Tomales’ iconic William Tell House, remade and remodeled, hits the target

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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).

Transforming “The Tell,” as insiders call it, took a lot longer than expected. “Nobody told us until I was going in for a final operating permit that we’d need to meet all these crazy requirements coming from out of nowhere,” Wilson said. Such as building an entire new kitchen with a complicated ventilation hood, in a time when materials and labor are expensive and hard to come by as so many homes are being rebuilt from the wildfires. The bar was fully stocked with local wines, beers and ciders, the mixologist was at the ready with craft cocktails, restaurant staff was already lined up, and Wilson couldn’t afford to sit still.

“I had to serve hot food to keep my ABC (Alcoholic Beverage Control) license to serve liquor. I begged and pleaded, and I finally got a conditional use permit using a commissary kitchen,” he said. “So that’s when the pop-ups happened. But legally, we could only cook by microwave here. It was mainly hot dogs and chowder for eight months.”

Fortunately, he’d quickly made friends with the locals. “We built a really good reputation with folks around the area, and they would come in at 4 p.m. on their way home from another construction job, and give us a few hours. They knew I was completely lost. The community was a huge part in getting this all up and running.”

Today, those friends include the owners of Drakes Bay Oyster Company, Cove Mussel Company, FreshCatch, TwoxSea, and County Line. Diners come from as far away as San Francisco to gather on the new, fire pit-warmed patio, families bring children and dogs, and it’s standing room only for the live music on Friday nights (a recent evening found folks singing along to accordion-fueled songs like “Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens,” bwaaaaak).

Inside, people dine and drink at the 100-year-old, 35-seat mahogany bar, or grab a table in the dining room with its dark wood tables, brass accents, swan neck lighting and crisp white walls.

Kids eat hot dogs and creamy Highway One mac ‘n’ cheese ($8 each), while adults dig into impressive Cobb salads piled high with County Line greens, homemade applewood bacon, Larry Wagner tomatoes, Pt. Reyes blue cheese, braised Petaluma chicken, fried egg and avocado all drizzled in tangy, homemade buttermilk dressing ($15).

Instead of just stopping in for a quick beer, visitors now linger over tacos del dia ($5 each), which might include spicy beef, pickles and cotija; beer battered cod with cabbage and crema; or corn, cotija, salsa and scallion. Locals and tourists alike share snacks like crisp-tender roasted Wild Blue Farm Tomales carrots dressed in creamy ricotta salata, pistachios and tart fried capers ($10), and nibble on spicy-sweet, sensational Mexican street corn coated in local honey, crushed pasilla, lime and cotija ($6).

They do refuse to share the mouthwatering, tomato-bright cioppino, however, stocked with lots of clams, mussels, rock cod, gulf shrimp, lots of spices, and in season, Dungeness crab ($18 half, $32 full). It’s just too delicious.

Then they go back to sharing the daily changing seafood tower — only because the full order ($35 half/$60 full) is so large, bringing a tiered tray lined with chipped ice and arranged with three each of Bodega Oyster Company miyagis and Tomales Bay Preston Point oysters with housemade mignonette, huge gulf shrimp in spicy cocktail sauce, Tomales Bay clams and smoked mussels with caramelized onion aioli, plus a ramekin of salty McFarland Springs smoked trout dip with grilled bread. It’s one of the best seafood bargains anywhere in the Bay area.

I almost hate to let loose the secret of how superb this seafood chowder is, too, for fear the small restaurant will be overrun. The spoon-coating roux is gloriously rich with heavy cream, butter and milk, and the clam juice broth is thickly stocked with sautéed diced onion, celery, leeks, crisp bacon and potatoes. The silky blend is then simmered with sautéed, in-shell Manila clams, mussels, whole white shrimp, and tender chunks of Bolinas rock cod, all finished with more bacon, fresh parsley and a wand of grilled bread ($8 cup/$13 bowl).

Will it surprise anyone that dessert here is pie? It’s made from-scratch by a local pastry chef, Alison Cavallaro of Tomales Bakery, who presents pure, seasonal fruit with just a hint of sugar on flaky crust. I ordered both choices one evening, a strawberry rhubarb and a blackberry topped with homemade whipped cream ($8 each), and finished every bite.

I had to. Cavallaro herself might have stopped in at any moment, and I didn’t dare disrespect her hard, wonderful, farm-to-table work by leaving even a crumb behind.

Carey Sweet is a Sebastopol-based food and restaurant writer. Read her restaurant reviews every other week in Sonoma Life. Contact her at carey@careysweet.com.

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