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Photograph by Michael Amsler

Gourmet to go: Liz Vella of Tomales Bay Foods/Cowgirl Creamery in Pt. Reyes Station displays some of the local flavors.

West Marin Meanderings

Plenty to savor at Pt. Reyes Station

By Paula Harris

FORGET THE CALL of the wild. It's the call of the ocean that lures me. Sometimes a day trip to the nearby windswept sandy beaches of west Marin for a piercing tangy whiff of salt water and a sudden cool lash of sea spray across sun-toasted skin is enough of a vacation to get you through another summer work week.

One immensely scenic route to get from Sonoma County to Marin County is to go to Petaluma and take the D Street extension road. You'll pass stately Victorian mansions with their little turrets and immaculate lawns as you head out of town. It looks like (and has indeed been) a movie backdrop for nostalgic Americana on the silver screen.

But suddenly the Peggy Sue Got Married street scene gives way to snaking country roads, grandly plunging hills--as dry and golden as sand dunes--and a patchwork of craggy dark rocks and olive groves.

Before you hit your beach destination, stop at the tiny whistlestop town of Pt. Reyes Station (population 725). Once a drowsy little place with plenty of Old West charm after the bustling railroad closed in 1933, the tiny coastal town has transformed itself during the past couple of years into quite a foodie enclave.

In fact, there are so many food options to explore here, you might not even make it to the ocean.

Begin a lazy morning in Pt. Reyes Station with an eye-popping cup of espresso brewed with house-roasted beans at Cafe Reyes, 11101 State Route 1 (415/663-9493). Wake up leisurely to the swaying melodies of Latin American vocals on the sound system in the large open dining room, with its rough-hewn floor and a corrugated tin roof softened by large canvas umbrellas, sacks of java beans, and golden straw beachcomber hats. Or slump in the sun on the picturesque outdoor patio next to the gurgling fountain. Return later for a dozen local oysters (oysters are the thing in Pt. Reyes Station) sautéed in garlic and lemon butter ($14) or just plain raw (although of the half-dozen oysters we sampled, only one was truly stellar). Or try the mole roja enchiladas, a choice of grilled chicken, baby shrimp, or garden vegetable ($8.95); or the exotic-sounding kim ti kai burrito--chicken breast marinated in coconut milk and curry with jasmine rice ($6.95).

Then mosey on down the street, sidestepping an elderly couple strolling hand in hand and a couple of free-roamin' dogs, to Bovine Bakery, 11316 Hwy. 1 (415/663-9420). This is a popular community meeting place where locals gather by the outside benches to dish the day's dirt. Pick a hulking blueberry buttermilk scone ($2) or a flaky pain au chocolat ($1.85) from the glass display case and savor a little sugar intake as you try not to eavesdrop.

If you're still planning to head to the beach, stop at Palace Market, 1200 Hwy. 1 (415/663-1016) and pick up some picnic fare (or even some live fishing bait.) Wander over to the deli and buy beach goodies: salmon frittata ($2.50 a slice), a crisp baguette, huge garlic-stuffed olives ($6.99 a pound), individual lime tarts ($2.50 each), and a chilled bottle of chardonnay or sauvignon blanc, or a sparkler from the large refrigerated selection.

If it's a summer Saturday, swing by the Farmers' Market in the middle of the main street between 9 a.m. and noon to score some crisp-from-the-garden produce. Or try Toby's Feed Barn, 11250 Hwy. 1 (415 663-1223) next door. Pass by the hay, feed, and country gifts to snag a one-pound bag of almonds ($3.79), roasted pistachios ($4.99), or dried peaches ($4.49) to fuel a power walk along the sand. A variety of specialty chips, jams, jellies, sauces and oils, local organic Straus Creamery milk, local fertile free-range eggs ($3.99 a dozen), breads, and organic fruits and veggies are also available. You can even pick up a picnic basket at Toby's.

CASUAL DINING spots include Point Reyes Whale of a Deli, 997 Mesa Road (415/663-8464), for takeout specialty sandwiches like Mama's meatball ($5) and pizzas by the pie or the slice, and Taqueria La Quinta, Highway 1 at Third St. (415 663-8868), a no-frills taqueria, for inexpensive Mexican fare, fruit smoothies, and aguas frescas.

The Station House Cafe, 11180 Hwy. 1 (415/663-1515) is a good spot for lunch (this venerable institution also serves a great breakfast and innovative dinners that have drawn raves from Gourmet magazine). In sultry weather, eschew the classy but plain dining room in favor of the beautiful garden and red brick patio--popular for wedding parties. If you're fortunate, one of the resident hummingbirds will hover just inches from your ear as you read the menu. Huge colorful blooms, birdsong, and a fountain conspire to give a restful feeling while wooden fencing and lattice work conceal you from the rest of the world.

Johnson's oysters, from nearby Tomales Bay, steamed in the shell ($7.50 for six, $13.50 for a dozen) bring a mouth-to-mouth breath of the sea. Black bean and turkey chili with corn bread ($6.25 a bowl) is a good standby (and even more welcome after a bracing trek to the Pt. Reyes lighthouse in windy weather). But forget the minestrone soup of the day ($2.70 a cup), which is too watery. Nonmeat eaters will love the vegetarian shepherd's pie ($6.50), a heaping dome of golden-topped mashed potatoes encasing squashes, mushrooms, and tomatoes. Follow with the "famous" bread pudding ($4.95) or homemade butterscotch pudding ($3.95) or the luscious lemon pot de crème ($3.95) for dessert.

Or do as we did and head over to the Pine Cone Diner, 60 Fourth St. (415/663-1536) for a slice of house-made fruit cobbler ($3.95) and a mug of coffee at the worn old counter. The place is small and funky, with red vinyl stools and plastic booths, but it's no greasy spoon. The motif is cozy-kitsch (little gingham curtains, linoleum on floor, and mismatched plates on the aqua-painted wall), but the food is definitely in the gourmet leagues; for example, scrumptious fruit cobbler brimming with slices of apple and mango.


Martini time: Jasmina Henley bartends at the Station House Cafe, renowned for its innovative gourmet offerings and also boasting live music on weekend nights.

BREAKFAST at the Pine Cone includes pan-fried trout fresh from Idaho with two eggs ($8.50), and honey-baked ham and cheese omelet ($8.25). Lunch features sandwiches, burgers, soups, and salads. But the dinner offerings make you want to stick around till 5 p.m., when they start serving true delights like cherry wood­smoked pork loin with lavender gastrique--lavender-infused sherry, vinegar, and honey ($15.95); and tried-and-true roasted garlic chicken with garlic mashers, pan gravy, and green beans ($13.50).

After all the eating, maybe a little walk is in order. How about to the Point Reyes Oyster Co., 11101 Hwy. 1 (415/663-8373), where you can buy some locally harvested Tomales Bay shellfish at bargain prices or pick some new gourmet cookware?

Or spend an hour or two at Tomales Bay Foods, 80 Fourth St. (415 663-9335) a renovated old hay barn that houses fresh, local, organic, and artisan foods and wines Wednesday through Sunday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Select from many deli delectables, including a rockfish salad with summer squash, wax beans, and tomatoes ($10) and a Niman Ranch pork loin sandwich with barbecue sauce and pickles ($5.75).

Within Tomales Bay Foods is the Cowgirl Creamery, where they turn out batches of handmade organic cheeses like crème fraîche, quark, and fromage blanc. You can watch the cheese makers in action through the glass.

Before you go, grab a half-pint tub of pudding-rich Cowgirl Creamery ice cream ($2.75), with choices like mixed berry, chocolate chip, cappuccino, and (anything but boring) vanilla, made with pasteurized organic milk, cream, eggs, sugar, salt, and all-natural ingredients.

Slip in a plastic spoon and prepare to swoon--the beach can wait.

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From the June 13-19, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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