Seen that commercial in which a raggedy summer of love bus morphs into a modern-day minivan, and the freewheeling hippies inside become yuppies?To most people, that's Marin County in a nutshell. But while northern California's wealthiest enclave is indeed brimming over with yachts and mansions, not every sixties child has traded in tie-dyes for a suit and tie. Granola types still make their presence known with yoga studios, alternative healing centers, and stores selling crystals and other New Age wares. Birthplace of the hot tub and the mountain bike, Marin enjoys a warm, almost chronically sunny climate. By some cosmic sleight of hand, the fogbank that engulfs San Francisco every summer afternoon vanishes at the north end of the Golden Gate Bridge, to reveal the white-capped bay, redwood forests, golden hills, and rugged Mount Tamalpais (known as Mount Tam around here). With scenery this lovely, any hint of an identity crisis is relegated to the back seat.
By Janet Fletcher
Residents of Marin County's bedroom communities used to drive into the city for dinner, but a culinary boom north of the Golden Gate now keeps them closer to home. (In fact, San Franciscans even cross the bridge for these restaurants.)
Only the cigarette smoke is missing at Left Bank (507 Magnolia Ave., Larkspur; 415/927-3331; dinner for two $50), an otherwise faithful reproduction of a Parisian brasserie. The restaurant's cuisine grand-mère-- "grandmothers' cooking"-- takes a few California detours (what Gallic grandma serves balsamic vinaigrette?), but mostly it sticks close to the classics: leek tart, bouillabaisse, French onion soup, roast baby chicken.
Inside the tentlike dining room of the Kasbah Moroccan Restaurant (200 Merrydale Rd., San Rafael; 415/472-6666; dinner for two $35), the kitchen aromas seduce you before the menu does. To fully appreciate the sensuality of couscous and pastilla (chicken pie), eat with your fingers.
Heidi Insalata's exuberant cooking draws crowds to Insalata's (120 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., San Anselmo; 415/457-7700; dinner for two $60), where there's a high-style setting, a with-it wine list, and a menu that romps around the Mediterranean-- fattoush (Syrian pita bread salad), Provençal chickpea crêpes, grilled tuna with Moroccan charmoula (cilantro and cumin sauce).
Ever wonder what a diner would be like with a real talent behind the stove?At Bubba's Diner (566 San Anselmo Ave., San Anselmo; 415/459-6862; dinner for two $50), Stephen Simmons makes a meat-loaf sandwich with so much care you'd think he was serving it to Paul Bocuse.
Bradley Ogden has turned over the day-to-day cooking at Lark Creek Inn (234 Magnolia Ave., Larkspur; 415/924-7766; brunch for two $50) to Todd Davies, but the place he made famous for farm-fresh American fare still thrives. A Ralph Lauren-esque country inn, the restaurant shines at Sunday brunch, when you can savor your toasted-almond waffle outdoors under the redwood trees.
At Marin's top sushi house, Sushi Ran (107 Caledonia St., Sausalito; 415/332-3620; dinner for two $35), novices can revel in a roster of not-too-scary concoctions such as the 49er Roll (avocado and marinated salmon), while aficionados can let the chefs do the raw thing with prime tuna belly, yellowtail, live scallops, or Spanish mackerel. Try the fresh Japanese wasabi.
Chic Marin dinner parties end with dessert from Emporio Rulli (460 Magnolia Ave., Larkspur; 415/924-7478; lunch for two $22), a carriage-trade pastry and panini shop. On a warm day, sit on the terrace and indulge in coffee gelato and a plate of Italian cookies.
Pelican Inn 10 Pacific Way, Muir Beach; 415/383-6000; doubles $158-$180. You'll swear you've been transported to England. This seven-room Tudor-style hotel (below), built on the rocky coast in 1975, doesn't look a day under 400 years old. The small, romantic rooms are furnished with half tester beds, and the low ceilings hark back to a time when tourists were shorter. In the pub, there's always someone up for darts.
Casa del Mar 37 Belvedere Ave., Stinson Beach; 800/552-2124 or 415/868-2124; doubles $140-$235. Half California condo, half Mediterranean villa, the Casa del Mar has six rooms, all with decks. The elaborate Balinese sculpture garden is a perfect place to sip a glass of wine.
Mill Valley Inn 165 Throckmorton Ave., Mill Valley; 800/595-2100 or 415/389-6608; doubles $135-$240. Constructed around a stand of redwoods, three buildings in two styles-- Tuscan and Victorian-- contain 25 spacious rooms. Don't miss the continental breakfast (with cappuccino) on the sunny terrace.
The largest island in the bay, Angel Island has some of the best views in the area: San Francisco's bold profile, Alcatraz, the Golden Gate Bridge, Sausalito, Tiburon, Oakland. A visitors' center exhibit chronicles its history-- from Miwok Indian hunting ground to quarantine station against plague (in 1892) to Cold War missile base. Bring your own bike or rent one; the island's 740 acres are circled by five miles of trails. There are many places to picnic, and with views like these you'll wonder why more people haven't flocked to join you. The ferry ride from Tiburon (415/435-2131; 15 minutes) or Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco (415/773-1188; 20 minutes) is a treat in itself.
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