The effortless charm of this Californian region is hard to resist, as Selma Nadarajah discovers. She falls head over heels for its organic produce, fine wines and fantastic restaurants, bars and eateries that are making a name for themselves for all the right reasons.
Selma Nadarajah

9 Oct 2013 - 10:02 PM  UPDATED 30 Mar 2021 - 3:30 PM

When eating in California, you learn a few things. Firstly, sustainable farming is quite the norm. Secondly, quality local produce is plentiful.

And thirdly, eating organic is not unrealistic or pretentious; it’s relatively affordable and just something you do without the fuss. Perusing the San Francisco markets and scanning the menus of the many fantastic restaurants, it doesn’t take long to work out who’s who of the food world and you really don’t have to travel far to see them in action.

Just across the bay, about 10 kilometres east of San Francisco, lies Oakland. A couple of decades ago, this city was riddled with crime, poverty and racial tension, but it’s come a long way since then, and last year, it was declared the fifth top tourist destination in the world by The New York Times. In some ways, Oakland is to San Francisco as Brooklyn is to New York. Rising real estate prices have driven artists and young entrepreneurs out of San Francisco to Oakland, leading to an explosion of independent galleries, restaurants and bars. Apparently, there are more artists per capita here than any urban area in the United States. Oakland is also one of the most ethnically diverse cities in America with more than 125 languages spoken. This cultural richness is reflected in the food scene with Korean barbecue restaurants, taco trucks, Burmese noodle eateries and Southern barbecue joints. It is also home to the Bay Area’s extraordinarily popular Blue Bottle Coffee roasting house. 

Blue Bottle’s beginnings took place in a shed, where coffee enthusiast James Freeman decided he’d had enough of gimmicky flavoured coffee and stale beans. In 2002, he came up with the simple business idea of selling coffee made from organic beans roasted no more than two days prior. He started selling coffee at Berkeley Farmers’ Market and the San Francisco Ferry Terminal, and business took off. Today, there are outlets all through San Francisco, as well as New York.

These days, Blue Bottle roasts between 900 and 1800 kilograms of coffee each week, depending on the season. “Roasting coffee is incredibly complex and there are so many factors to consider,” explains communications manager Byard Duncan. “You have to think about the type of coffee, whether it’s wet or dry, the altitude of where the beans were grown and the cultivar. It’s a bit like a bank heist. You have a plan up your sleeve, but once you’re in the bank, you say ‘Okay, what do I do now?’” says Byard of the trial and error involved.

The magic unfolds at an Oakland warehouse, where beans are meticulously roasted and packed. In the lab-like cupping room, a group of bearded hipsters sniff and swirl cups. This is the Willy Wonka Chocolate Factory of the coffee world, complete with vintage Probat roasters and an extraordinary selection of coffee-making gadgets. In addition to Blue Bottle’s drip coffee du jour, the menu also features a chicory-flavoured New Orleans-style iced coffee steeped for 18 hours and served with Clover Organic milk sourced from Petaluma and a dash of raw organic cane juice. It’s a little like smoking a cold cigar -- definitely an acquired taste, but it has a loyal fan base.

Sweet-tooths should also check out the Blue Bottle outlet at the Rooftop Garden of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where James’s wife, Caitlin Williams Freeman, former owner of pastry shop, Miette (another of California’s culinary treasures), creates beautiful desserts inspired by the museum artwork. In 2001, Caitlin (then an IT professional) started selling elegant baked goods with her fellow dotcom friend, Megan Ray, at the Berkeley Farmers’ Market. This progressed to a coveted spot at the Ferry Building Marketplace in San Francisco and the rest is history.

Like Blue Bottle, Miette uses local, organic and sustainable ingredients wherever possible and the minimalist, retro, feminine approach has proved a winning formula. Confectionery is also a huge part of the business and Miette Confiserie in San Francisco’s Hayes Valley has a mind-boggling sweet collection – from nostalgic Pierrot Gourmand lollipops to Dutch licorice in all shapes and sizes – all selected by Megan on her annual European buying trips. All baking takes place at the Oakland shop located at Jack London Square. 

Just a short stroll away is a more recent enterprise that started in February last year. Owned by Italian-born friends, Renato Sardo and Dario Barbone, Baia Pasta is Oakland’s only handmade pasta shop. Interestingly, both Renato and Dario are from Piedmont, the home of the Slow Food movement, and Renato used to work with Slow Food Italy. However it wasn’t Alice Waters, vice-president of Slow Food International, who lured them to California; instead it was the local wheat. “I discovered that most Italian pasta is produced using American wheat, so I wanted to go to the source and make dry handmade pasta using the best organic wheat,” explains Renato.

Wholesome and organic is a philosophy that Californians adopt quite naturally – and creatively, too. Chef Stuart Brioza of San Francisco’s award-winning restaurant, State Bird Provisions, serves a clever dish using yuba (the ‘skin’ that forms on the surface of warmed soy milk) as a substitute for rag pasta, tossing the delicate strands with a chunky parsley and pecorino pesto spiked with chilli, coriander and fennel. This delicious yuba comes from Oakland’s very own Hodo Soy Beanery owned by Vietnamese-born Minh Tsai, who left a career in finance in 2004, after his tofu-making hobby started to prove a lucrative business at the local markets. “The best tofu in the Bay Area,” declare many locals of his tofu slabs, tofu nugget snacks and marinated tofu made from organic, non-GMO, US-grown whole soybeans.

Of course, it’s not all tofu and sprouts in California and lovers of meat and Southern barbecue are well catered for, especially at chef Tanya Holland’s buzzing B-Side BBQ in West Oakland. After working in restaurants in New York, Boston and Martha’s Vineyard for a decade, Tanya moved to Oakland in 2001, where she met her husband Phil Surkis. She is no stranger to US media, making regular appearances on Food Network, The Cooking Channel and The Today Show on NBC, but in Oakland she is revered on a different level, with even a day declared in her honour for her “significant role in creating community and establishing Oakland as a culinary centre”. Last year, she also won Chef/Restaurateur of the Year at the California Travel Summit for her contribution to Oakland’s dining scene.

While French-trained, Tanya’s food philosophy is pure ‘soul food’ inspired by her mother’s cooking and family holidays in Louisiana. Tanya and Phil’s first restaurant, Brown Sugar Kitchen, which opened in 2008, has a huge following thanks to Tanya’s buttermilk fried chicken and cornmeal waffles. B-Side BBQ, which opened in 2011, is full of the Southern flavours of Tanya’s heritage and a testimony to her love for the smoker. Signature dishes include honey and habanero-marinated chicken wings with a blue cheese sauce, smoked brown sugar-rubbed brisket and St Louis-style ribs. There is also a wide array of side dishes that ooze comfort – think mac and cheese and smoked mashed yams.

Apart from Tanya’s sensational cooking, it is the revival of West Oakland for which she is really honoured. “It reminded me of New York in the 1980s, when you didn’t know anyone who hadn’t been mugged,” she says of her initial impressions of the neighbourhood.

“I wanted to do something accessible to the people who live here, as well as outsiders,” she adds. And, judging by the patronage of both her restaurants, it looks like Tanya has certainly achieved that.

* * *

Drive 34 kilometres north of the San Francisco Bay Area and you’ll arrive at picturesque Marin County, an affluent area renowned for redwood forests, Pacific Ocean views, quirky towns, cattle ranches and liberal politics. It’s also where agricultural land is fiercely protected and, perhaps as a result, makes it home to some of the best food experiences in the country. Oyster farming is prolific at Tomales Bay, where the renowned Hog Island Oyster Co. is based, while Point Reyes Station showcases the country’s leading dairy producers.

“Marin has always been a hotbed for food,” says Elizabeth Hill, owner of West Marin Food & Farm Tours. A former chef and cooking teacher, she offers a wonderful insider experience to the local food scene, having spent much of her childhood in the area. Her tours, which only started last year, were inspired after taking some chef friends on a food trip around the region. “They were so impressed

and couldn’t believe that I came from such a food mecca,” she recalls.

Elizabeth’s Flavors of West Marin Tour begins at Tomales Bay Foods at Point Reyes Station, where legendary cheese producer Cowgirl Creamery is based. Friends Sue Conley and Peggy Smith started experimenting with cheese in 1997, using some organic milk from their neighbour, the Straus Family Creamery. The first product to be sold was ‘Clabbered Cottage Cheese’, made with cultured crème fraîche to produce firmer, more savoury curds than ricotta. Although the cottage cheese is no longer in production, their soft aged cheeses are incredibly popular, especially the triple cream Mt Tam, made using the Dutch process of cooking the curds in heated vats, then washing them to minimise the sugar and develop a sharpness to the cheese. Then, there is the one-of-a-kind Red Hawk.

“The Red Hawk was a bit of an accident,” reveals Tomales Bay Food store manager Michael Zilber. “We started making a Mt Tam, but this red, stinky, pungent bacteria that exists only in the Point Reyes region started to grow all over the cheese.” It created an aged triple cream with a red-orange rind that added a bite to the richness of the Mt Tam style, and which couldn’t be made anywhere else in the world. “Red Hawk is something that truly represents the terroir of the Marin. It’s the only washed-rind triple cream in the world,” declares Michael.

These days, Cowgirl Creamery produces 1400 kilograms of cheese each week, which is sold through their retail outlets in San Francisco and Washington DC, and at restaurants across the US. They also distribute handmade cheeses from more than 100 other American and European producers, making them a one-stop shop for quality curds.

While wine is booming in the region, mead (honey wine) is a relatively new offering in Marin County. Introduced by Gordon Hull, who relocated his Arcata business from Northern California to a 16-acre dairy farm at Point Reyes Station in 2011, Heidrun Meadery produces sparkling meads using honeys from its own apiary, as well as other varieties sourced from as far as Australia. Gordon, a former geologist, uses the traditional French méthode Champenoise to create the sought-after bubbles. “Traditional meads are very sweet and it’s difficult to taste the essence of the honey or flower, so I wanted to make a drier style. The bubbles also help deliver the aromatics to the nose,” he explains. There are certainly individual characteristics to each of Gordon’s meads. A citrusy orange blossom variety tastes like a refreshing shandy, a dark and earthy carrot blossom mead has sandalwood and patchouli aromas, while a Hawaiian macadamia nut blossom mead is distinctly floral. Interestingly, all these could be matched appropriately with savoury foods, not just desserts, and some go very well with the cheese board Elizabeth later assembles.

A trip to Marin would be incomplete with seeing the Hog Island Oyster farm at Marshall. Its prized seafood appears in restaurants across the Bay Area, and its oyster bars at San Francisco’s Ferry Terminal and Napa’s Oxbow Public Market draw scores of fans. Operating since the early 1980s, Hog Island Oyster Co. was started by three young marine biologists and friends, John Finger, Michael Watchorn and Terry Sawyer, who borrowed $500 from their families and leased five acres to harvest shellfish.

Fast forward 30 years and Hog Island now harvests three million Pacific, Kumamoto and Atlantic oysters each year from 160 acres of inner tidal land. The original foundations of the company remain the same: to produce quality oysters sustainably with minimal impact on the land and water. It takes up to two years to create a Hog Island oyster. “Something to think about when you next eat one,” says farm retail manager Garret Hamner with a smile as we devour the platter that’s just landed on our table. Visitors to the farm can rent shucking equipment and buy fresh oysters from The Hog Shack to enjoy at one of the tables overlooking Tomales Bay. It all couldn’t be any more local, sustainable, organic and unpretentious.


The hit list

Blue Bottle Coffee
Try the New Orleans-style iced coffee or the drip coffee du jour with a seasonal pastry – perhaps a saffron vanilla snicker doodle, a chewy biscuit that’s perfect for dunking. 300 Webster St, +1 510 653 3394,

B-Side BBQ
Drop in for Tanya Holland’s smoking barbecue dishes and cocktails with homemade syrups, or visit sister restaurant Brown Sugar Kitchen for her fried chicken and waffles. B-Side BBQ, 3303 San Pablo Ave, +1 510 595 0227,; Brown Sugar Kitchen, 2534 Mandela Parkway, +1 510 839 7685,

Hodo Soy Beanery
Tours of the beanery and tofu-making classes are available; visit the website for details. 2923 Adeline St, +1 510 464 2977,

Savor Oakland Food Tours
After travelling through Colombia and realising their home city of Oakland also suffered from a similar, dangerous-city stigma, husband and wife Carlo Medina and Geneva Europa started Savor Oakland to share the city’s culinary highlights. Tours run for three hours and include visits to Miette and Pan-American restaurant Bocanova, among other places. From US$49, including all tastings. For more details and bookings, visit


Marin County
West Marin Food & Farm Tours
Choose from cheese, oyster and wine tours, or opt for the Flavors of West Marin Tour, which includes visits to Cowgirl Creamery and Heidrun Meadery, among other producers. Each tour is limited to seven people. From US$152 per person, including transport, tastings and a picnic lunch. +1 415 599 9222,


Photography Brett Stevens