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Dillon Beach Coastal Kitchen is a salty breath of fresh air

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For those who grew up in Petaluma, Dillon Beach has always been synonymous with relaxing, albeit it often windblown days along the easy waters of the Marin County coastline. The last privately owned beach in Northern California, Dillon Beach appeals to surfers and swimmers alike, in large part because the undertow for which California beaches are known is less prevalent here. It is also one of the only beaches that allows dogs off-leash.

Although Dillon Beach Resort has long had a general store and café, both were seen as a bit of a last resort, to be visited only when all other options had been exhausted. Until now.

Mike Goebel, best known locally for opening Brewsters Beer Garden, knows not only how to revamp a restaurants décor but also how to bring in the right people to rework the menu. That proved true on our visit to his recently opened Dillon Beach Coastal Kitchen.

Dillon Beach was founded by George Dillon in 1858. He later sold it to John Keegan, who would go on to lay out the town and build a hotel, which eventually became the location of the store and restaurant. For most of second half of the 20th century, Dillon Beach was owned by the Lawson family of Lawson’s Landing, which is just down the road from Dillon and includes a campground, store, small pier and “marina.”

In 2001 the Lawsons sold Dillon Beach Resort to the Cline family, best known for Cline Cellars and Jacuzzi Vineyards. This past April, the Cline’s sold the property to Mike Goebel, who lives in Marin and is married to a Diego, of the same Diego family that owns a local construction company, towing company and Petaluma’s Mario & John’s. Goebel also owns several popular San Francisco bars, in addition to opening Brewsters Beer Garden here in town last year.

Goebel’s first move was to change the name from Dillon Beach Café to Dillon Beach Coastal Kitchen, in order to better reflect his vision for the restaurant, which highlights the seasons and locality of the surrounding farmlands, tidal marshes and open sea. Next was a freshening up of the looks of both the store and restaurant. What used to be just a run of the mill beachside café has received a facelift to include two distinct eating areas.

The inner dining room is wainscoted in white, with gray walls and a pressed tin ceiling. The outer dining room is an enclosed patio with a tented roof, but thanks to powerful ceiling heaters, was toasty enough for dining in a T-shirt during our visit, even though there was a crisp wind blowing outside. Where the inside dining room is classic, the patio decor is hip yet homey, with hanging plants, light fixtures made from crab pots, crisp white walls, dark window trim and a coastally appropriate teal painted floor.

The menu, too, has been updated and fits in better with the idea of local and sustainable dining than the old menu of boring burgers, mediocre calamari and flavorless fish and chips.

Goebel borrowed his chef from Brewsters, where Todd Shoberg has been revamping the menu since joining the team over this past summer. For the small size of Coastal Kitchen, one might not expect to find such a credentialed chef, but Goebel does not mess around when it comes to his restaurants’ menus. He wanted to make sure that the much anticipated reopening would impress locals and visitors alike. Shoberg helped open two of Mill Valley’s favorites, Molina and Sammy Hagar’s El Paseo, along with many other restaurants, including Stone Brewery’s impressive Liberty Station bistro and gardens.

The first person we saw when we entered the restaurant was one of Petaluma’s most beloved servers, Ellen FitzGerald. On loan from Brewsters, Ellen has been waiting on us for years at various Petaluma restaurants, and offers the perfect blend of professional, yet friendly service, and will surely set a high standard for others on the floor. She’s also a reason we’ll be back for another visit soon. We will dine at a restaurant with excellent service but only passable food, but refuse to support a restaurant with lousy service, no matter how much we love the food because for us, the experience is as much about the people as it is about the menu.

Although simple, the menu is full of satisfying choices, and is clearly driven by the restaurant’s moto: “Eating is an agricultural art.” Chef Shoberg promises the menu will change routinely, so regulars will always have something new to try.

With only a few days under their belt, Coastal Kitchen’s “almost famous clam chowder” was already making a name for itself. We were impressed by the chowder’s base, which is a vermouth bisque. Added to the broth, kombu is an edible kelp that enhances the flavor, and is one of the main ingredients in Japanese soups. After that comes a healthy dose of confit fingerling potatoes. If that word “confit” looks unfamiliar when paired with “potatoes” that is because it usually is used in reference to duck that has been cooked in its own fat. However, because potatoes do not have their own fat, I suspect, based on the flavor, that these are cooked either in duck or bacon fat, but either way, they are incredible. It was pleasant, but not a surprise, to find chunks of Marin Sun Farms bacon so thick that I mistook them for pork belly. Finally, the clams are presented in the shell, which normally bothers me, but helped demostrate how authentic this clam chowder is, and also guaranteed the chowder would have whole clams swimming in the soup. These clams came from Hog Island, which I mistakenly thought only harvested excellent local oysters.

It was a little hard to even consider anything else after tasting the clam chowder, but the kennebec fries, although thick cut, are double fried and properly crisp. The “daily aioli” served alongside was excellent, too. We also sampled the grilled oysters, which were topped with garlic bread crumbs, Toma from Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese, cooked spinach and Pernod, an anise-flavored liqueur.

Other fresh menu items include a torpedo roll of the day, which currently is stuffed with fried oysters, caper aioli, savoy cabbage, cilantro and pickled jalapeno; a risotto with wild foraged mushrooms mixed with winter squash, celery root, persimmon, nettles and crème fraiche; and the farmers market veggies, which are prepared, “all nice and roasted” with Bellwether Farms’ formage blanc, Meyer lemon and Jesse’s mustard greens.

And, of course, raw oysters are available from a rotating list of Tomales Bay oyster farms.

There are two salads on the menu – a Tuscan kale Caesar and West Marin wedge with Sierra Beauty apples, bacon and Point Reyes Farmstead’s award-winning blue cheese.

The beer and wine menu is small, yet gets the job done admirably. Items are offered on tap rather than in bottles, to reduce container waste. They also have Marin Kombucha on tap, but other than the Mexican Coca-Cola and Topo Chico mineral water, everything non-alcoholic is mixed in-house. Along with a couple of our favorite beers, one being HenHouse’s IPA and the other a KSA Kolsch from Fort Point Brewing Company, we also ordered a “who’s Arnold Palmer anyway,” which comes in a charming flask-shaped glass bottle.

Double 8 Dairy’s buffalo gelato is available for dessert, which is not only some of the best ice cream around, but is said to be easier to digest for those who are intolerant of cow’s milks (although be forewarned, it still contains lactose). I have an allergy to cow’s milk ice cream, which is not triggered by Double 8 Dairy, even when I consume large quantities of it.

Further reinforcing their commitment to beach front communities, Coastal Kitchen’s is an “ocean friendly restaurant.” Only one of four such restaurants along the entire coast of Northern California, this program was developed by the Surfrider Foundation in an effort to protect oceans and coastlines. Although each restaurant’s practices vary, to start with, Coastal Kitchen follows proper recycling practices, uses only reusable tableware, only provides straws upon request and does not use any Styrofoam or plastic bags.

Sonoma and Marin County’s breathtaking coastline boasts beautiful scenery and excellent dining options such as Eleven (Bolina), Saltwater Oyster Depot (Inverness), Sun Marin Farms (Point Reyes Station) and Nick’s Cover (Marshall). That now includes Dillon Beach Coastal Kitchen.

Those who frequented Dillon Beach Café should be prepared that with an upgrade in cuisine comes an uptick in pricing. The low end of the menu features the kennebec fries at $8. The high end includes Bolinas Dungeness Crab seasoned “from an aromatic bath,” according to the menu, for $22.

However, with upgrades to service, sustainability and cuisine, coupled with Shoberg’s creativity, this long-time visitor was more than happy with the experience. In fact, I would have paid double for the clam chowder, and will likely order more than one bowl on the next visit.