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Solace from Sausalito: A happenstance discovery of The Pelican Inn 

Dining in Northern California.

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Editor's Note: A few weeks ago, Source food writer Sydney Leonard said she was going to Northern California and that she'd be eating some good food down there. Naturally, we asked her to write about the trip... mostly because we were jealous we didn't get to go.

For the sake of simplicity, I told a San Francisco bank teller that I was on vacation, but for the sake of this story let's call it a visit. As a New Englander, I imagined California as nothing more than a stage for vacations and movies - contrived and synthetic. Perhaps it was the heat or the hard cider or the hours of driving a 1978 RV with shoddy breaks around the endless series of hairpin turns that define Marin County, but either way, the Pelican Inn at Muir Beach had both an ethereal and comforting effect on me.

Finally, we had found solace from Sausalito, a crowded tourist destination at the base of the Golden Gate Bridge. Lost in that day-tripper enclave in the thick of vacation season, I sought comfort and escape from the artificial environments of tourist territory, the sheep-like quality of the guided explorer.

A great sense of relief was felt as we weary travelers entered the demure but elegant pub. Two pints of Tauton Dry Blackthorn Cider, please. The room was small, dimly lit by wood and glass encased candles. The deep green walls were adorned with old photographs, one whole wall a montage of British royals past and present, pastoral oil paintings, some depicting fox and hound hunting, heraldic crests, a glass case display of a stuffed pelican. There were only small tables and no overhead lighting, an intimate and informal environment.

The Pelican is all at once a museum, a sanctuary and an eatery, prizing authenticity in each and every detail, from the three-tine fork to the cavernous flagstone hearth complete with priest hole (for the concealing of elicit Jesuit missionaries after the English Reformation). This tasteful retreat does not cater to the desires of visitors, it reminds the patron of the finer things lost to times past. It is simply a refreshingly unapologetic, historically accurate recreation of a 16th century British inn.

We made two visits to the Pelican Inn, once to the pub and returning the following day for dinner at the restaurant, tucked between the bar and a covered garden patio; each room held a subtle mood variance. Uilleann bagpipe music played as we were seated at a small hearthside wooden table adorned with one white rose and one candle.

Hard cider was delivered to us with a "cheers" in dimpled pint pots. I ordered the shepard's pie, a ground lamb and vegetable stew topped with mashers and cheddar cheese, while my companion ordered the English Dip Sandwich, roast beef between two soft slices of sourdough bread with au jour dip, horseradish and a side of french fries.

My tweed-clad friend served as an informal guide through 16th century Britain, able to identify all the antiquated farming implements hanging on the restaurant walls - sheep sheers, a yolk for oxen or draft horses, a highland master's hunting horn - additionally offering some gastronomic history. Credit for the popularity of the sandwich is due, in fact, to the fourth Earl of Sandwich whose compulsive gambling habit required a meal that could be held in one hand, leaving the other hand for card-holding.

Say what you will about English cookery, but done well it offers the rich, warm satisfaction of simple comfort food - just what an itinerant in a strange land needs. In travel, we seek something absent in mundane routine or modernity; when it is good we find something we think few others have had the wits to find or something we believe cannot possibly exist anywhere else. The Pelican Inn successfully satisfies the serene environment, the sense of time lapse and magic one so seldom happens upon and despite its proximity to a people-peppered beach it does not feel too contrived. Next time you are in the Bay Area I have to insist that you pay a visit to The Pelican Inn, a place that simply cannot be found anywhere else.


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