WE get bored with hearing how bad the food is in the USA – it’s nearly as unfunny and untrue as the idea that you can’t eat well in Britain (outside London, of course). In our experience, over nearly 30 years of visiting friends and family and travelling around the States, you can eat some of the best, freshest, most interesting food in the world there.
That said, the best American food tends to be in specific areas, just as the best British food is found in regional clusters – the West Country, obviously, Yorkshire, the Suffolk coast. In the States, the areas with the most consistently interesting good food are (in no particular order) New York (cutting edge, from around the world), New England (seafood and dairy), the coastal Carolinas (seafood), the deep South (puddings, Cajun/New Orleans), New Mexico (unique fusion of Pueblo, Spanish and Mexican), and California (just about anything you can fish, rear or grow).
The American food revolution – eating local and seasonal – began 40 years ago in the California university city of Berkeley with Alice Waters, who created the legendary restaurant Chez Panisse, and remains a powerful inspiration and influence. These days, you meet people who tell you that Alice is no longer relevant, but they are wrong. You may think that The French Laundry’s Thomas Keller is THE important chef, but he is merely the most famous, possibly the most expensive and his Napa establishment has the longest waiting lists.
Visiting my daughter and her family recently, we explored some new areas and discovered three restaurants which all reflect the lasting influence of Alice Waters, and celebrate the bounty of the Golden State.
It wasn’t an auspicious start. We turned up on the wrong day. It happens. Once you have written or said the date you tend to have it fixed and you don’t SEE it again. So we had booked ourselves for dinner, bed and breakfast at one of the old Gold Rush hotels along California’s historic Highway 49 and we hadn’t noticed we’d booked the night before we wanted – in fact the night we arrived in the US.
Since we were in California for my grandson’s school’s “ancestor festival” you could, I suppose, put it down to a senior moment. We don’t usually do senior moments (no matter that the idea of being an “ancestor” makes me feel as old as Methuselah!) so we just apologised for our mistake and the management at the Imperial Hotel in Amador City couldn’t have been nicer! They were full that night but found us another hotel very near, and we were still able to have dinner there. And very good it was.
The menu, created by long-standing head chef Robert Thornock, features locally grown and mainly organic produce, sustainably caught fish and seafood and they can tell you which farms the meat and poultry come from. The style is contemporary American, presented beautifully, with a wine list that is almost exclusively from California and the local area in particular – the revelation of the night was the selection of old vine Zinfandels, a speciality of the Amador County area. Having been put off Zinfandel by a revolting rose (they call it “white”) in Virginia many years ago, we had avoided it ever since. Now we are complete converts – the old vine Zin is complex, rich, the perfect complement to beef or duck, and an excellent drink on its own.
For many years, Manka’s, near Point Reyes National Seashore north of San Francisco, was one of California’s best-kept secrets, a 1910 hunting and fishing lodge converted into a restaurant with rooms and log cabins that served food so fresh and so local that you didn’t know what you would be served on the night. When it burned down eight years ago it might have been the end of an era, but the owner-chefs Margaret Grade and Daniel DeLong have taken over a former bijou eatery and hotel in nearby Olema, on the corners of Sir Francis Drake Boulevard (Drake sailed the Golden Hind round to this coast, parts of which apparently reminded him of the cliffs of the West Country) and the coastal “Star Route One.” Stripped back to bare floorboards with minimalist decor and painted an austere grey, the renamed Sir and Star at The Olema is now one of the finest restaurants in California, and probably in the whole country.
The menu, as at Manka’s, is intensely local and written in a quixotic and poetic style that is as distinctive and flamboyant as the food. “A Neighbour’s Quail, Plumped with a Stuffing of Celery, Onions and Herbs, Then Nested in Olema Butternut Squash, Feathered with Wild Arugula” is just one example. (And utterly delicious it was).
Visiting Santa Monica for the first time, we took a local’s advice and made our way to The Inn of the Seventh Ray, in Topanga Canyon, a secret hideaway for artists, musicians and anyone seeking peace and wilderness away from the sprawl of Los Angeles. This former church, gas station and auto junkyard has been an elegant and mainly open-air restaurant, converted and run by the current owners since 1973. It is very 70s in its Zen-inspired vibe, with pan pipes and a dreamy, spiritual atmosphere, but the food is classy and contemporary, creative and colourful. Most ingredients are sourced from local producers and farmers markets with an emphasis on food that is free of GMOs and pesticides and sprays. We were there for lunch – a scrumptious cold soup followed by wild salmon with angel hair arrabiatta, and a duck confit panini. Many of the dishes are vegetarian and there are vegan choices. With its relaxed atmosphere, creek-side setting under elegant awnings and food that positively zings with health, this is what you want Southern California to be.
Some other places to eat if you are visiting California: Sam’s Anchor Cafe, a legendary seafood restaurant since before Prohibition, in Tiburon on San Francisco Bay; Julia’s at the Berkeley City Club, designed by Julia Morgan who built the famous Hearst Castle for William Randolph Hearst at San Simeon on the central coast; and the Union Hotel at Los Alamos, north of Santa Barbara, which dates from 1880 and combines Victorian elegance with Wild West panache.
And of course, Chez Panisse at Berkeley.
Truly, there is more to food in the USA than burgers and fries!
Pictured are the Imperial Hotel at Amador City, Daniel DeLong in the kitchen at the Sir and Star at The Olema; and diners under the awning at the Inn of the Seventh Ray in Topanga Canyon.