Rumors. Even as far away as Berkeley we heard rumors. There was this restaurant, up north in Boonville, where the owners were raising all their own food. You’d hear stories about the garden, the ducks, the pigs. I heard Charlene and Vernon Rollins cured their own prosciutto, baked their own bread, and made their own goat cheese, but I didn’t believe it. It was the early ’80s, and even in California it seemed like an impossible dream.
But when the rumors persisted, a group of us decided to investigate. Alice Waters of Chez Panisse came. The late Judy Rodgers, owner of San Francisco’s Zuni Café, was curious, too. Cookbook author Marion Cunningham, who would go anywhere for a good meal, said she’d drive.
After a two-hour car ride from Berkeley up to Mendocino County and through the Anderson Valley, we tumbled into the restaurant of the New Boonville Hotel famished. We ordered grilled duck with a sauce made of pinot noir grapes, and just-dug potatoes cooked with cream and garlic. Some of the vegetables—cardoons, borage, fava beans—we’d never seen in this country. We ordered marinated rabbit and spit-roasted pork. Then we waited.
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The service wasn’t slow; it was glacial. Two hours later we’d eaten nothing but a few deviled eggs. Then Charlene, who worked alone in the kitchen, sent out a BLT to tide us over: rustic bread, bacon from her own pigs, duck-egg-yolk mayonnaise, tomatoes that still held the warmth of the sun. It was the best thing I’d ever tasted.
Happier now, we wandered the four-acre garden while we waited for the rest of the meal. Bees buzzed. Goats bleated.
When we finally sat down to dinner, the food was simple and tasted of the earth. The flavors were intense and like nothing I’d ever eaten before in the United States.
The moon was high when we climbed back into the car. “Wasn’t that wonderful?” said Marion. “Do you think they can survive?”
They couldn’t, of course. The New Boonville Hotel was a spectacular restaurant and a terrible business. But the Rollinses created an American restaurant that offered a true taste of terroir. Over the years, I’ve made journeys for farm-to-table meals at places such as Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, New York; Blackberry Farm in Walland, Tennessee; and Fish and Game in Hudson, New York. After each experience I am grateful to Vernon and Charlene. They couldn’t make their own dream come true, but they paved the way for the next generation.
Ruth Reichl was the restaurant critic for New West Magazine when she first went to the New Boonville Hotel. Her first novel, Delicious!, comes out this month. This appeared in the May 2014 issue.
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