Rancho Nicasio, a little piece of heaven in west Marin

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It’s just another Sunday at Rancho Nicasio. A down-home band is rocking on stage, fans are clapping and dancing, the scent of seared ribs is making everyone hungry and the late-afternoon sun is shining on the golden hills of west Marin.

The ranch’s summer barbecues have become a North Bay tradition, with up to 500 music lovers enjoying the relaxed vibe of the old roadhouse, which traces its roots to the 19th century.

“It’s a little piece of heaven,” said Lyvette Jones of Antioch, who drove more than an hour in late July to see an outdoor Rancho Nicasio show headlined by Paul Thorn.

“When I was driving here I thought I must be lost, there’s no way anything could be out here,” Jones said. But soon she saw the whitewashed Old St. Mary’s Church and Rancho Nicasio’s red-tile roof, and she knew she had found the place.

Tamara Vinson, a Thorn fan who came all the way from Sugarland, Tex., called Rancho Nicasio “paradise” and said: “You can’t duplicate this place anywhere. I hope you don’t take it for granted because you live here every day.”

For the past 18 years, Rancho Nicasio has been owned by Bob Brown, a former band manager (Huey Lewis and the News, Pablo Cruise), who has transformed the roadhouse into one of the North Bay’s most appealing venues.

The musicians who have played at the rural Marin venue since Brown took over range from Van Morrison to Buckwheat Zydeco and include regular annual visitors such as Asleep at the Wheel (Aug. 28).

Brown likes to bring lesser-known but highly talented bands, such as Sons of the Soul Revivers gospel group, which opened for Thorn and brought the crowd to its feet. “This valley will never be the same, and that’s a good thing!” Brown shouted to the crowd after the inspiring opening set.

What makes Rancho Nicasio so special is the vibe that infuses the place. Sunday barbecues feel like functional family reunions where regular patrons hug one another and strangers become friends by the end of the day.

Brown, who is married to Texas blues singer Angela Strehli, welcomes bands as though they’re old friends, which they usually are.

At the end of Thorn’s set, Brown gave the Mississippi singer-songwriter a pat on the back and exhorted the crowd to cheer for another encore, telling them he knew Thorn was off the next day so could probably be brought back for one more song.

Brown, who grew up in Queens, has lived in the Bay Area for 47 years but still speaks with a strong New York accent. The moment he heard that Rancho Nicasio was for sale, he said he leapt at the chance to buy it.

Early on the morning of Friday, July 3, 1998, Brown recalled, he saw a Paul Liberatore column in the Marin Independent Journal with the headline: “Marin Town for Sale.”

“Before I even read the article, I knew it was Nicasio. What other town could be for sale?” he said.

“I drove down to Rancho Nicasio that morning and waited for somebody to get there, and I bought it. It never got listed. Something just told me this would be good for me to do at that stage of my life.”

The 4½-acre property is “basically the town square,” Brown said, and includes the restaurant, bar, a general store, U.S. postal service and the firehouse of the Nicasio Volunteer Fire Department.

His son, Max, now 43, has overseen the kitchen since Brown took over. This year Rancho Nicasio hired Michelin-star chef Ron Siegel, who has made the old roadhouse an essential stop for foodies. (See related story.)

Though Bob Brown toiled around the clock while managing Pablo Cruise and Huey Lewis, he said the first five years at Rancho Nicasio were the hardest he’s ever worked.

“I have never owned a restaurant before and … the location isn’t exactly an easy one. We had no services out here. We had to put in a septic system — we’re on well water. It was very challenging. It was a true labor of love.”

But it has paid off, as Rancho Nicasio has become adored by fans as well as performers.

Shana Morrison, who often plays there with her band, said Rancho Nicasio “has always been a favorite of ours, and that’s been true since the ’70s,” when she was a little girl and her dad, Van, played there.

The indoor space is a place where you can have a fine dinner, kick up your heels for some dancing and belly up to the old wooden bar, she said.

Brown said that Rancho Nicasio is the geographic center of Marin and that at one time it was slated to be the county seat. Thankfully, for the ranch and those who love its rural character, that never happened.

Today Nicasio remains a safe distance from Marin’s congested corridors, a destination luring people from miles around for music, camaraderie or just to get something from the ranch’s general store.

Cyclists are frequent visitors, stopping in for cold drinks or lunch before continuing to ride the North Bay’s backroads.

Nicasio traces its roots to a pioneer outpost in the mid-1800s, according to Rancho Nicasio’s website. It was a stagecoach stop back then, and traders came to sell cattle and timber.

A hotel went up in 1867 but burned to the ground in 1940. In 1941. Rancho Nicasio’s current building opened, Brown said, so the ranch is marking its 75th anniversary. A celebration is slated for late autumn.

“The only thing older then me around Nicasio these days is the building itself,” Brown said. “I’m 70, and Rancho Nicasio is 75.”

Brown’s memories of good times at the ranch reach back to before he owned Nicasio, he said. In 1979, he was managing a young band called Huey Lewis and the American Express that opened for Van Morrison at Rancho Nicasio.

“Nobody was that familiar with Huey Lewis,” Brown said. “They weren’t even called Huey Lewis and the News yet.”

After they played, Morrison came back and told Lewis how much he enjoyed the band’s set. Said Brown, “I think it was the first time we realized that maybe this (success) is going to really happen. So it was an important day in the band’s career.”

Ultimately, a visit to Rancho Nicasio feels like getting away from it all, said KRSH deejay Bill Bowker during a break at the Paul Thorn show.

“It’s a destination but not much of a trek,” Bowker said, about 45 minutes from Santa Rosa. “And they feature the music that KRSH plays. It just feels good. It’s a nice drive through west county.”

Christopher Greenwald, a caterer who lives in Petaluma, said Nicasio’s barbecues “spell summer for us.” He often brings his father to the outdoor shows and said the old roadhouse is “a perfect place to spend a Sunday.”

Even after owning the ranch for 18 years, Brown agrees. He’s a constant presence there and says it has become a community hub, hosting weddings and memorial services as well as musical events.

One reason Brown bought Rancho Nicasio was to preserve one of the last true roadhouses in California. He says he hasn’t made a lot of money running the place but has had the time of his life.

And the best reward, Brown said, is hearing how much people enjoy coming there.

“People appreciate what we do so much,” he said. “It’s almost embarrassing sometimes. People just gush when they’re leaving, after they’ve spent their hard-earned money, thanking us for doing what we do.”

Rancho Nicasio is located on the town square, 1 Old Rancheria Road, Nicasio;415-662-2219, ranchonicasio.com.

Upcoming outdoor shows include Asleep at the Wheel Aug. 28, Chuck Prophet Sept. 4, Sons of Champlin Sept. 5 and Uncle Willie K Sept. 11.

Michael Shapiro is the author of “A Sense of Place: Great Travel Writers Talk About Their Craft, Lives, and Inspiration.” He writes about travel and entertainment for national magazines and The Press Democrat.

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