A friend of mine once remarked that the character of a city is more resilient than we think. Despite the surface changes of time—new clothes and cars, different shops and bars—there is something impalpable, determined by architecture and place, perhaps, or the taste of the air, that keeps a place what it is, even as it warps and alters unrecognizably. My friend was referring to Paris or New York, but as I am writing this, I realize the same may be said of the tiny town of Inverness.
Inverness is a one-horse town—blink and you could miss it—founded as a vacation resort for San Francisco’s comfortable set. In that, not much has changed. The ridges above the post office, Vladimir’s and Saltwater Oyster Depot are dotted with second homes and vacation rentals. Tension between locals, absentee landowners and weekend visitors exists everywhere on America’s desirable coastlines. Neighborhoods with high property values hollow out when homes and condos stand dark for much of the year, while huge influxes of visitors overwhelm locals, leaving trash—and cash—in their wake.
Tourism is money, it goes without saying, particularly in Northern California, where industry and fishing have come and gone. Locals are left wondering how to preserve the character of a place that has become, like so many destinations, a theme park and museum of itself.
A couple weeks ago, I joined a dozen guests at the first event in Saltwater Oyster Depot’s new dining room, cafe and retail outlet in the former Blackbird cafe. Despite a separate flag hanging out front that reads “The Depot” in a similar typeface as Saltwater’s sign, owner Luc Chamberland wants to emphasize its continuity with the restaurant—same kitchen, same quality, same staff.
You would be forgiven for not knowing what to do when you walk in. A long, low counter on the right holds fresh fish and Hog Island oysters for sale, while baristas wait expectantly near a case of unmarked pastries and sandwiches. There are a few tables for two, and one common table.
The Depot is open as a cafe in the morning and serves sandwiches, pastries and quiche until 4 p.m. on weekends. “People making this their office and buying one cup of coffee in four hours is obviously not a business model,” said Chamberland, who purchased the Blackbird from its owner last year. “But now people stay an hour or so and move on.”
This may be because the room also serves as overflow for Saltwater. While at one table in the window a woman sips coffee and reads the paper, a couple at another table examines a long wine list with help from a server. “Are we allowed to be in here?” a couple asked aloud to themselves upon entering. Then they made their way into Saltwater’s main room for lunch.
There are things for sale, including 1.5 oz of Jacobsen Salt Co. Oregon Flake Sea Salt ($12), a small jar of unlabeled hot sauce ($6), a 4 oz.-vial of mustard in what looks like a travel-size shampoo bottle ($8), and 4 oz. of Poco Dolce Sea Salt Peanut Brittle ($8). The left wall is lined with bottles of wine for purchase, some local, and pint-and-a-half varieties of Lagunitas beer. My partner enjoyed a roast lamb sandwich with spicy aioli and fennel for $11, though he chose to eat it on a rock in the park across the street.
The main attraction for Chamberland, however, are the oysters—sold here un-shucked at the same price as the retail operation of Hog Island Oyster Company across the bay, saving residents and tourists the drive to Marshall and back. He had had originally approached Drakes Bay Oyster Company about a partnership before the axe fell on their operation, but the Lunny family was already planning a more permanent presence on this side of the bay, at the nearby Tomales Bay Resort. Chamberland isn’t worried: “There’s a lot of room for all of us here.”
Indeed there is. Saltwater, which Chamberland opened in 2012 with money from his two-decade career in restaurant management, help from two silent partners and a crowd-funding campaign, is by all appearances wildly successful. On a Saturday evening in the middle of January, a family of tourists waited outside for a table in the packed dining room.
Chamberland guesses his clientele to be about half local, a quarter Bay Area and the rest out of state. But in this case it may be hard to define local. Saltwater is popular with residents of East Marin, who make the short trip to the coast on weekends. Roger Archey of Larkspur greeted the owner like an old friend on a recent Saturday. He and his wife “love this place. Their attention to detail is second to none. And they have a great oyster special with a glass of wine for $15.”
The 12 of us were seated around the common table in the Depot for a shucking workshop. Chamberland, who has a sturdy figure and a round face emphasized by close-cropped hair, patiently explained where the oysters are sourced, why to ask for (and how to read) the distributor tag that identifies their date of harvesting, how they were stored until they were shipped and how changes in salinity and water temperature affect their taste. He was a natural instructor and gracious host, his matter-of-fact manner honed by years of charming guests and training new hires.
We were given three Hog Island varieties, an oyster knife and a rubber shucking glove, two cloth napkins and generous quantities of wine. A woman to my left had her husband shuck while she devoured one after the other. A young man with strawberry blonde hair, a short beard and a sun-lined face deftly shucked without pause; a native of Stinson, Call Nichols lives with family in Mill Valley after years of working as a shucker in Massachusetts, Long Island and Maine.
What was a professional oyster shucker doing at an oyster shucking workshop? His friend invited him but couldn’t make it, so he came alone. Nichols is looking for a way back into West Marin—he handed over a card that read “License to Shuck”—and is beginning a search for housing and work here. In the meantime, he offers educational oyster demonstrations at events and parties.
Chamberland shuffled around the table, pouring wine, encouraging our hands to dig in the knife at a flat angle and twist. The shells cracked open sideways after silent, tense battles (“You have to really get in there and penetrate from the right position”). Before long we were experts ourselves, removing the shell and detaching the muscles in two easy movements from six o’clock to noon and back again. When the workshop ended, the guests, full of wine and shellfish and compliments, left the room wet with debris. Chamberland helped his servers bus and wipe down the tables.
Nichols and I went into the next room for a beer (Allagash Curieux on tap, $12). There was room at the bar, but not to sit and just have a drink, so we ordered and took our glasses outside. When his mother and brother arrived from Mill Valley, they considered the wait for a table and the trip home, then decided to try their luck at Osteria Stellina, in Point Reyes Station.
On the next day, a Sunday, I had a hard time finding Chamberland. He had spent the morning driving to Hog Island for more oysters (he had unexpectedly run out the night before), meeting with his chef, Matt Elias, to discuss and program the menu and moving between kitchen and dining room, attending to the demands of a busy Sunday. “A typical 12-hour day,” he said.
When I caught up with him that afternoon, he was folding napkins. “I could use a general manager. I’ll be excited when that day comes.” Then he thought about it. “Maybe an assistant manager.” You could tell it would be hard for him to let go of the details. When I drove by late on a Thursday evening—a day Saltwater is closed in the winter—I saw him in the back of the Depot, sweeping the floor.
Chamberland was pleased with the success of the shucking workshop, which lasted three hours and cost $45—not a bad deal, given the amount of wine poured—and wants to do them monthly. The new space expands the potential for events, such as a $75 per head conversation with the author of a book on sustainable beef production scheduled for February. The county’s interpretation of its use permit prohibits live music, a fact that more or less scuttled the Blackbird’s ambitions as a community space.
Not everyone is pleased with Saltwater’s expansion, but the discontent may simply be a feeling of loss. In so small a town, one or two closures can have a disproportionate impact. The Food Shed, a cooperative organized by locals, closed last August for lack of participation—its space, a former artists studio, now serves as Saltwater’s storage room. The Blackbird, a well-used meeting space for nearby residents, was also the venue for evening gatherings with live music. When owner Jude Robinson discovered it would cost thousands of dollars to alter the use permit to officially allow performances, she began to pull out. In its final days, the Blackbird fell into disarray and shuttered in September.
It took three months for Chamberland to renovate the space and re-open. He’s aware of some grumbling, and at the mere hint of it began ticking off Saltwater’s contributions: it serves local, seasonal ingredients and supports local farmers (“I refuse to five and dime them. They have a hard time making a living here”). It provides good jobs and experience to young people who otherwise would have to commute to Petaluma or beyond. It hosts Tuesday night benefit dinners for area nonprofits, co-marketing the event with them and contributing 85 percent of the revenue to their organizations. It sponsors KWMR and advertises in the Point Reyes Light.
There is no denying that the cost of spending time in Inverness has gone up, and that there are fewer businesses serving as public space. Saltwater Oyster Depot’s business model worked, and it needed to grow. The cafe and retail space is meant to offer locals some choice. And the price of a full meal at Saltwater, which Chamberland reminds me reflects the fact that he doesn’t haul in produce from Costco, isn’t wildly different than one at The Station House Café and Stellina.
Unlike those places, Saltwater’s dining room could be in London or New York. Its interior represents an international style, even as its menu focuses on the qualities that make our area distinct. For all its emphasis on West Marin, Saltwater is the product of a global culture. A dining experience in one part of the world must cater to expectations set in another. The irony is that this universal, placeless culture obsesses over locality—the terroir of a fine wine, the seasonal variety of the ingredients in a meal. As though wherever we find ourselves, we need the food and wine to assure us that where we are is real.
First published January 29, 2015 in The Point Reyes Light.