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Culinary Exploration in Marin, CA

Oysters and beer outside the 
Marshall Store, on Tomales Bay.

Photo: Thayer Allyson Gowdy

Most of California’s shoreline is too rugged to enjoy up close. Which is why Tomales Bay—a long, shallow body of water formed where the San Andreas Fault dips under the Pacific Ocean—is such a pleasant oddity. I also have a culinary affection for the gentle bay: fed by freshwater streams and open to the ocean, it’s where the finest oysters in the state are grown.

Many of the oyster farms are clustered around Marshall, a snaking 20-minute drive north of Point Reyes Station. The most famous of them, Hog Island Oyster Company, sells unshucked oysters—but unfortunately they charge $5 per person merely to sit at a picnic table. Our next stop was Tomales Bay Oyster Company, a few miles south, where jumbo oysters are $16 for the dozen, seats at the tables don’t cost a penny, and the weekend crowds make it feel like a bivalve Coachella.

But at the Marshall Store & Oyster Bar, a seafood shack perched on timber pylons, we found a dining experience that’s even more low-key, the ultimate example of a certain kind of meal: unfussy, delicious, relaxed. It’s nominally a general store, and though they sell beer and wine—including some inspired selections from importer Kermit Lynch—they can’t legally serve it, though they will lend you a corkscrew. The store farms its own exquisite oysters, and prepares them three ways: raw, Rockefeller (piled with spinach and cheese), or, the local specialty, barbecued (grilled with house-made barbecue sauce). We happily ordered a dozen of each and carried them out to a barrel on the narrow strip of land between Highway 1 and the bay, where we drank a crisp Sancerre from paper cups.

I’m seduced by the simplicity of eating in California. It’s a place where even the most sophisticated and satisfying meals can feel easy, almost effortless. But when Christine and I ate at the restaurant at Nick’s Cove & Cottages, a small hotel in Marshall where rooms are converted fishermen’s shacks, the food felt unnecessarily complicated. And while we enjoyed our meal at Olema Inn & Restaurant, set in a 100-year-old clapboard building, the night we were there the dining room was so loud we couldn’t hold a conversation.

So for our final evening we made reservations at Drakes Beach Café. It’s part of an oceanfront visitor’s center, an architectural flashback for those of us who went on school field trips during the Carter administration (wood beams; fliers pinned to corkboard), and two years ago it started serving candlelit prix fixe dinners on weekends. It welcomes BYO, and we brought a bottle of Orion, a blend from Sean Thackrey, the cult winemaker.

The dinner was heartfelt and idiosyncratic; Slow Food cuisine served in a snack bar. And because it was so intimate, it felt romantic. It wasn’t until we left the café and walked through the bracing night air to our car, the surf crashing a few feet away, that we realized how isolated we were. San Francisco may have been just a few miles down the coast, but the stars that filled the sky above us seemed closer.

Oliver Schwaner-Albright is at work on a book about hunting, with Martin Picard, the chef of Au Pied de Cochon, in Montreal.

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