Lake Tahoe

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Anyone who has been reading tablehopper for a while knows how much I adore ~LAKE TAHOE~. I have been going to the same family cabin in Tahoma (on the West Shore) every summer since I was two, and I am definitely more of a summer girl than a winter warrior up there.

I usually enjoy my cabin time as a chance to escape restaurant reviewing and to cook, fire up the outdoor grill (something I don’t have at my San Francisco apartment), and take advantage of the simply amazing Commons Beach farmers’ market every Thursday in Tahoe City (8am-12pm, May-October). The produce is spectacular, and there’s fresh fish, excellent grass-fed beef, and thanks to a tablehopper reader, I learned about the cheese vendor who sells a stash of imported burrata cheese (but you gotta hit her up early!). Suddenly caprese salad becomes the best dessert, seriously.

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When you’re all done hitting up the market, pay a visit to ~THE DAM CAFÉ~, which is across from Fanny Bridge and near the Bridgetender and the triangle/roundabout. Again, thanks to another tablehopper reader who turned me on to this fabulous find: the Dam-burly burrito ($5.99). It’s the kind of burrito you could do for breakfast or lunch, stuffed with Costa Rican-style beans and rice, pico de gallo, sour cream, avocado, and cheddar cheese. Here’s the hot tip: ask them to hit it with some Cholula before they assemble it, and they’ll put it all over the inside of the tortilla. Nice. It’s also a classic kind of Tahoe place, with tanned and super-friendly young women with slightly mussed hair running the place. Total mountain mamas.

55 W. Lake Blvd., Tahoe City
530-581-0278

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But this summer I also got to experience another side of lake time: the posh side. I was invited up for an incredible weekend getaway at ~THE RITZ-CARLTON, LAKE TAHOE~, and for those who don’t have a little cabin they call (second) home, this is quite the mountain escape. The property is at Northstar at Tahoe Resort, and is a total stunner: I especially loved the roundabout lobby (with such elegant furnishings) that circles a massive granite tower, and the surrounding mountains provide a dramatic backdrop through all the windows (including your bedroom). The resort does a swell job of balancing luxury with a natural style—it has some of the grandness of the Ahwahnee, but is also modern and chic.

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The outdoor terrace is full of folks drinking and dining alfresco (ordering from the casual MountainBlue menu) all day, with some live music in the evening. There are two ever-busy swimming pools (one is more adult-oriented). Poolside cocktails? Why yes, thank you.

A highlight of the location is ~MANZANITA~ restaurant, under the direction of chef-partner Traci Des Jardins (and her chef de cuisine Jacob Ramos). The design by The Johnson Studio is so swank—we have nothing even like it in the city (well, maybe Twenty Five Lusk is a distant design cousin). For mountain dining, I was like, uh, whoa—glad I wore heels (although don’t get me wrong, kids are welcome too). Some features that caught my eye were the open kitchen with its gleaming chrome ceiling (someone must polish that thing twice a day), and the bar features a frosty tray that goes around the bar to keep certain bottles cold (I’d like that in my apartment). Couldn’t stop gawking at the modern chairs in punchy colors and all the dramatic natural materials used in the dining room. Just lovely.

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Whatever you do, stop by the bar for a cocktail before dinner (try the TitaZitaRita) and get an order of the meaty pig tails ($12) in a spicy Buffalo-like sauce (a killer bar bite). You could also just come in for the burger ($18) and a drink if you’re not up for the full sit-down experience.

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The dinner menu is very “market California”—starting with a summertime gazpacho ($14) that had Marcona almonds in it, adding an unexpected level of creaminess. A hands-down favorite was the Delta asparagus salad ($17) with Serrano ham, a custardy sous vide 63-degree egg, Parmesan, sun-dried tomatoes, arugula, and a panade of leeks. I couldn’t stop raving about this salad—I’d eat it for lunch and then again for dinner that very night. Anyone who has dined at Jardinière will note Traci’s classic warm bread salad ($18) with baby artichokes and marinated Bellwether Farms crescenza cheese, a San Francisco favorite (it certainly is for me).

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The main dishes veer more into the elevated French-California style Des Jardins is known for, but were also a bit uneven: while the duo of beef ($45) featured a luxurious and flawless presentation of short rib and filet, the chicken roulade ($33) wasn’t as warm as it needed to be and felt a smidge too fussy-French for the location. (If the $41 price tag for the pork tenderloin makes you gasp like I did, there’s a summertime farmers’ market prix-fixe menu for $49—and $69 with wine pairings—available Sunday through Thursday evenings.) Desserts veer more toward the homey, with a strawberry-rhubarb crisp, peach cheesecake, and a toffee bread pudding (all $12). Wine pairings by sommelier Gail Oversteg were excellent, and it was a treat to be drinking vinho verde and Italian schiava outside the city. And of course the exceptional Ritz service is where it’s at.

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After a meal like that, you could hit the fitness center, but each day we went for a hike (the one to Sawmill Lake was really scenic). Since the resort flanks the Northstar Resort, if you have teenage boys (or tomboy girls), they’re going to want to try the mountain biking that takes over the ski trails in the summer—it looked like a bunch of fun, but I didn’t want to lose any of my teeth.

I also highly recommend a visit to the spa, which has a steam room that must be especially fantastic after a day of skiing. And one of their many styles of massages? Icing on the cake. If you’re a couple up for a romantic weekend, there’s a room for couple’s massage that features a deep copper soaking tub for two. I also dug all the Bulgari body products everywhere—yup, everyone even smells expensive.

Be sure to look at the various packages offered on the website, and I recommend upgrading to the club level if you’re going to be there for more than a night—that way you can swing by the Club Lounge for breakfast, lunch, snacks, and my personal recommendation, an end-of-day glass of bubbles. And again, the view is hard to beat.

It bears mentioning that one of my very favorite things was the Ritz-Carlton bed. The custom mattresses are a thing of beauty, and the pillows and sheets are total fluffy cloud status—you will never sleep better, especially with that fresh air and high altitude working to put you to sleep.

As the valet pulled our car around when it was time to check out, it was a reluctant farewell to mountain paradise. Yeah, it was fun to see how the other half lives.

13031 Ritz-Carlton Highlands Ct., Truckee
530-562-3000

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Over in Homewood, the ~WEST SHORE CAFÉ & INN~ has been a standby for some years on the lake, but recently went through some updates and renovations. The bar and lounge offer a smashing view of the lake, and the bohemian-lodge atmosphere felt a bit Santa Barbara, with Persian rugs and large wrought-iron chandeliers. There are some four- and six-top indoor tables next to the large open windows, or you can opt for a table on the long pier with heat lamps (it’s fun to watch people arrive and depart by boat on the dock all night—and there’s a boat valet).

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The menu isn’t pushing any boundaries here, with dishes like Hawaiian ahi poke ($14) with won ton chips, and a little gem salad ($12) with blue cheese, Granny Smith apple, and candied pecans, complete with a circa-1992 squeeze bottle squiggle of a balsamic reduction around the rim of the plate. My friend’s fried chicken ($21) was more like boneless chicken tenders with gravy, and my burger ($14) was well past my requested medium rare—at least the flavor was good and the fries were hot.

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But you know what? Sometimes a magical atmosphere really can make up for a lot, because my dinner date and I had so much fun sitting out on the dock, drinking Negronis, watching the sunset on the water, and joking around with our super-friendly but rather inexperienced servers. Would I come back for a special occasion dinner? Not so much. But for a drink and a burger on the water? Yeah, I would.

5160 W. Lake Blvd. at Fawn, Homewood
530-525-5200

So, on your way home, of course there’s the siren call of In-N-Out Burger. But the pit stop you need to strongly consider is ~TAQUERIA GUADALAJARA #3~ in Davis, which is even in a mini mall. It’s a quick five-minute jaunt off 80, and so worth the detour. My friend’s regular nachos ($4.69) with chorizo were diabolical, loaded with cheese, beans, guacamole, sour cream, and salsa. (I can’t even image what the super would look like.) The fresh tortilla chips here are fantastic, and I went to town on the salsa bar—it says a lot about a place when the salsas all pop like the ones here.

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I ordered a couple taco dorados ($2.59 each) with adobada (marinated steak) and al pastor inside—don’t be a victim like I was and get stuck with a surprise sprinkling of lettuce on them (unless you like to be all old school like that). But the meats were well seasoned, and I’m glad I ordered the tacos as a plate, because I was totally digging the pink-hued and super smooth refried beans on the side (our server told us it’s a special house recipe). This spot is my new I-80 amor for sure.

640-E W. Covell Blvd. at Anderson, Davis
530-297-4000

One place that bears mentioning (I didn’t have time to check it out but have heard three rave reports) is the ~WILD GOOSE~. Lovely lake view, the New American menu is reportedly delicious, and the style looks rather sleek. On my list for next time!

320 North Lake Blvd., Tahoe Vista
530-546-3640

We all know foggy summers in San Francisco are the pits, so if you want some sun and pristine mountain air, head for the lake. Even for a quick weekend, you totally come home refreshed.

All photos © tablehopper.com (except Manzanita dining room photo by Don Riddle, courtesy of The Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe).