This Train Is Your Train

There's a romance to railroad travel, especially when the destination is a special, spirited mountain town called Truckee.

In fact, one of Truckee's great attractions is its surprising variety of terrific food. The Squeeze In, an affable, ramshackle joint that's all worn wood, stained glass, exposed brick, and a couple of decades' worth of graffiti has been serving stellar omelettes of infinite variety since 1974. Tucked away off the main drag is Casa Baeza and its exemplary fish tacos, 64 species of tequila, and jukebox rife with mariachi. The Cottonwood is on the site of North America's very first ski lift -- the place feels like an old mountain lodge with its rustic stone fireplace, rough timbers, and vintage photos -- and when you're out on the deck with its awning of pine trees, enjoying your rabbit cassoulet and beaker of Sierra Nevada at dusk with the river, the train tracks, and the town spread below you ... well, contentment is as good a word as any to describe the feeling.

Best of all, though, is Moody's Bar & Bistro, conveniently located off the lobby of the Truckee Hotel. The food's better than most of the stuff you'll find in San Francisco's purple-basil dives: a dreamy tostada of soft-shell crab, avocado puree, and jalapeno oil; smoky, luscious bacon-wrapped guinea fowl with braised artichokes and pomegranate; bucatini pasta with duck confit and pine nut pesto. But the place achieved its greater fame back in February when Paul McCartney dropped by, sat in with the house band, and improvised a ditty called "The Truckee Blues."

In addition to the bars at Moody's, Casa Baeza, and Cottonwood, Truckee has three great and distinct saloons. The B of A is a big, friendly, unpretentious barn of a place with a magnificently detailed back bar and an entertaining Sunday night open mike. Up the street is the Tourist Club, a moody yet affable dive decorated with animal heads, a pool table, neon antlers, and a perpetual "FREE BEER TOMORROW" sign over the door. And in the middle is the Past Time, a proto-Lower Mission, warped-wood, twentysomething-bartender beer hall with a small stage, a motorcycle over the bar, and a pool table out back. On Saturday night every hipster, night creature, and free spirit from the surrounding basin crowded into the bar's long, narrow confines as a rollicking reggae-fusion band rocked the joint and call-and-response rose to the rafters, bachelorettes danced on the bar, strangers-turned-friends bumped and swayed in the aisles, and the whole place surrendered to the pulse of the music. Truckee lives!

Postscript: I phoned Amtrak Monday morning to find out if the homebound Zephyr was running on time and was delighted to learn that it had lost mileage between Salt Lake and Winnemucca and would be two hours late. I took another stroll along the crystal-clear Truckee River, had a leisurely breakfast at a terrific new bakery on the main drag, and inhaled as much pure mountain oxygen as I could hold. Maybe, I thought to myself, they really meant three or four hours.

TheCalifornia Zephyr departs Emeryville daily at 9:35 a.m. (a connecting shuttle leaves the Ferry Building at 8:30 a.m.) and arrives in Truckee at 3 p.m. The westboundZephyr departs Truckee daily at 10:40 a.m. and arrives in Emeryville at 5:30 p.m. (shuttle arrives at the Ferry Building at 6 p.m.). $84 round trip. Call (800) USA-RAIL or visit www.amtrak.com. Room rates at the Truckee Hotel (10007 Bridge St.) range from $45-$135; check-in time is between 3 and 10 p.m., check-out is 11 a.m. Call (800) 659-6921 or visit www.truckeehotel.com. Summertime events in Truckee include Fourth of July parade and fireworks; Lake Tahoe Summer Music Festival (July 9-August 21); Wild West Week (August 6-11); Truckee Championship Rodeo (August 13-15); and Railroad Days (September 11-12). Call (530) 587-2757 or visit www.truckee.com.

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