Don't blink as you're driving through Boonville or you might miss the Boonville Hotel. In fact, you might miss Boonville, it being a quintessentially small California town in the rural Anderson Valley of Mendocino County.
But times are changing in Boonville. New tasting rooms for fine wineries like Londer are being built right in the center of town. The Horn of Zeese (cup of coffee in "Boontling," the local vernacular) restaurant is now a taqueria and the Bucky Walter (public telephone in Boontling) that stood in the parking lot is gone, too. And I suspect that Boontling itself, the idiosyncratic language developed years ago by the isolated locals, is fast becoming a historical footnote.
The Boonville Hotel is a large frame building that actually functions now as a hotel, with 10 rustic but well-appointed rooms, a small, four-stool wine bar, and a restaurant called Table 128 that serves a nightly prix fixe dinner for $38 or $48, depending on what's on the menu, service charge included. So if you normally tip 20 percent, you'd subtract $7.60 from $38 and the remaining $30.40 would be the cost of food for the three-course dinner. Wine is extra.
If you've lived in these parts for enough years, you'll know that once upon a time, in the early to mid-1980s, what was then called The New Boonville Hotel was the center of America's culinary universe. Really.
Customers flew in from Europe, Japan and other parts of the world, then made the two-and-a-half-hour drive from San Francisco to eat there. The reason was that Charlene and Vernon Rollins (she was the chef and he was the wine guy) went Chez Panisse one better: Behind the restaurant was an extensive organic garden. The Rollinses hired a husband and wife team of gardeners to grow the food that Charlene served. If there was bread on the table, Charlene had baked it from scratch. The eggs were from the hens you could hear clucking in the henhouse. The wines were fabulous, well-priced, from every great wine region of the world, and there were hundreds upon hundreds of bottles on the wine list.
Service was slow. Vernon could be churlish. The place felt stuffy and maybe a little creepy, yet when the food arrived at your table, it had all the virtues we cherish today — fresh, local, seasonal, organic and delicious.
And then one day in August of 1986, while a lunchtime crowd gathered by the locked front door of the hotel, Vernon and Charlene took a satchel of possessions and skipped out the back and out of the country, leaving their investors, suppliers and staff with a load of unpaid bills and a failed business deeply in debt. A while later, they surfaced in Burgundy, France, where they worked until their tourist visas ran out. Today, they run New Sammy's Cowboy Bistro in Talent, Ore., with their notorious Boonville crash-and-burn long behind them.
It's good to know this story, because when you visit the Boonville Hotel today, echoes and traces of those heady days when the world beat a path to its door hang around the place like the silent trumpets and imagined wails on a Civil War battlefield. Out back the gardens are still there, looking well-kept, and hens still peck at bugs between the rows. But that's about where the similarities end.
The Boonville Hotel is now run by Johnny Schmitt, the son of Don and Sally Schmitt, the folks who started The French Laundry in Yountville and sold it to Thomas Keller (and the rest is history). Johnny started at the bottom, washing dishes. As time went by, he moved to the Anderson Valley and ran the Floodgate Caf? between Philo and Navarro. When the Boonville Hotel came on the market, he bought it. Johnny is the chef and proprietor, and his sous chefs are Lidia Espinoza and Melinda Ellis. Either one may be cooking on a given night. Melinda's husband, Jeff, runs the room.
You get a decent meal for your $38 or $48. On a recent night, dinner started with a small dish of mixed olives and a shot of rose wine. The first course was a Little Gem Salad (?), a nice, tidy salad of Little Gem miniature romaine lettuce with a Green Goddess dressing, sprinkled with sliced almonds, orange segments, avocado, mint and small herbal flowers. Some chefs would be tempted to add cheese to a salad like this, but Chef Ellis resisted the temptation and kept the salad easy and cool.