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Photograph by Pete Shea
The heart of the matter: Tim Duarte shows off Duarte's famous artichoke appetizer.

Road Trip

A palate-pampering pilgrimage to Pescadero legend Duarte's

By Christina Waters

It was a line in a book that led me to lunch at Duarte's Tavern. In Katherine Hayle's marvelous How We Became Posthuman, I came across a reference to our old friend, the late cybernetician Heinz von Foerster. Heinz had lived in Pescadero the last 25 years of his life, and we used to lunch with him at Duarte's, a spot he adored. It was high time to revisit the place where we'd shared so many meals with the loquacious Austrian.

At the corner table where we used to sit with Heinz, we scanned the menu for those favorite dishes. He always ordered fish, so that part was easy. And the white wine requirement was beautifully satisfied with glasses of crisp Woodside Chardonnay 2004 ($9), made just up the hill from the rustic roadhouse. There should be crab cakes, a real joy this time of year when local Dungeness crab is at its sweetest. Heinz would want us to start with his favorite soup, the ultracomforting, ultracreamy green chile soup. And so we did.

Like many frontier roadhouses suggesting a David Lynchean interval somewhere between the 19th century and the early 1950s, Duarte's Tavern has retained its reassuring Wild West edge, fortified by whisky, artichokes and olallieberry pie. Lined with knotty pine--the vintage 1894 bar even has swinging doors--Duarte's is a trend-free oasis of sensible hospitality. A team of incredibly patient and skilled career waitresses minister to a long counter facing the kitchen and three interlocking rooms with big tables as well as small ones. My parents loved this place. My grandparents loved this place. Most of the West Coast loves this place.

Immediately following the glasses of wine came a basket of sourdough bread much too good to resist, my wide bowl of green chile soup ($7)--more robust, in my opinion, than the touted cream of artichoke soup--and Jack's order of piquant (and picante) Mexican coleslaw ($2.75), studded with bits of jalapeņo and cilantro. Such instant hits are these flavors--a tart, crisp mound of green and purple cabbages, the voluptuous mouthfeel of the earthy soup (there's got to be cheese here, adding yet another layer of sin to the already illicit wonders in each spoonful)--that, with the addition of the crusty, crusty bread and the supple white wine, and anyone could stop right here. If spiritual redemption were possible through flavors alone, lunch at Duarte's could deliver. But Heinz would want us to continue into the realm of seafood. Bypassing Duarte's definitive crab cioppino, I opted for a less opulent means of enjoying the season.

The fresh Dungeness crab cakes were a far cry from those overbreaded generic patties that tend to populate tourist destinations, and make no mistake, people from all over the world have added Duarte's to their "must see" list when visiting the Bay Area. This crab cake appetizer ($12.50) was all about crab meat, flecked with tiny dice of red and green peppers, as well as microcubes of artichoke hearts. The cakes were thin and moist and covered at least half the plate. A light red wine tartar sauce was drizzled over everything.

Duarte's is easy to like. Nothing "go-may," as my friends from Georgia would say. And yet everything is just a few clicks more thoughtful, fresh and direct than it needs to be. The wine list offers a brace of Santa Cruz Mountain all-stars--Storrs, Thomas Fogarty, Bonny Doon. And the comfort-intensive culinary style pretty much ensures that what you get is what you want. Breakfast at Duarte's, for example, provides classic omelettes with textbook home fries and a tomatoey topping called "Spanish sauce." Bacon is lean yet decadent, the way you want it, without apologies. Pancakes come with plenty of butter and several house-made berry syrups.

At our recent lunch, Jack's snapper entree ($15) was a miracle of transparent breading and flash frying. Light! The thick-cut succulent white fish arrived moist and abundantly joined by old-fashioned tartar sauce and a pile of french fries. Great french fries.

If only we'd had room for the homemade olallieberry pie. Heinz never had room for it either. So we're just going to have to make another drive up the most beautiful stretch of coast on the planet. Heinz would like that.

Duarte's Tavern

Address: 202 Stage Road, Pescadero

Phone: 650.879.0464

Hours: Open 7am-9pm daily

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