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When chef and restaurateur Michael Mina needs a head-clearing break from his restaurant empire, he hops on his motorcycle and heads for the Marshall Store on Tomales Bay.
The undulating road, the wind, a tray of fresh-shucked or barbecued bivalves overlooking the water — Mina calls it the “quintessential NorCal experience.”
“I don’t have a lot of releases outside of work,” says the Michelin-starred chef. “That’s my getaway. When I tell my wife I’m going to be gone for two hours, that’s where I go.”
It’s understandable that he might need a time-out. As the chef and founder of Mina Group, he runs 44 restaurants across the United States and Dubai — including nine in the Bay Area — a number that seems to tick upward all the time. A new outpost of International Smoke — the joint barbecue venture with Ayesha Curry that debuted in San Francisco in late 2017 — opened recently in Miami, and another is bound for Del Mar (San Diego County).
Next up is a location of Japanese izakaya restaurant Pabu in Nashville, a Bourbon Pub at San Francisco International Airport and another at Northstar in Tahoe and an as-yet-to-be-named concept coming to the former home of Guaymas in Tiburon, an iconic piece of Marin County real estate overlooking San Francisco Bay.
It’s a nostalgic spot for Mina, who lived in Tiburon when he first moved to the Bay Area to open Aqua in 1989, arriving the day before the Loma Prieta earthquake.
“I would go to Guaymas and to Sam’s (Anchor Cafe) all the time. My very first memories of my first year are right there,” says Mina.
Marin is also where Mina and his family have made their home, in a 3,500-square-foot Nicasio farmhouse, where a garden full of heirloom tomatoes and lovage for his wife Diane’s Bloody Marys spills right into the outdoor kitchen.
“You feel like you’re completely removed from everything,” Mina says of the rural hamlet. “From the top of my little hill, where I write menus and get away, you look out on all these olive trees and real farmland. It’s just really special.”
Mina jokes that his wife tells him not to talk up Nicasio too much, “because everyone will move here,” but we asked the chef to share some of his favorite places to eat and drink north of the Golden Gate Bridge.
These are a few of his regular spots, restaurants that he says really “speak Marin.”
Mina lives in Nicasio because of Rancho Nicasio, the rustic, 1940s roadhouse whose property makes up most of the one-block downtown and includes a restaurant, bar, general store, post office and the Nicasio Volunteer Fire Department. Owned by Huey Lewis and the News former manager Bob Brown, the de facto town hall hosts summer concerts on the lawn, where hundreds of guests gather to hear bluegrass and rock over plates of barbecue oysters and ribs.
When his father-in-law introduced them to the shows, Mina was living in Redwood City and Nicasio “felt like it was in a different country.” But the music, the laid-back crowd and the pastoral West Marin setting kept pulling him back.
“It’s magical,” Mina says. “It’s something you have to experience.”
Founded by chef Jeff Cerciello, a veteran of kitchens like the French Laundry and El Bulli, Mina’s go-to date-night restaurant at Marin County Mart in Larkspur is an edible road trip all over California, with ingredients sourced from farms and producers throughout the state.
It’s “definitely at the top of the list because of what it’s about: high quality, good technique, a lot of interesting food, Mediterranean influence and really good product,” says Mina, who recommends the blistered-crust pizzas scattered with ingredients like fennel salumi and smoked mozzarella, and the hummus, a simple dish turned sublime with a few key additions. Cerciello whips it with avocado for extra creaminess, then serves it topped with pistachio salsa verde and alongside house-baked lavash, best used to wipe up every last bit.
“I’ll tell you how much I love” Fish, Mina says by way of introduction. “I know them all and still we never cut in line.”
This sustainable seafood joint on the Sausalito waterfront serves picnic table food worth waiting for, and it helps that the line is part of the fun. A convivial mix of locals and visitors sip on beers as they inch toward the cash-only counter and the chance to order Dungeness crab rolls, bowls of chowder and the Saigon salmon sandwich, a bahn mi-ish dish made with grilled wild salmon.
“You wouldn’t believe how many people eat at Michael Mina or that caliber of restaurant, and then they’re in line with me at Fish,” Mina says. “You see somebody you know, and you meet someone new every time.”
Salito’s Crab House Prime Rib
A mile south of Fish, another patio beckons with strings of lights and sailboat views. As the name suggests, the go-to order here is Dungeness crab, in season annually from fall through spring.
“It just feels like you’re in Sausalito,” Mina says of sitting on the deck at Salito’s, cracking into a 2-pound, plate-filling crustacean, served roasted and drizzled in garlic butter sauce.
When Mina and his wife first moved to Marin, the only one location of this Puerto Rican hotspot was in San Rafael, 40 minutes from their front door. But Diane, who’s half Italian and half Puerto Rican, craved rice and beans the way her grandmother used to cook them. “She would make me drive there all the time,” the chef laughs.
For good reason. Mina says Sol Food owner Marisol Hernandez has captured combining Puerto Rican with Bay Area produce, using organic ingredients whenever possible for plates that are vibrant, fresh and have earned many fans. Today, there are two Marin restaurants in Mill Valley and San Rafael, where guests line up for the fried plátanos maduros, baked chicken and pressed sandwiches, all doused with secret-recipe hot sauce.
If you can’t stomach the dinner-hour line, Sol Food San Rafael stays open until 1 a.m. on weekends with a takeout shop next door that serves until midnight.
Sarah Feldberg is the assistant travel editor for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org