The North Coast’s Mendocino County has a wealth of natural resources that will appeal to foodies and outdoor lovers alike, with great wine, fresh seafood and produce, and a ruggedly gorgeous coastline flanked by redwoods. One thing you won’t find, according to local Holly Madrigal, is any sign of pretension. “We like things simple,” says the editor of Word of Mouth Magazine. “Not too fancy, not too highbrow, but just really good quality.”
In the latest episode of the California Now Podcast, Madrigal and two other locals join host Soterios Johnson to talk about Mendocino County’s low-key delights—from acclaimed farm-to-table-restaurants to a world-class wine store that some people have confused for a rest stop.
Foodie Magnets, Whales, and “Ghost Kitchens”
Madrigal begins by talking about some of the restaurants that get attention from her Mendocino-based magazine. “Our population is quite small in Mendocino,” she says, “and people ask, ‘Aren’t you going to run out of things to talk about in the magazine?’ And we’re like, ‘Absolutely not.’”
She offers tips on experiencing the county’s farm-to-table cuisine as well as coastal spots that blend delicious seafood with epic views. That includes the Harbor House Inn, which has earned a Michelin Green Star for sustainability, the vegan fare at Fog Eater Café, and the amazing fish and chips at Sea Pal Cove. Madrigal also recommends the unique dining experience at Little River Inn. “It's classic California fare,” she says. “You can get cioppino with local crab and a really good burger. And because whales are cruising by the Mendocino coast almost every time of year, they have binoculars at the bar, so that you can have a wonderful meal and watch the whales.”
For more local gems, she says, head to the inland town of Willits, home of Taqueria Bravo, Northspur Brewing Co., and Hatake Farm Kitchen. The latter, she says, is a “ghost kitchen,” a culinary trend of restaurants that have a certified kitchen but no seating. “Hatake has top-quality sushi,” she says, including a mouthwatering spicy tuna popper roll made completely tempura-style. “You order online and they bring it to you, or you go knock on a door and they hand it to you. You feel like you're in the know.”
Ranch-Style Wine Tastings
Another spot where you can feel like an insider is Disco Ranch, an unassuming wine shop in Boonville that offers unique varietals, tastings, and a tapas-style food pairings. Owner Wendy Lamer joins the podcast to talk about the shop along Highway 128, set along the “Wine to Waves” drive that traverses the Anderson Valley wine region. “We're just about to the point, when you're driving to the coast, that you'll have to stop to go to the restroom,” she says, adding that she often gets customers who pop in for a pit stop but then stay to browse the eye-popping selection of wines, caviars, and gourmet snacks.
She tells Johnson how she named the place, and how her focus is not on dance music, but rather the kind of small, local wineries that don’t have their own tasting rooms. “I really like the small producers,” she says. “People in the valley say, ‘Go see Wendy if you're looking for something that nobody else has anywhere.’"
A stop at Disco Ranch can mean enjoying a tasting from the 18 wines that Lamer is pouring that particular day. She enjoys chatting with wine fans who don’t consider themselves experts. “People kind of joke that I can guess what people like if they give me three words to go on. Or, I just keep asking things like, ‘Do you like skim, 2 percent, or whole milk?’ And if they say ‘whole milk’ I will just pour something. And they're like, ‘Oh my God, this is the best wine I've ever had!’”
She offers some logistical tips on setting up an Anderson Valley wine-tasting trip—like how many tastings per day is smart, and which weekdays local places tend to close—and other great places to stop along Highway 128, like nearby Hendy Woods State Park. “There are two different hiking paths, and the redwood trees are from 300 to 600 years old,” she says. “It's beautiful wherever you go.”
To immerse yourself in Mendocino’s natural beauty, the third and final podcast guest has another wonderful but not-too-fancy suggestion: Spend the night at Mendocino Grove. General Manager Jacob Halverson describes it as “an outdoor hotel, but we definitely walk the line between what it feels like to be camping, and what it feels like to be at a mini resort.” Its 30 acres include safari tents outfitted with heated-mattress-pad beds, lamps, and firepits, as well as access to a free oatmeal and yogurt bar for breakfast. The semi-unplugged experience involves a communal bathroom with individually stalled showers, ADA bathrooms, and even a sauna.
During the day, guests can play outside—like hiking to waterfall at nearby Russian Gulch State Park—then come back to relax. If you’re not comfortable starting your own campfire, Halverson says you can text a “fire valet” and they will bring you firewood and start your fire. Dogs are welcome too—and for them, he says, things may get a little fancy. “We've got a little dog park, and a dog washing station that has its own hot water heater,” he says. “The dogs are pampered for sure.”