BODEGA BAY – To practice leaving the summer heat of Sacramento for a day, a flight most of us will take many times before October, we headed to the fog zone of coastal Sonoma County, the land of seafood, cheese, wine and spas. It’s where time slows and nightfall is late to come, and where every view is an eyeful.
On the way, we drove past rolling hills, stands of eucalyptus, dilapidated wooden barns, dairy farms and ranch land, ending up in the refreshingly chilly seaside town of Bodega Bay. It’s named for Capt. Don Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra, who sailed his schooner, Sonora, into these waters in 1775. More famously, Alfred Hitchcock filmed his classic 1963 movie “The Birds” around here, adapting it from a short story by British writer Daphne du Maurier.
With more than escape on our minds, we were also on restaurant reconnaissance, hoping to make some discoveries. It didn’t take long.
En route, we found the Della Fattoria Cafe Bakery in Petaluma, a small outpost of world-class baked goods hidden in a downtown weighty with vintage stone buildings. Bon Appetit magazine included it on its list of the “Top 10 Best Bread Bakeries in America.”
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The cafe menu serves breakfast (polenta and eggs, croque madame) and lunch (salads and sandwiches), but the real draw is the baked goods. We counted 13 kinds of hand-shaped loaves of aromatic bread, baked in wood-fired brick ovens and displayed like fine art. The pastry case was filled with croissants, danish, eclairs, scones and more. Among our buys was a buttery pecan sticky bun, fragrant with cinnamon and yeast.
On the appraoch to Bodega Bay is the crossroads-intersection micro-town of Valley Ford, where Dennis Becker runs the Valley Ford Market, truly a creaky country store. There, he smokes marinated wild salmon over hickory. It’s firm and delicious, not too smoky, not too salty, and worth the $25-a-pound price. He also hand-crafts sausages and beef jerky.
Farther along, we passed the Bodega Harbour Golf Links, where we happen to know the Blue Water Bistro serves excellent fish ’n’ chips, but someone mentioned the Dog House, so we kept going.
Inside the appropriately dog-friendly diner, owner Shannon Mars stood at the grill, hand-forming freshly ground chuck into burgers. “I worked here for 10 years, then bought it a year ago,” she said.
The hot dogs are from the legendary Vienna Beef company, founded by Austrian-Hungarian immigrants in Chicago in 1893. The classic Chicago-style hot dog isn’t authentic without a Vienna dog, which has a satisfying “pop” to the bite.
The fat dogs arrived nestled in soft, locally baked hoagie rolls. We found an array of add-ons at the condiments counter, including celery salt, malt vinegar and our old friend Pickapeppa sauce from Shooter Hill, Jamaica (since 1921).
Back on course, we stopped at the Sonoma Coast Visitors Center, where executive director Julie-Ann Hill serves as a self-proclaimed “certified tourism ambassador.”
Last year, 76,493 travelers stopped by to pick up brochures, magazines and maps, and to seek guidance. Sacramento is well-represented by travelers “because it’s so close and so hot,” Hill said. You can pick up a list of area restaurants, about 20 of them. Bodega Bay is small, and all the restaurants are either on Highway 1, which runs through town, or just off it.
Dining-wise, the pricy Tides Wharf Restaurant is the largest and most popular player around, invariably filled with tourists waiting in line for the chance to spend $23.50 for a hot crab-and-cheese sandwich. Or they’re milling about in front of the well-stocked seafood market (an entertaining curiosity), gourmet mini-market and gift shop.
That scene can be hectic, so we jaunted to the quieter Lucas Wharf fish dock. In a move that must have seemed almost organic, commercial fisherman-fishmonger Shane Lucas and his vegetarian spouse, Dana Lucas, named their eco-conscious seafood market-cafe the Fishetarian when they opened a couple of years ago, next to the 25-plus-year-old Lucas Wharf Restaurant.
“Dana is in charge of the (vegetarian dishes), and I’m the seafood guru,” said Shane Lucas, who’s part of the family that owns Lucas Wharf. “A lot of people love the more healthful options, but the general public wants to eat fish ’n’ chips.”
The Fishetarian menu offers a twist on fish ’n’ chips: Fresh rock cod is first dipped in beer batter and then rolled in panko (Japanese breadcrumbs) before it’s fried in canola oil, giving it great crunch. The tartar sauce is house-made, and the “chips” are hand-cut Kennebec fries.
Other winners: fried prawns, calamari and oysters, Point Reyes oysters served three ways, rockfish and crab sandwiches, and very tasty kale coleslaw. The many vegetarian and gluten-free choices make the cafe unique in seafood-centric Bodega Bay. P.S.: Check out the Exotic Soda Wall.
The Terrapin Creek Cafe, winner of a Michelin star three years running, is a casually comfortable hideaway with an open kitchen, tile floors and fireplace. Husband-wife owners Andrew Troung and Liya Lin prepare a food-as-art menu of reasonably priced, seasonal and locally sourced seafood, fowl, pork, beef and lamb.
The restaurant stopped lunch service in May, concentrating on dinner Thursdays through Mondays. We visited before that happened, and had a fragrant Mediterranean fish stew of clams, salmon, bay scallops and black cod in a rich broth of fennel, saffron, basil, tomato and potato.
“We’re definitely playing with the idea of adding it to the dinner menu,” Lin said recently. “People came here specifically for it, but (the dinner entree) would be have a little different ingredients.”
At the nearby Sandpiper, we passed up the seafood linguine and wild sea bass with caramelized leeks in favor of the more casual seafood platter, a variation of the iconic “captain’s platter” so ubiquitous in seafood houses along the Atlantic coast.
The plate was crowded with battered and fried cod, prawns, calamari and house-cut french fries. We saved the Cajun blackened snapper for another day. Snooze alert: The ambiance was so serene we were in jeopardy of nodding off.
“What about clam chowder? someone asked, pointing out that Chowder Day is one of Bodega Bay’s signature events, drawing at least 1,000 people to town in January for a self-guided passport-style clam-chowder tasting at participating restaurants. For 10 years in a row, family-operated Spud Point Crab Co. has been voted the participants’ favorite.
We dropped by the crowded cafe and waited in line 15 minutes for the half-and-half-based chowder, tasted a spoonful, then another, and then we stopped. Way too much raw garlic for our taste. We thought the house-smoked salmon was a better choice.
On the phone later, commercial fisherman and co-owner Tony Anello said, “Garlic gets stronger at certain times of the year, so we have to monitor (the chowder) and make sure we don’t over-garlic it. I’m the official taste-tester.”
After a hike into the hills of Bodega Head, we sat outdoors at a weathered table at the rustic 25-year-old Boat House.
“We sell fish ’n’ chips and fishin’ trips,” veteran boat captain Rick Powers proclaimed, not for the first time. He books charters aboard his New Sea Angler and Surf Scooter, while wife Sophia Powers runs the restaurant.
The deep fryer gets a workout here, with fish ’n’ chips, clam strips, calamari and the like. The chowder was thin but richly flavored. Better was the fried fresh rockfish. If you don’t like the seafood, go catch your own.
There were many more places beckoning in the environs, such as two establishments in nearby Freestone mentioned by Hill at the Visitors Center. We saved them for the next trip. There was time enough for one more stop, The Birds Cafe.
With a nod to Alfred Hitchcock, the cafe’s logo is a menacing crow. There are four stools inside, but the place to be is at a picnic table on the patio overlooking the marina and the wind-blown bay. No dive-bombing birds were sighted.
We alternated spoonfuls of clam chowder with tasty nibbles of artichoke fritter. The cream-based chowder is smoky with bacon, and chunky with clams, yellow onion, celery, and russet and red potatoes. A fitting end to a long day.