Mendocino is known for its laid-back style and all-natural approach. The area’s food scene reflects the innate casualness of the community – everyone is welcome here – yet there are good choices for even the most discriminating diner. For a complete look at my family’s recent visit to Mendocino, take a look at the video.
Begin your Mendocino adventure in the lounge at the 5200 Restaurant & Lounge at the newly remodeled Heritage House Resort (5200 North Highway One, Little River, http://heritagehouseresort.com/). Martinis, such as a Lemon Gin Collision, are modern riffs on classic cocktails and suit the updated hotel’s time-honored spirit. Carry your drink into the dining room or enjoy your meal in one of the bar’s comfy chairs. In either locale, the French-accented American menu from chef Fabrice Dubuc has broad appeal. Wild mushroom terrine is made with locally foraged mushrooms; pan-seared salmon features just-off-the-boat fish from the nearby waters of Fort Bragg and a pinot noir sauce. Mendocino’s ubiquitous arugula salad is not here; in its place a balanced stone fruit salad with walnuts and vanilla bean vinaigrette. Kids have their own menu and a portion of penne with cheese and a side of carrots and broccoli could easily feed two adults.
For an experience that most closely reflects fine dining in San Francisco, head to the newly opened Trillium Café (10390 Kasten St., Mendocino, http://trilliummendocino.com/) where chef Daniel Martin Dzul designs seasonal dishes with modern flair. Game hen glazed with ginger-soy was juicy with surprisingly crisp skin. Pork loin, too, was perfectly cooked, no small feat for this typically wan cut. Curried acorn squash, cut into a wide ring, was stuffed with fruited wild rice. The effect was festive and flavorful. A large fireplace anchors the warmly lit room, the flickering candlelight reflecting off the golden-hued walls. Were it not for my children, I would have lingered here for hours, sampling fine wines and enjoying the relaxed service.
Walk up the stairs of one of downtown Mendocino’s iconic wooden water towers to reach Flow (http://www.mendoflow.com/ , 48450 Main St., Mendocino, 707.937.3569). Stunning views of the sunset await on the broad patio. Unadorned, glossy pine tables hide dark wood chairs and, as the sun sets, the light dims to something resembling romantic. The menu, a trifold affair with a page of daily specials, boasts cleverly named cocktails like Smoke on the Water (which advises reader to “do as the Mendonesians do…”) and flights of mezcal, bourbon and rye. The bar, tucked in the back of the restaurant, remained empty for the duration of our stay.
Flow’s food is upscale diner with portions sized to match. The day’s special salad boasted Pennyroyal Laychee chèvre from Anderson Valley under a mass of wild arugula, prosciutto and fresh figs. Beware its entrée size! Mixed baby lettuces, listed under Salads on the regular menu, was indeed an appetizer. Draped with crispy leeks, beef brisket arrived atop a mound of just-right polenta and a moat of gravy. Elegant? No. Delicious? Yes. Pan-seared local Rock cod had a gentle crunch and the tang of lemon. The accompanying cole slaw, dressed with malt vinegar and a touch of mayo, was impossible to stop eating. Fries, wedged between the slaw and the fish, enhanced the tower imagery, but the slaw’s dressing left them unappetizingly soggy.
Flow’s wine list is worth more than a glance. Many unique bottlings from grapes sourced in Mendocino are available, and many are not available outside the region. Too, most ingredients here are organic and local. Next to each menu item, icons clarify the level of edibility for gluten-free and vegan diners; a nice touch.
Gluten-free options are de rigueur in Mendocino and two cafes, just steps away from each other, are packed to bursting on summer weekends. Goodlife Café (10483 Lansing St., Mendocino, http://goodlifecafemendo.com/) has gluten-free soups, salads and macaroni and cheese made with quinoa-corn pasta. The Goodlife curry bowl is vegan and gluten-free and can be topped with chicken or tofu. Known for their morning menu (served all day) of coffee, breakfast burritos and bagel and lox plate, Goodlife Café offers continuous service during operating hours, a boon when you want a meal at 3:15 p.m. Just about everything is portable, the makings of a spontaneous picnic within reach. Exciting flavors? No. Hearty food, fast? Yes.
A few doors down, Mendocino Café (10451 Lansing St., Mendocino, http://mendocinocafe.com/) focuses more sharply on international flavors and less intently on gluten-free choices than its neighbor. Vietnamese salad is served in traditional style with a pile of fragrant herbs on top and sauce on the side. Burritos (choice of Soyrizo or bacon) and other Cal-Mex standards are here, too but with a touch more refinement in the platings. Perhaps this is what attracts the locals, who outnumbered tourists the day we visited.
Mayan Fusion (32351 North Harbor Dr., Fort Bragg, https://www.facebook.com/Mayan-Fusion, 707.961.0211). Owned and operated by Silver Canul, a native of the Yucatán, the food is definitively Mexican with hints of California Cuisine. Dishes such as grilled Mayan sweet white corn, dressed with lime butter and Parmesan cheese, salbutes, flash-fried tortillas topped with fresh Bay shrimp and a dollop of guacamole or house made empanadas, stuffed with chicken and cheese and topped with pickled onion, are Mexican through-and-through with the freshness that has come to symbolize California Cuisine. The vibe is casual with paper napkins, colorful tablecloths and whitewashed walls and portions are ample. The quality and flavor of the chef’s food in this down home establishment, open since May, make this a hidden gem worth discovering.
Lauren’s(Lauren’s / http://laurensgoodfood.com/ / 14211 Highway 128, Boonville / 707.895.3869) is a quick and easy stop for a satisfying and simple lunch. Situated in downtown Boonville, it is roughly halfway between San Francisco and Mendocino. Tables are widely spaced across the broad dance hall floor and into the bar area at the back. Lunch is a seasonal affair, available only from May through October and from Thursday through Sunday. The menu tilts towards California diner – think BLT sandwich, quiche, salad and tostadas – but careful sourcing and a light touch is evident in each dish.
Squash soup is made without butter and, though simply seasoned, tasted deeply of autumn. Roasted chicken sandwich with caramelized onions and greens was adorned with a bit of oil and vinegar while a smoked turkey quesadilla was topped with mango salsa and sour cream. A small kids menu features portions sized for petite appetites and fruit or veggies with each dish. Can’t get your kid to eat and need to get back on the road? Choose the highly portable pizza or grilled cheese, winners every time.