We've been apologizing for the quality of food in Humboldt County, California, for a long time. Now at last we can brag a little.
We came here from LA 16 years ago to open a Regional American restaurant along the lines of Lark Creek Inn, featuring the local bounty (produce which can be quite spectacular in Summer, wild mushrooms Fall and Spring, Dungeness crab and other seafood delights in Winter, wonderful goat cheeses, rich butter and cream).
It was a disaster. The county, one of California's most economically depressed, was a culinary wasteland, with bad restaurants that served huge portions of cheap, frozen, processed entrees, prepared in food factories and shipped up. The very idea of paying more than ten bucks for dinner offended the locals. We lasted just 6 months before giving up. But we stayed on. Just NOT in the restaurant business. We operate a small B&B during the summer months.
Humboldt is, of course, a vacation wonderland, year round. The redwoods, naturally, but a gorgeous coastline, deserted beaches, lagoons, and bird-flocked marshes. But it is also the place where bad food comes when it dies elsewhere in California. We spent years having no decent place to go, even for takeout!
There is not much local writing about restaurants, and what there is tends to be wrong. Locals who know nothing about food recommend The Samoa Cookhouse, an all-you-can-eat-lumberjack tourist trap, or the expensive, pretentious Eureka Inns Rib Room; locals who think they know food are hot for Larrupins and The Sea Grill, which are overpriced, thoroughly mediocre, and highly successful. Here is our personal guide. Our three star restaurants would probably be closer to two star in the Bay Area.
Folie Douce 1551 G Street, Arcata, 822-1042
A menu of wonderfully conceived entrees and wood-fired pizzas has been honed to perfection by a stellar chef. Mediterranean colors and a professional, friendly staff combine to create a warm atmosphere for intimate dining in a rather small space. Wasabi steak, classic roast duck, to-die-for herb bread. Wines are limited but excellent. We do love this place, but it is on the upper limit of our budget.
Augustons Central Avenue at the McKinleyville Shopping Center, 840-9519
The newest addition to our list, a creative team of CIA-trained chefs and pastry cook create a wonderfully eclectic combination of local ingredients. Duck confit salad with fresh watercress, fontina, walnuts, and pomegranate seeds; rare seared ahi on a perfect risotto; interesting pizza combinations. The setting is comfortable but not at the level of the food. A small but decent wine list, with some nice ones by the glass. A wonderful surprise, particularly since our town is VERY blue collar.
Restaurant 301 301 L Street, Eureka, 444-8062 (attached to The Carter House)
A potentially brilliant young chef, still finding his niche, prepares a constantly changing menu with Southern American and Pacific Rim influences. This is food for wealthier people than us, but we did enjoy the few times we've been there. If there is inconsistency (and there is), it is at a pretty high level. The wine cellar is among the best in the state, with many outstanding varietals at reasonable prices (the owner has an on-line wine business). The relaxed country-inn setting is comfortable yet refined. Live (but quiet) jazz serves as background music on weekends. Full bar.
Kyoto 320 F Street, Eureka, 443-7777
A very serious woman runs the kitchen of this tiny sushi/Japanese restaurant, and her personal involvement (she is at the docks every morning and is the chef) means that some amazing items can appear on the specials menu. Her husband is the front of the house person, who adds dry humor and charm to an otherwise small, drab setting. A sleeper. If you are a sushi fan, you must try this place. One caveat: the warm sake is harsh and raw; the only premium sakes are chilled.
Als Diner 116 Wildwood Avenue, Rio Dell, 764-3445
This is VERY Chowhound. Extraordinary food at the lowest prices in the County, possibly in the state. The setting is totally rural funky, but Al and Andrea have created a gem in the midst of the Countys most depressed community. The menu is simple, but Als specials, which change from day to day, are food for the gods. Seasonal wild mushrooms, really fresh fish, wood-fired steaks, chops, and barbecue. The food is so good weve included it even though its really in Southern Humboldt, has negative ambience, and no beer/wine. (BYOB. And keep it in a paper bag, because theres no alcoholic beverage license.)
Hurricane Kates 511 Second Street, Eureka, 444-1405
A large bistro with a wildly eclectic menu, and Kate is a vivid executive chef. The hard-edge of hi-tech ambience is moderated by large, colorful abstract paintings. A full bar, with a sizeable wine list, all available by the glass, are among reasons why this newish restaurant has become very popular. Exciting with many options. Still, not every dish is fully conceived and/or executed. It can also get Very Loud. Part of their shtick.
Trattoria 30 Sunny Brae Centre, Arcata, 822-6101
This marvelous little restaurant is a newcomer, serving - despite the bistro name - family regional Italian food. Its rather small menu (about 15 dishes, including fresh pastas, appetizers, and entrees) can be combined for an unusually delightful meal, particularly in family-style dining. The small, boxy dining room is a flaw in ambience. Wines, unfortunately, are not so hot. Maybe bring your own and pay for corkage?
Avalon 3rd and G Street, Eureka, 445-0500
With an upscale menu that features seasonal and local food, this very ambitious restaurant was only a couple of years ago our flagship. A huge room that is elegant without pretension, and a national-class chef can combine to make dining an event. Unhappily, inconsistent food and service made our last visit there a less than happy one, and the contentious owner has made it clear were no longer welcome; weve not been there in over a year. Recently, the menu has been pared of all but the most popular items, and there are no longer daily specials. Full bar. Often live music.
ALSO...We havent included it because weve not yet been there ourselves, but there is serious buzz among many of the above restauranteurs about a new Eureka restaurant called Dragonfly, serving Vietnamese food.