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Roadside Legend

Duarte family
Robert Scheer

Food to Pie For: Duarte's Tavern, under the direction of its extended family of owners (pictured from left) Lynn, Kathy, Tim, Ben and Ron Duarte, has been feeding the coastal town of Pescadero and its visitors homestyle food and world-famous pie for decades.

Home of strong spirits and artichoke soup, Duarte's Tavern has been much more than just a pit stop since 1894

By Christina Waters

PESCADERO IS A slice of coastal consciousness. It's the creamy froth of surf teasing the tidepools halfway between Santa Cruz and Half Moon Bay. It's the place where Jerry Garcia used to jam all night before he was a dead legend. It's also a one-horse farming town tucked into the foot of the coast ranges where Duarte's Tavern has welcomed working folks, local families and hungry visitors since the turn of the century.

If you live near the city of Santa Cruz, the 20-minute cruise up to Pescadero seems like a mighty long way to go for a hearty breakfast. But last week, as we moseyed up the rim of the continent through gray-green fields and cliffs of gold, the web of enchantment caught up with us, and the busy parking lot of Duarte's arrived sooner than we wanted.

A chilled bottle of the Woodside Chardonnay 1995 ($21) materialized. On a recent visit to Duarte's--during on which I feasted on an impeccable wedge of artichoke omelet and a beautiful piece of succulent sea bass--we'd enjoyed this same wine, made just up the mountain from where we sat. Crisp, citrusy, with a restrained kiss of oak, it makes the perfect partner for just about anything on the country menu--unless you're one of the guys at the bar who just plain doesn't like chardonnay with his Wild Turkey.

Run by the fourth generation of Duartes, the bustling, quaintly funky restaurant-cum-watering hole is a warm hearth where homegrown zinnias adorn each table and entrees still come with vegetables, potatoes and your choice of soup or salad.

Gabriel was working his way through the world's largest shrimp cocktail ($6.75), helping it along with plenty of the wonderful, chewy homemade bread, as I started on a lavish array of smoked salmon with a killer dill sour cream sauce ($6.50). Buttery and sweetly piquant, the salmon was luscious, especially garnished with the capers and minced Bermuda onions. Just as Gabriel was beginning to feel overwhelmed by the immensity of his appetizer--high-quality medium-sized shrimp, not the minuscule, watery bay shrimp--our ace waitress changed the culinary subject with house salads and plates of smooth, silky artichoke soup for our companions, Heinz and Mai.

The local greens at Duarte's arrive topped with crimson beets, tomatoes and outrageous pickled beans. I could eat an entire appetizer of the beans alone. The soup is lovely--mild yet infused with the nutty, haunting flavor of the artichokes that have made this region so famous.

The fresh fish special that day was filet of Petrale sole ($16.50), and Heinz happily gave me a bite from his plate. A light egg batter embraced the moist seafood, and just a squeeze of lemon and dusting of parsley did the rest. Simple and satisfying.

Like Hein'z sole, my generous portion of pork chops with warm homemade applesauce ($14.50) arrived with mashed potatoes--whose flavor seemed too shy to come out of the kitchen--and green beans. The green beans were not al dente. The pork chops were confident, filled with porcundity and quite satisfied with their blanket of brown gravy that was anything but designer.

Duarte's doesn't do designer. The food here is honest and dignified, freshly prepared and unpretentious. It tastes damn good. Especially the pies. The olallieberry pie at Duarte's is the best anywhere. The crust is tender beyond belief and, at the touch of a fork it, positively surrenders to the moist purple interior saturated with sweet, tart berries. I don't care how full you are, you have to make room for this pie. To come to Duarte's and not have some olallieberry pie is a sin that can never be pardoned--a stain that can never be washed away.

Duarte's Tavern
Address: 202 Stage Road, Pescadero
Phone: 650/879-0464
Hours: Breakfast 7-11:30am daily (till 1pm Sat.-Sun.), lunch and dinner 11:30am-9pm daily
Price: Moderate
Ambiance: **1/2 Timeless Western aura embedded in warm, family-style dining rooms with plenty of memorabilia
Service: *** Friendly, smart, on-the-ball
Cuisine: **1/2 Anything involving local ingredients--from salmon and artichokes to fruit pies--is honest and tasty.
Overall: A coastal California treasure, Duarte's serves up a sense of pride in place, family and good food.

****Great, ***Excellent, **Good, *Okay

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From the Oct. 16-22, 1997 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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