Discover more from Ruthtalksfood Newsletter
Victorian village on CA coast offers great B&B, R&R--and cookies!
Years ago a boyfriend with a mechanical bent convinced me that as long as he was in my life, an ancient, cranky but affordable Peugeot would make a great first car for me. Suddenly I had the freedom to take leisurely drives along the California coast (mind you, without said boyfriend!) and stop wherever I pleased.
One of these stops was in Mendocino, a rustic former logging community about 3 hours north of San Francisco. By the 1970s, it was a magnet for counterculture types in search of off-the-grid places for short or extended bouts of R&R, farming experiments, artistic exploration and cheap (for those days anyway!) housing. A headline in a 1970 New York Times travel piece about Mendocino referred to it as the town “Where Squares and Longhairs Mix.”
All I remember of my visit was being impressed with the wild scenery, particularly the jutting cliffs and rocky, driftwood-strewn beaches and a quiet hamlet with Victorian houses and a quaint downtown that reminded me more of a New England fishing village than of California.
Many years later, traveling with my husband Jeff, this time in a Hyundai Elantra, I again found myself in Mendocino—which locals fondly refer to as “Mendo”—to find a town that seems to have clung to the past, though the prices of rooms, food and fuel (there’s a local gas station where a gallon of gas, at almost $10 a gallon, was said to be the nation’s priciest) bear no relation to the 1970s.
We decided to splurge on a room in a house that became famous as the exterior residence of Jessica Fletcher (Angela Lansbury), star of the popular series Murder, She Wrote, which ran from 1984 to 1996. The fictional setting was Cabot Cove in Maine. Clearly someone else thought Mendocino and surroundings could double for a backwater New England maritime village. Blair House Inn, where we occupied two ground-floor rooms dubbed “Angela’s Suite,” never figured in the show’s plot lines, but accumulated enough cachet to attract a fair number of gawkers, though luckily not so many while we were there.
My husband Jeff’s recent PhotowalksTV episode is all about Mendocino, including revisiting his late father and TV host Jerry Graham’s Bay Area Backroads piece about the town from 1991. Be sure to check it out (below).
I was doing most of the gawking myself at the well-preserved (or restored) Victorian homes, many turned into B&B’s. Ours, only recently opened after renovation, didn’t offer the second B, but we didn’t lack for options for morning sustenance. One that struck our fancy was Goodlife Cafe and Bakery, which offered full breakfasts and lunches.
As usual, it was the baked goodies that caught my eye. Made fresh daily, they sell out fast. The buttermilk blueberry muffins and Cowboy Cookies were particular favorites, though I would have liked to sample everything. (You can find a recipe for Cowboy Cookies below.)
For a small town of about 1,000 residents, there are more than a few excellent eating establishments, including Luna Trattoria, where we split a very satisfying Lasagna Bolognese and Mendocino Café, where I had the “Healing Soup,” a combo of miso broth, soba noodles, shiitake mushrooms, chicken and kale that lived up to its name. Jeff was very happy with his Thai burrito.
Several other restaurants were strongly recommended, including Café Beaujolais, Trillium Café & Inn and the MacCallum House Restaurant. Obviously we couldn’t sample them all. Almost every one included a shaded, greenery-framed patio dotted with romantic lighting, probably spurred by pandemic exigencies. Heaters ward off the chill that creeps in with the coastal fog that’s a frequent visitor though not unwelcome to those fleeing scorching summer temperatures.
And there’s more…
Of course, a great meal isn’t everything (or is it?). Just wandering around town was almost enough for me—there was a marvelous bookstore where I could have spent hours, if not days; endless trails along the headlands above the Pacific, gardens, and an exhibit in the visitor’s center that offers information about the history of logging in and around Mendocino, the business that led to its founding in 1852.
And then there were the nearby attractions we couldn’t pass up: the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens, where there’s always something in bloom and you can lose yourself in 47 acres of rhododendrons, dahlias, roses, ferns and redwoods and eventually land at the edge of the Pacific; the Point Cabrillo Light Station, where we were lucky enough to get a tour that included a steep climb up some metal steps and some knowledgeable volunteers sharing key points in the history of the 113-year-old lighthouse and its rotating Fresnel lens, a rare optical wonder made of glass and brass.
There was a worthwhile hike to a waterfall in Russian Gulch State Park. (The park is actually named in honor of Russian fur trappers who founded Fort Ross 50 miles south of the park. ) We also visited the town of Fort Bragg, known for its Noyo Harbor (also used as a setting in Murder She Wrote); the famous Skunk Train, the 137-year-old steam-powered locomotive that ferries visitors through ancient redwood forests; and Glass Beach, covered with small pieces of sea glass left from a former trash dump. (Jeff’s terrific Mendocino PhotowalksTV episode, above, offers you the video version of all we saw, lots of tips on how to best capture the sights on your smartphone or camera.)
We’re not the “completist” kind of travelers who manage to see and do everything that’s recommended. There’s a whole coastline south of Mendo that we didn’t have time to explore, plus some great wineries too, I heard. But there’s always next time, right? I know we’ll be back.
Want a cookie, Cowboy?
After returning home, I couldn’t get the cowboy cookies out of my mind. “They’re an everything cookie,” Jeff said. “Chocolate, nuts, oats! What more do you need?”
When I looked them up, I found that these cookies—basically a fancy oatmeal-chocolate chip cookie mashup—became famous when Laura Bush’s recipe for cowboy cookies beat Tipper Gore’s ginger snaps in 2000. It was part of a cookie bakeoff between First Ladies that began in 1992 when Hillary Clinton’s chocolate chip cookies beat Barbara Bush’s recipe for same. (I can’t help wondering whether when a woman finally becomes President if the First Gentleman will enter a cookie in the bake-off too!)
You can google cowboy cookies and come up with Laura Bush’s recipe. Here are links to Southern Living and New York Times versions. They’re almost identical, except that the Times recipe uses unsweetened coconut. I changed the basic recipe to reflect the cookie I tasted at the Goodlife Cafe. It used walnuts instead of pecans and leaves out the coconut and cinnamon. The Times recipe also makes a LOT of cookies, so I reduced it by 1/3 and cut the sugar slightly. It still made 29 large cookies, measured out in 1/4 cup portions. Both the dough and the baked cookies were easy to freeze.
Thanks so much for reading! I always appreciate your comments, likes and shares. It encourages me to keep going. See you next time!