After 38 years, Tahoe City’s Wolfdale’s is a dining institution. When the restaurant first opened in Homewood, chef Douglas Dale’s mix of Japanese, Italian and California flavors was revelatory.
Now Dale has chronicled his culinary journey and the evolution of his restaurant, which moved to Tahoe City in 1986, in “Wolfdale’s Cuisine Unique” (Wolfdale’s Publishing, $35, 220 pages, available on the restaurant website). Naturally, we had questions.
Q: How did you end up opening a restaurant in Lake Tahoe?
A: After I got back from Japan, I found a Japanese chef in Boston and worked with him for a year. My sister and (brother-in-law) Jerry Wolf – the wolf of Wolfdale’s – wanted to open a restaurant in Tahoe. My intent was to help them get started and move on, but restaurant work was too demanding for them and they wanted out. I was young and energetic and needed my first opportunity, so I bought them out. Then I met a woman, got married, had kids – and suddenly 10, 20, 38 years go by.
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Q: What was Tahoe’s dining scene like 38 years ago?
A: When I got here it was pretty much pizza and burgers. There was one French restaurant, but there was no Japanese cuisine. Forty years ago, you didn’t have to do a lot to be different. That’s one reason we called Wolfdale’s “cuisine unique.” Now cuisine has exploded, and I feel like the old guy doing the traditional classics half the time.
Q: What’s something even locals might not know about Wolfdale’s?
A: (Our) building wasn’t in Tahoe City originally. It was built in 1899 by loggers on the South Shore. When the logging was finished there, they moved to the North Shore and brought the building with them. It was a logger’s home, then a constable’s home. They locked people up in the basement, which is now our wine cellar.
Q: We were struck by the variety of photographs in the cookbook. Can you tell us about them?
A: I wanted to give a sense of what winemakers call terroir, or sense of place. Tahoe is our home and it creates our appetite, because it is such an outdoor-friendly place to ski and hike. And with the vintage black-and-white photos, I wanted to pass on to young chefs that you are not going to be a rock star chef your first year. This is an evolution.
Q: Wolfdale’s is known for its ceramic dishes. What’s the story behind that?
A: I met the first of many incredible mentors – ceramics professor Karen Shirley and artist-in-residence Michael Jones – in a ceramics class at Ohio’s Antioch College. They are still very much friends. Now they come up with new ceramic shapes, colors and sizes for the restaurant.
Q: What do you cook for the holiday season?
A: We make a Velvet Soup that’s a mix of squash. It is nondairy and has a velvet, round texture from coconut milk. For years I made this as our traditional New Year’s Eve soup. And we have the Baked Tahoe, a take on baked Alaska. ... There’s a thin genoise cake on the bottom. We make our own ice cream, and the flavor of choice goes in the middle. We pipe meringue on top of that with a pastry bag. Then we caramelize it with a hand-held torch.
Wolfdale’s Cuisine Unique
Hours: Open daily (except Tuesdays) at 5 p.m.
Address: 640 N. Lake Blvd., Tahoe City
Information: 530-583-5700; www.wolfdales.com.