A windblown cypress juts into the horizon line just above Dillon Beach. Standing on a bluff above the state’s only private coastal beach, you can see children playing below, birds flying above and silver ripples reflecting the evening sun. It’s a soul-satisfying 180-degree view usually reserved for those at million-dollar beach houses and fancy restaurants. At the Dillon Beach Coastal Kitchen, however, you can get an al fresco meal, including a luxurious bowl of chowder, organic strawberry goat cheese salad and a soft-serve cone for under $30, with no one giving you the side-eye because they want to turn the table.
It’s an experience we’ve missed for so long. The coastal restaurant first pivoted, then closed and then finally reopened with a new chef, Jennifer McMurry, formerly of Viola Cafe and The Pharmacy. It was McMurry’s delicious Facebook photos, in fact, that alerted us to the changing of the guard and a fresh new menu.
And she’s completely found her groove here.
Using produce from local growers, McMurry makes food as beautiful as the view. Not just visually — most dishes are dressed with pretty edible flowers and greens — but also in the flavors each dish incorporates. McMurry always has known how to balance dishes delicately, adding a pop of citrus, a hint of salt, a little crunch or a surprising sweetness.
If you’ve never been out to Dillon Beach, it’s an opportunity to get to know the resort, which owns the kitchen along with cottages and a general store/surf shop. Though the beach is private, visitors can get a day pass for $10 and it is very dog-friendly.
Looking out from the picture windows onto the vast blue ocean and even bluer skies, it’s hard not to sing an off-key rendition of “Perfect Day” (you know, the early 2000s song by Hoku on the Legally Blonde soundtrack) with my hair blowing in the wind. Dillon Beach Coastal Kitchen is, no doubt, the place to finish off your perfect day.
You really can’t go wrong with any of the dishes on the menu, which changes with the seasons. Here are some can’t-miss favorites right now.
Peach and Corn Salsa, $13: White peaches are perfectly in season, adding a sweet-tart juiciness to this mix of fresh corn, mild red onions, jalapeños and sour vinaigrette that pulls everything together. Scoop up heaps of the summery salsa with housemade tortilla chips, the perfect dip delivery system.
Beet and Avocado Toast, $13: People who dismiss avocado toast as millennial frippery do themselves no favors. A thick (but not too thick) slice of airy pain de ville from Santa Rosa’s Goguette Bread is topped by a generous schmear of fresh avocado, thin-sliced pickled yellow beets, pea shoots and edible flowers. It’s a work of art with enough nourishment to get you through an afternoon of surfing or sandcastle building.
Strawberry Goat Cheese Salad, $15: Too many restaurants have destroyed this California classic with tasteless strawberries, wilted spring mix and tough goat cheese. I usually avoid it at all costs. Don’t make that mistake here. True to the original vision of this salad, it’s a luxurious pile of sweet local berries, creamy goat cheese, pea shoots and organic baby lettuces so ephemeral they must be eaten immediately. A red wine vinaigrette elevates the flavors rather than assaulting your taste buds with brute force.
Organic Spring Vegetables and Hummus, $19: This is plant-based eating with nothing missing. Sugar snap peas, crisp asparagus, sliced carrots and earthy hummus are as easy to eat as they are to simply behold. Housemade focaccia adds so much more than the usual dry pita.
Crispy Fries, $8: If for no other reason than their potential for dipping into the delicate Meyer lemon aioli, you should order fries. Again, McMurry wows with her restraint in this gently perfumed sauce that’s exactly what it should be.
Fried Chicken Sandwich, $18: This is my new favorite fried chicken sandwich, with a thick and juicy slab of white meat, spicy pickles, shredded cabbage, aioli and greens.
Fish and Chips, $21: The rock cod is super fresh, with a lovely flake and mellow taste. After tasting so many dishes at the table, I was dreading a big bite of fried fish but was pleasantly surprised after a squeeze of lemon at how light and yielding the breading was, holding onto the fish rather than letting it slide out with a greasy fried jacket in my hand and the fish on the floor.
Vanilla Bean Panna Cotta, $9: Flecks of vanilla bean are suspended in creamy decadence. But what really makes this dessert shine are macerated strawberries and sweet caramel corn on top.
Clam Chowder, $12: “This is the best chowder I’ve ever had,” my dad said. “And you can quote me on that!” We’re not throwing any shade by saying that Bob Irwin likes his food simple, flavorful and mostly uncomplicated. He just knows what he likes, and the chowder was a hit. What impressed him, as well as the rest of us at the table, were the briny clams and applewood-smoked bacon with lots of chunks of potato and leeks. Even though the bacon does overpower the chowder a bit, we’ll still go with Bob’s take on this seaside staple.
Peach, Mozzarella and Bacon Sandwich, $17: Peaches from a nearby orchard play a role in this hefty sandwich, along with a hunk of fresh mozzarella, baby arugula and aioli. The thick-cut Sonoma County Meat Co. bacon is solid, but again, maybe just a little overpowering against the gentler flavors of peach and mozzarella. Thick focaccia is a bit overwhelming as well, and frankly, I think this combo could be just as tasty as a salad.
House Veggie Burger, $18: Plant-based burgers are still coming into their own, evolving from grainy bean and oatmeal disasters to beet-blood burgers and everything in between. There are clearly opposing camps when it comes to this bun-patty-bun combo. This sunny yellow burger stands on its own, with chickpeas and beets. It has a mellow flavor, but it’s made extra special with a melted chunk of nearby Cowgirl Creamery Mt. Tam cheese.
A very brief wine list, beer and nonalcoholic beverages are available.
Dillon Beach Coastal Kitchen, 1 Beach Ave., Dillon Beach, 707-878-3030, dillonbeachresort.com. Currently open Friday through Sunday for lunch and dinner; more hours coming soon.