It’s been exactly three weeks since Ted Wilson reopened the historic William Tell House in Tomales. It’s seven days until his wedding and five minutes since he got the beer tap flowing.
So, at 2:30 p.m. on a Friday afternoon, in this tiny hamlet of 204 people, it’s Miller time. Actually, it’s Lagunitas Little Sumpin’ time, and Wilson, his two-person kitchen crew and a random guy at the end of the bar are downing a cold one. They actually look a little surprised when I crash this charming tableau. I’m a little surprised, too, because the place really wasn’t what I expected, which is a good thing.
The William Who House?
“You know the William Tell House,” says my friend as I’m wondering why I’ve never heard of this super minimalist pop-up in Tomales of all places. “You’ve been to the William Tell House,” she says with a small sigh, “Everyone’s been there.”
There are many places I have been, but nope, not this one. I’d remember wondering exactly what was inside that completely nondescript two-story clapboard building I’ve missed a hundred times while rubbernecking at all the bicyclists swarming around Tomales Bakery.
For the last eight years, “Marin’s Oldest Bar” was a favorite locals spot for a night of prime rib with the family — pretty much what it had been for the last 140 years or so — as a bar and restaurant (and sometimes hotel). Named for a Swiss folk hero who had a thing for apples and arrows, it’s the oldest continually-serving bar in the county, having opened originally in 1877. The place burned to the ground in 1920, but was quickly rebuilt.
The spot has changed hands only four times in the last century, so when the building came up for sale last year, San Francisco chef, caterer and restaurateur Ted Wilson got a call from friends in the area where he grew up.
As co-founder of Oakland’s Metal and Match Catering, founder of food incubator, The Hall in SF and newly-minted head of The Alice Collective, Wilson already had several plates spinning when he opened a limited-menu “pop-up” featuring “humble casual” food sourced from the farms, fields and beaches of the region.
Working with local chef, Austin Perkins, an alum of Cyrus and Nick’s Cove, along with consulting beverage director Ethan Terry (AQ, Slanted Door), the opening menu has less than 10 items along with a couple of daily specials that are simple, but impressive. William Tell House is doing a preview opening for about three months while expanding the kitchen to be able to serve a more extensive brunch, lunch and dinner lineup, according to Wilson. But already, the inside has become a bright, cheerful spot for chowder, duck chili, Bolinas rock cod ceviche, the “daily” dog, seasonal cocktails and the aforementioned beers on tap.
Just get there before the day-trippers fill up the leave-a-drink chalkboard.
Seafood Chowder ($10): Why is it that you can’t get a decent cup of chowder at the coast? Though we’ve had a handful of pretty good versions, the standard seems to be lumpy, floury, deeply uninspired chowders that make us want to cry. This is not one of those. A haul of Bolinas rock cod, Manila clams, mussels and Gulf Shrimp honor this creamy white chowder studded with homemade Applewood bacon and potatoes. Stunning.
Ceviche Tostada ($13): Citrus-marinated rock cod is a bold choice. Though the pieces were cut a tinge too large for the preciously small corn tostadas, pickled cabbage, pepitas and avocado mousse (mostly holding the chips down), they make for a tasty, local seafood bite worthy or sharing.
Liberty Duck Chili ($8): Jim Reichardt’s storied Liberty Duck farm sits just a few miles from Tomales, but duck in chili? A crispy confit sits atop thoughtfully-spiced bean chili with a dollop of pasilla pepper creme fraiche. Warm and filling, you’ll want to take some home for later, because it’s even better after a stint in the fridge.
Local cheese and charcuterie plate ($13): While we didn’t get the advertised blackberry-jalapeño preserves (quince paste was served instead) or caramelized vegetables, but the stars of this show are the local cheeses (Bleating Heart, Cowgirl Creamery) and the hard-to-find pink pearl apples, which have a rosy pink interior and sweet-tart flavor.
Smoked Oyster and Hummus ($12): This daily special is exactly the kind of thing you dream of stumbling upon during a coastal getaway. Cold, smoked oysters get a piggyback on homemade red pepper hummus atop a toasted baguette. Simple presentation, complex flavors.
Raw Drake’s Bay Oysters ($16 half dozen): Incredible local oysters with fennel-smoked tomato mignonette.
Daily Dog ($10): On my visit, the daily hot dog included pineapple. I don’t do hot dogs, especially with pineapple. Your experience may differ.
McFarland Springs Trout Dip ($11): One of the best local(ish) fishes, this tender pink fish is perfect as a creamy dip with house-seasoned potato chips.
William Tell Cobb ($15): Braised Petaluma chicken, fried egg, Pt. Reyes blue cheese, fried egg, garden tomatoes, avocado buttermilk dressing.
Cioppino ($26): Similar to the chowder, but with a spicy tomato broth.
Cocktails ($10-12): The William Tell includes Laird’s Apple Brandy, maple, black walnut bitters, Angostura bitters; the Black Betty is bourbon with lemon and seasonal jam; and your choice of thick or thin Bloody Marys with vodka, gin or mezcal.
This summer and fall, William Tell House is previewing what we hope will be a new and exciting, family-friendly, “kids and dogs running around,” grab a beer in your flip-flops destination on the way to the coast.
26955 CA-1, Tomales, 707-879-2002, williamtellhouse.com. Open Wednesday through Sunday for lunch and dinner from 11a.m.