Guerneville is a town in the midst of rediscovering itself. From its beginnings as a lumber town, it’s resort heydays in the 50s and gay renaissance in the 1970s, its devastation by floods and current struggles as a seasonal vacation spot, this Russian River hamlet is poised for a comeback. But exactly what that looks like is still yet to be written.
In January of 2011, eight storefronts stood empty along Main Street. Specific zoning regulations and the seasonality of tourists made it a tough sell for entrepreneurs, but a brave new wave of business owners (boosted by county economic development funds) are taking a chance on the town, opening restaurants, wine bars and event venues with an upscale perspective and hopes to bring the town back to its former glory.
“Sometimes there is a resistance to change, but we are a charming little town and we’re focused on moving forward,” said Leslie Bahr, and interior designer who recently opened Whitetail Winebar.
There’s plenty to love in this rambunctious river town that’s still purely Sonoma County. See what’s new and what you may have missed…
Big Bottom Market: Having opened its doors just days ago, it’s obvious this small-town market isn’t you usual cigs, beer and Slim Jim kind of joint. Instead, it’s a gourmet general store focused on artisanal food wine and micro brews for the beach-bound and picnic-set with a “lumberjack chic” interior vibe. Head to the deli case for creative sandwich-making and pre-made salads, along with some nifty local products like Rancho Gordo beans, Blue Chair preserves, Cowgirl cheeses and Sonoma sea salt. Best bet: Grab a PB&J (Pears, Brie and Jambon, or ham) with sweet spicy mustard and a wedge salad and head outside to watch the world go by. On the weekend, don’t miss homemade biscuits with smoked salmon. So what’s with the name? The cheeky moniker refers to the river town’s 1860′s description as “The Big Bottom”. As in an alluvial flood plain. Owners Crista Luedtke (boon eat+drink, boon hotel) and Michael Volpatt (of PR firm Larkin Volpatt) aren’t exactly shying away from the giggle-worthy double entendre. “When we heard it we just though it was fun. It’s definitely got a lot of people talking,” said Volpatt. Expect the selections to grow over coming weeks as the market settles in. 16228 Main St. in downtown Guerneville.
Sophie’s Cellars, a world class wineshop that caters to the Bohemian Grove-set three weeks a year, spends the rest of the year selling small production local pinot noirs and cheese in the tiny burg of Monte Rio. Owner John Haggard has an encyclopedic knowledge of the local landscape and personal relationships with the best winemakers in Sonoma County, but will spend just as much time telling you about a $15 bottle of chardonnay as will a mind-blowing French burgundy. He’s struck up a deal with a number of local restaurants that’s worth knowing about. If you buy a bottle of wine from Sophie’s Cellars, you’ll get free corkage at restaurant including Boon, Applewood Inn, Main Street Station, Chef Patrick’s and several other nearby eateries. More details at sophiescellars.com.
Whitetail Winebar: Lots of local pours from Green Valley, the Sonoma Coast and Dry Creek Valley at this spanking-new wine stop. As you might expect from an interior decorator, the inside is comfy-modern with plenty of exposed wood, pillows and antlers. “I call it rustic minimalism,” Bahr said. Look for plenty of small production treats including bottles from Santa Rosa Junior College’s Shone Farm. Bar snacks are in the works, but for now, just grab a bite next door at Big Bottom. Closed Tuesday. 16230 Main St., Guerneville, 604-7449.
AgriCulture: The restaurant at the Dawn Ranch Lodge recently updated its name to better reflect its use of local produce and meats. Cocktails are a specialty, with taste concoctions like the jalepeno orange drop and herb mojito with fresh mint, cilantro and basil. Dinner features the Agriculture Burger with house ground beef, white cheddar, roasted onions and house made ketchup; whole smoked chicken served family style and duck spring rolls. The restaurant opens at 5:30 daily for dinner. 16467 River Road, Guerneville, 869-0656.
The Guerneville Taco Truck: Set up most days in the Safeway shopping center, it needs no name other than “Authentic Mexican Food”. That, and the line that stretches sometimes 10 or 20 deep on particularly sunny days. There is little to say aside from: I have finally seen the light, and Guerneville Taco Truck, you are my burrito hero. My carnitas champion. When you know, you know. In related news, the owners of the truck recently took over management of the breakfast/brunch/lunch restaurant, River Inn Grill, which locals said had slipped in recent years, but seems to be back on track.
Camp Meeker Super Club: The first rule of the supper club is not to talk about the supper club. Consider the rule broken. Camp Meeker is a well-kept culinary secret both for the quality of its chefs and its ridiculously low price tag of $10. Held at Anderson Hall, its a BYOB affair that pops up on the second or third Monday of the month. Former chefs have included Mark Malicki, Lata Pagare, Michael Quigley, Mark Miller of Underwood and Jeff Nunes of Oak & Smoke Catering.
Applewood Inn: Though Michelin-starred Chef Bruce Freiseke has moved on as Bella Vineyard’s in house chef, this under-the-radar restaurant is still worth checking out. The restaurant’s sous chefs have taken over the kitchen and are continuing Freiske’s legacy of using local produce in creative ways. 13555 Highway 116, Guerneville, 869-9093.
Boon Eat + Drink: Part of the first way of revamping Guerneville, this simple gem needs little introduction. Incredible locally-sourced food, creative dishes (don’t miss the Humphry Slocombe ice cream) and a solid lineup of local wines make it destination-worthy. Favorites include truffle fries with aoili, beet salad with goat cheese and their burgers.
Garden Grill: Ask a local where to get the best burger, and they’ll likely direct you to this out-of-the-way spot. Just west of downtown, I’ve had a number of foodies tell me how much the love the patio, friendly service and homemade barbecue, biscuits and gravy and chili, raving that Garden Grill is one of their favorite spots in West County. 17132 Hwy 116, Guerneville, 869-3922
Other Stops Worth Checking Out
Rio Nido Roadhouse: If a lazy day of Long Island iced teas and hot wings under the redwoods while the kids frolic in the pool sounds about your speed, you’ve come to the right spot. The roadhouse (okay, its a trailer) isn’t fancy, but plant yourself in a chair early, then wait for the fun to happen. Live music on the roadhouse stage most weekend nights keeps the party thumping. 14540 Canyon Two, Rio Nido, 869-0821.
Stumptown Brewery: Beer plus barbecue add up to one of the most popular spots on the river. Fans of this microbrewery come for the beer but stay for the ribs, pulled pork and burgers. 15045 River Road, Guerneville, 869-0705. Closed Tuesday.
Trio: For hungry late-nighters, locals say this live-music venue keeps the fryer open well past 9pm and often until the wee hours. Look for straightforward pub grub like burgers, pulled pork and fish and chips to sate your munchies after dark. 16225 Main Street, Guerneville, 604-7461.
Main Street Station: Recently expanded, Main Street Station is a historic part of the Guerneville arts scene with live acoustic music, weekend cabaret dinner shows and frequent appearances by local jazz greats. 16280 Main Street, Guerneville, 869-0501.
Flavors Unlimited: Every resort town needs an ice cream and burger shack within walking distance of the beach, and Flavors Unlimited is that spot. The tiny walk-up makes custom blended ice creams with all manner of candies along with value-minded burgers, chicken nuggets and french friers. 16450 Main St., Guerneville, 869-2927.
Chef Patrick’s: Upscale French-California cuisine open daily for dinner. 16337 Main St., Guerneville, 869-9161.
Russian River Pub: Featured on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, this Forestville pub offers brunch every Saturday and Sunday. 11829 River Rd, Forestville, CA 95436-9365. (707) 887-7932