Friday, August 29, 2008

Dinner at the end of the road

The word is out about Drakes Beach Cafe. During the first months of its operation, locals who live in West Marin began making the trek to this remote, often foggy beach near the end of the Point Reyes peninsula, not to hike or enjoy the views, but for dinner. They began telling their friends and, simply through word-of-mouth, the cafe became a hit.
A young couple, Ben Angulo and his wife, Jane Kennedy (in the photo above), took over the National Park Service concession in late 2005 and transformed it into something quite different than the hot dog and hamburger shack that it once was. Angulo highlights local and organic food from nearby farms and cheese makers as much as possible. At lunch, he serves clam chowder and sandwiches. The hamburgers are made from Niman beef and the delicious crusty bread served along the chowder is baked in nearby Point Reyes Station by Brickmaiden Breads (there's still hot dogs on the menu, too). On Friday and Saturday evenings, the couple covers the nine tables in white tablecloths, decorates the place with fresh flowers and candles and serves a four-course fixed price meal.
Last Friday evening I had a lovely dinner there with friends. We had a first course of dungeness crab cakes, followed by a roast beet salad with marscapone cheese and toasted hazelnuts. The third course consisted of red peppers stuffed with eggplant, corn and mushrooms. And, the main course was a choice of a fish, Hawaiian Opa, with broccoli and sauteed leeks or an organic Berkshire pork chop with roasted peaches, fig chutney and baby arugula. The price for the meal was $47.
The cafe does not have a liquor license (park service rules) so customers bring their own wine. Dessert is extra and, in keeping with the local food theme, the night I was there it was a scoop of ice cream from Straus Dairy in West Marin.
My dinner came at the end of a day poking around West Marin's food purveyors (research for a San Francisco Chronicle article). In Point Reyes Station, I started with a knock-out cappuccino at Toby's espresso bar, a scone at Bovine Bakery, and then sampled some fresh cow's milk cheese at Cowgirl Creamery around the corner inside Tomales Bay Foods, the old hay barn that is Cowgirl's original plant (they've since expanded with a new plant in Petaluma).
I drove up Highway 1 a few miles along Tomales Bay toward Marshall, stopping at Tomales Bay Oysters (photo at left below) and Hog Island Oysters to watch the workers transfers oysters from the storage tanks to sacks for sale. I had a bowl of clam chowder at Nick's Cove (the "hot" spot in these parts, reopened in the last year by San Francisco restaurateur Pat Kuleto, after a gorgeous renovation of an old bayside eatery).
Before meeting friends for dinner at Drakes Beach Cafe, I drove out to the Point Reyes Lighthouse (six miles further out from the cafe), where I hadn't been since high school (which was a long time ago; I think the old beam was actually still in operation then, yikes!). If you're going to see the lighthouse, make sure you allow for enough time. The ranger at the visitors center there said the most common mistake made is by those who stop at the Point Reyes headquarters visitors center at Bear Valley or people who stop at the towns of Inverness or Point Reyes Station is to leave too late in the day. It's about a 45-minute drive to the lighthouse from the Bear Valley center and those two towns. Then, when you get to the lighthouse parking lot, it's a half-mile hike and a climb (308 stairs) to the lighthouse, which closes at 4:30 p.m.
It's also one of the foggiest and windiest places on the west coast so dress accordingly. It was 80 degrees and sunny in Point Reyes Station when I left at 2 p.m. It was another world at the lighthouse: cold, windy and so foggy that the fog horns were blaring and visitors couldn't see more than a few hundred feet into the distance. Still, it was fun.
From 2:30 p.m. to 4 p.m. the cast iron tower (photo at top on left) that houses the huge, old lens, built in France in 1867, is opened up and a ranger talks about the history of the place and the isolated lives of the lighthouse keepers who lived and worked in the harsh weather. A newspaper report at the time inferred that they often went mad. And, after just 20 minutes in the tower, with the wind howling and the fog horns wailing outside, I could see why.
And, they didn't even have the chance for a wonderful meal at the end of the day at the Drakes Beach Cafe.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Presidio: How Much Change?

San Francisco's Presidio, a vast military post-turned-national park dating from 1776, is the largest historic renovation project underway in the United States. In the area of the Main Post alone there are more than 100 buildings in different states of repair.
This summer, everyone seems focused not on renovation but on a possible new building, specifically, the Contemporary Art Museum proposed by Donald and Doris Fisher, The Gap founders. The Fishers would like to build a 100,000-square-foot museum (larger than San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art) on a prime corner of the post's Main Parade grounds, steps away from the stately Montgomery Street Barracks, built in the 1890s (photo above). It would house their collection of 1,000 pieces of major artwork. There's now a tennis court and 1960s-style building with a bowling alley on the site.
Should a modern glass-and-concrete structure go up in an historic setting such as this? Should the Presidio Trust board, the agency that oversees and manages the park, reject the proposal or direct the Fishers to one of three alternate sites?
To help people decide, The Presidio Trust is conducting free 90-minute walking tours of the Main Post on Wednesdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. through Aug. 27. Meet at the ground floor of the Officers' Club.
It's a good tour. The one I took on Wednesday was led off by a Presidio Trust archeologist who discussed recent findings around the Officers' Club -- where three-foot thick adobe walls were uncovered that may date back to the late 1700s.
From there, two Presidio Trust staff showed us around the Main Post, stopping at the Parade grounds, the 1930s-era Presidio Theatre, the site of the Contemporary Art Museum, the proposed Park Lodge (a plan also under discussion, but less controversial) and the recently renovated Funston Street homes (photo below) that date from the Civil War.
From the questions that rose from the 50-or-so people on my walk, there was no question that the art museum is a hot topic. Most reflected the views of the neighborhood groups who are opposed to the plan: they seemed disturbed by the Fishers' proposed location. The building would be too big, too modern and incompatible for the historic Main Parade.
Many seemed open to alternatives, such as Infantry Terrace, an area tucked in the forested glen just a few hundred yards east or at the Sports Basement site near Doyle Drive and the Crissy Field marsh. This is a discussion that's going to be in the news a lot this fall. Decide for yourself. For more, see the Presidio's Web site.