Sir and Star at the Olema: Life, Death and Rebirth of a Restaurant Legend

On a foggy Sunday in January 2007, several weeks after a fire razed Manka’s Inverness Lodge in Northern California, hundreds of mourners poured into the Manka’s boathouse on Tomales Bay. They brought wheels of artisanal cheese, bottles of local wine and oysters pulled from nearby beds.

They’d come to pay their respects to the old hunting lodge in the woods high above the water, which co-owners Margaret Grade and Daniel DeLong had turned into a legendary retreat, a winding hour-and-a-half drive from San Francisco. Thomas Keller celebrated his birthday there, and Prince Charles and Camilla had visited for dinner, joining the farmers who grew the ingredients for their nine-course meal. Locavores before the term existed, Grade and DeLong sourced the best ingredients in West Marin. One guest was kindly told that eggs, though on the breakfast menu in the lodge, couldn’t be delivered to his $600-a-night cabin, 40 feet away, because “The chef does not like the eggs to travel too far from the flame.”

The boathouse gathering had the look and feel of a funeral. People cried. Condolence letters from around the globe hung on the walls. Cards read, “Born: 1917. Died: December 27, 2006. Reborn: Any moment now.”

In a sense, that moment has arrived. Grade and DeLong have finally opened a new restaurant, one with its own unique story. Long before the fire, they’d had their eyes on the historic Olema Inn, a fussy, fancy-occasion, white-painted spot in the West Marin town of Olema. “But we didn’t want an inn,” says DeLong, defining that as something “cutesy, with white tablecloths.”

So after they bought the property last year, they painted it dark gray and renamed it Sir and Star at The Olema. Presiding over the gateway to Point Reyes National Seashore, the restaurant is right on Highway 1. Hikers, beachgoers, artists and writers congregate on the wraparound porch to eat spectacular dishes like a saffron-laced vegetable broth with baby artichokes, zucchini and fennel: “A Bouillabaisse of All Things Green from the Garden.” All the dishes have lyrical names, as they did at Manka’s. “Leg of a Neighbor’s Duck” is tasty and simple, slow-braised in red wine and marjoram. It’s DeLong’s version of comfort food: “The stuff I like to eat when I’m tired.” For those in the know, there’s a hidden menu based on whatever ingredients—foraged, fished, hunted or harvested—came through the back door in amounts too small or too pricey to put on the à la carte menu (most starters are $10; entrées, $20).

In the dining room, Grade refurbished the original tables and left them linen-free, using brown-paper runners instead. A stuffed cormorant from a Paris flea market stands on a sconce. Travelers will be able to stay in the six guest rooms later this summer. “I call them bird-watcher rooms,” DeLong says, “because you’d better be up early. The dairy trucks start rumbling down the road at dawn.”

Grade often dresses all in black, wearing a long skirt, a hat and dark sunglasses. She speaks in a gravelly whisper, favoring words you rarely hear anymore: She “digs” duck eggs; guests “toddle off” after dinner. She and DeLong love a party yet, paradoxically, tend to hide out in the kitchen. “We’re not happy, cheery people,” says DeLong, smiling. “We’re like the fog; the dark, brooding coast.” Still, when their kids race up the porch, begging for ice cream (house-made, topped simply with West Marin honey, lemon curd or olive oil), Grade whoops and chases them.

She recounts one of the first dinners at The Olema, a benefit for the Marin Agricultural Land Trust. In attendance were friends and longtime suppliers, including Sue Conley of Cowgirl Creamery. At the end of the night, Grade entered the dining room. “I saw the guests standing, these big faces and tall bodies,” she says. “It was a standing ovation. I was confused. And then I realized: It’s because we’re back.”