Appetite: Under the stars in Guerneville

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Summer magic out behind the Rio Nido Roadhouse
GUARDIAN PHOTO BY VIRGINIA MILLER

Amid towering redwoods, summer heat, and parties along the Russian River is the small town of Guerneville, one of Sonoma’s most unique towns, with its vibrant gay community, laid back river culture, and haunting redwood state park. On a recent idyllic summer weekend, barbecues and live, twanging bands added color to the bustling main street.

Foodies have a destination cafe-restaurant in Guerneville's Big Bottom Market, which was opened last summer by co-owners Michael Volpatt and Crista Luedtke (the latter owns neighboring boon hotel + spa and boon eat + drink restaurant). Big Bottom draws crowds for breakfasts, lunch, and for anytime cups of my favorite Sonoma County coffee, Flying Goat's special blend for the cafe. The cafe's breakfast biscuits ($3-9) are stuffed with a changing array of goodies like bananas, peanut butter, strawberries and white chocolate, or ham, Swiss, and dill pickle (loved the mustard in the latter but lamentably had to hunt for the ham.) Offerings change daily, but the day's special is easily ascertained -- each biscuit is adorned with a bit of its filling.

Big Bottom Cafe's superlatively-stuffed biscuits. Guardian photo by Virginia Miller

My recent weekend in Guerneville coincided with the launch of Big Bottom's dinner service (Thursdays-Saturdays only, 5-9pm). Executive chef Tricia Brown cooked at one of my all-time favorite restaurants, Gramercy Tavern in NYC, moving from Brooklyn to Sonoma for a lifestyle change. With that pedigree, it's no surprise that she's cooking an elevated style of cafe food. In the rustic, touch-of-farmhouse shop lined with wood floors and wine and gourmet food items for purchase, dinner means comfort food, like a Moroccan chicken tagine ($18), or apricot-studded couscous laden with Castelvetrano olives and toasted almonds, or green-chile-cheddar turkey meatloaf ($17) over chipotle mashed sweet potatoes.

Unexpectedly, sandwiches ruled: pinot pulled pork covered in spicy BBQ sauce ($16) and garlic aioli smeared on a toasted brioche, both with sides of bourbon-bacon baked beans and cilantro-lime coleslaw ($4 individually or 3 for $11.) There was also a sandwich special of wild salmon that was softly pink, almost medium-rare, topped with slaw on buttery brioche. Both were made with care, blessedly robust in flavors and texture. Chilled cucumber soup spiked with mint and yogurt ($6) was a refreshing summer starter. Only a large pile of dry crostini felt out of place on a mezze platter ($9) of roasted red pepper hummus, lentil walnut pate, cucumber red onion yogurt salad, and olives.

Small, local winemakers are featured on the wine menu, including a few of my go-tos like Thomas George Estates and Unti. It also features different winemakers like Sonoma’s Paul Mathew Vineyards, whose vintages are made by winemaker Mat Gustafson. I sampled all three of Gustafon's featured wines, like a mineral 2010 Weeks Vineyard Chardonnay that held slight citrus notes from its stainless steel aging, rounded out by a hint of oak. I found the 2011 Knight’s Valley Valdigue most interesting (and the most affordable at $7 glass/$33 bottle.) It’s a chilled wine more akin to a Lambrusco or other chilled red with dry, strawberry notes, earthy yet bright.

Certainly when in Guerneville, one can enjoy the retreat-like (though dated) Applewood Inn, but Big Bottom Market hits at a lower price point, though its obviously more casual. For a sleepy small town in the redwoods, nestled between vineyards and ocean, the Market’s casual-gourmet approach feels appropriate.

End the night at Rio Nido Roadhouse dancing under the stars out back to live music (blues, classic rock, etc.) Were it not for the redwoods and that clean, crisp Sonoma air, the crusty older cowboys, families, and dive bar setting would be enough to convince you you’re in a small Texas town, embracing the warm summer night.

Big Bottom Market

16228 Main St., Guerneville

(707) 604-7295

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