Boon Eat + Drink, in Guerneville
When Crista Luedtke decided to leave San Francisco and open a boutique hotel in Guerneville in 2008, she had a backup plan — of sorts.
Having grown up immersed in restaurants, particularly in Scottsdale, Ariz., she thought: “Worst-case scenario: If it doesn’t work, I’ll move to Mexico and sell tacos on the beach.”
Luckily for Guerneville, and its visitors, that didn’t come to pass. Instead, the 43-year-old hospitality entrepreneur has sold the Sonoma County resort town on her unique vision: places to eat, drink and sleep that boast a sophisticated yet accessible design and experience that draws repeat visitors while bolstering the local scene and economy.
“She has this really unique ability to look at a space and visualize what it’s going to be, and conceptualize it in her head, and make it happen,” says friend and business partner Michael Volpatt, a partner in PR firm Larkin/Volpatt Communications. He cites her “fabulous sense of style.”
Photo: Vivian Johnson
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People may differ on the exact turning point — the sale of the Johnson’s Beach resort, the arrival of the AutoCamp Airstream lodging or restaurant Seaside Metal — but they agree that Luedtke’s moxie and branding savvy were key to making the town of less than 5,000 more of a year-round destination. Her influence can be seen up and down Main Street, from the beautifully restored Guerneville Bank Club to the three bustling businesses she started.
First came the Boon Hotel + Spa, in 2008, named after her 13-year-old rescue dog. Luedtke and then-wife Jill McCall bought the dilapidated 1960s-era former miners’ quarters on Armstrong Woods Road. The couple put “a ton” of work into renovating the 14 rooms’ interiors to whitewashed perfection and redoing the central saltwater pool. Ugly furniture was hauled away and replaced with comfortable beds featuring organic linens and reclaimed redwood nightstands she designed and had made locally.
“People are really coming to enjoy all that Guerneville has — which is the redwoods; the coast is so close; wineries — and so it’s really just become this amazing collective of like-minded people who enjoy the outdoors and just want to slow down a little bit,” she says. “And that’s what I wanted to create.”
Big Bottom Market in Guernenville is a curated �lumberjack chic� artisan-stocked general store and market that offers pour-over coffee and gifts.
As they learned the hotel business, Luedtke continued to work in San Francisco several days a week as a mortgage broker to ensure cash flow during the lean winter months. But she also had her eye on a space on Main Street, Bob N Boy, so she charmed the owner, and asked him to consider letting her know when the lease was up. She tapped a friend from her days as a biotech sales rep, Scott Dunckley, to help fund it.
“I wanted a restaurant from the beginning,” despite warnings from her family members, Luedtke remembers. The 24/7 nature of the business had split up the marriage of her parents, as well as a chef brother, but it was nonetheless in her blood.
“And my ex-wife said, ‘Can you just put the brakes on? We don’t even know how to run the inn yet.’ I said, ‘It’ll be such a great marketing piece to have this thing in town that talks to what we are here, and our guests will go there. And people who eat there will then know about the hotel, and the next time they come, they’ll stay.’”
Needless to say, Luedtke did not put the brakes on. Boon Eat + Drink, a 36-seat casual bistro with images of Boon the dog stenciled on the walls, opened in 2009. The approachable menu features local produce, cheeses and wine. When she told her mother, who had relocated from Reno to help with the hotel, “she thought I was crazy,” Luedtke remembers. “But like me, she loves a project. So she said, ‘Let’s do this.’”
“I was blown away by the restaurant she created,” says Trevor Logan, who owns Green Chile Kitchen in the Bay Area, and started Chile Pies Baking Co. two years ago in the revitalized Guerneville Bank Club at Luedtke’s suggestion. “She never stops. She’s someone who’s just constantly working on something creatively.”
In 2011, Luedtke opened Big Bottom Market, developed with Volpatt, to give visitors grab-and-go lunch options. Along with her contractor brother, she was “literally there tearing up the floors and putting up the shelves and putting the products on the shelves,” Volpatt says.
But there was still another niche begging to be filled — a personal one.
Although the town had plenty of dive bars at which to people-watch and “tie one on,” she says, “If you wanted to go out for a before- or after-dinner drink, there wasn’t a spot. The idea was for me to showcase two of my favorite liquors, bourbon and mezcal. …
“These things just kind of swirl in my head: It’s going to be El Barrio: the neighborhood river bar. That’s my deal.”
The design followed, based on graphic Mexican tile she had made to her specifications. “Then I found that toilet. When I go to a place, I judge it on cleanliness and the style, but I also look at the bathroom. If it has a cool bathroom, you can tell they didn’t forget that thing — the detail wasn’t left behind.
“I was like, ‘Oh, my God. It’s the most expensive toilet ever, but I have to do it’ … So that’s the most Instagrammed thing in that bar, is the toilet.”
The design was in keeping with her high-low philosophy: “I feel it’s really important to spend money on a few key pieces and then you can add a mix of lower-cost things to really maximize impact.”
Meanwhile, Big Bottom Market scored big in November when Oprah Winfrey named its signature biscuit mix one of her “favorite things” in her magazine. As Volpatt explored ramping up production to fulfill the thousands of orders pouring in, Luedtke decided to bow out and free up time for more of her beloved projects.
“I’ve spent these last nine years up here creating and building,” she says. “Now it’s like, let’s enjoy it a little bit.”
Her most recent work draws on her self-taught interior design skills: The brand-new Bank Club Wine Collective (with Inizi Wines and Baldassari Family Wines), a chill space featuring a turntable and rattan chairs, is tucked in the back of Bob Pullum’s Guerneville Bank Club. She’s also revamping the Russian River Chamber of Commerce office.
“She has that sort of modern California sensibility, with a nod to the Russian River area — nature and natural elements,” says Volpatt.
Luedtke also teamed up with documentary filmmakers Jessica Congdon (“Miss Representation,” “Dolores”) and Eric Holland for a proposed food and travel culture show called “Places and Plates.” She’s no stranger to the world of food TV, having appeared on Guy Fieri’s “Grocery Games” (and set to make her fifth appearance on a Sunday, April 23, episode).
And about those tacos? Look for them soon at El Barrio on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights.
IF YOU GO
Boon Hotel + Spa: This secluded eco-chic hideaway mixes NorCal rustic touches (chickens, a vegetable garden, bikes, hot tub, fireplaces) with a sleek white and orange palette in the 14 airy, cottage-like rooms equipped with Coyuchi linens, Malin + Goetz products and other thoughtful amenities. The saltwater pool (soon to be redone with Heath tiles) and patio area are the center of the action, particularly during the summer; the spa and honor bar and fridge stocked with mixers, beer and wine ensure you don’t even have to leave the premises to unwind. Guest rooms $285-$425, including breakfast, and three camping tents ($179-$199, Memorial Day-September only). 14711 Armstrong Woods Road, Guerneville. (707) 869-2721. http://boonhotels.com.
Boon Eat + Drink: Homey fare like fried Brussels sprouts, mac and cheese, and pork shoulder are elevated with local cheeses, charcuterie and organic produce (including from a restaurant garden) at this cozy hyper-local restaurant. Desserts, like the rest of the menu, are pared down to tried-and true classics, such as the dense Guittard chocolate “boon brownie” served with caramel sauce and whipped cream. Well-chosen Russian River wines and microbrews complement the cuisine, which Crista Luedtke oversees and fine-tunes each season with executive chef Sergio Guzman. Lunch, dinner Thursday-Tuesday; brunch Memorial Day-Labor Day. No reservations accepted. 16248 Main St., Guerneville. (707) 869-0780. www.eatatboon.com.
Big Bottom Market: The down-vest-and-flannel set mixes comfortably with the stripes-and-boots-clad bachelorette partyers at this upscale deli ($9-$13) that pays homage to the general store and Guerneville’s heritage. The famous house biscuit is available with gravy, or in two breakfast incarnations (smoked salmon, creme fraiche and capers, or ham and cheddar, $9-$10.50), or simply with butter and jam. Grab an industrial stool at a communal table or counter, and prepare to take in the scene. Big Bottom also stocks a curated selection of gourmet foodstuffs and picnic provisions, including wine. 16228 Main St., Guerneville. (707) 604-7295. www.bigbottommarket.com.
El Barrio: Mexican-style cocktails are the focus at this wood-beamed boite with serape-style textiles and a custom neon signage. Luedtke and in-demand S.F. bar consultant Christina Cabrera (a 2016 Chronicle Bar Star) developed the lineup of nearly 20 mezcal-, Tequila- and bourbon-based concoctions. A small snack menu, including Mexican deviled eggs and two quesos (goat and Oaxacan), encourage settling in as the bartenders rock the joint. 4-9 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Thursday; until 11 p.m. Friday; noon-11 p.m. Sunday. Brunch Memorial Day-Labor Day. 16230 Main St., Guerneville, (707) 604-7601. http://elbarriobar.com.
— Laura Compton