Friday, August 20, 2010

Quick Healdsburg Nosh-and-Coffee Break

On my way to Mendocino recently from the Bay Area I stopped in the Sonoma wine country town of Healdsburg to stretch my legs and grab a quick lunch. Usually, I head to the swell Oakville Grocery right off the square but I'm on a budget these days so I decided to look around for something less dear.

Friends in the area have raved about Big John's, the high-end supermarket about a mile north of the town square. I headed over there, finding one of those independent, old-fashioned grocery stores with warm and friendly service and a big assortment of local produce, fruit and products -- Redwood Hill Farm cheese, Sonoma County olive oils, mustard and jam -- which make wonderful souvenirs to bring home from a trip to the wine country. Prices are probably less than you'll find at fancy winery gift shops.

I later learned that the "Big" in Big John's doesn't refer to the girth of the owner but is an acronym for Better Independent Grocers and that the store is not the decades-old institution that I assumed but actually relatively recent to these parts, having opened in 1994.

With a turkey-and-tomato sandwich on sourdough (for less than $7), some juicy local nectarines and a bottle of water I headed back the Healdsburg square for a quick picnic in the shade of redwoods.

Then, to keep me alert for the drive ahead, I headed to Flying Goat Coffee (right off the square) for a strong and rich macchiato. I picked up a gift for my hosts in Mendocino County -- a pound of Flying Goat's most popular roast, Mrs. Garland's Blend, forgetting that I was traveling to Thanksgiving Coffee Co. territory.

We'll let fans of Sonoma County's Flying Goat and Fort Bragg-based Thanksgiving, which is beloved on the north coast and by my friends in Mendocino County, battle it out. It's remarkable that we've got such choices in good coffee in these parts.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Point Richmond's Plunge Set to Re-Open

Maybe you've heard: The Plunge, the largest swimming pool in California, is reopening in Point Richmond.

The huge pool, built in 1926 in a handsome building on the railroad tracks on the edge of town, was closed in 1997 and now, after a $7.5 million renovation, is scheduled to re-open on Aug. 14 with a celebration ribbon cutting and tours. I walked outside on Saturday and workers were putting the finishing touches on the place, which houses the 9,600-square foot pool. From the looks of it, the Richmond Municipal Natatorium, as it's officially named, will be pretty swell, like it was in its heyday when it was known as the East Bay's version of San Francisco's Sutro Baths.

The Plunge is just one claim to fame of Point Richmond, a lovely place to spend an afternoon. A few good restaurants dot the streets around the central square, which is called The Triangle because it's not in the shape of a square. There's a new farmers' market Wednesdays 4 p.m.-8p.m. there that sounds worth a visit.

A couple of art galleries and gift shops surround the triangle, many housed in early 20th century buildings, restored and pretty spiffy. A friend and I fell into Hidden City Cafe not realizing it's THE place to eat in town. It's a nice little spot with a red-brick facade and, true to its name, is hard to find unless you are walking right in front of it.

The owner and chef is Shellie Bourgault, formerly of Chez Panisse. As you'd expect, she uses wonderful organic, fresh ingredients. I had the polenta scrapple with eggs and toast -- panfried wedges of polenta spreckled with pieces of Hobb's applewood bacon and herbs -- that was delicious. I've got to go back and try the pancakes, which I learned later Hidden City is famous for (it's only open for breakfast and lunch). Also, apparently, this is a favorite lunch spot of the animators at Pixar Studios: Hidden City's exterior was used in a scene in the movie Wall-E.

If you're going to check out Point Richmond, walk around the town a bit.

In front of The Plunge is one the last remaining wigwags, the old railroad crossing warning systems, now decommissioned. Turns out that there's quite a cult following of wigwags and efforts to remove them set off alarms (sorry, couldn't resist) from wigwag enthusiasts. I even found a youtube video of the Point Richmond wigwag, prior to its decommissioning (check out the brave -- or foolish -- bikers!). There IS something kind of endearing about them.

Several pretty old churches that date from the early 20th century were built on Point Richmond's hills. They are on leafy residential streets sandwiched in between old homes, some rather stately. After, get back in your car and take a right at The Plunge and drive through the Ferry Point Tunnel. The walking trails at Miller/Knox Regional Shoreline and saltwater lagoon make for a good after-lunch stroll. And, there's small, sandy Keller Beach nearby to dip your toes in the bay.