Update: A reader has written in to inform us that Taqueria La Tapatia has not served tongue for some time. I’ve been going there for years, but I’m clearly misremembering something here. I apologize for my error, although I reiterate that it’s a great taqueria.
The people on the river are happy to give, as Ike and Tina sang, and especially so around Thanksgiving. More than 10 miles west of Santa Rosa, Guerneville was spared the devastation of last month’s Tubbs Fire, but the resort town on the Russian River has had its brushes with disaster — especially when the river rose to 37 feet in January, five feet above flood level. I have a personal fondness for that part of California, with its redwoods and its quirky locals and the fact that it gets so much hotter and colder than San Francisco.
You can never overestimate the evocative powers of smell, and while walking my dog through the spider-filled damp of my friend’s neighborhood west of town on the morning after Thanksgiving, I inhaled the enveloping aroma I still associate with the non-winterized cabin my extended family shared every summer when I was a kid. That was on the North Fork of Long Island, an inferior wine region without any nude-friendly resorts, so I’m happier where I ended up — but the point is that Guerneville is magical and got in my head, even if its Safeway is an understaffed temporal vortex where everything takes five times as long as it should.
There’s plenty to eat in the town formerly known as Big Bottom and Stumptown, from the Bar Crudo spinoff Seaside Metal to the weird-shaped Taqueria La Tapatia (where I
get used to get a tongue burrito every time, without fail) to Dick Blomster’s, a California-Korean diner operating within the wood-paneled Pat’s Restaurant. I’d been meaning to hit up the second-floor comfort-food spot Timberline for ages, but the last few times I was up north, it was either during a party weekend when every place was packed or my plans shifted toward a boozy group dinner with friends.
In any case, we let the leftovers mellow another night and sauntered in the day after Thanksgiving for pre-karaoke dinner. It was quiet; at one point, the majority of patrons had septum piercings. Timberline is lodge-like, a restaurant operating out of a rental hall but with enough art and personality to keep it from feeling like some kind of upstairs church basement. (Again: Smells are powerful, all church basements smell alike, and that would not be the most positive olfactory association.)
Casual is the operative word here. Timberline’s website is a menu-less webpage, but there are at least 15 beers on tap. Sunday brunch has bottomless mimosas. If there’s a drag queen performing, her name may be Tora Hyman. This is the kind of Instagram-handle-free establishment where a runner can present two bottles of cider with the question, “Who had the other one?” but where you also wind up chatting with everyone else on staff as they amble by and learn that the amiable woman with a strong New Yawk accent was actually born in Paris.
The appetizers consist of three bar-and-grill-style fried things in the $8 to $11 range, plus a no-punches-pulled garden salad that’s also $11. Ranked from best on down, it would be fried zucchini, coconut shrimp, and fried cheese ravioli, meaning you can’t really go wrong with any of them, although their prime function may be alcohol absorption.
Chicken fried chicken ($19), though, is where Timberline cracks its knuckles and gets to work. It’s a big pounded hunk of bird next to mashed potatoes and green beans, with a ladleful of white gravy and plenty of black pepper — which is to say, a funhouse-mirror reflection of what everybody eats on Thanksgiving. Don’t skip it.
The danger zone for comfort food is that it can be a little too casual, and the eggplant parmesan ($18) fell into that trap. It’s not quite pasghetti and meatballs, but it has a distinct whiff of a (nonexistent) children’s menu to it. Eggplant can simply be airplane-flavorless sometimes, and this was edging close to that threshold, rustic marinara notwithstanding. And the fact that it’s really the only vegetarian entree listed was the triple whammy. NorCal sensibilities or not, Timberline is the kind of place that’s designed to feed hungry bears more than people with boutique food restrictions, so that’s probably not the drawback it might be in another context.
A cut of prime rib was good but not $32 worth of good. Marbled and nearly beet-pink in the center, it was cooked right but lacked enough of a seasoning or rub that would boost it to where it needed to be. But the $27 salmon, fresh caught that morning at the other end of Highway 116, was by far the best dish — and one of the best fish preparations I’ve had in months. Chardonnay, lemon, and dill was all it got and all it needed, and the texture was lovely, fanning apart more than flaking. Take this as you will, but I don’t remember the last time I savored the skin so much.
Still, like many people, I have such complicated feelings about carefree meals and frolicking only a few miles down the highway from where dozens of people died and thousands more lost everything, but robust tourism is one of the best ways to help Sonoma put itself back together the best it can (and Timberline was heavily involved in fundraising through Guerneville Cares). Even on the mistiest days this time of year, the remaining grapevine leaves are yellow and the grass underfoot is green. Judged by its hominess and its best dishes, Timberline is a winner.
Timberline, 16440 Fourth St., Guerneville, 707-604-7617 or timberlineattheriver.com