The Marin Food Scene: Sugar, Sandwiches and Salads
May 23, 2017
The Bay Area has always been known as a cultural hub and food trends are constantly changing. Within the last 25 or so years, the Bay Area has primarily led to food-trends that emphasize health and ingredients. With new tech startups such as Uber and Salesforce making their way into the area, the youthful and knowledgeable employees crave an equally new food scene. In Marin County, the wealth of residents ultimately has produced a health-conscious community. With more money comes the flexibility to purchase higher-end products, and indulge in locally sourced whole foods.
The history of food culture in Marin County is fairly bleak, as only until recently has the area begun to define itself as Traditional American comfort food and sit-down eateries defined its past cuisine. Although long-standing eateries such as Marin Joe’s and The Spinnaker still remain strong, their diner-style atmosphere and traditional cuisine are but a memory of Marin’s past.
In Kentfield, the closing of the infamous American-style diner, Willie’s Cafe, and it’s replacement with the high-priced Woodlands Cafe represented the ending of a traditional sit-down Marin.
With the world at the fingertips of most Marin residents, the constant quest to find something new is always present. As a result, trendy restaurants come and go, but consistently us Marinites like our food healthy, tailor made, and expensive. This has resulted in a plethora of organic-based hotspots around Marin; Cafe del Sol, Rustic Bakery, Urban Remedy, Farmshop, Nektar, and The Plant Cafe, etc.
On the Marin Magazine Website, 5 out of 9 of the featured trending meals are salads. The featured entrees are “Ancient grain pancakes” or a “Lobster and tarragon chopped salad.”
However, the Marin cuisine is not really a county full of hardcore health-gurus, but more made of people who like to think that they are healthy. For example, it is common for many to visit Strawberry Village and grab an instagram-worthy vegan granola juice bowl at Nektar, then walk across the street and have a double-double at In-and-Out. Marinites want to feel healthy, but they also like to indulge. Salads at Rustic Bakery are stacked high with fine cheeses and accompanied by chocolate pastries. The vegan raspberry cheesecake from the Plant Cafe is consumed more by non-vegans because it tastes good.
As I walked into Johnny’s Donuts, my eyes were immediately drawn to the enticing array of fluffy, colorful pastries lined up behind a jail of glass. Seemingly drawn by a magnet, I drifted over to the display to gawk at the wondrous creations behind.
“What can I get you today!” a perky voice asked from behind the counter. This voice that broke my deep concentration belonged to a bubbly young woman behind the counter named Kelsey.
Kelsey has been working as the store manager at Johnny’s Donuts San Rafael for six months and seemed to enjoy the job more than anything. She spoke with so much passion, I felt as though she were a proud parent showing off her beloved children when describing the donuts; “We are very proud of our products. It’s all about the love and quality we put into everything.” Her smiling cherubic face, infectiously sing-songy voice, and mountains of sprinkled goodness at her fingertips, Kelsea looked as though she dropped straight down from bakery heaven.
Johnny’s Donuts is definitely no Dunkin’ Donuts, as their organic, freshly-baked, artisanal-flavored donuts put any other sugar-glazed carb wafer to shame. Kelsey gushed on about the highlights of the business, with a passion for pastries that was augmented by her cupcake hand-tattoo.
“The fact that our bakery portion is so open, everyone can see what we are doing. If we wanted to have a secret, we couldn’t. Everything we use is organic and locally sourced. For example, all of our fruit glazes on top of our donuts are made of fruit; there are no food dyes, it’s all natural fruit coloring.”
Continuing with the Marin trends of organic everything and local ingredients, the quality of Johnny’s food is difficult to beat. However, according to Kelsea, the family-oriented atmosphere and inclusive storefront area have been most pivotal in its success as a company.
“It’s a tie between the donuts and the people. We have a very solid crew here; everybody who is here wants to be here. Everyone has a positive attitude, is super welcoming of others, the staff, and new customers, which is rare.”
Becoming an iconic part of San Rafael, Johnny’s is known as the premier place to grab a bite to eat before breakfast, even if their products are strictly limited to coffee and pastries. However, the increasing popularity of the business may incite a menu expansion: “the most savory thing we have is a bacon maple bar on the weekends!”
I am by no means a donut connoisseur, but when tasting one of these ooey-gooey maple bars, a complimentary gift from the staff, I could definitely tell that their food lives up to the hype. Equally as sweet as any of these donuts, employees such as Kelsea are prime examples of how Johnny’s really does go above and beyond to provide the best service for their customers.
Staff Food Recommendation:
With a selection so extensive, the question of ‘what is your favorite donut?’ is not a simple ask. Kelsea graciously explained to me that Johnny’s has a rotating menu, where on the weekends they serve their specialty items and limited edition flavors. Since they make each donut daily, flavor availability and donut ‘type’ changes constantly, making it virtually impossible to just pick one favorite; it just breaks the laws of pastry-science.
“On the weekend we have special cake donuts, and my favorite cake donut is probably the strawberry. During the weekdays, our apple fritters are also delicious.”
Situated picturesquely on marble-laden countertops, the irresistible daily array of mouth-watering goodies strategically greets all those who enter the store. Dense slices of orange olive-oil cakes or cardamom-almond twists are sure to please the epicurean palates of many upscale residents. The flexibility of the constantly-updated menu caters to anyone’s delight, as the healthier chopped salads do not demand any sacrifice in flavor.
In contrast to the dinner-plate sized soft cookies and gooey peanut butter chocolate fudge bars, Rustic Bakery is commonly known as a place to find a decent salad or light lunch. According the Vanessa, the afternoon cashier and product stocker, it is all about what is ordered that makes it healthy;
“It depends on what you are going to eat. If you are going to eat a salad, of course it is going to be good for you! But if you were going to eat, maybe, a grilled cheese and chocolate cake, then, of course you won’t be very healthy. I think that’s a good place to be; in the middle ground. We give you options, it’s all about the customer here. They get to decide what they want, and it will always be tasty”
All of the food at Rustic Bakery’s is handmade, and uses organically sourced ingredients for wholesale and on-location eating. The various options for breakfast, snacking, lunch, or dessert leave Rustic uncategorizable on a nutritional scale, but high on the popularity chart.
Vanessa, the afternoon store manager at the Kentfield location, described how sudden influxes and decreases of customers have created a predictable rhythm for her day;
“It gets really busy around 11 o’clock. In the mornings, people come and
like to have a coffee, latte, mocha, and then grab a pastry. We are basically operating a coffee shop, so it’s not about the big breakfasts here.”
Once the morning rush is over, more than “half our cookies have disappeared,” Rustic transforms from a morning coffee shop into a trendy lunch spot. “Not until at 12o’clock people like to come and like to eat the salad and sandwiches,” Vanessa explained. “The grilled sandwiches are really really popular. The asian chicken salad and the mediterranean salad too; everybody loves those.”
Although the popularity of the cafe does mean that she is able to “meet lots of friendly people,” Vanessa notes how her job can grow stressful, especially working in a high end establishment; “I have to be the cashier, run the food bar, restock the store, and run the coffee sometimes all at the same time. When I am being here taking orders, people they want it fast. The customers here, in Kentfield, are more, picky. They are very ‘strict’ with their orders.”
Once just a small, exclusive artisanal coffee shop, Rustic Bakery has expanded to become one of Marin’s favorite places to grab a quick gourmet bite. True to their name, Rustic Bakery consistently provides an overflowing array of freshly baked breads, gourmet candies, and signature pastries daily. Once beyond the morning breakfast and coffee rush, Rustic’s infamous salads and gourmet hot sandwiches elicit lines out the door. The exponential success of the businesses grocery-store line and future plans to increase cafe expansion, Rustic Bakery proves that when good flavor, service and quality meet, the possibilities are endless.
“We try and show people the whole lifestyle; you can drink a juice and it will help you, but if you eat terrible food all day and then drink one juice after, it is not going to ‘cure’ you.”
Urban Remedy’s succulent lined San Rafael location is the perfect grab-and-go place for a freshly pressed juice or lettucey bite for lunch. Upon entering the doors of the brightly lit store, I was immediately struck by how busy the small space was. An impressive array of moms on the run, students out with friends, and uniform-clad athletes bustled around in a pre-lunchtime frenzy; picking out their kale-based lunches, sipping on vibrantly colored juices, or chatting with the employees. Even a few young kids, no older than eight, were browsing through bottles of raw cocoa, cashew-nut smoothies like they were out getting milkshakes. I had not expected such a community vibe, as many similar “juice shops” or “alternative-eating cafe’s” around Marin are fairly pretentious. Instead, Urban Remedy’s light atmosphere was refreshingly inclusive, a trait that I found to be infectious. Melissa, the store manager, more than happily offered to answer all of my questions, and passionately spoke towards the health benefits of Urban Remedy’s food.
“Everything is anti-inflammatory and low glycemic. We don’t have any refined sugars in our products. We use lots of foods such as turmeric, which is an anti-inflammatory, and nuts, which all have lots of minerals and healthy fats,” she repeated, walking around the storefront. As she spoke, Melissa continually pulled out specific products and offered me free samples of everything. I could tell that she was not only confident about the nutritional value of the food but also it’s flavor and quality.
“We just started selling clean sustainable animal proteins that are all humanely raised. Carrots are good for our liver and cleansing our kidneys. Even our cacao has antioxidant properties.”
Urban Remedy’s Vogue Magazine approved, Cindy Crawford-endorsed meal programs claim to give their followers the ability to cleanse out toxins, kick start their nutrition, and get on the path to a healthier lifestyle. Melissa ensured to me that indeed each meal program lived up to their enticing claims, and described how finding Urban Remedy transformed her own personal health;
“I had just been diagnosed with autoimmune thyroid disease. I was 30 and my doctors wanted to put me on medication for the rest of my life. There had to be a better way, so I began looking into foods that helped support thyroid… I just dove right into medicinal foods and exploring their properties! Urban Remedy had just opened up right by my house, so I started just trying our products and learning that our food is actually based around medicinal foods and healing ingredients. The food programs and juice cleanses we offer have completely changed my life and my health.”
Urban Remedy’s newest program, titled the “Metta-morphosis,” will provide you with three days of juices, soups, and salads delivered to your door to revitalize your soul with Plant-based organics and a nourishing 1,300 calories. The $220, three-day program also includes a daily meditation plan and online fitness instruction to holistically “revitalize your body, refocus your mind and rejuvenate your spirit” guide and access to an exclusive online community of other fellow cleansers.
“We also have juice cleanses and meal kits designed to help people do detoxes and such. We just try and fill people up with nutritious things, so that way they won’t have to reach for the unhealthy things. We are really big on clean eating, so we use no pesticides or chemicals at all. We want to build a good relationship with the community and promote a balanced lifestyle for people.”