It’s honestly embarrassing to admit this, but despite more than 13 years of living in Northern California, I’ve never made the drive up to Mendocino. My absence has mostly been driven by a very real fear of carsickness, since I tend to become so very easily and the roads leading up to coastal Mendocino are incredibly windy. But when I got an opportunity to spend a couple days up north previewing the newly restored Harbor House Inn in the quiet town of Elk, I decided it was time to overcome my concerns once and for all.
I’m so glad I went. With its endless coastline and countless hiking trails, coastal Mendocino is everything I imagined it to be, but honestly so much more. It offers a kind of tranquility that I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced, one that’s so powerful that it forces you to step away from any worries you might have in the real world.
The only tricky part is getting there. Getting to Mendocino’s South Coast is a bit of a metaphor for life in that anything rewarding doesn’t come easy. It’s about a two-and-a-half-hour ride to the town of Elk from the north side of the city, without traffic, and that includes plenty of hair-raising turns along the way. Because Andy is a far more skilled driver than I am, more often than not I happily relegate myself to the passenger’s seat. But thanks to the folks at the car sharing marketplace Turo, I was promised a fun ride for the weekend. Imagine my surprise when I found out that ride was going to be a convertible Porsche Boxster!
While this allayed my worries about getting motion sickness, it brought out an entirely new host of anxieties about driving on windy coastal roads in someone else’s expensive luxury car. I won’t lie—I spent the first few hours in the car terrified that I was going to crash it—but after a few hours getting comfortable with it, I found myself having a blast. (You can catch it all in my Instagram Story Highlights.)
To break up the long drive, we made a pit stop in Healdsburg to have lunch at SHED, and the food there was just as great as I remember it being when it first opened. Everything we ate, from the hearty toasts with sardines, celery sprigs and fresh flowers to the greens salad with Chioggia beets, radish, and sea buckthorn, screamed early spring. (If you’re ever there in the spring, ask if they have the pickled green strawberries for sale, as those are the best addition to a cheese plate that one could ever ask for.) I discovered they also make a solid oat milk latte and chewy ginger cookie, but hightailed it out of there before I could buy out the entire store.
It was an unusually sunny day in Elk, a fog-free afternoon with no clouds in the sky. At The Harbor House Inn, I took in the surroundings, and decided that the outlook into the ocean reminded me both of Big Sur, with its dramatic cliffs, and coastal Oregon, with its rugged beaches—yet it possessed an otherworldly quality all its own.
Built in 1916, The Harbor House was built by Louis Christian Mullgardt for the Goodyear Lumber Company, originally designed to be a home for the chief executive of the milling operation (which took place in the cove below the property). Mullgardt was an American architect who for well-known for his “Redwood Empire” style, an aesthetic used to showcase locally sourced materials such as redwood, with a goal of being as close to nature as possible. For the past eight years, the property, which includes a total of just 10 rooms, has been under renovation by a new owner, with meticulous restoration designed to preserve as much of the inn’s Craftsman-style architecture as possible, including original redwood and light fixtures.
Even more wonderful (and perhaps lesser-known) are the other benefits of staying, which include a secluded private beach with its own breathtaking waterfall, private gardens, and a top-notch culinary program that could rival anything you’d find in a city like San Francisco or New York—only without any ostentatious pomp and circumstance.
The kitchen is led by Matthew Kammerer, a soft-spoken but thoughtful chef whose culinary point of view was clearly influenced by his last post as executive sous chef at Saison, the three-Michelin-starred ode to live fire-cooking in San Francisco. The cuisine Kammerer is making in the kitchen is at once elemental yet creative, exciting but at the same time deeply nourishing, with a very clear sense of place. Chef Matthew harvests sea lettuces, kelp, and ocean water on the private beach every morning, then makes the 13-floor trek back up from the cove to the kitchen, where he uses the sea greens to make compound butters, breads and broths, and the ocean water to make his own sea salt. It's the kind of unassuming food that calls for humility and restraint, and it shows—the food is never too fussy or overwrought, and nothing is on the plate that doesn't belong there.
Both dinner and breakfast at the inn were highlights of our stay. Some of our favorites:
Garden greens with seaweed vinaigrette, designed to be eaten by hand;
Nasturtium leaves shaped into beggar’s purses and stuffed with radishes and the traditionally-tougher abalone adductor (so satisfyingly crunchy!);
Sourdough bread and cultured butter, both studded with sea lettuces that chef Matthew foraged from the private beach that morning (an instant classic and my personal favorite dish of the night).
Also, the entree, which was aged Muscovy duck breast served with garden greens, fermented leaves, stems and tubers, and Mendocino grains —a course that managed to make me a wild rice convert;
...and a killer lavender beignet paired with Duchesse de Borgogne, a Belgian red ale.
In the morning, waking up to cured slices of duck and an impossibly buttery croissant;
Plus shirred eggs sprinkled with fresh morels that the Harbor House’s owner foraged himself in the woods of Redding.
All of these are reasons to stay at the inn, but I’d probably go back for the quality of sleep alone. I’m an extremely finicky sleeper, and I’ve never met a more comfortable bed in my life (and that includes my own).
We stuck around most of the day to see as much as we could of the small town that is Elk. For lunch, we stopped into The Elk Store, which serves sandwiches that were both creative and delicious, like the Albion that I ordered, which starred a vegetarian sunflower seed cutlet. It also had an impressive collection of California products: wines from across the nearby Anderson Valley (Lichen Estate, Witching Stick, Goldeneye, among others); apple products from The Apple Farm down the road in Philo; pickled wax peppers from Lodi; and Etta + Billie horchata soap bars made in San Francisco.
We took a short walk across the street to check out Elk’s main attraction, Greenwood State Beach, where we discovered the most amazing picnic vista point ever to exist, with a view of the ocean that overlooked the driftwood-strewn tide pools of the cove below. We hit up The Elk Artist's Collective and some other local stores, and I was impressed by how progressive the town was (demonstrated in part by the signs everywhere that read “No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor”).
A few stops along the way home—to pick up some dry cider from The Apple Farm, some rosé and cheese from Pennyroyal Farm in nearby Booneville—and it was time to head back to the city and return the Boxster. At Pennyroyal, a farmstead and winery that produces both award-winning cheese and wine, we met one of the owners, Star, who tipped us off to a lesser-known route to Mendocino used by locals that turns out to be far less windy. On the drive back into the city, we were already plotting our return back.