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Judy Crowell: Hidden Treasures in California

From Larkspur and Mill Valley to Fairfax and Berkeley, lose yourself in the small-town charm, diversity and historical significance

Chez Panisse serves as one of Berkeley’s finest restaurants.
Chez Panisse serves as one of Berkeley’s finest restaurants.  (Judy Crowell / Noozhawk photo)

By Judy Crowell, Noozhawk Contributing Writer |

One of my favorite authors, Ray Bradbury, whom I am privileged to know, once said, “Half the fun of the travel is the esthetic of lostness.”

Words never truer than while meandering, directionally challenged, through the narrow, winding roads of Marin County, minutes north of San Francisco. Hidden treasures of small towns nestled among towering redwoods, tucked in between stately Mount Tamalpais, Highway 101 and the Bay. Small towns of magical charm, rich diversity and historical significance.

Larkspur: A beauty of a little town with a name to match. Architecture includes log cabins, Mission style, Victorians, New England, Spanish, Tudor and contemporary, with many nestled in a magnificent redwood grove. Try the Lark Creek Inn, a romantic setting for lunch or dinner. Local favorites include Picco for fine dining or pizza and Easy Street Café for pecan waffles and mouth-watering burgers.

Mill Valley: An “artsy” town, home to the prestigious Mill Valley Film Festival and, at various times, home to the likes of authors Jack Kerouac and Jack London; rock stars Bonnie Raitt and Janis Joplin; and actors Dana Carvey, Jill Eikenberry and Tom Cruise.

Renowned for its rustic, canyonside library, its award-winning town square combining the old railroad depot, user-friendly bookstore and outdoor, umbrella-bedecked café, Mill Valley is consistently listed among the top 10 in favorite places to live in the United States. A town of high-income San Francisco commuters, it has become more gentrified than some locals would like. Balboa, a renowned San Francisco eatery, just opened.

A few of my favorite restaurants are El Paseo, Piazza D’Angelo, Toast and The Bungalow.

Fairfax: Quirky, eclectic and over-the-top-diverse best describe this small town, stuck in the 1950s. Also known as “Mayberry on Acid,” it is a community of aging hippies, artists and musicians, where live music can be heard just about every day of the week. Time warp shops such as Culture Shock and Yeah Baby are at every corner, and I fell in love with the Barefoot Café, a no-shoes, no-shirt, great service place with an around-the-clock tempting menu.

Berkeley: Neither in Marin County nor small, this college town, still one of the most politically liberal spots in the nation, is proud to claim one of the largest number of Nobel Prize-winning laureates of any American university. Resembling the Campanile di San Marco in Venice, the beautiful Sather Tower dominates the UC Berkeley campus, evoking memories of the turbulent days of the late ‘60s and the flowering of the hippie movement.

Berkeley has several fine restaurants. Forget about them and beg, borrow or steal a reservation at Chez Panisse, the Alice Water phenomenon, opened in 1971, which single-handedly created a culinary revolution in the United States, introducing original California cuisine of locally grown and fresh ingredients.

The upstairs café, with open kitchen, accepts walk-ins and is equally as amazing as the downstairs dining room. Waters continues to be the vanguard of outstanding food publications. She has even succeeded in bringing a 1,100-square-foot organic garden to the South Lawn of the White House.

The “esthetic of lostness” is never more delightful than north of San Francisco. Ditch your MapQuest, your GPS, your cranky passenger seat navigator and lose yourself in Marin County.

Noozhawk contributing writer Judy Crowell is an author, freelance travel writer and part-time Santa Barbara resident. She can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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» on 03.18.12 @ 06:16 PM

Thanks for the nice photo and mention of Berkeley’s Chez Panisse.  My wife and I lived two blocks away when Chez Panisse first opened.  We took a look at their first menu, and all we could say was, “Wow! Who would pay $6 for dinner!?” But we eventually did pay way more than that, and it was worth every penny.  Note: around the corner is the original Peet’s coffee house, dating back well before Chez Panisse, and still drawing a crowd.

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