Station House Café celebrates 40 years

02/27/2014

As the loyal patrons of the Station House Café celebrate the restaurant’s 40 years this month, they might think of the establishment’s history as a microcosm of the town’s own evolution. As the region has grown from a quiet ranching community to a Bay Area foodie hub, the cafe has had to expand twice to handle both locals and the growing crowds that arrive to satiate themselves after sight-seeing and adventuring outdoors. But the two women who have owned the restaurant over the past four decades say their primary focus has been and still is to serve locals and regulars.

Sheryl Cahill, who has owned the restaurant since the summer of 2005, will honor the 40th anniversary on Friday when, from 5 to 9 p.m. the restaurant will “go retro” and offer 1970s prices on its fare while Bart Hopkins, who has played at the restaurant innumerable times over the years, picks at his guitar in the bar.

While Ms. Cahill has made some minor changes to the restaurant, in many ways she has committed herself to maintaining a high degree of continuity for the four-decade-old joint.

Both aspects of her ownership were on display last Sunday evening. The music program, which Ms. Cahill started six or seven years ago, brings West Marin and Bay Area artists for three hours on Sunday evenings, as well as the third Monday of each month. 

This past weekend, the Dale Polissar Trio, led by the Bolinas-based musician, filled the bar with the playful sound of his clarinet; the songs both captivated a few locals listening attentively to the improvisation and served as pleasant background music to those further afield in the dining room.

It was a busy evening, with a wait of at least half an hour and most of the tables filled with tourists, according to a hostess surveying the scene. But regardless of their point of origin, they all seemed pleased to be sitting down to enjoy a good meal at the close of a sunny day. 

An elderly man was served a chocolate milkshake in a classic beveled glass with a perfectly formed swirl of whipped cream and the cliché cherry on top. A young couple sitting across from each other ordered a pair of burgers and when they arrived, held them firmly in hand to prevent the toppings from escaping as they bent their heads 90 degrees to feast. 

A woman from Petaluma slurped up a bowl of fresh mussels, which have been on the menu for decades, after finishing an 11-mile hike in the park.

Though business now is running smoothly and has been up from normal in the past few months, likely due to the unseasonably warm weather, there has been one major struggle during Ms. Cahill’s tenure: the recession, which began just a few years after she bought the restaurant. 

Despite the challenge of keeping 48 people employed during the financial hardship, they added a $5 egg sandwich to the menu and offered lower-priced specials, so that regulars could continue to eat without breaking the bank.

For those regulars she also keeps the place open on quiet weekday mornings for breakfast, though business rarely bustles. For them, she said, she strives to keep prices reasonable and serve slightly more adventurous dinners like baby octopus and pork terrine (or liver) alongside standbys like mussels, oyster stew, mac and cheese and traditional fries and coleslaw.

In the kitchen on Tuesday, Armando Gonzalez, a prep cook who has worked at the Station House since he was 19, assembled a batch of slaw. He grabbed two heads of cabbage and a bag of radishes from a walk-in pantry and methodically set to work. 

He ripped off the outer layer of the cabbage and, holding it steady with one hand, began rhythmically slicing one side before rotating it 90 degrees and starting again, the cabbage becoming smaller and smaller until he finally reached the white core, which he discarded. 

He scooped the crimped strips into a big metal bowl. He used the same brisk blade work on the celery, radishes and jicama. He scattered poppy and celery seeds on the mix before drizzling the creamy dressing and digging his gloved hands in to mix it all up.

Although the recipe has changed a bit over time—eliminating the carrots or adding jicama—it is work that he has done, again and again, for the past 24 years. 

Though it wasn’t too hectic that afternoon, Mr. Gonzalez said it can get so busy that “you have to run to do everything.” But he enjoys his job. He likes the Station House for the same reason that many locals do: to see his friends and co-workers, a few of whom, like Pablo Mata, also a prep cook, have also worked there for over 20 years.

A diverse menu wasn’t the original vision for the Station House. Pat Healy, who bought the café in 1974 and owned it for 32 years, began with a more basic premise for the restaurant, but the onslaught of tourism changed her plans.

When Ms. Healy bought the café it was located where Osteria Stellina is now. And Ms. Healy at the time was working as a veterinary technician and running an organic vegetable farm. It was a different life than the one she’d had before, as a jazz singer in Los Angeles. She left after the end of a rocky marriage, and came to Point Reyes after visiting friends whose home at the time is where she now resides, overlooking Tomales Bay.

Although an establishment by the same name has been around since at least the late 1950s, or maybe longer, Ms. Healy declares that the Station House’s true birthday is February 19, 1974, when it opened under her ownership.

Her first idea for the restaurant was simple: soups, fat turkey sandwiches and other straightforward plates. “Real ranch-country fare, very, very simple,” she said. It made sense at the time; when Ms. Healy first began visiting the area in the 1950s and ’60s, the town was fairly quiet, and she started with just a few employees.

But she soon realized the establishment would need to adjust to the increasing popularity of the national seashore. “The very nature of what happened because of the park and West Marin being discovered demanded we do more. And because I love food and I’m interested and I’m reading up on what was being created at the time, we had an interesting menu.”

That included quiche, which she said was quite uncommon at the time, and mussels, which she said no restaurant in the area was serving.

Just a year after she opened, a group of prominent locals started eating breakfast at the restaurant almost every day. They included the new publisher of the Point Reyes Light and the sheriff who headed the West Marin substation, Art Disterheft. “A lot of West Marin issues got hashed out there,” said then Light publisher Dave Mitchell. They talked about local and national topics ranging from the Synanon cult to renewable energy. The group, called Table Six, lasted for decades, though it eventually petered out when many of the members moved on or moved away.

In 1978, the business expanded into an adjoining space to handle the crowds, and Ms. Healy hired Denis Bold, the chef who manned the menu for 24 years.

But the steady business of locals and the proliferation of tourists would eventually strain their bigger space as well; Ms. Healy worried the septic system might buckle.  Though financing was difficult—in part, she says, because she was a woman—she managed to secure enough funds by selling an acre of her own land. She moved the restaurant to its current location in 1989.

It was right after the relocation that she hired Sheryl Cahill—who would one day succeed her as the proprietor—to wait tables. Before a full year had passed, Ms. Cahill, a native of Humboldt County, had become the manager. Though Ms. Cahill left the restaurant in 1998 to earn a bachelor’s degree in anthropology, she returned after graduating to help Ms. Healy prepare to sell the business. 

Her old stomping grounds lured her in, and by the middle of 2005, she owned the Station House.