Quietly tucked away on a quiet tree-lined street lies one of Mendocino Coast’s premier restaurants. Cafe Beaujolais has a storied history, a legacy of incredible cuisine, exemplary service and a truly extensive beverage list. This local favorite is one of the ‘must taste’ experiences on a visit to Mendocino.
The fate of this 1893 Victorian farmhouse was sealed back in 1969 when the Pitzenbarger family decided to turn their living room into a small rustic French restaurant. It didn’t last long as they chose to close the restaurant on New Years’ Eve 1976.
In April of 1977, Margaret Fox bought the restaurant, applied her culinary talents and visions and took Cafe Beaujolais to the next level. It remained one of the towns ‘best-kept secret’ even with celebrities such as Richard Benjamin, Elizabeth McGovern, Sean Penn, Ted Koppel, and Bonnie Raitt came to dine. But when Julia Child raved to her friends and food critics about the Black Bean Chili lunch she was served at the little restaurant; things were about to change. Cafe Beaujolais was paving the way for epicureans towards Mendocino and establishing itself as a premier restaurant.
In 1990 a wood-fired brickery was constructed, bringing the taste of authentic brick oven bread to Northern California. A selection of Country Sourdough, Artisan Seed, Cherry Walnut and Brioche loaves of bread accompany your meal, sold from the kitchen window and is offered in many local restaurants in the area. Margaret poured her heart and soul into her restaurant for the next 30+ years making Café Beaujolais into the premier culinary destination that it is today.
In September 2016, Peter and Melissa Lopez purchased Café Beaujolais with their son Julian. The new family owners are committed to the strong legacy of the restaurant and to go beyond. The Lopez family prides itself on not only the quality of their cuisine but just as importantly, its source. They have partnered with some incredible local farms to create genuinely stunning dishes.
Executive Chef Julian’s passion for cooking formed at the early age of 18. His extensive travels throughout Europe and beyond gave him a devoted appreciation and understanding of each area’s diversity of culinary ingredients, flavors, and style. On his quest to master the various culinary techniques, lead him to work with such culinary masters as Sebastien Chembur, of Le Moulin de Mougins restaurant in France and Jeremy Hansen, of Santé restaurant in Spokane, WA. His recent trips to Italy have been reflected with the addition of authentic wood-fired pizzas to the bakery specialties, offered at lunchtime.
The air was laced with a mixture of freshly baked bread, roasted garlic, and roses at the lemon-peel colored farmhouse known as Cafe Beaujolais. The native flower garden pathway leads you to their eating nooks of handcrafted tables and chairs each decorated with a vase of sunflower blossoms on one side. Their herb garden is on the other side and in the middle is their small wood-fired brickery home. A billboard-style chalkboard reveals Chef Julian’s first expansion to their cafe with his weekend pizza creations in addition to their menu offering a wide selection of salads, pasta, soups, and sandwiches. They proudly provide eighteen beers, four ciders, ten soft/juice options, seven aperitifs and “wine of the week” selection to wet your palate.
For the more traditional style, try the House-made Sausage and Thyme Pizza. A light dusting of sautéed red onions and pickled red jalapeños added the perfect balance of spicy, sweet, and light heat. For the pizza enthusiasts, their creation of Roasted Corn, Feta, Grapes and Green Tomatillos masterfully combines salty, crunchy, and savory in one dish, or should I say pizza.
When it comes to crusts, it’s the flavor and thickness that counts. Not to thin yet not thick enough to be doughy, a touch of salt, and a slight crunch from the wood-fire heat. That is precisely Chef Julian’s style, and I devoured it with total appreciation.
Lunching in their park-like setting with the sounds of nature in the background is the perfect way to explore their culinary delights.
Dinners are served in the original living room of this old farmhouse. The wooden plank floors, antique white wainscoted walls, and ornately trimmed window frames and doors are reminiscing of times past still adore the interior. Dark wood tables dressed in white linens, Reidel stemware glasses and flickering candles that seemed to dance against the sage green canvas background displaying photographs of the local farmers and vintners who have contributed to your dinner, is a reflection of the present. The ambiance is a cross between casual meets elegance. But remember, this is Mendocino where you are always welcome no matter your attire, bring a smile and a hearty appetite.
Soft jazz music and muted lively conversations fill the air of this quaint dining room. Instantly the warm interior and tantalizing scents make you feel at home. Chef Julian’s menu is a direct reflection of the current season bounties prepared with his sophisticated culinary techniques. To pair with his creations, you are also presented with one of their other highlights, their wine list that offers a truly extensive by the glass selection,– letting guests sample an assortment of local award-winning wines. And of course, a hand-picked selection of local Mendocino County wines, as well as favorites from Sonoma, Napa, France, and the rest of the world by the bottle.
My meal started with their garden rich Summer Corn Soup. It was indeed a blend of bright freshness and creamy sweetness of corn in every bite. But it was the ginger wasabi creme fraiche swirl on top that added a dimension of heat to complete the full balance of flavors. The basket of hot slice bread, Country Sourdough and Cracked Wheat, from their brickery, allows you to enjoy every drop of the soup.
If you are a big fan of scallops like I am, imagine my delight to be served fresh Diver Scallops from Rhode Island. Two apricot size sea medallions are quickly seared in brown butter creating a crispy thin tan envelope protecting a sweet, creamy center, with toasted pistachios resting on top. This dish is accompanied by a mild cauliflower puree and roasted florets.
Taittinger Brut Champagne, France was superb with both dishes. The Champagnes effervescence, or bubbles, clear your palate for the next bite.
The menu had me at Berkshire Braised Pork Cheeks, but I found myself torn when our server announced the evenings special of Rabbit Ragu with house-made Fettuccini. Naturally, since never having tried a rabbit before, I choose both.
Their Tamarind glazed Berkshire Port Cheeks are braised in a thick, rich Pork Jus creating a fork-tender melt in your mouth sensation. The creamy Mascarpone Risotto adds lightness to the dish, and the saute of locally forged earthy Chanterelle mushrooms added a dose of Mendocino to it.
The evening special of Rabbit Ragu is a tower of house-made al dente fettuccini pasta that is married with a rich ragu of rabbit meat, kale, and carrots in savory tomato stock sauce. Add a light dusting of Parmesan cheese shavings, and this reminds you of Italy. The dish is both light and rich at the same time. Deep-fried duck savings added the perfect amount of crunch.
Halcon Pinot Noir was being served by the glass that evening. Its mature fruitfulness lingered with a delicate amount of oak on the medium-weighted finish. It’s earthiness complimented both entrees to perfection.
The servers at Cafe Beaujolais strike the same chord as the food: each detail is attended to with the utmost skill and grace, with a side of caring smiles. Especially sommelier Mark Bowery, who effortlessly pairs the perfect wine to accent your dish, with a dash of Irish charm.
To the Lopez family, thank you for proving to us that Café Beaujolais – the legacy of Cal-French cuisine, like wine, keeps getting better with time. Though you’re not a secret anymore, you’re still a local favorite and a wonderful treat for all who dine with you.
Words and Photographs by Shelley Pittman