No one knows exactly how William Tell, a Swiss folk hero, got his name on an establishment in Tomales, California, but there it was emblazoned on the mirror above an antique bar: “William Tell House, Since 1877, Marin’s Oldest Saloon.”
We were there, however, to explore the changes taken place since Ted Wilson, founder of Always Fishing Hospitality Group, purchased and extensively refurbished the historic inn, restaurant and bar, known locally as “The Tell.”
Wilson and his team have refurbished “The Tell” to reflect the property’s 150-year history, including three guest rooms and an outdoor patio. Established in 1877 and rebuilt in 1921 after the Great Tomales Fire, William Tell House is “generally considered the oldest saloon in Marin County,” according to new publicity materials.Wilson is a Bay Area-based food entrepreneur and was the brainchild behind The Hall, one of the first food halls of its kind in the Bay Area. His newly formed hospitality group, Always Fishing, includes The Alice Collective in downtown Oakland, and Metal + Match, a catering company.
Before moving to San Francisco from New York in 2011, Wilson worked in the wine industry at Relativity Vineyards and Fox Run Vineyards, and became senior vice president at Noble House Wines, a New York-based distributor and importer,from 2008 to 2011. This role brought him west.
Wilson’s life-long love of fishing is rooted in memories of fishing with his grandfather on the reservoirs of Missouri. He now lives in Oakland with his wife and new baby — and still goes fishing when he can. It also gave him a love of seafood and commitment to sustainability and conservation, all of which are reflected in his project at the William Tell House.
“With the rebirth of The Tell, our goal is to bring a reinvigorated experience to the town of Tomales, its community, and those passing through the area,” he said. “The history of this building is so rich and we want to share that with our guests.”
We began at the bar where bar manager Trevor Miller was mixing cocktails. There’s a William Tell, of course, made with apple brandy, maple-black walnut bitters and Angostura bitters ($10). There’s also a Carmen Sandiego, (Avion, Silver tequila, Ancho-Reyes, grapefruit, lime, and cardamom bitters ($12); Black Betty (bourbon, lemon and seasonal jam ($11), a Black Manhatten ($12), Campari Spritz ($10). a the Pimm’s Cup, ($12) and a Blood Mary ($12).
He also has whiskeys, mescals, and cordials and beers and wines from Marin, Monterey and Sonoma. Wines by the glass are listed by consumer-friendly descriptions, rather than names: White, crisp and minerally ($9); white, round and buttery, ($11); red, light and bright ($10); red, jammy and big ($12).
Diners have a choice of indoor or outdoor seating in casual settings with communal picnic tables and lounge seating for up to 60.
Our gathering of media types filled one table. Wilson and chef Austin Perkins rolled out a sampling of a menu of he describes as “humble, honest, California cuisine.” The focus is local products, a fairly irresistible prospect when one considers that this includes everything from local oysters to Petaluma chickens and Marin cheeses, as well as produce.
It began with oysters: They have a plethora of riches here: Drakes Bay and Tomales Bay oysters are $18 for six, $32 a dozen. A baked oyster with bacon, Fresno chili butter and cotija cheese is $20 for six. We can attest to the fact that you can also order oyster in an excellent entree of buttermilk fried and served with chips for $18.
Other appetizers include smoked buffalo wings with blue cheese ($12), local cheese and charcuterie ($14), chicken sliders ($4 each) and a distinctive McFarland Springs trout dip with cucumber and potato chips ($10).
We sampled the William Tell Cobb salad ($15) which includes Petaluma chicken and Point Reyes blue cheese. Mixed greens with apple cider is $10, to which you can add smoked trout.
House specialties are the seafood chowder ($8 per cup; $15 for a bowl) and the Tomales Bay Cioppino ($18 for a half order; $32 for a full one). Another hit I’d add to this list are the Tomales Bay Co. mussels and fries ($17). The mussels are braised in beer, and the fries are cooked in duck fat, dusted with Old Bay spice and served with aioli.
Somewhere in between the salad and the chowder, Perkins sent out a platter of fresh Mexican street corn dressed with local honey, pasilla, lime and cotija ($6).
Then there are the burgers. Ask and Wilson will explain the efforts that go into creating a burger that is as sustainable as possible from local beef. It’s also delicious dripping with Highway One cheese, pickled onions and caramelized onion aioli ($13). If this is not enough, you can add bacon ($2) or avocado ($2). Or go completely mad and make it a double-double ($18).
Rounding out the menu are tacos of the day (vegetarian, meat and fish) for $5 each and roasted chicken and steak.
These latter items we did not sample as Wilson had told us home-made pie was coming. He gets it from Allison’s, a local bakery. They’re made with seasonal fruit ($8 per slice.)
We had been generously testing the wine list throughout the meal, and after an post-dinner house made cordial, several of the group staggered upstairs to try out the refurbished guest rooms. It is, however, an easy drive back to Napa — traffic permitting, just about an hour.
It’s a fun place, without pretensions, dog-friendly and family friendly, worth a stop to and from the ocean, or maybe a longer stay.
William Tell House Seafood Chowder
Chef Austin Perkins
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1 yellow onion, diced
4-5 celery ribs, diced
2 leeks, white parts only, split and diced
3 strips of bacon
3 Yukon potatoes peeled and diced into ½ inch pieces
16 ounces clam juice or fish fumet
1 stick or 8 tablespoons unsalted butter
¼ cup flour
4 cups milk
4 cups heavy cream
1 teaspoon fresh thyme
½ lbs. Manila clams
½ lbs. Mussels
¼ lbs. white shrimp, peeled and deveined
¼ lbs. rock cod, filleted into 1-inch cubes
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
Salt and pepper
Fresh parsley for garnish
Over medium heat, sauté diced onion, celery, leeks and bacon until tender, about 6 minutes. Add diced potatoes and clam juice to vegetable mixture. Continue to cook until potatoes are tender, about 15 minutes. Turn off heat and set aside.
In a large saucepan over medium heat, melt butter. When butter has melted add flour and stir continuously until a thick roux forms. Slowly add milk, stirring occasionally, until mixture thickens. Add heavy cream.
Remove bacon from vegetable mixture and set aside. Add vegetable mixture to the cream mixture. Season with salt and pepper and add chopped fresh thyme.
Heat vegetable oil in sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add Manila clams, mussels, white shrimp, and rock cod to oil and sauté for 60–80 seconds. Pour the chowder mixture over the shellfish and simmer until shellfish opens.
Dish into 4-6 soup bowls, garnish with crispy bacon and parsley.
William Tell House’s restaurant and bar are open Monday from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., Thursday from 4 to 8 p.m., Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., Saturday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Sunday from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., and closed Tuesday and Wednesday. Happy hour takes place every Thursday and Friday from 4 to 6 p.m., featuring $5 well cocktails and specials on small bites, a selection of street tacos, and $1.50 oysters. Brunch is served every Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and live local music can be enjoyed every Friday on the patio from 6 –8:30 p.m. The William Tell House is located at 26955 CA-1, Tomales .To book reservations at The Inn at William Tell House visit,https williamtellhouse.com/.