Tomales saloon reopens under new ownership

Teresa Mathew
Bill Bonini (right) talks with friends at the pop-up opening of the William Tell last Thursday.  

Tomales residents are celebrating the return of an old watering hole. The William Tell, one of the oldest bars in Marin County, is open once more, this time under the direction of San Francisco food entrepreneur and brand developer Ted Wilson. Its resurgence could be a boon not only for tourism in town, but also for residents who have been lacking a local place to gather and drink since the Tell, the only saloon in town, closed last year.

Everything about the area—“the scenery, the weather, the people, being closer to the farms and agriculture”—attracted Mr. Wilson to the site. He loves the building, the way nostalgia seems to be embedded in everything from the fireplace to the old mahogany bar. 

“They just don’t make things like that anymore,” he said. “No matter how much money I could throw, it would never turn out like that. You can’t build old. But you can buy old, and that’s what we did.” 

With squat rectangular windows and font signage out of a Wild West movie set, the exterior of the William Tell stands as a stalwart holdover from Tomales’s ranching heyday. The interior still has an old-time feel: the wood is highly polished and photos of town from decades past adorn the walls. A portrait of Arturo, a former customer said to haunt the restaurant, hangs above the fireplace. 

Now, some elements of the 147-year-old establishment will modernize. The airy dining room will have counter service instead of more formal table service in order to “emulate the feel of why people go to Tomales, and the beach,” Mr. Wilson said. “They don’t want to be fussy, they want to be laid back. The ranchers—those families are busting their asses every day.” 

While the restaurant’s kitchen undergoes a remodel, the William Tell will be open in pop-up form Wednesdays through Sunday for lunch and dinner, with a bar and a limited food menu. There will be seafood chowder, a rotating specialty hot dog, cioppino, trout dip and Dungeness crab deviled eggs, among other items. One of the saloon’s new signature cocktails is an apple brandy cocktail similar to an old fashioned, called the William Tell—after the Swiss marksman famous for shooting an arrow through an apple perched atop his son’s head. 

Mr. Wilson is hoping to have the restaurant fully operational before January, and looks at the pop-up as a soft opening, a way to see what kinds of food and drink perform well with both locals and

“Tourists are very important to us,” Mr. Wilson said, “but we’re not going to shy away from welcoming all the people that live up there year-round and making sure they’re being serviced and being heard.” Mr. Wilson has founded numerous food-related ventures in San Francisco, including the catering company Metal and Match and the Alice Collective, a kitchen-café-event space.

In July, he held a community meeting in the Tomales Town Hall and heard from locals concerned about high prices in one of the only eateries in town. He replied that he intends to keep the Tell cheaper than Nick’s Cove, four miles south, where Mr. Wilson’s executive chef, Austin Perkins, worked until 2016. But he also plans to source 80 percent of ingredients locally, between San Francisco and Bodega Bay. 

“One of the struggles,” Mr. Wilson said, “is that sourcing locally doesn’t mean cheaper. The person who put time into that ingredient should get paid what they need to get paid.” 

At the pop-up, bar snacks run to $31 for a dozen oysters, and bigger plates range from an $8 liberty duck chili to the $26 cioppino. The food is carefully presented, calibrated to both the eye and tongue. Oysters arrive artfully bedded in ice chips, and tiny towers of ceviche tostados are garnished with perfectly sized radish slivers. 

Last Thursday, the pop-up’s menu debut, customers pronounced the chowder, Cobb salad and hot dog to be delicious, though one woman was not a fan of the tostados, which she said were “boring” and under-spiced. Kinks in the recipes are still being worked out; a creamy, tangy trout dip was quickly replaced with a newer version that better distilled the fish’s essence (though this reporter must acknowledge that both were quite palatable).

On Thursday evening, 10 Tomales residents were happy just to have a place to come and get a drink—or two. “We meet in people’s houses, but it’s not the same,” Peggy Hammond, who owns the Continental Inn next door to the Tell, said. “You always know someone’s putting it on, but here it’s just relaxed—you can stay for five minutes or five hours.”

Lorretta Murphy, manager of Drakes Bay Oyster Company, which will be providing oysters to the Tell, said “any good restaurateur in West Marin knows that on weekends you’ve got tourists, and during the week on a Tuesday in the winter, you’re reliant on the local population to carry you through.” 

Bill Bonini’s family owned the Tell for generations. He knew Arturo in the flesh, and remembers driving the man home from the bar with a bag of groceries. Last week, Mr. Bonini recalled when the Tell just served drinks, and was packed three lines deep from the bar stools to the wall. He said he was hopeful about the new version’s future, and grateful for its existence. At least, he said, “it’ll be nice to have a drink in your own town.”