Perched on a coastal bluff just south of Mendocino, The Ravens Restaurant at the Stanford Inn by the Sea has been around for almost a decade, yet many vegans and vegetarians still don’t know that it exists.
The eco-resort, which opened in 1980, started serving a vegetarian breakfast in 1996, then added dinner in 1997. After owner Jeff Stanford became an ethical vegan in 2004 (he objects to animal cruelty), both dinner and breakfast menus evolved toward veganism, with a complete conversion — no dairy, eggs or meat — by 2012.
“The preferred human diet is whole plant foods,” said Stanford, who runs the inn with his wife, Joan. “Right now, we’re undergoing our complete conversion of the restaurant to focus almost entirely on whole foods that are minimally processed but delicious, like seeds and nuts, potatoes and tubers.”
To help spread the word, the couple recently published a soft-back cookbook, “Dining at the Ravens: Over 150 Nourishing Vegan Recipes from the Stanford Inn by the Sea” (BenBella Books, 2016). Among the 150 recipes are many of the restaurant’s signature dishes, including breakfast foods like the Stanford Inn Enchiladas, sides and appetizers like the Crab-less Cakes, plus a wide range of hearty entrées, from Eggplant Cannelloni to Barbecued Portobello.
There is also a surprising number of yummy desserts made without dairy or butter, including Lemon Custard Bars, a Peach Huckleberry Cobbler and even a Banana Split.
“You can have Crème Brûlée and all of those classy foods,” Jeff said. “Our most popular dessert, bar none, is the Chocolate Ganache Tart.”
In the introduction, the cookbook tells about how Joan and Jeff, a Kansas City native known for his meaty barbecue, came to create the only vegan resort in the U.S. that also boasts a certified organic farm, a wellness center and nutritionist, Sid Garza-Hillman. Ravens Restaurant is ground zero for their healthy mission.
“The restaurant is our way to make people aware that changes in diet can be just fantastic,” Jeff said. “You feel so much better.”
Jeff and Garza-Hillman give cooking demos and healthy living classes at the inn as well as at venues throughout the country. Because he has a background in acting, Garza-Hillman can put a positive spin on their serious mission.
“We’re interested in people coming here and leaving with a new zest for life,” said Joan, an educator and art therapist who is originally from Winnepeg, Canada. “Having a healthy approach is part of it, and having a positive attitude in the kitchen. This is joyful; it’s not denying anything.”
The couple first met in Canada, where Jeff was studying anthropology. In 1975, they moved to Carmel to join Jeff’s parents, who had purchased a hotel. There was a recession going on, and jobs were in short supply.
Joan fell in love with the quaint hamlet of Mendocino while vacationing. In 1980, the couple decided to purchase the Big River Lodge, a motel with 25 rooms skirting the southern edge of Mendocino, along the Big River Estuary.
With help from the owners and friends, they were able to procure loans for the down payment and embarked on a 35-year journey that involved raising two children and transforming the old-style motel into the cozy, country-style Stanford Inn by the Sea.
“We renovate constantly — we have never stopped,” Jeff said. “It’s a constantly revitalizing of the property.” In 1996, they embarked on a major expansion, building a four-level structure to house a new lobby, offices, a wellness center and a vegetarian restaurant, The Ravens, named for a pair of ravens who took up residence on the property. The restaurant opened to the public in 1997.