Visitors have exalted in the Russian River’s atmosphere of pure summer paradise since the train first went all the way to Guerneville in 1877. Just 75 miles North of San Francisco (approximately two hours by car), rental cabins and small family-owned resorts have long prospered there. Now new generations of vacationers are drawn by its swift green Russian River, towering redwood stands, and hot summer afternoons.
Pliant through boom and bust, Guerneville is currently enjoying a lovely dining boom, with an abundance of places either right on or off the Main Street that are glad to help feed and succor the weary traveler.
Those with a bathing suit in tow may wish to make their way to Johnson’s Beach (16215 and 16217 First St.), an old-fashioned resort with nearly a centuries’ worth of experience making folks happy. Umbrellas, canoes, paddleboats, kayaks and even folding chairs are available to rent from the little kiosk on the beach and there’s cold, cheap beer on tap as well as soft-serve and burgers for prices not seen in California decades.
If Johnson’s is too crowded, try Monte Rio Beach, where the Rio Café TAKE 2 (20396 Hwy. 116, Monte Rio) squats adjacent to the local Quonset hut movie theater, and where a great burger and a very decent pulled pork taco can be found with a beverage for less than a $20 bill.
Those intending to hike are encouraged to swing by restaurateur Crista Luedtke’s Big Bottom Market (16228 Main St.), where Oprah’s favorite biscuits reside and where gourmet sandwiches are made to order, excellent wines and microbrews are ready to be poured, salads are heaped freshly in the cold case, and the line is deservedly long. With pour-over coffee and pastries for the morning and a reasonably priced bagged lunch program for preorders ($17 for an “artisan sandwich,” chips, cookie and bottled water), the market offers up a changing roster of everything from chocolates to books (and really did make it into O Magazine).
The Midday Meal
It’s true that Luedtke and her partners have made something of a study of revitalizing this town, also being the founders of the boon hotel and its boon eat + drink restaurant (16248 Main St.), where the menu is divided into “green plates,” as well as small and large plates that are perhaps of a lesser green hue. Emphasizing Sonoma County produce, a recent lunch menu ranged happily from crisp little gem lettuces to fat grilled asparagus with eggs to burrata with garlicky grilled bread. Come here before the hike and all bets are off; come here after a hike and eat deeply and well — you deserve it.
The Afternoon Snack
When dessert and shopping must be paired, it’s excellent to remember that pie and ice cream go beautifully with earrings, wine, and historical photographs. The Guerneville Bank Club (6290 Main St.) offers some of all. A classic old Federalist building on Main Street, this former fiduciary institution now hosts Nimble & Finn’s homemade ice cream and the flaky goodness that Chile Pies Baking Co. has on tap as well as artisanal offerings from the Jam Jar pop-up, photos from the local historical society, and a wine collective spanning the varietals. Choose a piece of Green Chile Apple or Lemon Buttermilk pie and top it with a scoop of apricots and cream or Madagascar vanilla ice creams. The wide front steps of the bank make for a perfect people-watching station.
Is mezcal better before oysters or after? Once the pleasures of exercise begin to wane, it’s time to make the tough choices. Luedtke and partners own the El Barrio bar (16230 Main St.), an oasis of ice and agave that feels like where the real grownups go to get their drink on. With a bar program devoted to rare and excellent tequilas, mezcals, and bourbon. El Barrio offers flights and cocktails with bites like Mexican deviled eggs to keep the mind sharp, but hunger dulled.
For cold and briny satisfaction, Seaside Metal (16222 Main St.) awaits. Here, chef Mike Selvera and co-owner Tim Selvera (also owners of the very similar SF’s Bar Crudo) keep things fresh and inexpensive. Look for $1.50 Totten Inlet oysters during the literal 5 pm-6 pm happy hour ($3.25 each during dinner hours) and choose among hot and cold crudo that includes a sumptuous cheese plate as well as prawn or crab salads, octopus with lentils, and soft shell crab. The kitchen here is open and the feeling, urbane.
And there’s still time for dinner. Walk up the street to Dick Blomster’s Korean Diner (16236 Main St.), which is Pat’s Restaurant by day, serving mild-mannered American diner fare, and is a KFC house—and that “C” is for “Crack” or chicken, depending on who you ask—after 5 pm when Pat cedes the joint to Dick and Korean fan food reigns true. Choose from kimchi pancakes with kale and seaweed to Bimimbap to a whiskey-sauced filet mignon.
One might feel disinclined to drive home after such a day, and the Dawn Ranch Lodge (16467 Hwy. 116, Guerneville, CA 95446; 707.869.0656) up the street offers Instagram-worthy rooms as well as a delicious limited breakfast menu from its Agriculture Public House restaurant that emphasizes smart seasonal comfort food and the pleasures of fresh juice and good coffee. Once refreshed, it’s back into the river or off up hiking in the redwoods. And this is before all discussion of cider houses and microbreweries has even begun.