Weekending in Mendocino

View from our Little River Inn deck
View from our Little River Inn deck

[This was an article I wrote for Zagat, posted on April 14, 2015.]

Mendocino remains one of our most magical NorCal getaways. The craggy coast, majestic redwood forests, the Victorian village of Mendocino itself — a weekend in Mendo, as locals call it, is always a relaxing proposition. The pace slows down, and the spirit of the hippies who popularized the town in the ’60s and ’70s remains, while dramatic vistas from forests, farmlands and hills to the rugged shore and deep blue sea all refresh from city life and a long work week. Bonus: one has to pass through one of the country’s great wine (and sparkling wine) regions, Anderson Valley, to and from the town of Mendo, for wine tastings along the way.

Here are meal, drink, hotel, winery and activity recommendations for a Mendocino County weekend.

Little River Inn chowder
Little River Inn chowder

This Isn’t Your Usual Clam Chowder

Nor are these your typical crab cakes. Executive chef Marc Dym shows you how both are done at Little River Inn‘s restaurant, a short drive from the town of Mendocino. Fifth-generation innkeeper Cally Dym’s great-great-grandfather Sialas Coombs built this charming home in 1863. Her grandparents, Ole and Cora Hervilla, turned it into an inn 75 years ago, and it’s going strong with most rooms sporting stunning ocean views and decks from which to enjoy them, like the suite deck pictured above.

But back to that chowder. While Sunday brunch is a local family and traveler favorite (especially for Ole’s Swedish hotcakes), dinner is where you can enjoy Marc Dym’s fresh-steamed clam chowder ($12), a heaping bowl of traditional New England clam chowder (pictured) laden with fresh steamed clams untraditionally in the shell, smoked bacon, potatoes, onion, celery and a touch of cream and wine. It makes all thick, gummy versions with less-than-fresh clams seem downright sad. Ditto the award-winning Dungeness crab cakes ($16) in mustard-dill aïoli, packed with crabmeat, not burdened with breading.

Little River confit pork "osso buco"
Little River confit pork “osso buco”

Sommelier John Sverko will steer you right on the wine list, that is, yes, heavy on Mendo County wines but offers a few bottles beyond, with a shockingly affordable by-the-glass list that runs $7-$12. He ascertains your preferences and might recommend the grassy, crisp notes of Saracina Sauvignon Blanc or a rare bottle of 2011 Phillips Hill “Two Terroir” Pinot Noir ($54). Linger for a nightcap in the hotel’s Ole’s Whale Watch Bar, which opened in 1939 in tribute to Cally’s grandfather.

Little River walk
Little River walk

Coastal Walks and Inland Hikes

Whether sitting on a sandy beach watching surfers and divers head out, or walking the cliffs looking for whales during whale season, each turn along the Mendocino coast is stunning and the tiny towns along the way are captivating. There are numerous hikes and beaches from which to take in the region’s beauty. Here are just a few.

Ravens soups
Ravens soups

Vegan Goodness Among the Ravens

The food at Ravens is organic, the restaurant’s processes are sustainable, the food is vegan and the staff are a true community helping and aiding each other and guests in a holistic way of life. One feels this spirit the moment they drive onto the grounds of the Stanford Inn, a soothing farm where llamas and horses graze on the front lawn and ravens gather by the dozens (hence the restaurant moniker).

Soup specials ($9), like the pictured curry soup or watermelon gazpacho, are standouts, and there are daily vegan maki (sushi roll) specials using brown rice. The space’s warm wood walls and lobby fireplace are inviting, while one of the staff or local musicians might play on the grand piano. Though one wishes for small-batch, local or even organic spirits in cocktails at the bar in keeping with the conscientious offerings on the rest of the menu, the experience otherwise soothes and entices.

Ravens' vegan banana split
Ravens’ vegan banana split

A Decadent Vegan Banana Split

Yes, it can be done — and please even the ice cream lovers among you. Ravens’ desserts are a strong point, like a rich, dark mint chocolate ganache tarte ($12). But it’s their banana split ($14.50) that feels childlike and playful, ensuring you don’t even miss the cream. Strawberry, chocolate and vanilla-rum-coconut vegan ice creams are cool and soothing, as is whipped coconut cream, dusted with toasted coconut and chunks of vegan chocolate-almond bark.

Lula Cellars
Lula Cellars

Laid-Back Vineyard Where Pinot Shines & Dogs Are Welcome

There are numerous and notable wineries lining Anderson Valley, including some of the best sparkling wine in the U.S. at greats like Roederer and Scharffenberger. But  you’d be hard pressed to find a friendlier, more welcoming winemaker than Jeff Hansen at Lula Cellars. While their sweetheart of a rescue dog greets you (dogs are welcome in general), the friendly tasting-room staff linger and engage at only $5 a tasting, waived if you buy a bottle.

You can picnic on the grounds overlooking vineyard-covered hills and a pond — and stay tuned for their new events area up the hill, looking down over the valley (it will be open in time for Anderson Valley Pinot Noir Festival where they will host a Friday night BBQ on May 15). Try their beautifully balanced Zinfandel or one of three Pinot Noirs from different plots of land, including the balanced, earthy notes of the Peterson Vineyard Pinot. Lula’s Pinot is hitting its sweet spot right now with the 2010 vintage.

Trillium's patio
Trillium’s patio/deck

Soothing Lunch in a Victorian Village

In the chilled-out town of Mendocino proper, it’s hard to find a more soothing space for a meal than the deck at Trillium (pictured), only one year old from owner Sandra McElroy, who also runs the intimate, three-room inn above the restaurant. The cozy dining room is likewise sunny and inviting, a space to linger over a Kir Royal or a mineral, fruit-driven glass of local 2013 Rivino Viognier ($10).

Trillium fish tacos
Trillium fish tacos

Fish Tacos & Reubens

In addition to the that idyllic little deck at Trillium, the food is some of the fresher, more gratifying around, whether a bright, light jicama and citrus green salad ($11) loaded with blood oranges, pink grapefruit and kumquat, or locally caught fish tacos ($15) — grilled cod, during our recent visit — vivid with pico de gallo, chipotle aïoli, cabbage and guacamole. Another lunch delight is tender house corned beef in a Reuben ($14), packed between rye bread and layered with house cider honey mustard, Vella Daisy cheddar from Sonoma, sautéed cabbage and onions.

Cocktails at MacCallum House's Grey Whale Bar
Cocktails at MacCallum House’s Grey Whale Bar

Cocktails in an 1885 House

Though not completed until 1885, the MacCallum House was built by a couple who moved from Canada’s Prince Edward Island (P.E.I.) in 1855 to the town of Mendocino. The house has that dreamy P.E.I. feel about it, down to the Victorian era couches and front porch in the Grey Whale Bar. While this is still a small-town spot (i.e. even whiskey drinks tend toward the soft side and you’ll have lots of ice shards in drinks served “up”), you will find a striking row of jarred botanicals lining the bar, artisanal bitters and one of the more notable spirits selections for many miles. Try the rose petal-dotted Dr. No’s Vesper ($12), mixing Plymouth gin, Hanger 1 Vodka and Lillet with pür pear liqueur and tart house Cabernet cherry juice.

If you crave the opposite end of the spectrum, go down the street to dive bar Dick’s Place for true local flavor and all-day drinking.

Wild Fish fish of the day
Wild Fish fish of the day

British Beers, Local Wines & Organic Fish

Open at the end of 2011 by gracious English transplants Kelvin & Liz Jacobs, the tiny dining room of Wild Fish, in a weathered wood building, sports striking ocean views, while the Jacobs serve 100% local, wild and organic seafood. Head chef Jackson Clark turns out dishes with fresh California ethos married to British comfort. At dinner it might be sable fish ($32) marked by black sesame and star anise. Lunch might involve a fish plate ($15) featuring the catch of the day sourced from Noyo Harbor (local cod pictured), accented by pesto and surrounded by vegetables and organic fingerling and purple potatoes.

Pink peppercorn and basil oil-inflected chowder at Wild Fish
Pink peppercorn and basil oil-inflected chowder at Wild Fish

While many nearby restaurants feature local Mendocino County wines on their menus, here they go a welcome step further and have all wines (but for a couple of the most high-end bottles) available by the glass, a great opportunity for discovering new local favorites. Try the fantastic, funky-but-elegant Amber Folly Semillon orange wine from Yorkville Cellars ($18 glass/$54 bottle). There’s a small but thoughtful beer list of local brews and five or so British beers, nodding to the Jacobs’ home country, like Wychwood Brewery’s organic blond Scarecrow beer ($9 per bottle).

Wild Fish
Wild Fish flourless chocolate torte

Lush Desserts With an Ocean View

Save room for dessert at Wild Fish. While sticky toffee pudding is a house favorite, you’d also do well with a lush, dark flourless chocolate torte ($9), accented by blood orange and cinnamon sauce, or a tart, floral lemon basil crème brûlée ($10) partnered with house cardamom shortbread.

View from Yorkville Cellars deck
View from Yorkville Cellars deck

Organic Vineyards With Killer Whites & Orange Wine

Mendocino winemakers have often been well ahead of the curve on the organic vineyard front. Case in point: Yorkville Cellars has been bottling certified organic wines since 1986. Certainly you’ll find robust reds and crisp sparkling wines at their tasting room, where all but the rarest bottlings are free to taste. But don’t miss their whites, whether a creamy but balanced (not too much oak) Semillion or a dry-yet-fruity beauty of a blend, Eleanor of Aquitaine.

The aforementioned orange wine (by the glass or bottle at Wild Fish) is a traditional style of winemaking where the wine (here, it’s their Semillion) is fermented with the skins on for a time (10 days, in this case), bringing about the “orange” color. While Yorkville Cellars is a good drive from Mendocino in the tiny town of Yorkville, it’s directly on the 128, making it an ideal stop on the way to or from the Mendo coast.

Libby's burritos
Libby’s burritos

Old-School Mexican Food

The ’70s diner setting of Libby’s Restaurant makes for an easygoing Mexican food stop in the town of Philo right on the 128 highway, to or from Mendo. You can fill up for around $10, linger with locals and revel in a small-town stop blessedly untouched by time. The al pastor (pineapple-marinated pork) is a house favorite, again recalling decades past more than the streets of Mexico, but it’s hearty goodness in a massive burrito. Watch their Facebook page for regular specials and note lunch and dinner hours, closed for those long siesta hours in between.