Photograph by Gabe Meline
Rockin' the house, Sonoma Southernstyle
By Suzanne Daly
On a recent Thursday night in the little hamlet of Valley Ford, the town's population had increased exponentially from the stated 128. It was Dollar Oyster Night at Rocker Oysterfeller's Restaurant and Saloon, and while patrons were being seated in the dining room, the bar had already filled. The tall, communal tables overflowed with customers mingling and sharing dozens of raw or barbecued Tomales Bay bivalves, while those waiting for a seat hovered nearby like the red-tailed hawks over Valley Ford Road. The crowd—a mixture of twenty-somethings hankering for the saloon's unique and potent cocktails, sandy families coming from the coast and locals enjoying the friendliness of a neighborhood pub with live music to boot—was there to enjoy the freshest local foods in the coolly vintage environment of the historic Valley Ford Hotel.
Built in 1894, the hotel and restaurant has been owned and operated by newlyweds Brandon Guenther and Shona Campbell since 2006. After the couple met while catering in Seattle, they decided to start their own company and move to the Bay Area "to be closer to the food and wine epicenter, Sonoma County," says Guenther, while sipping coffee in the front parlor. One day while looking for rentals, he spoke with a potential landlord about his work establishing restaurants. The landlord responded by offering him another property he owned that boasted both a restaurant and a living space, and they drove out to Valley Ford. "I instantly fell in love with the hotel," recalls Guenther. "It helped that it was spring and everything was green and blooming. It had a beautiful patio—the perfect place for holding events. We moved the catering company here and started renovating."
Guenther and Campbell did much of the work themselves—"stripping wallpaper with country hats and roses, lots of painting and cleaning." He points out the original hardwood flooring and the baseboards in the bar that were made from wood "shaved off the top of the old water tower out back." The hotel's seven guest rooms provide the opportunity for patrons to stay after dinner and drinks. Running the hotel is a joint effort. Campbell runs the front of the house and tends bar, and Guenther cooks. "I like to dabble in the bar—we love cocktails," Guenther enthuses. "We have lots of rare liquors and unusual offerings, and have a blast using new and different ingredients."
Guenther describes his menu as "Southern comfort"—southern inspired, locally farm-driven food. Campbell's grandma Deville lived in Texas near the Gulf Coast, and Guenther cooked with her for many years and fell in love with the cuisine. They made grits, pork chops, eggs and big buttermilk biscuits for breakfasts, enjoyed blue crab feeds and oysters from the Gulf. "It was the perfect template for a cuisine that consolidated all the seasonal and regional foods. Southern cooking is about what comes out of the garden and what is fresh and seasonal."
True to Grandma Deville's cooking, the restaurant combines the fresh bounty of Sonoma County with Southern flavors. Bacon lovers will be thrilled with the multiple uses of crispy pork on the menu: bacon garnishes deviled eggs; combines with cream cheese, cornbread and arugula as a key ingredient in the special house oysters; appears as lardons in the Bloomfield butter lettuce salad; wraps Cloverdale rabbit loins; graces the Gulf shrimp or fried oyster po'boys; and is slathered on the award winning burger as baconaisse. "Bacon is a staple; it's like a seasoning or salt and pepper in Southern cooking," says Guenther. (Indeed, his bright red T-shirt reads "Praise the Lard.")
Although bacon is missing from Rocker's Sonoma County Restaurant Week three-course, $29 menu, Southern comfort still reigns. Seafood gumbo, Creole caesar salad or a Point Reyes blue cheese salad usher in main courses of Cajun Dungeness crab, buttermilk fried chicken, molasses-bourbon braised pork shoulder or toasted grits with local mushrooms and greens. Save room for apple fritters, Occidental pear upside-down cake or a bourbon vanilla milkshake with pecans.
"I am most proud of our clientele," Guenther says earnestly. "The customers make the environment really warm and comfortable. The locals are such great people—all the winemakers and farmers who come in and talk to each other, and mingle with the tourists. The feeling is convivial."
Rocker Oysterfeller's at the Valley Ford Hotel, 14415 Coast Hwy. 1, Valley Ford. 707.876.1983.
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