Guerneville: The Rebirth of Cool
It’s a perfect July day. Above me tower the majestic redwood trees of Sonoma County. Passing over a small bridge that spans the Russian River I enter a magical hamlet, unlike any other place I’ve known. Guerneville, with its storied past and contemporary exuberance, is a vacation mecca that, in the right moment, may transfix a traveler into permanent residency.
Guerneville has a history of attracting LGBTQ, bohemian and forward-thinking vacationers from San Francisco and around the globe, most seeking rest and relaxation and some, perhaps, the freedom to be a bit more of who they really are. More recently, an influx of culinary innovators has added a host of edible attractions to Guerneville’s treasures.
Upon my late afternoon arrival I settle in at Dawn Ranch Lodge on Guerneville’s main drag, Highway 116. In 1905, Theodosia Button Murphy purchased the 15-acre heirloom apple orchard on which Dawn Ranch is located, alongside the Russian River, for the price of eight gold coins. Knowing the turn of the 20th century San Francisco “elite” enjoyed vacationing in the area, she built a lodge to serve as a dining hall and placed tent cabins amidst the orchards. In 1978, Peter Pender purchased the site, renaming it Fife’s Place and announcing his intention to create a “Fire Island West,” introducing a “Gay Renaissance” to Guerneville. Pender owned the property until 2001, when it was purchased by Michael Clark, who renamed it Dawn Ranch.
Guests at Dawn Ranch may stroll among the sprawling property’s redwood groves, pluck apples and plums from the 111-year-old orchards in season, lounge by the pool, access the Russian River, enjoy the lodge’s weekly bonfires, curl up with a good book, make new friends and simply unwind in the spacious oasis just steps from the “bustle” of main street Guerneville.
The Agriculture Public House restaurant at Dawn Ranch is open to drop-in diners as well as to resort guests. Executive Chef Fernando Plazola commands a diverse menu, offering breakfast, lunch and dinner daily. The restaurant’s website says it focuses on locally sourced organic produce, sustainable fish, local meats and artisan cheeses, and much of the produce comes from the lodge’s own extensive kitchen garden, which was in full bloom on my visit. For breakfast, old favorites like crisp bacon and lox stand alongside Brioche French toast with fruit compote and mascarpone and latkes (potato pancakes). At dinner, the Pulled Pork Ravioli, a French-Italian twist on Southern barbecue, is as unique as it is delicious. Roasted Mary’s Chicken with pommes frites is perfect for sharing while taking in the sunset. The wine list has plenty to offer, including many local Russian River names.
Before or after dinner, a stop in Dawn Ranch’s historic bar with its extensive craft spirits list is a must.
Long known as a destination wedding and corporate retreat venue, Dawn Ranch’s future plans include offering more space for individual guests. They aim to welcome the vacationer who would like to spend a couple of nights, a week or longer. The “or longer” is easy to imagine. Dawn Ranch invites you to unplug (there are no telephones or TVs in the rooms) and step back into a simpler time.
After a relaxing night in one of Dawn Ranch’s charmingly rustic but well-appointed cabins, I reluctantly leave the cocoon that Clark and his capable staff have created and take a short walk into town to meet local entrepreneur Michael Volpatt, who has graciously offered to give me the grand tour. His exuberance for Guerneville is infectious as he excitedly points out new culinary hot spots alongside funky art galleries, antique shops, a flea market, a thriving general store and a few upscale shops.
Our first stop is Big Bottom Market, which Volpatt co-owns with Crista Luedtke, another local hotelier, restaurateur and developer who is, as you will no doubt note as you read on, changing the face of Guerneville. Big Bottom is a great place to start the day. A community hangout and people-watching perch, a sandwich and salad eatery with well-curated culinary retail offerings, they truly make their mark with biscuits. These might well be the best biscuits west of the Mississippi. The daily specials the morning of my visit: Peaches and Cream, Pistachio Orange and the one I devoured, Sriracha Bacon. Of course, take note of the deliciously “regular” Biscuit with Jam, Biscuit with Honey, and Sea Biscuit. Pans of bake-at-home biscuits as well as bags of biscuit mix are also offered.
Big Bottom Market biscuits are so popular that Volpatt, Luedtke and their third partner, Kate Larkin, have opened the Big Bottom Biscuit bar in the coffee window at Osteria Cotta in the Upper West Side neighborhood of New York City. This foodie phenomenon emerges from Guerneville, not the other way around.
Just down the street, Crista Luedtke’s Boon Eat + Drink offers a playful menu of vibrantly seasonal cuisine. Executive Chef Sergio Guzman’s flash-fried Brussels sprouts with chili flakes, garlic and lemon are light and refreshing, a refined and welcome twist on a current staple dish of many restaurants. The spicy pulled pork proves addictive, especially with a perfectly poached egg on top. Seasonal salads on my visit include tri-colored organic beets with local goat cheese, hazelnuts and mint and kale with stone fruit, goat cheese and Marcona almonds. But the “Boon Burger” with truffle fries is hard to beat. The wine and beer list hails from the Russian River and North Coast areas. The upscale café is an offshoot of Luedtke’s highly touted Boon Hotel + Spa, a short jaunt away at the entrance to Armstrong Woods Natural State Reserve.
Luedtke is also the creator of El Barrio, the neighborhood bar for the more adventurous drinker. The funky/artsy hipster Mexican-style decorated space specializes in tequila and mezcal, as well as bourbon and other brown spirits. I order the La Mula, a mixture of tequila, lime, ginger shrub and soda. The bartender spares no tequila, but against the backdrop of the deliciously spicy shrub it was hard to notice the potency of the cocktail. On a hot day slow sipping seemed essential, probably best accompanied by a few of El Barrio’s “antojitos” or small bites.
After purchasing the old Guerneville Bank building on Main Street in 2014, Bob Pullum meticulously and artfully restored the historic structure as the Guerneville Bank Club, earning a Gold Recognition from the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors and the Brainerd Jones Preservation Award from the Sonoma County Historical Society. The most prominent building in town, it had been vacant for nearly 30 years. The elegant East Coast–style building now houses two artisan food businesses, a fashion and home design retail store, an art gallery and the Russian River Historical Society.
One of the artisan food offerings is Nimble & Finn’s, owned by sisters Jazmin Hooijer and Leandra Serena Beaver. Nimble & Finn’s serves handcrafted ice cream in seasonal, exceptionally creative flavors. The sisters launched their business though catering gigs and farmers’ markets in 2013, opening the scoop shop in the spring of 2015. They churn it slowly so that very little air is added, they note, keeping the ice cream very dense and creamy. Using Straus Family Creamery dairy products as their base, they whip up unique combinations such as coriander and raspberries. Enlisting Jazmin’s 7-year-old as taste tester (the “Finn” in Nimble & Finn’s), the duo say they ensure that the exotic combinations are kid and adult friendly alike. Several of their ice cream flavors have won awards from the Sonoma County Harvest Fair including Double Gold Medal Winner Dark Chocolate; Gold Medal Winner Maple Bourbon Bacon Brittle; and Bronze Medal Winner Lemon Olive Oil Chocolate.
Trevor Logan of San Francisco–based Chile Pies Baking Co. shares the Nimble & Finn’s storefront. The freshly baked pie menu on the day I visited included white nectarine raspberry, country peach with crème fraiche and blueberries, green chile apple and Mexican chocolate nut. I’ll take one of each, please.
Soon to join the ice cream and pie party is the Bank Club Wine Collective. What will be Guerneville’s first tasting room is a collaboration between building owner Pullum, two local upstart wine producers and principal interior designer/project manager Crista Luedtke.
Inizi and Baldassari Family Wines are both small boutique wine labels, each producing less than 1,000 cases annually. But the similarities end there. Inizi creates esoteric Italian varieties like the 2014 Inizi Charbono, sourced from a 1.5-acre block in Calistoga. As there are only 80 remaining acres of Charbono planted in California, this is considered a cult wine, so you might want to hurry on over before the word spreads.
Baldassari, on the other hand, produces a high-end 2013 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir and a 2013 Bennett Valley “Nolan Vineyard” Syrah (Sonoma County). These intriguing wine purveyors offer something for everyone’s taste—from essential and classic to adventurous.
After that much eating and drinking on a hot day, a visit to Guerneville’s Johnson Beach is mandatory. The wide beach offers canoe, kayak and inner tube rentals if you are so inclined, or just a beautiful place to spread out your towel and soak in the rays. A Russian River tradition for almost a century, it remains a favorite summer spot for both Sonoma County residents and visitors. Under new ownership, the public day or overnight resort has an array of upgraded amenities in the works. A wonderful new edible garden at the campground’s entrance is already in place.
After cooling off in the river, it’s time to head on over to Seaside Metal Oyster Bar. The Seaside Chowder created by Sous-Chef Ari Chalfsky is known as one of the North Coast’s best. The local seafood platter with oysters, herb and jalapeño mussels and Dungeness crab goes down quite nicely with a sparkling rosé on a warm evening. A very popular evening spot, Seaside Metal’s staff is a cherished part of its success.
Revival, Crista Luedtke’s revamping of the restaurant at Guerneville’s upscale Applewood Inn and Spa, had a much anticipated July rollout with Chef Ben Spiegel at the helm. Spiegel is known for his Nordic cuisine at Skál in New York City, and the Willows Inn on Lummi Island, Washington. The stated mission of the restaurant is to highlight West County producers, with an emphasis on vegetables and coastal products. The concept emphasizes simple, fresh, whimsical and approachable cuisine at its finest. Luedtke’s playfulness within the work of a serious upscaling of Guerneville’s eating and drinking scene is refreshing and feels respectful of the town’s boho/hip ambiance.
What’s next for this hidden hamlet turned world-class bucket list destination? A boutique Airstream campsite, AutoCamp, is set to open soon. And check this out: Guerneville now offers Korean eats, at Dick Blomster’s Korean Diner. The diner is open until 10pm on weeknights and midnight on Friday and Saturday for late-night munchies.
Run, don’t walk, to join in Guerneville’s enriched and unfolding renaissance. It’s not just a matter of trend, or a rebirth of the cool. It’s an act of health and well-being.