Dillon Beach Coastal Kitchen is a salty breath of fresh air
For those who grew up in Petaluma, Dillon Beach has always been synonymous with relaxing, albeit it often windblown days along the easy waters of the Marin County coastline. The last privately owned beach in Northern California, Dillon Beach appeals to surfers and swimmers alike, in large part because the undertow for which California beaches are known is less prevalent here. It is also one of the only beaches that allows dogs off-leash.
Although Dillon Beach Resort has long had a general store and café, both were seen as a bit of a last resort, to be visited only when all other options had been exhausted. Until now.
Mike Goebel, best known locally for opening Brewsters Beer Garden, knows not only how to revamp a restaurants décor but also how to bring in the right people to rework the menu. That proved true on our visit to his recently opened Dillon Beach Coastal Kitchen.
Dillon Beach was founded by George Dillon in 1858. He later sold it to John Keegan, who would go on to lay out the town and build a hotel, which eventually became the location of the store and restaurant. For most of second half of the 20th century, Dillon Beach was owned by the Lawson family of Lawson’s Landing, which is just down the road from Dillon and includes a campground, store, small pier and “marina.”
In 2001 the Lawsons sold Dillon Beach Resort to the Cline family, best known for Cline Cellars and Jacuzzi Vineyards. This past April, the Cline’s sold the property to Mike Goebel, who lives in Marin and is married to a Diego, of the same Diego family that owns a local construction company, towing company and Petaluma’s Mario & John’s. Goebel also owns several popular San Francisco bars, in addition to opening Brewsters Beer Garden here in town last year.
Goebel’s first move was to change the name from Dillon Beach Café to Dillon Beach Coastal Kitchen, in order to better reflect his vision for the restaurant, which highlights the seasons and locality of the surrounding farmlands, tidal marshes and open sea. Next was a freshening up of the looks of both the store and restaurant. What used to be just a run of the mill beachside café has received a facelift to include two distinct eating areas.
The inner dining room is wainscoted in white, with gray walls and a pressed tin ceiling. The outer dining room is an enclosed patio with a tented roof, but thanks to powerful ceiling heaters, was toasty enough for dining in a T-shirt during our visit, even though there was a crisp wind blowing outside. Where the inside dining room is classic, the patio decor is hip yet homey, with hanging plants, light fixtures made from crab pots, crisp white walls, dark window trim and a coastally appropriate teal painted floor.
The menu, too, has been updated and fits in better with the idea of local and sustainable dining than the old menu of boring burgers, mediocre calamari and flavorless fish and chips.
Goebel borrowed his chef from Brewsters, where Todd Shoberg has been revamping the menu since joining the team over this past summer. For the small size of Coastal Kitchen, one might not expect to find such a credentialed chef, but Goebel does not mess around when it comes to his restaurants’ menus. He wanted to make sure that the much anticipated reopening would impress locals and visitors alike. Shoberg helped open two of Mill Valley’s favorites, Molina and Sammy Hagar’s El Paseo, along with many other restaurants, including Stone Brewery’s impressive Liberty Station bistro and gardens.
The first person we saw when we entered the restaurant was one of Petaluma’s most beloved servers, Ellen FitzGerald. On loan from Brewsters, Ellen has been waiting on us for years at various Petaluma restaurants, and offers the perfect blend of professional, yet friendly service, and will surely set a high standard for others on the floor. She’s also a reason we’ll be back for another visit soon. We will dine at a restaurant with excellent service but only passable food, but refuse to support a restaurant with lousy service, no matter how much we love the food because for us, the experience is as much about the people as it is about the menu.
Although simple, the menu is full of satisfying choices, and is clearly driven by the restaurant’s moto: “Eating is an agricultural art.” Chef Shoberg promises the menu will change routinely, so regulars will always have something new to try.
With only a few days under their belt, Coastal Kitchen’s “almost famous clam chowder” was already making a name for itself. We were impressed by the chowder’s base, which is a vermouth bisque. Added to the broth, kombu is an edible kelp that enhances the flavor, and is one of the main ingredients in Japanese soups. After that comes a healthy dose of confit fingerling potatoes. If that word “confit” looks unfamiliar when paired with “potatoes” that is because it usually is used in reference to duck that has been cooked in its own fat. However, because potatoes do not have their own fat, I suspect, based on the flavor, that these are cooked either in duck or bacon fat, but either way, they are incredible. It was pleasant, but not a surprise, to find chunks of Marin Sun Farms bacon so thick that I mistook them for pork belly. Finally, the clams are presented in the shell, which normally bothers me, but helped demostrate how authentic this clam chowder is, and also guaranteed the chowder would have whole clams swimming in the soup. These clams came from Hog Island, which I mistakenly thought only harvested excellent local oysters.