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Wednesday, August 5, 2015

The Changing Flavor of Guerneville

Posted By on Wed, Aug 5, 2015 at 9:00 AM

click to enlarge C. EMMETT SOMMERS
  • C. Emmett Sommers

For those of us who didn’t have summer camp, we had the Russian River. For me, it was an oasis away from urban life, a haven of forests, vineyards, and a glorious river that shaped me in the way it shaped the surrounding valley. Growing up, I would spend all summer tucked beneath the redwoods, passing my days with friends building forts along the water, and my nights traversing the intricate social ecosystems that children create for themselves.

Those summers influenced us in the way that only daily exposure to nature can. We learned to read and respect the currents of the water, to recognize poison oak (the hard way), and to hand-catch crawdads for dinner.

Our self-contained and self-sustained Russian River community is small, with only 167 cabins, and sits five miles upriver from Guerneville, the relatively “big” city of 4,500 people. As a community, we're kept in relative isolation, as there is only a twisty single lane connecting us to what could generously be referred to as a main road.

When true cabin fever crept in during the summer months, we would brave either the road or the river and make our way down to Guerneville. It’s remained consistent over my 25 years, with a slew of restaurants, a killer parking-lot flea market, and the strangest cultural symbiosis I’ve ever encountered: it’s a veritable trichotomy of the hippiest hippies, the most hardened country people, and a thriving gay community. Though these groups lead wildly different lives, they – like all of us River folk – are united by a shared contempt for Burke’s canoers, or "Burkers."

There were a few highlights of our adventures into Guerneville, including correcting tourists who pronounced it “Guerney-ville,” making our older siblings buy us crap we would quickly lose from the five and dime, and stealing grapes from the surrounding vineyards along the way. But none have been so memorable as the meals we would get from Pat’s Diner.

Pat’s was never fancy, not since they day it opened in 1940. We loved it for what it was: simple but delicious food, a cadre of surly waitresses, and of course the beautiful map above the bar identifying the Russian River’s best fishing holes, snags, riffles, pools, and gulches.

The influx of each of the unique cultural groups from the ‘60s to the ‘80s certainly altered the overall schematic of the town, but throughout these additions, Guerneville has consistently been a place for people who adore the Russian River and share a commitment towards being their true, weird selves. It’s no surprise then that our collective fear is that newcomers will not love the River the way we love it.

The 2008 recession hit Guerneville especially hard. Overall tourism went way down, and ultimately businesses were forced to shutter. For a while there, the former Stumptown was turning into a ghosttown. But as Peter Lawrence Kane wrote in his article about Seaside Metal, Guerneville’s latest addition to the cuisine scene, “Guerneville’s recession-era scrappiness was never going to last.”

When the changes came, they came quickly. Our summer traditions held fast, but we watched as Guerneville’s main road took on a new form. Pat’s Diner stuck around, as it tends to, but this time under new management, who turned it into a Korean restaurant by night. (After 5 p.m., it's now called Dick Blomster’s, a name you will never hear me utter out loud.) While I enjoy the addition of a credit card machine, I worried this change meant that the nature of my favorite 75-year-old restaurant had been fundamentally altered, and Guerneville along with it. 

To many of us, the most noticeable change to Guerneville’s landscape was the addition of the restaurant from Kane's article, Seaside Metal. Back in my summer community upriver, this new restaurant became the center of our gossip, all of us questioning if Guerneville really needed a fancy seafood restaurant. Wouldn’t it be a better fit in Healdsburg, Napa, or even Sebastopol?

click to enlarge ALI WUNDERMAN
  • Ali Wunderman

Gossip is fun, but it wasn’t particularly informative since none of us had ever been to the restaurant, which sits right between the Five & Dime and everyone’s favorite bar, the Rainbow Cattle Co. I decided to see it for myself and learn more about the newcomers in person.

I met with twin brothers Tim and Mike Selvera and discovered that they are everything hardcore Guernevillians would want in restaurant owners. Though not originally from this area, they — like their parents and grandparents — spent their childhood summers on Lake Havasu, learning to understand and respect water exactly as we did.

I asked them the question everyone was wondering: “Why Guerneville?” After 10 years of successfully running a restaurant in San Francisco, they could have their pick of fancy wine towns. I was genuinely curious about what made them choose Guerneville, a place where (I incorrectly believed) their market didn’t exist in the same way.

Chef Mike was the driver behind opening Seaside Metal in Guerneville. Over the years he and his brother regularly vacationed in town, but it was Mike that felt a special affinity for the place. He told me, “When I first came across this town, I looked at it and went, ‘There’s nothing here.’ It looks awesome — the view, the strip right here, but there’s just Pat’s.”

I felt an instinctive need to defend the restaurant I love so much, but I let him continue. “I could see something was going to happen here,” Mike said. “I wanted to help make it happen.” They could have picked a safer bet to open their restaurant, but instead they followed their hearts to Guerneville.

They told me about the other chefs and restaurant owners in town, how they support one another to keep the storefronts open. I saw their menu full of appetizing selections at prices no more expensive than anywhere else in town. After getting to know them for an hour, it was clear that their dedication to the community matched that of any long-term Russian River vacationer.

As I was leaving the restaurant a local stopped by to greet the twins and ask how they were doing. It was exactly the kind of interaction I have come to expect at Pat’s, and to see it happening at the one-year-old Seaside Metal assuaged any fears I had about Guerneville’s new restaurant scene.

Even though Guerneville has seen its fair share of new restaurants over the decades, locals remain wary when changes pop up. Not because we are opposed to new things but because what we have is so special to us. There may be new food in Guerneville, but I can safely say the flavor of the town has only gotten sweeter. 

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Ali Wunderman

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