One afternoon when I was eating lunch with Barbara Goodell at Lauren’s Restaurant I overheard Barbara and Lauren discussing a story that was to be written about Lauren’s Restaurant with an emphasis on local food. Lauren who always has too much on her plate both literally and figuratively, was trying to find time to squeeze writing the story into her already packed schedule. Experienced newspaper writer that I have become and sometime Lauren’s employee that I am, I volunteered to write the story. This undertaking has led me to a much deeper understanding of Lauren’s the Restaurant and also Lauren the person.
In the beginning there was Lauren sitting in an armchair reading a lot about sustainable agriculture. In college she was a student of environmental planning with an emphasis on healthy communities in urban environments. She had an interest in social networks (before Facebook!) and lifestyles in urban communities. To support herself she worked in a number of different East Bay restaurants including Gulf Coast Oysters in downtown Oakland near the old Ratto’s Market. At that time the East Bay was undergoing a revolution around the aesthetics of food — cooking and eating beautiful food that tasted better with local ingredients whenever possible, a “baby vegetable scene.” Farm to table is a big concept now and quite trendy but it was just beginning to take hold in those days. Lauren was developing a passion for integrating a sustainable farming piece into this picture. She came to the conclusion that “Our food system is very broken” and she began to have “Big thoughts about the environment which led me to understand that our food system is set up with a disconnect- with apples from China instead of from down the road.” She started to think about “food miles” and what was happening to farmland. “I thought I wanted to be a farmer not just to grow food that would taste better. I wanted something that could be sustained.” In other words she was (and is) something of an idealist. However around this same time she was visiting her sister who lived in Petaluma and asked her, “What do you do here, what is there to do?” Despite this initial skepticism about rural life she and Gary started Inky Dinky Farm on the property where their houses still stand on AV Way in Boonville. They farmed for three years and were around for the start of the first Boonville Farmers Market which Lauren eventually became the manager of. To keep things going both Gary and Lauren had full time jobs, Gary in Berkeley as a waiter on fashionable 4th Street and Lauren working at the Boonville Hotel. This squeezed the time available to farm and after their daughter Nora was born they eventually decided to end Inky Dinky Farm in 1992. Lauren continued at the Hotel for eight years and Gary went to work at Jennifer Schmitt’s Restaurant/Bar/Music Venue The Sound Bite in the same building Lauren’s is in today. Originally Lauren used the Sound Bite kitchen for a catering business. Nora was six when they started the restaurant. “Since we don’t have a farm the restaurant was a way to support these ideas and get more involved in local food.”
Lauren’s Restaurant opened in February 1996. Lauren told me, “I never thought I would open a restaurant, it just fell into my lap; it was not a goal. It just seemed like the right thing to do. The first ten years I loved it. It was what I wanted it to be so quickly.” What she wanted it to be was not just food but more of a community gathering place including local food, art, community events and music.
During our interview Lauren advised me to think about farming from the farmer’s point of view. It is important, for example, for a restaurant to support local farmers by purchasing produce regularly and to work with what is in season by using what is fresh in menu “Specials.” She wonders if people understand how difficult it is to get local food. To have a restaurant where everything is local is virtually impossible for both the farmer and the restaurant. You have to keep it real. She told me, “That’s why I specifically highlight the local ingredients on Lauren’s menu. In buying local produce ‘you get what you get when you get it.’ If you request a farmer to grow something specifically for you it is critical that you purchase it when it is ready. People should not feel bad if they don’t eat local all the time. You can say ‘I’m going to up my percentage of local food to 10-15 or 20%’ or something doable. You don’t have to go whole hog. If we all bought 10-15% of our food at the Farmer’s Market or at locally it would make a big difference. The local produce we buy makes our salads more special and adds to the quality of what we do. I use local black trumpet and chanterelle mushrooms in our pasta.”
When asked about some of her favorite local food dishes she told me that she likes the summer pasta with tomatoes, the caponata, the savory tart with sautéed summer squash, the peach and blackberry cobbler and the corncakes. Lauren also told me that without Brock Farms in the beginning she never would have been able to offer local foods. Later Pam Laird at Blue Meadow Farms, the Apple Farm, Petite Teton and a variety of individuals like Ernie Pardini have kept her supplied with delicious and super fresh foods. Many of the farmers deliver to the restaurant, which is invaluable to a busy person serving both lunch and dinner.
Lauren told me that there have been many rewards to having the restaurant. One recent thing that came to her mind was watching a young person who has been eating at Lauren’s his entire life eating many plain burgers over the years order the shredded Vietnamese salad! As a community member and sometime employee I have watched many different kinds events (and yes anyone would have to admit that they were all heart warming) unfold within the walls of this very special restaurant. I have attended funerals, showers, art shows, music concerts and many community organizational meetings. The Chamber of Commerce and AVArts both meet monthly and I’m sure there are others.
At the end of the day there are two kinds of food, there is the kind you eat which is delicious at Lauren’s. Then there is the other kind of food that is equally important: food for the soul. Since Lauren expressly prohibited me from making her sound “nice” (which she absolutely is not) let me just say that both kinds of food are in good supply at Lauren’s Restaurant. When it comes to eating locally it is a lot of work to make that happen and without a great big dose of idealism and commitment to a better life in the community it just would never ever happen. It is a whole lot easier to have everything delivered in a big truck with one packing list and one bill to pay.
Lauren is up with the times and currently gets quite a lot of good reviews through the web based review site “Yelp” People coming through the Anderson Valley check Yelp for recommendations and find themselves at Lauren’s following up on those good reviews. If you have something “nice” to say about Lauren’s please visit Yelp and add yourself to her list of fans. There is also an e-mail list that Lauren uses to send out seasonal menu changes and special event information. If you would like to be on the list visit Lauren at: firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the web site at www.laurensgoodfood.com or call 707 895-3869. Lauren’s is located in downtown Boonville at 14211 Highway 128.
In two weeks number 9 in the Connecting With Local Food series brought to you by the Anderson Valley Foodshed will feature Andy Balestracci and Diaspora, his new local seed company. C’mon Home to Eat month is all of October and there will be weekly updates on special events each week. Go to www.mendocinolocalfood.org for the calendar or to read the previous articles in the series.