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A guide to Truckee's best of everything

Block for block, downtown Truckee has more cool places to visit than many towns 10 times its size. Is that a good thing?

That depends. Many longtime locals say the history-soaked mountain town is being "Aspen-ized," its independent attitude spoiled by tourist-catering specialty shops, fancy-schmancy restaurants and the high prices that accompany them.

Other residents and visitors - mostly the second-home owners and well-heeled weekend skiers -- couldn't possibly do without their $40 jars of soothing foot lotion, $10 appetizers or $50 cabernets.

Certainly, Truckee has become gentrified over recent years, with upscale replacing down-home, but there are still "locals" spots.

During our walking tour of the town -- made up of 19th century buildings that have been impressively preserved -- we came across places we liked a lot. We bet you will, too. All businesses mentioned are in Historic Downtown Truckee, on or near Commercial Row along Donner Pass Road.

RESTAURANTS

Dragonfly, (530) 587-0557: Hands down, this upstairs delight serves the best food in Truckee. Chef-owner Billy McCullough opened in February 2001 with a "Cal-Asian" menu that marries fresh California-produced ingredients with Pan-Asian flavors. His green Thai curry udon noodle bowl with grilled prawns is a lunch favorite. "There's a big culinary movement in Truckee," McCullough said. "A lot of the new developments are attracting people who like and expect good food, so they're hiring top chefs to run their restaurants."

Piper's Patisserie, (530) 582-2256: The former Ponderosa Deli was transformed into a point-and-purchase restaurant-bakery with cold and hot cases stocked with items such as sandwiches and salads, beef bourguignon, coq au vin, grilled polenta and baby back ribs, with osso buco and pork loin on weekends. A good-humored mural of Parisian street scenes competes for attention with a vast wine display (ask about weekly wine-tastings). "We want you to swing into town, pick up dinner and head to your vacation cabin for a romantic meal by the fire," said general manager Cindy Lauber, a Truckee resident for 30 years.

O.B.'s, (530) 587-4164: Barnwood, exposed brick and antique farm implements set the tone of this locals' favorite, opened in 1970 by Al O'Brien (whose nickname was "O.B."). "It's a Truckee tradition," said owner Dick Howell. "We get people whose parents and grandparents brought them in. I try to keep the menu up to date with current trends, so we continue to reinvent ourselves." Burgers and sandwiches are the staples, but recent specials included Asian pear salad with curry vinaigrette, and mussels and clams in garlic cream sauce. Prime rib stars Friday and Saturday nights, as well as Tuesdays, which have been "locals nights" for 25 years.

Squeeze In, (530) 587-9814: The locals have enjoyed breakfast and lunch at this eccentric eatery since 1974. Some customers even have their own tables. The menu expands as the out-of-town crowd "discovers" it; at last count, there were 60 omelets and 24 sandwiches. "The staff and the customers are like a family," said assistant manager Theresa Lavezzo, a 16-year veteran. Watch for U.S. Ski Team member and World Cup downhill champion Daron Rahlves and snowboard star Jim Rippey.

Cottonwood, 10142 Rue Hilltop, off Brockway Road (old Highway 267), (530) 587-5711: Once it was the Hilltop Lodge, offering the only "official" ski slopes in the area at the turn of the 19th century. It possessed the nation's first mechanized ski lift. Cottonwood (so named in 1988) perches on a hill just outside of town and offers a spectacular nighttime view of Truckee and the surrounding mountain peaks. The menu offers hearty fare - lobster ravioli, rabbit cassoulet and grilled center-cut pork chop.

Earthly Delights, 10087 W. River St., (530) 587-7793: Many of the historic buildings along West River Street are getting a makeover with the goal of upgrading the area to the level of nearby Commercial Row. This bakery-deli is housed in a renovated space and uses all-natural ingredients in its baked goods. Quality entrees include stuffed flank steak and poached salmon. Or try the pesto pasta salad.

The Fish Station, 10130 W. River St., (530) 550-9009: When word-of-mouth catches on, there will be standing room only at this unique market. Eric and Jacqueline Teele opened their store last July to sell fresh fish from Hawaii, steaks from grass-fed Texas Angus cattle, Muscovy duck breast, New Zealand elk, Colorado leg of lamb and buffalo ribeye. On the takeout menu are three-bean buffalo chili and luscious seafood chowder (both $7 for a 16-ounce cup), and a sandwich of seared Hawaiian ahi splashed with Szechuan-teriyaki sauce and plopped on a grilled sourdough roll with wasabi aioli ($8).

Florian's, 11260-1 Donner Pass Road, (530) 550-0802: This specialty-foods shop is a few miles from downtown, in Truckee's biggest shopping center. Gourmet offerings include imported salamis, gravlax, Irish butter, bruschetta toppings, olives, pestos, sauces and imported cheeses and wines. The fully stocked deli has sandwiches and hot items (meatloaf, lasagna). Six from-scratch soups were on the chalkboard the day we visited. "We're a little bit Corti Brothers, a little bit David Berkley," said owner Ron Florian. "As growth continues, (our store) is well-positioned. I've sat on the town council for the last eight years and been mayor twice, and I know the potential is here for a high-end base. Our clientele? Thirty percent is local and 70 percent is tourists -- mostly second-home owners."

SHOPS

The Pharmacy, (530) 582-1668: One of the most fascinating aspects of Truckee is the compatibility between the new ritz and the respect merchants have for 19th century buildings that make up the town. The Pharmacy personifies that union. The body-bath-beauty-bedroom emporium occupies the old Capitol Theatre building (1870), where Charlie Chaplin performed on the upstairs stage, and John Steinbeck and Jack London drank at the downstairs bar.

The elegant store features exclusive skin-care items from Europe, lingerie, jewelry and bedding displayed on antique furniture that's also for sale (a French bed-armoire-mirror set goes for $40,000).

Walk upstairs and ask manager Helen Graham for a tour of the Boudoir. This is a gorgeous space with original wood floors, bullet holes in the brick walls (from the wild barroom days) and items such as silk pillows, $3,500 lamps and $90 unisex colognes from a monastery in Florence, Italy.

The French-made Diptyque-brand candles ($53) are favorites of such celebrities as Catherine Deneuve, Elton John and Ralph Lauren. Although those three have never visited the Pharmacy, actors Sean Penn and Robin Givens have, as has Whitesnake rocker David Coverdale.

The Cooking Gallery, (530) 587-8303: If you're friends with your kitchen, this is a fun place to cruise. It carries gourmet foods (mustards, jams, coffees), practical equipment (pepper grinders, juicers) and more esoteric gear (shrimp cleaners, chicken-leg frills).

White Buffalo, (530) 587-4446: Handcrafted Southwestern and American Indian art, jewelry and decor are the specialties of the house. Drums, blankets, rugs, artifacts, sculptures, headdresses, quivers and bows, pipes, tomahawks, pottery and furniture are artfully displayed by owners Jerry and Donna Wood. Be sure to inspect the jewelry made from "gold quartz." The gold-veined white quartz comes from the Original Sixteen to One Mine in Alleghany, 40 miles northeast of Nevada City.

Molly's Cupboard, (530) 587-7544: Sue Simpson and Sandy O'Connor have owned this busy store for about 16 months. It specializes in mountain lodge-type furnishings and decorations, and bear collections. Drop in for the collection of life-size, hand-painted trout and ducks, hand-carved by Redding artist Hank George.

CLUBS AND SALOONS

Moody's Bistro & Lounge in the Truckee Hotel, (530) 587-8688: This is the place Paul and Heather McCartney put on the national map with two impromptu appearances the past two winters. Yes, there is a fine restaurant in the back room, overseen by chef Mark Estee. But most of the action is in the front room, where general manager JJ Morgan has resurrected a vibrant jazz scene. "Years ago you wouldn't expect to hear jazz in Truckee," Morgan said one night over the sound of a combo playing on stage. "We stuck by our guns and did what we like. We went with our passion."

Bar of America, (530) 587-3110: Everybody who comes to Truckee ends up at this loud, roomy watering hole. And why not? The vibe is friendly, the drinks are buff and you're never sure who's sitting next to you. You could rub shoulders with skiers from around the world or conventioneers from Georgia. One highlight is the wood-and-stained-glass back bar, a work of art built in the 1870s in the Midwest, the story goes, and brought to San Francisco. The bar owners bought it at an auction.

Past Time Club, (530) 582-9219: Most tourists never bend an elbow at this drinking parlor, which is a shame, as it and the neighboring Tourist Club are where the locals will be happy to offer an insider's perspective on Truckee. "The reason I bought the bar was to preserve history," said owner Keith Diesner. "This is our little corner of the world, and whatever we can do to keep it small, we'll do."

Tourist Club, (530) 587-7775: "I can tell what kind of party we had by the texture of the bar top," said the bartender one morning, running her hand over the wood. "If it's sticky the whole length of the bar, it was a good party. ... Yep, we had a party here last night." The mounted deer and elk heads on the walls, plus framed photos of anglers holding fish, tell you a lot about the place.

LODGING

River Street Inn, 10009 E. River St., (530) 550-9290 ($90 to $150): As the promotional literature explains, the vintage 1885 inn "has been a boarding house, a jail, a restaurant, a bordello and a clandestine site for making liquor during Prohibition." Husband-wife Matt Brown and Wendy Smith gutted and rebuilt the inside of the building, reopening five years ago. Their eight-room bed-and-breakfast-style inn is a comfortable retreat, with old-fashioned touches that include claw-foot bathtubs (yes, all the rooms have private baths) and down comforters.

"We get people from all over the world -- England, Australia, New Zealand," Smith said. "May and October used to be the slow months in Truckee, but the slow season is disappearing."

Truckee Hotel, 10007 Bridge St., (530) 587-4444 ($69 to $139): The hotel opened in 1873 as the American House. Over the years, it burned down, was rebuilt and renamed. Finally, it was remodeled in 1992. "Our 37 rooms are furnished with antiques, our beds have quilts and the rooms have the original lath-and-plaster walls," said owner Karen Winter. Eight rooms have private baths; guests in the others have to walk down the hall.

OTHER ATTRACTIONS

The delightfully named Jibboom Street once was Truckee's red-light district, but its present claim to fame is the Jail Museum, which was a working jailhouse from 1875 to 1964. It can be toured in the summer until Labor Day, thanks to the Truckee-Donner Historical Society.

Head out of town on Jibboom and look for the sign to the Sierra Mountain Cemetery, sitting all alone in the woods. Some of Truckee's history can be traced by looking at the headstones, which date to the 1800s. The plaque at the entrance reads, in part, "In 1954 the original site increased in size despite the best efforts of the community to prevent the townspeople from dying."

From Commercial Row, take Spring Street up the hill to Keiser Avenue and turn left to see the Rocking Stone, a 17-ton boulder that is one of only 25 such rocking stones known in the world. The rocking stone is in a gazebo accessed by a metal staircase. The commemorative plaque reads in part, "A natural glacier formation or the work of an unknown tribe as a form of altar. Its exact origin will never be known. The perfectly balanced (boulder) would rock at the touch of a finger."

Unfortunately, the boulder was cemented into place, and it'll be neither rockin' nor rollin' any time soon.

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