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.

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