Hilltop 1892: A Peak Experience for the Eyes and Taste Buds
The soil throughout this township is a rich, sandy loam, and is especially fertile in the valleys. It is well adapted to the growing of grains, vegetables, fruits and vines. Grass grows very luxuriantly on all the hill and mountain sides, over which large herds of kine roam at will…”
From A History of Novato Alley, Bowen & Company, Publishers San Francisco, 1880
There is a well-kept secret in Novato, and it is sitting in plain view. Perched atop one of the town’s signature stand-alone hills is a historic home hosting Hilltop 1892, a restaurant that offers some of the most stunning sunset views in our area.
And working away in the kitchen of this “hidden” gem is Todd Davies, arguably one of the best chefs in the region.
While it has been largely overlooked in the blossoming of the local food movement during the past decade, Novato is in fact a town with deep agricultural roots, a historic hub of locally produced foods. Thirty-ish minutes from every place a local-loving epicurean might want to be—Sonoma, Napa, Russian River Valley, Point Reyes Station, Sausalito—Novato is, of late, becoming a destination in its own right, boasting foodie havens such as Boca Tavern and Pizzeria, Trek Winery and Rustic Bakery.
Based on its altitude, the recent hiring of the celebrated chef and a menu designed to follow the seasonal offerings at local farmers’ markets, Hilltop 1892 appears to be setting its sights on becoming Novato’s new culinary crown jewel.
The historic home was built, you guessed it, in 1892 by an early Novato resident named Daniel Hayden. The location has housed several restaurants since the 1930s, the most popular being The Hilltop Cafe that thrived as a favorite choice for local celebrations for almost 30 years. When that closed during the recession of 2008, restaurateur Erick Hendricks, a Marin native who has piloted several restaurant ventures, including Forbes Island at Pier 39 in San Francisco, took over the lease and spent a year remodeling.
Hendricks comes from a legacy restaurant family: His father, Sidney Hendricks, was an owner of the iconic Sid and Jim’s in Mill Valley. He has sommelier training and connections to local vineyards, including his own family’s Rockin’ H Ranch Vineyard, so adding a state-of-the-art wine cellar was a priority.
In 2010 he reopened the site as Hilltop 1892, with a new farm-fresh slant on California Cuisine.
Last year, when Hendricks was looking for a new executive chef, his path luckily crossed with Davies’. Chef Davies’ resume reads like a who’s who of prominent partner chefs and restaurants—he has worked in top restaurants across the country, with and for Jeremiah Towers, Bradley Ogden and Charlie Palmer, among others—but he was ready for a position that would keep him closer to home, near his wife, a teacher in Central Marin, and young daughter.
Now both Davies and Hendricks live in Novato with their families, and, yes, their children enjoy dining at the restaurant. In similar stages when they met, the two men say they were looking to create a venue that walks that delicate line between approachable and comfortable and exciting high-end dining. In their own words, they were striving to create a “refined family restaurant” that “highlights local farmers and seasonal produce.”
Because Hilltop 1892 is situated in a bedroom community with a loyal local following, and is also an elegant venue with one of the most beautiful and dramatic outlooks in Marin, it was the perfect place to pursue this goal.
“We really are in an ideal location,” says Hendricks. “We can bridge the gap between wine country and Southern Marin and San Francisco. We have many Novato families who have come to this spot for special occasions for generations. And now we want to help people in other areas understand that Novato should not be stigmatized.”
According to Hendricks, the restaurant is beginning to achieve a nice balance between beloved local diners and foodies from far and wide. Hendricks is grateful for both.
“The business is exceeding expectations,” he says. “We are part of this community now, and the locals are adamant about supporting us. I am very involved with the Chamber of Commerce, and we hire a lot of the high school kids. We design menus for special events, like Nostalgia Days in downtown, and Oktoberfest. At the same time, we are a perfect place to eat if you are traveling north from the East Bay or Southern Marin.”
Davies and Hendricks both voice an appreciation for Novato’s geographic proximity to agriculture, in all directions. Davies is a regular at the Civic Center farmers’ market and has developed ties to many local producers, including Marin Roots, County Line Harvest and Redwood Hill.
“I try to support the little guy,” he says. “I find that the produce here rivals any produce in the world. The Northern California cheese rivals the best French and Italian Cheese. So while I am buying from some of the best producers and purveyors possible, I am also cooking in a way that is seasonal and sustainable.”
Running a kitchen in the center of the agricultural Eden that is the North Bay, says Davies, is “a chef ’s dream.” California crops are a boon and a blessing, year-round, and he designs menus to take advantage of the range of root vegetables, leafy greens, citrus, game and seafood available in the foodshed, even in our cool weather months.
This winter you will find Sonoma County-raised Liberty duck breast with lacinato kale and Cara Cara and blood oranges; Dungeness crab salad; Marin oysters; cedar plank salmon; Cabernet-braised short ribs; and pork belly with Rancho Gordo beans on the menu. Culinary comfort, straight from the market stalls and fishermen’s nets.
And Hendricks has tuned his almost entirely Northern California wine list to Davies’ menu. The extensive cellar includes a Syrah from Novato’s own Trek Winery as well as Syrahs and Pinots sourced from the Hendricks family’s Rockin’ H Ranch in Petaluma.
With ties to both Novato and the greater region, it is no wonder that both Hendricks and Davies are stopped multiple times by familiar faces when they walk through the Hilltop 1892 dining room. The building itself has a distinct warmth and coziness to it, and it seems fitting that two family men should be at the helm of a restaurant operating in this celebrated family estate.
The dining room seems to hold its own history of home and community, which makes it a nice choice for holiday meals. Like the town of Novato itself, the restaurant is beautiful but exudes an authentic quality that is sometimes hard to come by in high-end restaurants.
“With this setting,” says Hendricks, his eyes following the green ridgeline south to the Bay, “I just had to give this old property some love.”
Kirsten Jones Neff is a journalist, poet and middle school gardening teacher at the Novato Charter School. She feels extraordinarily lucky to live with her family in a small rural corner of northern Marin County. Links to her work and organic gardening and food blog can be found at KirstenJonesNeff.com.