For today’s Neighborhood Guide installment, contributor JD Wilson takes us out west to Mill Valley, where saw mills and cattle ranches have given way to Italy-sourced pizzas and chophouses, but California comfort still reigns supreme.
Mill Valley, California is tucked away at the base of Marin County’s Mt. Tamalpais, just a scant 13 miles from downtown San Francisco and just over the Golden Gate Bridge past Sausalito. Once upon a time, this small village was virtually unknown to outsiders, its population based largely around the mill that operated from its core.
Now Mill Valley is mostly home to wealthy young couples fleeing the “big city” to start their families, as well as various celebrities and socialites whose faces are simply part of the landscape around town. And chasing that population of urban and privileged palates have come a slew of restaurants that cater to those cravings.
Miller Avenue stretches from 101 down to the center of the quaint downtown, with restaurants interspersed amongst boutique salons, pet groomers, and bike shops. On reaching downtown it is an easy stroll around the town center to any number of options for a quick bite or a big night out.
[Update: as of November 2012, Hawk's Tavern is closed.]
Hawk’s Tavern (507 Miller Avenue, 415-388-3474) is Tyler Florence‘s latest addition to the Mill Valley restaurant scene. It has a warm and cozy (perhaps a wee bit cramped) feel that complements the natural surroundings, yet maintains a hip, urban edge in service and decor. Beer and wine offerings were precisely selected to pair with the menu and not overwhelm guests with “too many” options—though from what I saw, the selection was more than ample.
One thing that surprised me was the menu being quite affordable; with plates ranging from $7 to $15 and sufficient, but not overly filling portions. The heads-on prawns I had were the finest I’ve had in the U.S., without question. The tavern burger was simple, and fantastic—I continue to run into locals who claim it to be the best burger in Marin.
Super Duper Burger
Perhaps it’s just me, but coming from the East Coast and a predominantly Southern-style upbringing, burgers just weren’t that big of a deal. Here in Mill Valley, however, pretty much everyone I know has a steady hankerin’ for burgers on at least a weekly basis. I think it’s because they have no idea how to bbq. None. That said, Super Duper Burger (430 Miller Avenue, 415-380-8555) is the latest burger hotspot in Mill Valley. The lines have been consistently out the door since opening months back.
Right down the street from the local Tam High and on everyone’s way home from the city, it’s a killer location and Super Duper offers a great burger, a fantastic shake, and the best homemade pickles I’ve had outside of Savannah (or my kitchen!). Avoid this place at lunchtime during the week, though; it’s overrun with famished high school kids, as is anywhere within sight of the school.
With three-day proofing dough made from Italy-sourced double zero flour, then fresh Italian and/or local, sustainable meats, greens, and cheeses, the pizzas at TamalPie (475 Miller Avenue, 415-388-7437) have been extremely well-received in town. Painstaking care is put into producing each pie, with hits like the Cascade, with prosciutto, fresh mozzarella, Parmesan, and arugula salad over an olive oil-lemon juice base. Another, the Laurel Dell, comes with housemade sausage, roast onions, caramelized onion, and mozzarella topped with braised greens. Awesome. Each pizza is named after a local hiking trail right up the road on Mt. Tam.
Mill Valley’s little corner bistro, Vasco (106 Throckmorton Avenue, 415-381-3343) has served locals for many years now, greeting many of the same faces each night with a distinct mom-and-pop style of service while maintaining a quality wine list and food menu. The small bar is consistently filled with chatter and clinking glasses, the dining room a blend of families, business dinners, and date nights. My personal favorite is the fettuccine alla carbonara, made to order with rich layers of noodles and egg. Vasco is another great choice for an evening filled with dinner and wine without shelling out a fortune.
El Paseo (17 Throckmorton Avenue, 415-388-0741), the local chophouse, is the highly successful offspring of odd couple Sammy Hagar (of Van Halen fame) and Tyler Florence, both Mill Valley locals. The location has operated as a restaurant since 1948, and is a truly beautiful, old California feeling kinda spot. Nestled into the core of a brick structure in the heart of downtown Mill Valley, a covered brick sidewalk runs between the two sides of the restaurant, separating dining areas from the bar.
El Paseo is all about decadence and hearty, top-shelf comfort food with killer cuts of meat and seafoods (with even a couple vegetarian offerings.) Flickering candles and warm wood furnishings really create a romantic atmosphere for couples or friendly groups. As expected with any Tyler Florence project, the wine list is well thought-out to complement and enhance the menu selections. If you’re visiting Mill Valley for the first time or a die-hard local, this place needs to be on your list of indulgence.