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. (One inch every six months is average.) But the San Andreas Fault doesn’t feel sinister here. The rift valley is lush and shady, California folded up on itself.

We were staying at Manka’s, in Inverness, where the rooms are so peaceful they have an almost narcotic effect. The main lodge and its legendary restaurant burned to the ground in 2006, so we made the 15-minute drive to Point Reyes Station to grab lunch. Our plan was to go to Cowgirl Cantina—a deli counter opened by Cowgirl Creamery—and put together a picnic for a hike through the national seashore. But first we couldn’t help lingering at the farmers’ market that sets up next to Toby’s Feed Barn on Saturday mornings, sipping expertly made cappuccinos from the unassuming coffee stall, buying sackfuls of organic apples, and sharing a braised-goat sandwich.

The converted barn that houses Cowgirl Creamery and Cantina is just a block off Highway 1. There’s an impressive cheese shop, and you can spy some cheese making through plate-glass windows, but we were there to stock up for our hike. We chose from house-cured gravlax, fig-and-blue-cheese salad, seared day-boat tuna with fennel, assorted Fra’Mani charcuterie, duck pâté, and still-warm bread from Brick Maiden. We also picked up a bottle of a floral Pinot Noir from Pey-Marin, one of the more promising local wineries, and a piece of Pierce Pt., a Muscat-washed whole-milk cheese rolled in dried, local herbs. There was more to the menu, which changes daily, but my daypack had only so much room.

There’s no way to see all of Point Reyes National Seashore in one day. An elk preserve is located to the north; steep peaks are covered with pines to the south; coastal highlands are blanketed with brush. Then there are the roads to the ocean through a lunar landscape of rolling hills and active pasture. We decided to start at the southern end and loop down to the Pacific. For four hours we experienced what passes for paradise when you spend most of the year overworked in a busy metropolis: we didn’t encounter another human. Instead, we came across fallow deer, river otters, and a turkey vulture standing with outstretched wings. When we sat down for our picnic, we looked out on the ocean and, as if on cue, a school of gray whales appeared, migrating south.

Most of California’s shoreline is too rugged to enjoy up close. Which is why Tomales Bay—a long, shallow body of water formed where the San Andreas Fault dips under the Pacific Ocean—is such a pleasant oddity. I also have a culinary affection for the gentle bay: fed by freshwater streams and open to the ocean, it’s where the finest oysters in the state are grown.

Many of the oyster farms are clustered around Marshall, a snaking 20-minute drive north of Point Reyes Station. The most famous of them, Hog Island Oyster Company, sells unshucked oysters—but unfortunately they charge $5 per person merely to sit at a picnic table. Our next stop was Tomales Bay Oyster Company, a few miles south, where jumbo oysters are $16 for the dozen, seats at the tables don’t cost a penny, and the weekend crowds make it feel like a bivalve Coachella.

But at the Marshall Store & Oyster Bar, a seafood shack perched on timber pylons, we found a dining experience that’s even more low-key, the ultimate example of a certain kind of meal: unfussy, delicious, relaxed. It’s nominally a general store, and though they sell beer and wine—including some inspired selections from importer Kermit Lynch—they can’t legally serve it, though they will lend you a corkscrew. The store farms its own exquisite oysters, and prepares them three ways: raw, Rockefeller (piled with spinach and cheese), or, the local specialty, barbecued (grilled with house-made barbecue sauce). We happily ordered a dozen of each and carried them out to a barrel on the narrow strip of land between Highway 1 and the bay, where we drank a crisp Sancerre from paper cups.

I’m seduced by the simplicity of eating in California. It’s a place where even the most sophisticated and satisfying meals can feel easy, almost effortless. But when Christine and I ate at the restaurant at Nick’s Cove & Cottages, a small hotel in Marshall where rooms are converted fishermen’s shacks, the food felt unnecessarily complicated. And while we enjoyed our meal at Olema Inn & Restaurant, set in a 100-year-old clapboard building, the night we were there the dining room was so loud we couldn’t hold a conversation.

So for our final evening we made reservations at Drakes Beach Café. It’s part of an oceanfront visitor’s center, an architectural flashback for those of us who went on school field trips during the Carter administration (wood beams; fliers pinned to corkboard), and two years ago it started serving candlelit prix fixe dinners on weekends. It welcomes BYO, and we brought a bottle of Orion, a blend from Sean Thackrey, the cult winemaker.

The dinner was heartfelt and idiosyncratic; Slow Food cuisine served in a snack bar. And because it was so intimate, it felt romantic. It wasn’t until we left the café and walked through the bracing night air to our car, the surf crashing a few feet away, that we realized how isolated we were. San Francisco may have been just a few miles down the coast, but the stars that filled the sky above us seemed closer.

Oliver Schwaner-Albright is at work on a book about hunting, with Martin Picard, the chef of Au Pied de Cochon, in Montreal.