The Spanish Table
A Couple Brings Their Passion for Spain to Northern California
Step though the unassuming front door of The Spanish Table at Mill Valley’s Strawberry Village and prepare to be transported to the far reaches of Iberia. Stop, for a moment, at the threshold and try to take it all in: the shelves and tables neatly stacked and full to the brim with colors and shapes, all arranged thoughtfully with notes to entice or explain or offer a sample of the intriguing offerings from faraway Spain.
Imported from regions far and wide—from the rugged northern coast of Basque Country to the ancient mountains of Andalucia, from the Mediterranean seaports of Barcelona and Valencia to the food mecca at the heart of the country that is Madrid—the goods sold here are the unique foods of the Iberian Peninsula, and, in some cases, of North Africa and the Middle East.
Drink in the tins of Arroyabe Bonito del Norte tuna, the Albo stuffed squids in their own ink, Ortiz cockles in brine. Glistening bottles of Toro Albala Reservo sherry vinegar (so coveted by local chefs) and Arvum Arrope Grape Must, alongside choices of Dauro, La Masia or Oleoesteppa 100% Arbequina Extra-Virgin Olive Oil. Small containers of exotic spices—a paella spice blend; a Za’atar mix (so delicious with olive oil and flatbread); and Cyprus flake, saffron, truffle and lemon-lime sea salts, among others. Behind you on a shelf are Ybarra anchovy-stuffed olives and Mustapha caper berries, and further on, blanched marcona almonds and El Rey “smoked” bittersweet paprika.
It is all so exotic and enticing, it is hard not to imagine yourself on a balcony overlooking the Alboran Sea, sipping sherry, eating olives and listening to flamenco guitar.
In fact, this is how it all began, says Tanya Booth, co-owner with her husband, Andy, of the three The Spanish Table stores—located in Mill Valley, on Berkeley’s San Pablo Avenue and newly opened on Clement Street in San Francisco. Although he was born in the United States to American parents, Andy Booth lived the early years of his life in Southern Spain, near Cadiz. The tastes, smells, and experiences— including that memory of sitting on a balcony overlooking the ocean, his father sipping sherry and tasting olives as he played flamenco —were indelibly marked in his memory, waiting until his adult life to come alive and guide him back to Spain.
Tanya, who grew up and lived in Northern Florida until the age of 30, says she knew early on that she was meant to see the world. She and Andy met in culinary school in St. Augustine and together they created an opportunity to travel and work in Spain. It wasn’t just any opportunity, either. With a letter of support and recommendation from renowned Spanish cookbook author Penelope Casas (The Food and Wines of Spain) the two landed in San Sebastian and Andy worked in the kitchen of the three-Michelin-star Restaurante Arzak, an exceptionally rare experience for an American chef. When they returned to the states a year and a half later, Andy cooked at San Francisco’s Jardiniere and Restaurant Gary Danko, and Tanya worked in the wine import business.
Eventually, their experience abroad led the duo to The Spanish Table founders Steve Winston and Sharon Bader, a couple who shared the Booths’ love of all things Spanish and who had founded the original store in Seattle in 1985. When Andy began working at The Spanish Table in Berkeley, the two couples developed a friendship based on their mutual passion, and began to travel together—to Spain and Portugal and Mexico—eating and drinking and sourcing the wine, food and cooking supplies that would allow people back at home to re-create the exquisite flavors of Spanish dishes.
“As our relationship with Steve and Sharon developed, Steve, who is in his 70s, suggested we buy into the Berkeley shop and that we open the Mill Valley shop as partners. Being younger, we became a natural part of his exit strategy for retirement,” says Tanya. “We just bought Steve and Sharon out last year. We also opened our new San Francisco store.”
The San Francisco store, on Clement Street between 2nd and 3rd in the inner Richmond, is unique from their first two locations in that it includes a coffee bar featuring coffees roasted by the couple’s close friend Tara Ancona, owner of Sausalito’s Cibo Caffé & Bakery.
As customers come into the Mill Valley Spanish Table on a recent Tuesday morning, they poke around the store and ask questions. Tanya seems able to provide detailed explanations and tips about each item on the shelves.
One of the couple’s primary aspirations as owners of The Spanish Table, she says, is to share their love of Spanish wine and food through educational events. Because of the “wine lifestyle” in the North Bay, the Mill Valley store draws a savvy clientele. The Spanish Table Wine Club features wines from Spain, Portugal, Argentina and Chile, including “The Spanish Table Selections” which cannot be found elsewhere in California, and the store’s educational events often take the form of Spanish and Portuguese winemaker visits and wine tastings. An entire wall of the store displays wine, sherry, madeira, port, cider, vermouth and cava, and every Saturday they have a bottle of something delicious open for customers to sample.
LET’S HAVE COFFEE
It’s fun to hang out with Tanya Booth and Tara Ancona. The two friends have a lot in common. They both run small, successful businesses. They’re both trained chefs who have traveled extensively and married men who are also chefs. They both work long, hard hours, unintimidated by the physical side of the food business, and love their jobs. And, they both laugh a lot, especially when hanging out together.
“The more we got to know each other, the more we realized we have in common,” says Ancona, owner and chef at Cibo Caffe & Bakery in Sausalito.
“We share so many of the same experiences,” adds Booth. “We understand each other.”
Tanya and Andy Booth live in Sausalito and got to know Tara and Alfredo Ancona when they stopped by Cibo each morning, growing more and more addicted to the house-roasted coffee and house-baked pastries. The couples began to host each other for long late-night dinners, and soon Tanya and Tara hatched a plan.
“I wanted to feature a coffee bar in our new San Francisco store,” says Booth, “and I wanted it to be Tara’s coffee.”
So they made it happen. Now, Booth says, she enjoys watching customers take their first sip of a Cibo espresso at The Spanish Table on Clement Street. “They take that first sip right there at the bar in front of me and they tell me, ‘This is delicious ... so delicious!’” Listening to Tanya relate what sounds like a common occurrence, Tera shrugs off the compliment, as if roasting delicious coffee is just part of a day’s work.
What a pleasure to encounter two hardworking small business owners who are this passionate about what they do, as well as about supporting the efforts of others.
“Even though people here in Marin are very knowledgeable about wine, they will come in and say ‘I don’t know a thing about Spanish wine’ and we are happy to be able to provide that expertise.”
Another favorite thing, she says, is helping customers plan for a Spanish-themed party, working out a meal with ideas for everything from tapas to libations to dessert. The entire rear section of the store is reserved for Spanish kitchenware—traditional blue and white or yellow and red patterned ceramic kitchen storage jars for flour, salt, rice and other staples, as well as cooking vessels such as terracotta cazuelas, North African tagines, and paella burners and pans.
“You would be surprised how many paella pans and burners we sell here,” says Tanya. “People can’t get enough of them. More people are making paella, and they are great for camping trips. Just this morning we had a guy come in to buy one for river rafting trips. They’re perfect for a large group.”
The phone rings and Tanya has a long conversation with Andy who is at their East Bay warehouse taking stock of a new container that has just arrived from Spain. Sounding like the involved small business owners that they are, they discuss the fine details of distribution to the various stores. Then, without missing a beat, Tanya turns back to the much more glamorous subjects of a spectacular new Lacuesta Vermouth and a particularly delicious Martinez Lacuesta Rioja the Booths discovered at last year’s world-famous Fenavin wine show in Spain.
Such is the nature of the trade as proprietors of The Spanish Table, says Tanya, who tends towards espadrilles and skirts, whether she’s hosting a wine tasting or unloading a truck and stocking shelves: One minute it is a creative and adventurous vocation, traveling to exotic places to discover Spanish delicacies, and the next it is a lot of handson hard work.
“Oh, you should see me unloading pallets,” laughs Tanya. “I’m a schlepper. I’m a queen schlepper!”
As customers bring their items to the cash register, the conversations with Tanya continue—about the ideal vinegar for a dressing or the most traditional cheese or the perfect wine pairing. Like the country that inspired The Spanish Table itself, there’s a unique culture inside this little Mill Valley shop, a mood of excitement and festivity that seems to be born of the Booths’ passion for what they do.