I grew up in Sebastopol, and until recently barely had a sense of where San Anselmo was, much less what it had to offer. A quick Google search offered little information, with the most prominent news popping up concerning the flooding of the creek cutting alongside the downtown of San Anselmo. The search gave me a little PTSD from the Barlow floods earlier in the week. Rather than rely on some Google algorithm, I decided to resort to my sleuthing skills as I made my way to this Marin county town. Sleuthing? Well, OK, I decided to wander around town until I found something (or someone) interesting. It did not take long.
Shakshuka and a Lucky Table
I was optimistic about finding a breakfast place just by driving down San Anselmo’s main street, but my hunger had taken over decision-making by this point, so I pulled over in front of the first bustling restaurant I saw, a bakery and restaurant meld called M.H. Bread and Butter.
It was already crowded at 9:30 in the morning, with people resorting to sitting at the wooden tables outside, even with the cold weather and the intermittent drizzling. I went up to the cashier to place my order, and asked for his favorite item on the menu.
“Well, how hungry are you?” he asked. Always one for theatrics when food is involved, I replied breathily as if I had just ran there instead of sitting in the car for an hour: “I’m, like, starving!” “OK, you should get the shshski,” he answered confidently.
I simply nodded, trusting him like I had never trusted any waiter’s recommendation before, without a clue to the word he had just muttered. Just then out of the corner of my eye I spotted a couple getting up from their table, and like a crazy person, I sped-walked over to the table they were about to abandon, barely signing my name and adding a coffee to my order. With a sigh of relief at not having, God forbid, to sit outside in the cold, drizzling rain, I examined the menu to decipher what exactly I had gotten for breakfast.
The cashier had actually said shakshuka, a Middle Eastern dish of eggs (I ordered mine poached) over a sauce of tomatoes ($13, plus $5 with the chicken apple sausage). It was amazing. The sauce tasted like a hearty tomato vegetable soup, and the eggs on top were a delicious addition. The coffee was strong, the meal was filling, and I was ready to give up my table to the people in line eyeing my progress.
I was about to leave when the elderly man next to me, maybe in his 80s, complimented the Richard Brautigan book I was reading. “I can always come back to his books,” he said, smiling. Recognizing an opportunity when it falls in my lap, I asked if he was a local and had any suggestions for my day. “Well, when I was younger I would run up to the Seminary school on the hill.” I left the table to the next customers and headed outside.
The San Francisco Theological Seminary
The Seminary school he was referring to is a castle-like Presbyterian graduate school located on a hill in the middle of San Anselmo, built in the 1890s. To me, the architecture resembles a style much older than the 1890s, and with all the barren trees it looked almost a little Gothic. Since it was a Sunday, the grounds were completely deserted, giving the school a haunted-mansion atmosphere. Since the school’s on a hill, you have a striking view of San Anselmo, with the Marin Headlands in the distance.
There are multiple picnic tables and places to sit scattered around the campus, so after exploring the buildings that were open (the university has a much more beautiful exterior than interior), I sat for a while watching the fog sink between the trees in the distance. The drizzling had stopped, and if I hadn’t just eaten, this would have been the perfect lunch spot for a picnic. I could have sat there for a few hours, reading among the rain-sparkling greenery, but I was on a mission!
San Anselmo Avenue is a great street for lazy meandering on a Sunday afternoon, if only to gaze at all the upscale-oriented clothes and cool home decorations. And for lovers of the printed word, Whyte’s Booksmith sells new and used books at affordable prices in a cozy store that has been open for almost four decades. The inside is decorated with chandeliers and string lights offering a warm and quirky atmosphere, and the titles range from the popular to the obscure.
Just down the street from Whyte’s is a spot I have to credit to the Google search, and that’s the Imagination Park situated downtown. Before you let your imagination run wild, this is not a theme park filled with all things fantastical and crafting materials, as perhaps one might think with such a name. It is, almost equally as cool, an unlikely pairing of heroes situated on either side of a fountain: George Lucas’s Indiana Jones and Yoda. (Lucas is a local, don’t you know.) Yoda looks serenely off into the distance while Indiana looks as swoon-worthy as ever, shirt slightly unbuttoned to reveal those steely chest muscles. Pro tip: if you lean in too far while throwing a penny into the fountain and almost trip in it, play it off by pretending to studiously examine the skull embedded between Indiana’s shoes.
Tibet by Way of San Anselmo
Richard Reuther and his Balinese wife have owned the popular Routes Gallery for 15 years, offering sculptural artifacts from Asia as they also support local artists and craftspeople. For more on Richard, see sidebar.
Why Did I Come on a Sunday?
The hunger now at bay from a filling and wholesome breakfast, I parked downtown and walked to Robson-Harrington House Park. This park was one of my favorite places in San Anselmo. It used to be an estate owned successively by two wealthy families from the 1860s up until 1968, when it was bequeathed to the town of San Anselmo.
Now it’s open to the public, and also offers a community garden farmed exclusively through organic methods. Brick walls decorate the paths, and a large deck with a picnic table overlooks the park from the top of a small hill. There are multiple benches, often situated beneath sweet smelling apple blossoms. The house at the top of the park is generally open for the public, but not on Sundays.
I helped myself to an orange from a tree in the garden, and realized I was beginning to get hungry again, so I walked back into town.
Richard had recommended Creekside Pizza & Taproom for, well, pizza and beer. American staples! I walked over for a late lunch.
Creekside was fairly empty in the late afternoon. The waitress informed me happy hour was from 4pm to 5pm, with all beer and wine priced at $4 and appetizers getting a few bucks shaved off, so I waited 15 minutes before ordering an East Brother Red IPA and the burrata ($13 happy hour price). The burrata was a delicious mess, served with toast to help scoop up the cheesy goo, with uncured salami and a light salad on the side to help me feel I wasn’t just eating a big glob of cheese for a meal.
The waitress was very friendly, offering samples of each of the four IPAs she recommended, and even bringing over a sample when I mentioned I like stouts as well. While I am not the best critic on beer, I can confidently say, given my limited beer knowledge, the Red IPA tasted like a good Red IPA. The taproom does offer 40 beers on tap, with over 30 from craft breweries, so there is a broad selection to choose from for all the beer fanatics out there.
Last on my list was a small hike on a trail leading to the top of the San Anselmo hills. This was the perfect length of a hike for me, one-third of a mile each way, my Goldilocks distance: not too short that I felt like I got no exercise and not so long I started to question the appeal of hiking. I had even brought my boots, anticipating muddy paths after being doused in rain. I am so prepared, I thought as I looked in the back seat for the boots. Then underneath the seats to see if they had fallen. Then in my trunk to see if they were hiding there. Then returned to scour the backseats once more.
The trail was beautiful, with tall eucalyptus trees lining the path and wild daffodils sprouting up amid the very, very plentiful, very slippery mud. I had foolishly saved this trail for last, scoffing at a hike that was under a mile taking more than a 30 minutes, and while I reached the top of the hill in time to see some pink wisps decorating the sky above the ocean, the walk back down was quickly becoming more treacherous with the fading daylight. So much for being prepared.
I arrived for dinner around 7:30 at Cucina, and was seated immediately (eating out solo really does have its perks). The hostess led me to a small room with a long L-shaped couch where I nestled in among the almost overwhelming number of cushions. I had worked up an appetite after that grueling two-thirds of a mile hike, so I naturally ordered way more than I could have eaten: arancini risotto cheese balls with prosciutto ($13), butternut squash ravioli with sage and butter ($18), and the special of the night, salmon with vegetables ($26). Everything was delicious, rich and tasted great as leftovers for lunch the next day, as I savored my San Anselmo visit and sat down to write about it.
I thought about how nice it can be to experience a town from local recommendations, rather than formulating an itinerary from Google searches. If I’d relied solely on Google, I probably would have skipped over this small town prone to flooding. There’s a lot we can lose when we have all the information presented as condensed facts: the kindness of strangers, a small beautiful park . . .
Shoot, did I miss the 116 exit back to Sebastopol? Siri, can you reroute me home?
Richard Reuther’s Buddha nature revealed
Stepping inside this (deceptively) small shop, I immediately recognize the smell of burning sage as wind chimes sing in the breeze: these are smells and sounds of my childhood. Statues of Buddhas and Hindu sculptures crowd the room, with fountains murmuring in the background. A small cat lazily raises his head, eyes me momentarily, and lowers back onto the chair. The owner of the gallery, Richard Reuther, greets me and offers a warm cup of tea.
The concept of Routes Gallery came together following Reuther’s travels around Asia—the more he traveled, the more he became invested in Hinduism and Buddhism. “I was interested in Asian religion and culture before,” he says, “but when I traveled to Asia, you know, seeing all of the temples and doing some meditation over there myself, affected me in a way that only those kind of experiences can.” He started bringing some of the sculptures home with him.
Reuther travels to Asia every year, sometimes three or more times. He’s developed personal relationships with the far-off artisans he buys from, and sees his gallery not only as a way to do something he loves, but also as a way to help support local craftspeople.
“Part of my mission is to help continue these traditions, because some of these artists who can’t find someone to support their work financially will often be obligated to turn to another profession,” Reuther says. His connection with the artists and artisans inspired the name of his shop. “I got the name from anthropologist James Clifford’s book Routes: Travel & Translation in the Late Twentieth Century. It’s meant to be about the trade routes the goods travel, but also about the roots of where the goods are from.”
Reuther opened the gallery in 2001 after moving to San Anselmo because of the town’s long and rich interactions with art, he says. American impressionist Childe Hassan painted here, as did the so-called Painter of San Francisco, Rinaldo Cuneo.
“I just love the history of the area, you know? I fell in love with the area and wanted to make it my home,” Reuther says, “and I thought the community might be receptive to my store.” It was receptive—and then some.
“All the time, I get people who randomly send letters, saying we appreciate seeing the Buddhas every day. We even have locals who come and bring offerings to the Buddhas. I think people are very open to wanting to understand and learn about different cultures,” Reuther says.
The layout of the Routes Gallery is like a Russian doll, each room opening up to reveal yet another one, except instead of getting smaller the rooms grow and eventually open to a backyard.
“The design of the place is sort of a labyrinth; I wanted to make it a park-like experience,” Reuther says. It is also meant to be representative of the sacred space a temple offers—a “meditation oasis for people to check in with themselves,” as Reuther puts it, while playing a Tibetan singing bowl.
“The peaceful nature of this art reflects the beauty in balance, and I try to create a whole experience when people visit here.” Tibetan prayer flags decorate the deck in the backyard, and bamboo lines the perimeter of the yard, while the sound of huge fountains play surprisingly loudly in the background . . . oh wait, that’s actually the thunderous and very full San Anselmo creek that runs by the store. Enlightenment!—Aiyana Moya
615 San Anselmo Ave., 415.459.7323
541 San Anselmo Ave., 415.766.8438
M.H. Bread and Butter
101 San Anselmo Ave., 415.755.4575
1508 San Anselmo Ave., 415.482.6199
San Francisco Theological Seminary
105 Seminary Road
237 Crescent Road, 415.453.1602
Creekside Pizza & Taproom
638 San Anselmo Ave., 415.785.4450
510 San Anselmo Ave., 415.454.2942