If you wander north of the Golden Gate through Western Marin and Sonoma you’ll run across the culinary remains of the immigrants who settled there from the late 19th and well into the 20th centuries. Dotting many of the small towns are classic Italian dining rooms that feature set ups, hearty pastas, and meats. Some have adapted to the times by adding kale salads and pizza but at heart they’re the equivalent of culinary holdovers from another era. And that’s a good thing, we need reminders of how it used to be that are also earnest restaurants.
And it’s not just the north bay, these restaurants still mark the spaces where immigrants roamed from Bakersfield, to western Nevada, and god knows where else. Make no mistake: The only reason these places are still around is family ownership. They’re hold overs because they haven’t been forced aside by economics or death which is why they mostly continue on in rural areas. The urban transformations long made it too expensive in those spaces. Take Negris which is the dominant building in tiny Occidental. The web site says that it was founded in 1943 but the last time I was in there the menu had a testament to the pair of Italian immigrants who founded it in the 1920’s.
A good chunk of the place is the bar which runs the depth of the building off to the left. Like many a road house this is the place for that mid-morning shot and a beer to make the day run smoothly or the business discussion that really needed to escape the confines of the office. These days the drinking side of things seems to occupy less space, the families and big groups out in the main dining room really make Negris hum.
That’s the way things used to go, you’d have a bar on one side of the house for the people who might be just passing through for a drink, waiting for a table, or who made a lifestyle of living in bars. Thankfully these places still exist and still have native populations of drinkers and socializers. And they’ve maintained much of their decor which usually includes the classic wood bar, mirrored back, dusty bottles of cordials which are now just decorations. If you need to know what’s going on in town, these are a medium unto themselves.
The set up
Once you’re seated in front of a red checked tablecloth and order you’ll meet the iconic set up, a set of plates that are part of every meal generally served family style for every table. This is usually a soup, salad, bread, and some cured meat. Occasionally, olives and other cured vegetables or cultural specialties make anyone feel like a king and sate the huge hungers of the manual workers that used to flock to these places. They were also the budget oriented dollar meals for everyone concerned because restaurants could treat them like prix fixes and have everything planned out ahead while diners got healthy and filling meals around common tables that encouraged a great social coming together. Consider it a type of class consciousness or family, both are true.
You’re here for filling food so be prepared for protein and carb heavy dishes that cover the bases, usually steaks and pastas, but specialties depend on cultural roots. The Italian places in west Sonoma and Marin are heavy on the tomato culture. Basque places love lamb because a lot of their workers herded sheep but they also have a good sideline in frog legs. And, since most of these places are doing their dance with the times, lighter seafoods and 80’s innovations like vodka penne make plenty of appearances.
I have no authoritative grasp on this genre of restaurant. I don’t even know what to call them other than my loose mental short hand of places with ‘set ups’ but they used to span our fair state. San Francisco’s dear departed Basque Hotel currently occupied by 15 Romolo just off Broadway in North Beach was a real down low sort of place which, per my father’s memories, used to be quite the scene. Thankfully 15 Romolo still preserves the ambiance but I’d love to have those shared tables back. The only living example in SF that I know of (tell me if I’m missing one!) is the Basque Cultural Center in South City. It’s quite a scene for families and trenchermen dinners.
While Occidental is fortunate to host two because the Union Hotel is just across the street from Negri’s, you don’t have to travel far for yet another just across the border in Valley Ford, Marin where Dinucci’s is still holding on. People have told me about places like this in western Nevada because of the Basque herding culture. And then there’s Bakersfield which boasts Benji’s and the Wool Growers as part of their Basque culture which has gone through the eye of the needle and established themselves as a certain sort of family friendly night out. Easy on the wallet, fun for all.
Back from the dead?
Bucca di Beppo was modeled on this idea but even they couldn’t thrive in the midst of a booming SF so my naive wonderings about why this sort of thing can’t continue to exist here are perhaps just that, completely naive. Still, I can’t help but think that in a world dominated by fast casual and comfort food that something like a Torrisi light wouldn’t be a huge hit. God knows I’d spend an inordinate amount of time there.