Coastal breezes, salty air, and crisp oysters. You might think this kind of nautical vibe exists only in Maine or Nova Scotia, but you’d be wrong. Just 30 miles north of San Francisco the air is cool and there are big bowls of creamy clam chowder that feel more East than West. Close enough for a day trip, but far enough that it feels like an escape, a visit to Tomales Bay is a favorite getaway for Bay Area locals.
There’s a saying that the cure for everything is salt water and it’s hard to argue with that when you’re drinking icy cold Sauvignon Blanc gazing out at Tomales Bay, a skinny slip of protected water flanked on both sides by gently rolling hills. The combination of cool, freshwater, and nutrient-rich saltwater is the perfect breeding ground for oysters. The scenery is the perfect backdrop for a restful weekend and scores of Bay Rea food lovers make the pilgrimage here to recharge with a dozen or so. Two farming operations, Tomales Bay Oyster Company (California’s oldest continuously run shellfish farm, since 1909) and Hog Island Oyster Company, are practicing sustainable techniques ensuring they’ll be plenty of the good stuff for years to come.
Located just steps from the water, Hog Island is a fully operational oyster farm (owned and operated by two former marine biologists), with a smattering of picnic tables and a bar housed in a former wooden boat. Order up a dozen (or more) of these briny oysters, plucked fresh from the bay and shucked to order. We like them bare naked, or with a squirt of fresh lemon and a hit of Hogwash, a traditional mignonette revved up with jalapeño and cilantro.
Save room for an order of Chipotle Bourbon BBQ Oysters, chargrilled and topped with a smoky compound butter, they're something of a local speciality. Sure, there are other things on the menu (cheese, charcuterie, a green salad), but I’d suggest skipping those, and making oysters your focus. When they’re grown, harvested and shucked all in the same place you’d be a fool not to.
Just up the road in Marshall, is The Marshall Store, another waterfront spot with a thick New England accent. A bubbling pot of homemade clam chowder greets you (self serve, thank you very much), along with baskets of the requisite oyster crackers. This chowder is far from wimpy; plump clams in a delicious creamy broth so rich it feels like a fisherman’s sweater for your soul. The smoker out front churns out pulled pork and smoked turkey. But you’re probably ready for more oysters, so try the house-smoked oysters, or better yet a sampler of sorts.
The Oysters Kilpatrick are kicked up with smoky bacon and worcestershire sauce. Classic Rockefeller arrive to the table baked and crusted with cheese and breadcrumbs. Their BBQ variety is slightly sweet and served with a thick slab of homemade garlic bread for dipping. Watching the boats moored in the harbor it’s easy to forget the city is just 45 minutes away, and that’s kind of the point.
Part luxury lodging, part vintage fish camp, Nick’s Cove is many things to many people. It’s a local watering hole, where salty dogs tell fish tales over icy beers. It’s a boutique hotel where well-heeled folks from the Bay Area tuck into cozy cabins (complete with antique wood-stoves and Frette linens) for an evening away. But mostly, it’s a fish shack where patrons who fill up the tavern style space tuck into Lagunitas-battered fish and chips and dungeness crab mac and cheese. Lodging guests receive a complimentary order of BBQ oysters upon check-in, and the garlic-parsley butter doused mollusks are a good indication you’re in the right place. On warm days, request a table outside, or grab a bottle of wine to drink at the boathouse at the end of the dock, where a pot belly stove sits cheerfully in the corner.
For such a small region, there are a multitude of choices. While some come just for the oysters, others prefer to round out their time on the coast with a bit more activity. For a quick and easy hike, start at the Tomales Bay Trailhead. It’s the perfect way to work up an appetite and the walk through grazing fields among the cows (watch for cow patties!) feels truly pastoral.
Getting out onto the water is easy too. There are plenty of boat launches for those with their own gear, otherwise leave it to the professionals at Point Reyes Outdoors (http://www.pointreyesoutdoors.com) who offer day trips, or overnight boat in camping trips along these protected shorelines. Their bioluminescence tours run at dusk on moonless nights when water and air temperatures are just so and the bay lights up. Conveniently, these tours depart from Miller’s Boat Launch, just next to Nick’s Cove, so you can relive it all over a pint of something and a bowl of chowder.
No matter how you do it, there are plenty of ways to recharge your batteries in Tomales Bay, though with spotty cell service, your phone won’t be necessary here.