Insider guide to Fort Bragg: 20-plus delicious reasons to go there now
Fort Bragg a hotbed of conscious creatives and sustainable agriculture activists?
That wasn’t how I remembered it from previous visits. Good camping, yes, at the MacKerricher State Park three miles north on Highway 1; and the legendary Glass Beach that’s more interesting to read about than to visit; and unmemorable meals in the quaint harbor; and Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout at the North Coast Brewing Company.
But now a foodie friend was telling me about their active Slow Food group and saying things like, “I went to Italy and saw what they were doing with agritourism in Tuscany and thought, there’s nothing they’re doing there that we can’t do in Fort Bragg.”
So it was that I accepted the invitation of Julie Conway, co-leader of Slow Food
Mendocino County and the source of the Tuscany quote, to come see for myself. On a recent Friday, a couple of friends and I set off on a slow drive (of around three hours) north from San Francisco (through Sonoma County and into Mendocino County’s wonderfully scenic Anderson Valley, then up the rugged Mendocino coast). The idea was to join Conway on a jaunt to see what awaits the culinary traveler who is interested in more than Alexander Valley wine tasting and the touristy town of Mendocino when heading north for a day, a weekend or longer.
Fort Bragg, traditionally a lumber mill town, is in transition, Conway confirmed. Transitioning into what? “Everybody eats food and food brings people together,” she says, “Everybody eats food and food brings people together,” she says, explaining the groundswell energy among a growing number of people committed to putting Fort Bragg on the map as a foodie destination.
Ten delicious reasons to go right now.
1. Noyo Food Forest
This nonprofit takes vacant lots and shows people how to landscape them with herbs, vegetables and edible flowers, interspersed with native plants. Go check out the garden at the Grey Whale Inn on N. Main Street which, when we were there, was a vision of color and texture featuring chamomile, rue, calendulas, bronze fennel, parsley, California poppies (not edible) and more.
Susan Lightfoot is executive director of the Noyo Food Forest. Their biggest win to date has seen them turn several acres of school district property, previously strewn with trash and junk and adjoining Fort Bragg High School, into a thriving model garden sprouting abundant seasonal produce. They’ve trained about 1,000 students on the hows and whys of growing and eating fresh and local produce. Their farm-to-school program has the kids eating healthy in the school cafeteria. They sell at the Fort Bragg farmers market (Wednesday afternoon). And Friday is volunteer day, when visitors are welcome to sign up and go plant, learn — and purchase some produce.
2. Fort Bragg harbor is still a commercial fishing harbor although, with
the ban on catching salmon, now in its third year, the industry is like the one that got away. But for the visitor, there are still the party boats and good sports fishing. Take your catch and cook it at home or go buy fish directly from the boats. Boat trips are weather and season dependent so check and book in advance.
While in the harbor, go try something with fish at quirky local favorites Cap’n Flints Restaurant, 32250 N. Harbor Dr. or Carine’s Seafood Grotto at 32430 N. Harbor Drive.
3. John Richardson and Joanne Frasier met at a tango dancing class. (Tango, by the way, is big in Fort Bragg. For what’s on at tango central, the Virgin Redwood Ballroom at the Weller House Inn.) Now married, Richardson and Frasier grow vegetables outdoors year-round at their Noyo Hill Farm, which overlooks the Fort Bragg Harbor. They sell their produce at the Fort Bragg farmers market in summer. Year round, on Fridays between 3 pm and 6 pm, they sell boxes of seasonal veggies ($10 and $15) from their yard. Visitors are welcome to place an order through their Web site.
4. Speaking of tango, Weller House Inn has more than its rather grand ballroom. Built in 1886, it’s the only residence on the Mendocino coast listed in the National Registry of Historic Places. Tango diva Vivien LaMothe, who recently took over the place, is in the process of replanting the entire garden with edibles. She cooks and serves a multi-course breakfast each day. (I don’t usually like frittata as it can be dry but hers was moist and yummy.) The ingredients she uses are all seasonal and organic. And a biggie Weller House attraction in my book is the renovated water tower. Not only is it the tallest point in Fort Bragg, it has a hot tub in a room immediately below the rooftop viewing platform. I don’t know if I was meant to be there at midnight, but my room was in the water tower and nobody else was — and it was a real treat.
5. Cherie Soria’s Living Light Culinary Arts Institute comes as a total surprise. Who would expect to find a state-of-the-art organic raw food vegan chef school on the main drag in Fort Bragg? Not me. But it attracts students from around the world who do classes that range from half a day to two years. Soria’s
café, downstairs from the well-equipped demonstration classroom where you’ll be taught that raw and vegan can be a lot more than a salad or crudités if you sign up for a weekender class (her focus is on gourmet possibilities), is a good place to sample her fare. Check the Web site for class schedules.
6. Julia Conway, my Slow Food Mendocino guide, teaches Italian-style and seasonal cooking at her home-based Fort Bragg cooking school, where she makes good use of her wood-fired pizza oven. She also leads informal custom tours to local producers and loves putting together on-site classes around a theme for visitors staying in rental properties. You cook together, you learn — and then she serves up the food paired with Mendocino wines. Conway is also a partner in an olive oil company and holds tastings and gives classes on her oils. (Fran Gage in her definitive book on olive oil in the United States, The New American Olive Oil: Profiles of Artisan Producers and 75 Recipes (2009), features the story of Stella Cadente olive oil (see page 174). The oil comes from 1,300 trees that grow on seven acres in Mendocino County’s Anderson Valley.)
7. Harvest Market is a family-owned independent marketplace and a stand-alone foodie place that’s great to go browse. It has a wide selection of Mendocino wines, supports the local farmers, specializes in organic fare — and sells gourmet meals that hit the spot if you’re self-catering, on a budget or want to eat out, as in outdoors. A secret of their success is the person who heads the bakery and the deli is chef and cookbook author Margaret Fox who formerly owned and ran the acclaimed Mendocino village restaurant Cafe Beaujolais.
8. Miscellaneous insider foodie bites for the visitor.
- First Friday (of each month) in Fort Bragg, the art galleries stay open, pour wine and serve hors d’ouvres. Go check out the current show and party.
- Thanksgiving Coffee opened in Fort Bragg in 1972. Small batch roasts, organic, shade grown, fair trade — they were way ahead of the game. Their coffee is served at several top San Francisco restaurants. They don’t have a dedicated coffee shop in Fort Bragg but try asking for it, as a tribute.
9) The Restaurant and yes, that’s what it’s called, is the oldest eatery in Fort Bragg and chef-owner Jim Larsen is one of the town’s legendary characters. He does his veggie shopping at Harvest Market and the menu has a couple of favorite items from when he opened in 1973 along with seasonal specials. (The bagna cauda, for example, spans the ages. The platter of fresh vegetables, served with the Northern Italian dipping sauce, comes from the Harvest Market while the dish itself has been on the menu since the place opened.) The building (418 N. Main St.) dates back to 1895. Enjoy the food and ask Jim and his wife, Susan Larsen, to tell you stories about the amazing art of Olaf Palm that hangs in abundance on the
10. The Mendocino Botanical Gardens offers regular food and produce-related classes. For what’s on details, see the Web site. Oh, and do make sure to try the candy cap mushroom (Lactarius Rubidus) flavor at Cowslick Hand Made Ice Cream (250 N. Main St. — 707-962-9271). It tastes like maple syrup but it’s just plain old mushroom, babe. And if you stop off for a beer at the North Coast Brewing Company, try the stout ice cream. It comes from the kitchen of Laureen Picciani who makes incredibly delicious and creative pastries (unfortunately only on order right now although she hopes to open a pastry shop soon).
Eight more recommended place to go eat fresh, local, seasonal and delicious in and around Fort Bragg.
These suggestions come from Slow Food Mendocino co-chairs Julie and Margaret Fox:
301 N Main St.
Rendezvous Inn & Restaurant
647 N Main St.
Piaci Pub and Pizzeria
120 West Redwood
Patrona (seasonal fare plus the largest selection of Mendocino County wines)
130 W. Standley
14111 Highway 128
647 E Oak St.
Oco Time — (sustainable sushi)
111 W Church St.
Nit’s Café (Asian fusion — for lunch)
322 N Main St.
We said we’d give you 20-plus insider reasons to visit Fort Bragg right now. I reckon we’ve given you about 40. Enjoy and please return here with your feedback.