Tomales’ iconic William Tell House, remade and remodeled, hits the target
Here, there, everywhere in Wine Country, dining is farm-to-?table. We’re so rich with boutique ranches, dairies, artisanal farms and fresh-from-the-water seafood, that good restaurants serve us the very best stuff. We’re lucky that way, and even after living here for 15 years now, it always thrills me.
Yet still, a recent dinner at the William Tell House in Tomales amped the delight to new heights. As I sat at the bar slurping briny, buttery Preston Point oysters ($4 each) from Tomales Bay Oyster Company, the bartender pointed out a gentleman a few stools down who was giving me the thumbs up. It was Shannon Gregory, co-owner of Tomales Bay Oyster Company and The Marshall Store oyster bar and market on Tomales Bay.
A little later, as I spooned up seafood chowder, another gentleman stopped by to ask how I was enjoying it. It was David Little, who owns the Little Organic Farm nearby that grows the firm, meaty potatoes for the chunky soup, and also gifts us with the aromatic fennel for the buttermilk fried oysters and chips ($18) that I dug into next.
Larry Wagner was in the house, too, as a regular when he isn’t nurturing his heirloom tomatoes and cucumbers at his family’s longstanding Volkerts Ranch in Sebastopol (try his produce in the stunning salad of ruby-ripe tomatoes, lemon cucumber, grilled Brie, fried Parmesan and picholine olives, $14). And there, a few seats over, I saw Christian Coffey, founder of Folly Cheese Co. of Tomales; he provides his tiny batch cheese to William Tell, and likes to come in with his wife and Tomales Farmstead Creamery head cheesemaker Ashley Coffey. Tomales Farmstead, of course, supplies cheese here, as well.
I felt like I had crashed a red carpet party, even if these celebrities were dressed in dusty T-shirts and jeans, and packing a bit of soil under their well-scrubbed but ever-stained fingernails. But it was just another Friday night at the William Tell, an iconic saloon-restaurant-inn that reopened in June after a yearlong renovation.
It wasn’t always this glamorous at the property that opened in 1877, burned down in the Great Tomales Fire of 1920, and was rebuilt a year later. Before new owner Ted Wilson purchased the place in June, 2018, the restaurant had been run by various proprietors who didn’t mind cutting culinary corners here and there. Or nearly everywhere.
“Right after I bought it, I was doing inventory, and found a freezer upstairs,” said Wilson, who also owns Oakland’s The Alice Collective café, bar and event space, and Metal + Match catering company. “It was packed with frozen crinkle cut carrots and French fries. So uncool when actual farmers are sitting at your bar.”
Granted, these farmers weren’t usually coming here to eat, but to sip cold beers in the saloon, while tourist types filed into the restaurant side to fill up on chicken strips and fettuccine Alfredo on their way to Dillon Beach 4 miles west. But now, since Wilson brought on consulting chef Austin Perkins (Cyrus, Nick’s Cove, Perkins Catering Co.) and started courting the agricultural talent in his own backyard, a distinctly neighborhood crowd dines on mouthwatering signatures such as succulent roasted local chicken paired with just-picked sweet corn on a pond of rich, salty poulet jus (half $22, whole $40).
Wisely, however, Wilson and Perkins didn’t turn too fancy. That chicken is about as expensive as things get, and service is order-at-the-counter with table delivery. The one-page menu offers honest, approachable food at everyday-dining prices, yet with everything made-from-scratch and bursting with flavor. So yes, many Sundays you’ll see the Poncia family dining here - as owners of Stemple Creek Ranch 2.5 miles north, they appreciate the burgers and the weekly-changing “Butcher’s Cut” steaks made from their own grass-fed, all-natural premium beef.
“I think about locals every day,” said Wilson. “Buying a place in a 254-person town, and not really knowing Marin, I knew there would be a cultural shift. I wasn’t just picking up a restaurant and making the burger better, everything had to get better. And I knew I couldn’t charge city prices, so it’s just $12 for a seven-ounce burger, that’s insane.”
What a beautiful burger it is, too, cooked medium rare for a juicy pink middle and a seared, caramelized edge. It arrives draped in Valley Ford Cheese & Creamery Highway One old-style Fontina, pickled onion, leaf lettuce, pickles and caramelized aioli on a brioche bun that’s been branded with the William Tell logo. You add homemade applewood bacon ($2), avocado ($2), a double patty and cheese ($6), and/or thickish hand cut, duck fat Kennebec fries sprinkled in Old Bay spice ($4).