The best eat, drink and hike on the Mendocino Coast? If you ask me, it’s right about now, when crab season is still humming along and it’s just as well to sit inside on a cold, blustery day and watch the crashing waves over a hot bowl of chowder. BiteClub spent three days wandering the bluffs of southern Mendocino County between Little River and Fort Bragg, noshing and enjoying a little solitude between sea and sky. Though this list is far from inclusive, here’s are some faves from this trip.
Best Clam Chowder and crab cakes: Little River Inn
We all do it: Visit the coast and eat clam chowder and crab cakes. And most of the time, let’s be honest, it’s a huge disappointment. Pasty bowls of rubbery clams and hard potatoes, crab-ish cakes made mostly of breadcrumbs and egg. Even worse when you know its been shipped in from some corporate kitchen hundreds of miles away.
Little River Inn gets it right. A generous bowl of creamy broth, bits of Roundman bacon (see below), celery, onions and clams still inside the shell. Best. Chowder. Ever.
Also a winner, literally, are the crab cakes, which have taken the Mendocino crab cake cook-off several years in a row. The secret: Lots of creme fraiche and sour cream, cornbread crumbs and citrus zest.
While you’re there, either in the more formal dining room or the more casual Whale Watch Bar, leave room for the olallieberry cobbler. 7751 California 1, Little River, 937-5942.
Best View: Mendocino Headlands
There’s no shortage of dramatic ocean vistas along the north coast, but some of my favorites are along the rugged coastline encircling the town of Mendocino. Be sure to bring a warm coat, hat and gloves for evenings or blustery days, but you can park off main street, then walk along any of the many trails that encircle the bluffs. If you look closely, you may find a stair step down to a quiet cove, or a path through windswept trees to the edge of the world, where on windy days the ocean booms in caves below and spray pelts your face. Just be careful, because this is unforgiving turf and one misstep can really ruin your day.
Best Local Seafood: Wild Fish
Hidden behind a small convenience store and gas station, Wild Fish is the best restaurant you’ve never heard of in Mendocino. Using carefully sourced local products—including seafood from nearby Noyo Harbor, nearly everything on the menu just sings out to be order. From tequila-lime fish tacos (with the catch of the day) to crab mac and cheese, roasted mussels and the incredible Wild Louie salad for lunch, to seasonal whole Dungeness crab, local sable fish and swordfish with hedgehog mushrooms or roasted goose from nearby Salmon Creek Ranch, Chef Jackson Clark is behind what we’d say is probably one of the best restaurants on the coast. Prices can be a little steep, with most entrees running $25 and up for dinner, but the view and the impeccably prepared dishes are well worth it. Most dishes come with pairing suggestions which are spot-on as well. There are just 10 tiny tables inside, so make sure to call ahead for reservations. 7750 California 1, Little River, 937-3055.
Best Wine: Navarro Winery.
The Sonoma Coast and nearby Anderson Valley are home to my favorite cool-climate aromatic whites and delicate pinot noirs. But for everyday sipping, my very favorite bottles are from Navarro Winery, often hard to find outside of Mendocino County or their own Anderson Valley tasting room. That’s why we love seeing Navarro wines all over local menus, which are well-priced and pair so perfectly with the local offerings of seafood. Their sister farm, Pennyroyal Farms, offers up incredible goat’s milk cheeses that can also be found in restaurants and local grocers seasonally. If you find it, be sure to snap it up, because it won’t last. For kids (or non-drinkers) Navarro offers a line of non-alcoholic grape juices that are almost as good as their fermented kin. 5601 Hwy 128, Philo.
Best Dessert: Trillium Cafe and Inn
Snuggle up ‘round a cozy fire at this combination inn and restaurant. Though the restaurant lost its opening chef a few months after opening last year, the sous has kept things running smoothly — despite the fact that the Baked Alaska has disappeared off the menu. It’s just as well, however, because the owner’s homemade salted caramel and ganache tart more than compensated. 10390 Kasten St., Mendocino, 937-3200.
Best Buns to Wake Up To: GoodLife Cafe and Bakery
One of the best things about small towns like Mendocino is that everyone knows everyone else. Walk into GoodLife and you’ll overhear friends and neighbors catching up over the week’s news and a good cup of coffee. To boot, there’s an incredible array of freshly baked pastries, bagels, soups, salads and daily specials like pumpkin curry. The morning bun, however, is a swirl of flour, butter, sugar, cinnamon, cardamom and orange that’s best enjoyed with a spicy cup of chai. Cozy up at a window seat to get the best view of downtown’s small-town bustle. 10483 Lansing St., Mendocino, 937-0836.
Best Smoked Everything: Roundman’s Smokehouse and Butcher Shop
“We’ll smoke anything,” is the motto of this Fort Bragg meat shop, which upon entering, immediately infuses your soul with the sweet scent of smoke. They’ve got cases of housemate sausages, cheeses, salmon, tuna, tilapia, hams, beef , jerky, chicken, duck, chicken, lamb, and, well, you get the idea. They’ll smoke anything. The beef comes in from nearby H-Bench Ranch in Covelo. 412 N. Main St., Fort Bragg, 964-5438