Heart of Marin

San Anselmo following a new beat

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Pat Townsley relaxes with his dog Storm in Imagination Park. Credit: Don R. Lewis

The sleepy town of San Anselmo can be tricky to find. Nestled smack dab in the middle of Ross, San Rafael and Fairfax, locations in this area are easily confused. While certainly not as aggressively offended-if-you-get-it-wrong as, say, Australians being called New Zealanders or East or West Texans feeling you’ve misunderstood their regional issues, San Anselmo residents and business owners definitely have a sense of town pride. 

As if sensing the challenges visitors face not only in finding San Anselmo but also with navigating it once there, the town recently came up with a San Anselmo Median Master Plan which seeks to improve upon the three major medians that guide one around town. 

The three major medians are Sir Francis Drake Boulevard from Bolinas Avenue to “the Hub” (which is where all roads meet, or close enough), Red Hill Avenue from the Hub to Sequoia Drive and then Center Boulevard from Madrone Avenue to San Anselmo Avenue. If this seems confusing, it can be. Especially when traversing the area while using a phone-app map which doesn’t fully grasp median roads or roads that eventually become other roads. The changes also seek to improve flood control which will then ensure better roads and safe passage for both residents and visitors alike. 

Pat Townsley is co-owner of Creekside Pizza and Taproom in old-town San Anselmo. He’s been in town 20 years and is a native Marin resident. He’s also the 2019 winner of the Spirit of Marin Award, which recognizes “the philanthropic leadership, volunteerism and success of Marin’s businesses, business leaders and volunteers.” Townsley, who co-owns the pizzeria with chef Janet Abrahamson, is not only passionate about the town as it is, he also sees a bright future ahead for it.

Creekside Pizza and Taproom is fairly busy for a mid-afternoon, given there aren’t any major sporting events on the three large TVs. A great selection of beer taps line the wall as customers enjoy pizza, huge sandwiches and salads.

Asked what the most popular dish is, Townsley says, “It’s definitely the Perfect Storm,” a pizza named for its tempting toppings of pepperoni, black olives, artichoke hearts and green onions. The pie’s name is also a nod to Townsley’s black-and-white husky, Storm.

Out on San Anselmo Avenue, Townsley becomes a walking encyclopedia of what’s come and gone locally. He clearly adores his town. He gets excited as he details the city’s plans for revitalizing the local downtown and making use of the lovely creek that flows behind many of the stores along one side of the avenue.

The creek has been a source of irritation for years, as heavy rains cause major flooding due, in part, to an old downtown gas station that cemented its tanks into the ground. This ties into the multi-million dollar San Anselmo Median Master Plan which, when completed, will prevent flooding and create a gorgeous riverwalk that will delight locals and attract more visitors.

In keeping with this theme of rejuvenation, the city recently rebranded itself by replacing the old Mt. Tamalpais town logo with … a deer. Townsley says the new logo at first met with confusion and derision but was “based off of Sugarfoot which is this big, cast iron deer on the lawn of City Hall. It’s been there forever [since 1963] and it’s a great symbol of San Anselmo. Kids are always playing and climbing on it.” 

Townsley also explains that the Mt. Tam logo is ubiquitous among local Marin businesses and how the town seeks to set itself apart as it looks to the future.

A few doors down from Creekside Pizza is Gelato Classico, which has been in the same location for over 40 years. Owner Javad Khayami has been there for 30 years, longer than gelato has even been in fashion. 

Khayami proudly shows off the interior of the small shop, which features the establishment’s original menu board.

“People here, they like that we haven’t changed it,” he says, laughing. Apparently the same goes for the neon gelato sign in the window.

Khayami says the shop’s most-popular gelato flavor is “Coppa Mista,” a blend of chocolate, vanilla, pistachio and almond. The store also proudly serves “Wookie Cookie” and “Darth Chocolate,” which were signed-off on by the town’s most famous local, George Lucas.

Speaking of Lucas—grabbing a scoop of gelato and some coffee at one of the nearby coffee roasters (The Coffee Roastery, Hilda’s Coffee Shop and Marin Coffee Roasters are all on San Anselmo Avenue) and relaxing in tiny downtown “Imagination Park,” which features statues of Yoda and Indiana Jones, sounds like a great idea now that the weather is warming up.

And speaking of movies, another major San Anselmo highlight is the annual Movies in the Park program, where movies screen outdoors at Creek Park (249 Sir Francis Drake Blvd.) every Saturday at sunset, from June through September. Townsley shares that the popular event will soon extend into October, with a Halloween showing of Harry Potter at the former San Francisco Theological Seminary, which was recently acquired by Redlands University. The Seminary can best be described as a castle, so viewing a Harry Potter film there should be a surreal experience. 

While meandering around San Anselmo, stop by hip neve & hawk at 641 San Anselmo Ave. The shop features ethically and locally made clothing for women and children. Bob and Kris Galmarini opened the shop in 2016, taking the couple’s passion for making clothes to the masses. They also added a coffee shop in the back of the shop in 2019. The store feels homey and casual and the prices are fair considering the local, handmade angle.

From there, another cool spot to check out is Modern I, located at 635 San Anselmo Ave. Billing itself as an antique store, Modern I is more of a curated modern-design shop featuring everything Mid-Century. Owned by Steven Cabella, who’s been in business over 30 years, the store sells modern furniture and fixtures, and groovy ’60s posters and art. Cabella himself is a design historian who is eager to share his passion with customers.

Calling itself “the Heart of Marin,” San Anselmo has a burgeoning restaurant scene and has become the crux of local commerce and tourism. Michelin Star–rated restaurant Madcap is a hotspot and features upscale yet casual dining from chef-owner Ron Siegel. Siegel uses locally-sourced ingredients that are both organic and farm raised. San Francisco Chronicle food-critic Michael Bauer praised Siegel’s gutsy flavor combos in a 2017 review. 

Mediterranean-style Insalata and Baahn Thai Cuisine, both on Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, are also popular dinner destinations. 

San Anselmo is not Marin’s best-kept secret (that honor goes to Bolinas with its wylier citizens’ regular removal of its road signs, et al.) but it is, to torque the phrase, a promise worth keeping. With its investments in infrastructure, thriving downtown commerce and locals passionate about the town coming into its own, San Anselmo is the town to know “before it’s cool.” But then again, it might already be too late.

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