The Best Damn Weekend in Northern California
Go to a race track, go to a bar, eat some oysters and drive the stink out of a Dodge Charger R/T. Repeat.
It all began with Chinese food for breakfast. We were sitting in Leann’s Café near SFO, at sunrise. Leann’s is the best greasy spoon/Italian trattoria/chinese joint/open-all-night bar/cop hangout on Airport Boulevard, which isn’t saying much. My partner in crime was Tomo—a photographer who’s spent years covering war zones in the Balkans and Mexico. He can handle himself, anywhere.
Our goal: to cruise out of San Francisco in search of the best driving roads in the country, the best mugs of beer and vino, and the finest food. Nowhere like California wine country do car and culinary culture collide with such delicious results. In addition, we’d dig up some after-hours danger as well. To pack it all into two days—a trip that you, reader, can experience yourself—we’d have to move at furious speeds. If we returned with all our teeth, Tomo assured me, it’d be a miracle.
Our vehicle: a Dodge Charger R/T Scat Pack in an almost neon shade of blue, one of the more powerful (and some—though not The Drive—might say obnoxious) muscle cars rolling off assembly lines today, or ever. The Mendocino hippies in their pot-trimming warehouses would love it, right?
Time to roll.
First stop, Sonoma.
Specifically, the Sonoma Grand Prix, IndyCar’s season finale. Sonoma Raceway should be on every gearhead’s bucket list—12 turns, 2.52 miles, set in the sun-baked Sonoma Mountains. Everyone races here: IndyCar, NASCAR, NHRA, Ferrari Challenge, and that’s saying nothing about the club racing. Why stop there? That’s why.
Pictured above is Scott Dixon’s No. 9 car, 20 minutes before the Grand Prix’s green flag. A few feet away, points leader Juan Pablo Montoya was slipping into his cockpit. The championship would soon be decided, and it was Montoya’s trophy to win or lose.
[Drive from San Francisco to Sonoma Raceway: North on Highway 1 through the city, over the Golden Gate on 101 North, past the gates of San Quentin. From 101, turn right at Highway 37. Driving time: 1 hour.]
Welcome, race fans. From left: Mrs. Tony Kanaan, Mrs. Ryan Hunter-Reay and Mrs. Scott Dixon—the wives of three IndyCar champs. The little man up front is making a pit stop.
The pack rockets into lap two at over 150 mph. Points leader Montoya is on the inside at the top-right of the picture above (No. 2). Two cars behind Montoya is New Zealander Scott Dixon.
At the end of the day, Dixon snatched the checkered flag—and his fourth IndyCar championship.
Healdsburg, California. You’ve gotta hand it to beer geeks who have the balls to set up a brewery in the heart of wine country. We pull in front of Bear Republic, a pilgrimage-type destination for thirsty grownups, just in time to crash the brewery’s annual cellar party, where beers headed for the judges’ mouths at the Great American Beer Festival in Denver are on tap. Some of these beers are made in such small batches that only one cask exists, which makes a glass a sort of priceless commodity.
Oh, and almost everything about this brewery is inspired by racing. The beers include Grand-Am (6% pale ale), Red Racer (8% IPA), Café Racer 15 (9.75%, “a high revving Double IPA”), and the flagship—Racer 5 (7.5% IPA, distributed nationally; the name comes from Speed Racer’s car). Pictured here is Dan Hanes, beer ambassador. Good job title for a good guy.
[Drive from Sonoma Raceway to Bear Republic: Two miles west on 37, then cut north on 101, which dumps you into downtown Healdsburg. The brewery is at 345 Healdsburg Avenue. Drive time: 1 hour.]
Bear Republic’s brewers doing what they do best: drinking beer. At the center with goatee is co-founder and master brewer Rich Norgrove, who’s done plenty of club racing in a kit Cobra he built himself.
“We run the brewery like it’s a race team,” says Norgrove. “We even wear team shirts like guys in an old-school pit crew.” Norgrove won Small Brewing Company Brewer of the Year at the 2006 Great American Beer Festival. “It felt like winning the Daytona 500,” he says, “and the Indy 500 at the same time.”
Suffice it to say, you’re only sipping here. There’s an epic drive ahead.
The roads that lead from Sonoma to the Pacific wind through golden hills and sleepy villages—perfect for charging into high-speed bends. For much of the drive, you’re curling along the bank of the Russian River. Along the way: grazing cows, horse farms, swirling birds of prey, a hot hitchhiking hippie girl (going in the opposite direction, alas), the Korbel Winery, the awesome Stumptown Brewery Grill (get the smoked brisket and a Rat Bastard ale), plenty of smeared road kill—and not a single police cruiser in sight. We go hard.
Route 116 dumps you onto the Pacific shores at the village of Jenner, where the Russian River flows into the sea. Pick up Highway 1 and the real fun starts. You curl along the coast. Sometimes, you’re a stone’s throw from the water. Others, you’re hundreds of feet up on a rocky ledge moving at speed—short bursts of acceleration, then quick braking at the switchbacks. (Four-piston Brembos make for impressive stopping power in a 4,400-lb Dodge.) If you’re lucky, you’ll spot pods of sperm whales way out beyond the break.
Muscle cars like straight roads, but the Charger eats up this twisty pavement. The R/T Scat Pack iteration is the most muscle you can get from a Charger (6.4-liter V-8, 485 horsepower, 8-speed manumatic) before you reach Dodge’s SRT line, with its lofty price tags. Base: $39,995.
[Drive from Healdsburg to the coast: South on 101, hook right on Old Redwood Highway, then right on Eastside Road, then another right on Old River Road (116). Keep going until you hit water. Drive time: 1 hour, plus stopping time.]
Another shot on the coast, near Goat Rock Beach.
Sunset on Highway 1. One thing about this road: You don’t see a lot of fuel stations. The Charger gets as thirsty as its driver after a long day (15 mpg city / 25 mpg highway). We’ll admit to a hint of anxiety when the fuel-gauge warning blipped on in the middle of nowhere—until we found a 76 in the village of Gualala.
Every color in the spectrum can be found in a California sunset.
Mendocino sits on the ocean just south of Fort Bragg. Population is about 1,000, and half of those people are certified eccentrics. Which makes it a fascinating spot to pull up a bar stool. The town is so beautiful, it’s been shot for dozens of films, from the James Dean classic East of Eden (1955) to Jim Carrey’s box-office bomb The Majestic (2001). Fun TV fact: It stood in for the Maine coast in Murder, She Wrote.
Start with dinner at Flow on Main Street, on the deck overlooking the ocean. You’ll want a Smoke on the Water cocktail—jalapeño-infused tequila—then the local cod chowder with smoked bacon and a classic burger. Then, hit Dick’s Place a couple doors down, open until 2 a.m. Pictured: the writer (in the center) looking for some help.
[Drive from Jenner to Mendocino: North up Highway 1 and don’t turn until you see the Mendocino sign. Turn left. Drive time: 2 hours 15 minutes.]
This picture at Dick's gets more interesting the longer we look at it. After last call, we head next door to the circa-1870s Mendocino Hotel. Clean and atmospheric, though the walls are a little thin.
The breakfast burrito at the MacCallum House—known simply as the Mac House around these parts—is tough to beat (expensive at $14, but then again you’re eating a hand-rolled tortilla). It takes about 30 seconds to devour. We hit the road headed south, stopping to shoot the Charger in some early morning sun.
You got a problem? (Yes, A.J., that’s not very neighborly behavior. — Ed.)
Take Highway 1 south to 128, and you’re motoring through Navarro River Redwoods State Park. These trees are among the tallest on earth, some of them 1,500 years old. Hit one? It won’t be the one to budge. Another fun Hollywood fact: Chase scenes from another stinker, 2014’s movie adaptation of the Need for Speed video game franchise, were shot in these woods. From here, the road spits you out into Mendocino County’s Anderson Valley, past one world-class vineyard after another: Lula Cellars, Roederer Estate, Greenwood Ridge, Toulouse and the incomparable Goldeneye. Tasting rooms beckon, but remember, the spittoons are there for a reason. Use ‘em.
Pictured here: vats of freshly harvested pinot gris grapes headed for the crusher at Navarro Vineyards. The winery just debuted eight new selections, all of them worth a taste, notably the “Highway 128 Revisited” 2014 Sauvignon Blanc.
[Drive time from Mendocino to Navarro Vineyards: 40 minutes.]
Navarro’s winemaker, Jim Klein, takes us through the process, from grape to bottle.
Hungry? Here’s the best meal we find in Sonoma and Mendocino counties: beautiful bivalves at Hog Island Oyster Farm on Tomales Bay, on the road back to San Francisco. Tomales Bay is oyster heaven, with three working farms.
Pictured: Grilled seasoned oysters (right), and raw oysters with mignonette in the center—a sauce made of herbs, vinegar and cracked black pepper. Both go dynamite with Scrimshaw, a crisp pilsner from North Coast Brewing in Fort Bragg—light and perfect for a sunny afternoon. Three beers and two dozen oysters: $108.50 plus tip.
[Drive from Navarro Vineyards to Hog Island Oyster Farm: South on 128 to 101 south, right on Tomales Road to Highway 1 south, which becomes Shoreline Highway. The farm is #20215. Drive time: 2 hours.]
Beau, our Hog Island shucker, shows us the ropes.
Nowhere but NorCal can you be 30 miles outside one of the world’s great techno-metropolises, San Francisco, and feel like you’re a thousand miles from anything. Cruising down Highway 1, you’re surrounded by breathtaking sea cliffs and ocean vistas, with no cell reception. It eventually rejoins the 101, where we photographed this lovely thing in the side-view. Can you make a positive I.D.? (*Answer at bottom.)
With our road trip nearly over, we stop to give the Charger a little more love. Here it sits at Fort Baker in Sausalito, under the arch of the Golden Gate.
[Drive from Tomales Bay to the Golden Gate: South on Highway 1, over to 101 South, exiting at the sign for Fort Baker. Drive time: 1 hour 30 mins.]
Crosswalk? What crosswalk? About 36 hours after we left Leann’s greasy spoon/Italian trattoria/Chinese joint/all-night bar/cop hangout, we finish the journey at the 500 Club at 17th and Guerrero in the heart of the Mission. Two-dollar beers! The end.
*A 1941 Chevrolet, people.
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