Duarte's Tavern: Artichoke Soup and Olallieberry Pie
Neither the menu nor the decor has changed much at Duarte's Tavern in Pescadero since the restaurant opened in the 1950s. Certain flavors infuse the author's memories of growing up in the Bay Area.
I'm thinking about leaving the Bay Area--moving away. Even as I write the words the idea seems inconceivable. I am a native, you see, and roots this deep don't relinquish their hold easily. When I think of all I would give up the list is long and complicated. The image that comes to mind, however, is a simple one. When I think of leaving the Bay Area, I think of a bowl of soup.
It is no generic bowl of soup--and no "clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl" either. The dish that floats into my mind can be found only at Duarte's Tavern in Pescadero, a small town on the San Mateo coast surrounded by artichoke fields. The tavern has existed in one form or another since 1894, still run by the original family. The soup is artichoke-- creamy, pale, and green. They've been serving it up daily since the 1950s.
Duarte's (pronounced DOO-arts) is where my family always stopped for dinner on our way back from visits to Santa Cruz. At the end of an afternoon spent riding the carousel at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, after a walk on the pier to watch the fishermen, we loaded back into the car and drove home along the twisty coastal road, always stopping at Duarte's. Sometimes we ate in the wood-paneled dining room, sometimes we got takeout, but my brother and I knew we would have artichoke soup for supper that night. Vegetal but with earthy undertones, a bowl of Duarte's soup is the perennial flavor of spring to me, warm and mellow on the spoon. It was the perfect end to a day of sun and a long drive.
The Liquid Litmus Test
Long after I grew up I continued to visit Duarte's. In college I occasionally taught outdoor education courses at nearby Memorial Park. After a week of sleeping on the ground, we packed up the tents and headed to Duarte's. While my soup was being plated I was in the bathroom, scrubbing camp dirt off my hands with the first hot water I'd seen all week. That soup--along with steaming hot loaves of sourdough bread and a slice of freshly baked olallieberry pie--tasted ambrosial after five days of camp grub.
In my late 20s I brought my friends to Duarte's. We were working then, spending long hours in offices and eager for a break from the city. On weekends we hiked along the coast or through the nearby redwoods and headed to Duarte's for a late- afternoon meal. Waiting for our table in the bar, we drank Bloody Marys with pickled beans in them under the watchful eyes of mounted deer heads. Once we were seated I always gave the same suggestion: "Order whatever you like, but I strongly recommend the soup and olallieberry pie." Those who took my advice never regretted it.
"How come you know all the cool places?" asked my friend Darrin on his first visit.
"I'm native," I told him, with a bit of shy pride. "I've been coming here all my life."
One day I was at Duarte's with a friend who was visiting from out of town. We had driven down the coast on one of those sunny days in which the light glints off the ocean and it seems that there can be no more beautiful place on earth than Northern California. We were sitting at the counter with our bowls of soup when a girl, probably a few years younger than I, plopped herself down in the neighboring seat. She brushed away the menu. "I'll have the artichoke appetizer and a bowl of soup--and later I'm going to have pie," she told the waitress.
I must have looked at her, because she spoke to me.
"I've been coming here all my life," she said proudly.
I smiled. I knew exactly how she felt.
A Madeleine on Every Street Corner
I've been to Duarte's with family, with friends, with everyone I've ever truly loved. If a romantic potential can appreciate my feeling for Duarte's--can see the charm in this quirky tavern-- then I know we might be on the same page. One relationship started minutes after leaving the restaurant, with a steamy kiss in a car parked along the nearby coastal highway. When the police knocked on the window a few hours later we felt like teenagers who'd been busted for doing something illegal.
When I go to Duarte's today I am not simply going to a restaurant, I am walking back into my past. Hidden in each spoonful of soup are memories--the young girl with blonde pigtails on her way home from the beach; the college student grubby from camping; the twentysomething happy to be away from her first real job; the grown woman falling in love. Duarte's is not simply a restaurant and that bowl of soup is not simply soup, it is a touchstone in my life, a reminder of all I have been.
For me the Bay Area is filled with places like this. I remember the day my best friend's mother took us for a special treat--a ferry ride from Sausalito into the city and then the cable car to have dim sum. Going to Chinatown now, I walk the same sidewalks we walked that day. That excited young girl never imagined she might one day live in this busy and beautiful city. The taste of char siu bao is not just food for me, the sweet barbecued pork flavor is a reminder of the day I was shown my future, though I didn't know it then.
Even my neighborhood burrito joint holds memories. This is the food we ate on the afternoon of Bay to Breakers, hungry and hung over, still in our costumes hours after the race. These are the meals that fueled my master's thesis, late nights of pounding out papers with a side of chips. Even when I don't come in for months at a time, the man who works there remembers my order. "Super chicken, no guac," says Antonio with a smile. (Do they even make decent burritos outside of California? Maybe they do, but they'll never taste the same. It's just not possible.)
I thought these places would always be there, that these flavors were fixed constellations in my life. I imagined that if I had children I would take them to Duarte's and tell them how my brother and I came here when we were little kids.
How can I think of leaving this place, these memories,this record of the person I have been?
I understand it can be tempting to some--to wipe the slate clean and begin anew--but I cherish my roots. It's not as if I haven't ever left. I've spent years away from the Bay Area, several of them living in foreign countries where everything was new--each taste, view, and experience. It was exciting, exhilarating even, but it was also exhausting.
When I returned home and ate familiar food, walked through streets that knew me already, I felt a sense of peace. To live in a place where you have roots, where you know how to feed yourpalate and also your soul--this is true comfort.
If I leave I know I will make new memories. I've been spending months at a time in Seattle this past year, testing the waters, and already it has begun. There is an Italian place in my neighborhood there that makes the most amazing lasagna-- layers of thin and supple pasta enclosing ricotta as light as air and a sauce that tastes like a late summer's day. If I could, I would eat there every Sunday night, the perfect end to the weekend. When I'm in San Francisco I miss Sunday evenings at Café Lago. Perhaps years in the future I will tell people, "When I moved to Seattle, this is the first restaurant I loved."
I know that if I leave the Bay Area I can come back to visit. My friendships will continue, albeit in different form. The city will change in subtle ways: restaurants and shops will come and go, and I won't know the cool places any longer. I'm OK with letting go of all that. The question I keep asking myself, however, is this: Where will I go in a new city, when I want to taste my past?
Tara Austen Weaver writes about food and travel, culture and agriculture, for her food blog Tea & Cookies (www.teaandcookies.blogspot.com). Her first book, The Butcher & The Vegetarian: One Woman's Romp Through A World of Men, Meat, and Moral Crisis, will be published next year.
This content was published in the August/September 2008 Edible San Francisco Magazine. © 2008 Edible San Francisco.