The thunder and lightning storm of September 11 was so unusual for West Marin that people who’ve lived here for 40 years said they had never seen anything like it. Not even close. Maybe a thunderhead here and there, or a waterspout will pop up occasionally in Bolinas Bay.
But a sustained, hours-long thunder and lightning show such as unfolded on that day-of-days? That’s as rare as the slices of Niman Ranch tri-tip beef in a tasty sandwich recently purchased at the new Side Street Kitchen in Point Reyes Station.
The thunder on Sept. 11 was epic. It was so rumbly and strong that you could practically feel the seams of an earthly and sky-bound nature commingle, and it was kind of freaky—scary even. For a while there, it felt as though the seismic fault of the San Andreas that runs up the spine of West Marin had been met with the seam of a temperature gradient emanating from a sky so Blakean, you could practically crash the wedding where heaven and hell got married (it didn’t last).
But let’s not dwell on the metaphysical implications of that unusual and violent West Marin thunderstorm. Let’s instead focus on the painted rooster that adorns the new signage at the Side Street Kitchen, which replaced the old signage from when this place was the Pine Cone Diner, and quite beloved.
Above all else, this was the most troubling aspect of the redo of the classic West Marin diner when it closed a couple of years ago to make way for a greater moment of luxe: How to replicate the glory of that old sign, while offering West Marin munchers a new destination restaurant on which to perch yon weary hams after a day traipsing among the tule elk. One fun high-local aspect of the Side Street is that it’s open from the dead-zone hours of 3-5pm, when everyone in West Marin starts smoking pot and drinking wine instead of working.
The sign measures up, and the menu’s a classic of the West Marin genre: Very heavy on the locally sourced, and light on appealing to the sensitivities of vegetarians. A casual slinger of West Marin stereotypes might be moved to assume that this is the land of vegan snowflakes, but it’s not. No offense to vegan snowflakes, who are neither shunned nor indulged but merely loved for their ethical posture, and sold a plate of Big Mesa Farm little gems, minus the chicken add-on.
Oh, let’s dwell a little bit since that sign has got me thinking of signs and signifiers and big fires and the history of things and what they mean when they’re gone and replaced.
Netflix has recently posted-up a worthy documentary, 16 Acres, that tells the story of the rebuilding of Ground Zero after the catastrophic terror attacks, which pierced everyone’s bubble that terrible day, even the most bubble-bound West Marinite un-eager to grapple with what’s over the hill beyond the Bolinas Ridge.
First of all, it’s hotter than hell over the hill. Second, why leave the cool wilds of West Marin if you don’t have to? Third, we’ve got pretty much everything we need right here, except for Costco, cheap gas and a medical cannabis dispensary. We can watch Netflix and listen to the coyotes murder a cow at the same time.
The documentary makes the case that what came after the Twin Towers were destroyed is actually pretty darn awesome in its own right, even if those original buildings were uncanny in their brutalist posture along that legendary New York skyline. The new building is sleek by comparison, and solid—built to last. Very comforting.
The Netflix doc makes the point that One World Trade Center measures up to what came before. Closer to home, and admittedly on a less horribly poignant and catastrophic scale, that new sign in Pt. Reyes Station also measures up to what came before. Plus, they’ve got some choice rotisserie chicken courtesy of Mary’s. But bear with me—I sat on the Brooklyn Bridge on 9/11 and cried like Walt Whitman.
There was a waitress at the Pine Cone who was notoriously cranky, and that just added to the charm of the place. She’s gone. The new owners, who also run the Station House Cafe in town, have hired a bunch of nice young people to tend to the customers, a varied lot on a recent weekday that included obvious out-of-towners along with some friendly faces from the local paddocks.
Life in West Marin has a kind of naturally holistic flow when it comes to food and what to do with it, given the implied richness and history which embraces all—from the organic-veg Star Route Farms to the McEvoy Ranch, makers of some of the world’s finest olive oil. Out here the gourmet is the standard, and when they tried to stick a 7-Eleven in Stinson Beach, it didn’t quite work out.
We all engage with the West Marin pantry at different levels of culinary expertise, and I’m a total hack at the burners. But even I can’t seem to blow it with some of this food. At my homefront a recent rack of Niman Ranch ribs was roasted on the stove with a pinch of salt and some olive oil, and when consumed, voraciously, the bones were henceforth split between frozen-for-broth and given to the dogs.
Once the dogs have had their way, the bones are thrown on the roof, and the crow with the white wings grabs the bones, which then wind up in front of the house, where the dogs grab them again. Then the bones go back on the roof. This is how we roll in West Marin, with the seasons, and with an eye on the birds at all times. I also like to roll into the 7-Eleven in Petaluma for a sausage and croissant sandwich on weekdays that have the letter “y” in them.
Side Street, by the way, is dog-friendly in the outdoor seating zone, thanks to a friendly state law recently passed that gives Fido the green light to pee on your leg while you eat.
Wells-Fargo bank is in the sightline of the outdoor dining area at the Side Street, the only visible blight which gives “predators” a bad name out here in the land of coyotes, bobcats and the occasional murderous trio of pimply meth-heads from Oregon.
As I’ve come to appreciate it, and after watching every last survivalist show available on Netflix, I’ll make the provisional point that West Marin is sort of like Alaska but without the automatic bout of hypothermia, offering a version of achievable self-reliance where a hardy and industrious soul can harvest their water, forage blackberries and mushrooms, catch a lingcod off the Duxbury Reef, shoot a rabbit with a bow and arrow and make a dog coat from the rabbit fur, so that when the dog chases the beef bone, he’s styling.
The nights are colder and the days are gloriously bright and warm this time of year in West Marin. The fog has taken a holiday and people are generally speaking, happy. It’s a liminal time in West Marin and the sunset eats at places like the beachfront Siren Canteen in Stinson Beach are all the more special for the late-summer ochre-tinged sky and balmy breezes that attends a fish taco consumed casually. Head south from the Siren for a naked lunch at Red Rock Beach, if that’s your thang.
This is the time of year for building the larder and making a list for the long day’s journey into Costco, “over the hill” in Babylon or back in The Matrix, or however one defines the counter-reality extant in our imaginations and value systems.
At the recently opened Eleven Wine Bar Bistro in Bolinas, diners are greeted with a big sign that says “Resist” in front of the place, which has been dishing some high-tone pizzas and luscious oysters among other plates for about a month, across the street from the gas station that charges $5 a gallon for a good cause—housing.
It’s the time of year to plan meals, including future meals that will no doubt be ordered at the Side Street Kitchen. That hearty crock of bean cassoulet is awaiting a tender critic of the heart to come along and pronounce it hearty and rib-sticking good, the perfect comfort food on a cooling West Marin afternoon. For now, that tri-tip sandwich makes for a fine split-able lunch outing with a friend, accompanied by smoked trout and crackers, and a warm bulgur salad a-bob with cubes of sugar beets.
Soon the endless West Marin summer will have given way to the endless West Marin spring, which will let you know it has arrived when the wind-lashed rain shows up and never leaves.
It’s come to pass that West Marin is a geographic destination as much as it is a state of mind, and the state of mind ought to be jovial, engaged and concerned without getting all mopey about it. Every year something that was here forever is gone tomorrow, only to be replaced by something pretty cool. There’s a regenerative quality to the West Marin life that demands a new coterie of fresh-faced weirdoes who arrive every so often to pepper the pot—the region is bursting with youthful energy and sage wisdom, and it all seems to commingle with a certain kick-back ease of acceptance.
It would be easy to mope at the forgotten home-town grub chuckers at the Pine Cone Diner, with its basic plates of egg-with and the burgers and the rest of the bustling memories. But the worn Formica counter is still there and ready to be caressed as one would caress the memory of an old lover who left you for reasons that are still unclear. Hey, we’re a forgiving part of the county. It’s alright baby.
A few days after the crazy thunder and lightning, a fire broke out along Sir Francis Drake Boulevard just a quarter-mile or so up the way from where the “Drake” intersects with Highway 1. I was the second person to arrive at the scene of the fire, and it was a kind of scary fire that came up right to the road before the firemen showed up and beat it back.
Like a good and engaged citizen, I sat there and took pictures with my dumb phone while the dogs wondered when we would get home to our bones and our crows.
The elemental is always at hand in West Marin, driving a stubborn narrative of ‘place’ first, everything else second, and always accompanied by an ever-shifting landscape of local ingredients rendered with love and grit.