Now that Sonoma County has become a Mecca for "Foodies," we take our restaurants very seriously.
Truth is, we always have.
Even before the pairing of wine and California cuisine sent us into the gourmet stratosphere, we locals knew what was good where.
I remember the spin I went into in my daily days when a food critic from the Marin Independent Journal referred to Sonoma County as "a culinary Beirut." (Beirut was not great in those days either.)
The insult triggered an explosion of indignation and a lot of supportive letters from readers offering their favorite dining spots as rebuttal.
We all have our favorites. And when they go away, either from natural causes or in a cloud of competition, its a bend in the road, a new pattern in our lives.
We've had several opportunities to mourn the passings of restaurants in recent weeks. Los Robles Lodge, where Claus Neumann and Tony Vicini opened 45 years ago as the second sophisticated dinner house in town (the Topaz Room being first), stands empty behind a chain link fence, awaiting the wrecker's ball.
Heavenly Hamburger, Chris Smith tells us, is closing after more than 50 years as a Rincon Valley landmark.
Emile's Bistro, the evening version of Hank's Creekside, stopped serving last week, as did Lucy's in Sebastopol.
The news has impact. People are missing them already. Every restaurant has stories. Take Los Robles. How many club meetings? How many after-dinner speakers? How many raunchy Empire Breakfast Club jokes could those walls tell?
Ask around about the elegant seafood buffets at Los Robles, which packed the dining room every Friday night. As I recall it was $6, including salmon, crab, scallops and, for a short time, even caviar - until a teenager took a scoop of Beluga about the size of a serving of mashed potatoes, took one taste, and left it on his plate. The owners estimated it was about $80 worth of the delicacy and that ended THAT custom.
Or, you can ask John Burton, the longtime Los Robles bartender, and he'll tell of the Great Football Riot of 1971 when the NFC championship football game between the 49ers and the Dallas Cowboys was blacked out in the Bay Area and hundreds of people - mostly males - packed Los Robles to watch on a Chico channel available on Santa Rosa's cable.
Then the cable went out and they rioted, throwing furniture into the swimming pool, even threatening personal violence to owner Neumann as he stood at the door, frantically handing out refunds of the $2 cover charge. He hasn't watched a football game since.
What retired Press Democrat reporter Bony Saludes remembers are the costume balls benefiting the Boys Club held at Los Robles for several years in the early '60s. Bony was a judge at the first of these, which may have been the first $100 fund-raiser in the town's history.
He remembers it well. "Liz Mulkey as Cleopatra and her entourage was the hands-down winner, as was the Headless Horseman (whoever he was) as runner-up. Coddingtown wasn't quite developed, and he came galloping across an empty lot up to Los Robles. I went wrapped as a mummy and many people (maybe because they had too much to drink) thought I should have won a prize, but, of course, that would have been a conflict of interest."
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