There's something irresistible about the combination of a vintage building, old jazz on the sound system, a décor that weds elegance to kitsch and an utterly contemporary menu of California cuisine.
Those contrasts are part of why I love The Panama Hotel, a 10-room San Rafael bed and breakfast inn with a public dining room tucked away like a hot secret in the Gerstle Park neighborhood. The fact that the food happens to be good to exceptional seals the affair for me.
First, I appreciate the antique building that's dressed with balconies like a dowager in heavy jewelry.
It began life in 1910 as a two-story wooden Victorian. In 1926, a couple named Maria and Joe Gargiulo settled there and opened their home and hearth to travelers disembarking at the San Rafael train station two blocks away.
Word got out about Maria's terrific cooking. By 1937 the Gargiulos were so successful at running a restaurant (they named it Maria's Pueblo; it was Marin's first Mexican eatery), the couple added the stucco addition that houses the current Panama Hotel dining room.
One of the Panama Hotel's perennially popular dishes is Maria's Pueblo Chicken Tortilla Soup ($6 cup, $9 bowl), based on her original recipe. I'm guessing it's a staple thanks to its trumpet-bright tomato/chicken broth with hints of chile, afloat with chicken strips and crisp corn tortillas that slowly soften in the hot liquid.
The Gargiulos sold their business to a bohemian couple named Richard and Mimi in the 1970s. The new owners collected vintage kitsch, loved vegetation, bought the building next door and changed the name of the hostelry to The Panama Hotel. As the hotel's in-house legend goes, Mimi chose the name to honor her Panama hat collection, to celebrate the Ann Sothern/Red Skelton 1942 flick called "Panama Hattie," or simply because every small town should take care of its dreamers by having a Panama Hotel.
Since 1984, the hotel has been owned by San Rafael-born Dan Miller. He's updated the dining room to be comfortable and mellow, warmed with peach stucco walls and white columns. He celebrates the heritage with ceiling-high shelves overflowing with vintage brickabrack and gimcrackery — crockery, lamps, china ladies, dolls, plates, photos, bottles, bonnets and a host of other items I can't even identify, along with dozens of old photographs of the hotel's history on the walls.
Huge windows flood the place with light during the daytime. There's a narrow conservatory-style covered patio lined with huge tropical plants that do, indeed, conjure up images of Panama. Pride of place is one of Marin's largest and most appealing outdoor dining patios. It's filled with sun-shading umbrellas and fog-fighting heat lamps, lined with Panama hats and soothed with greenery.
The menu changes seasonally, but some dishes are so popular, they're available all the time.
One of these is the hotel's best seller: Baja Seafood Salad ($19). Hot, grilled chunks of salmon, plump shrimp and caramelized, nearly translucent scallops are mounded on a forest of lettuce leaves. This concoction is then studded with spiced black beans, roasted sweet corn kernels, fanned avocado and nuggets of queso fresco under a light mantilla of lime/cilantro vinaigrette. Once you get hooked, it's hard to order anything else.
However, I broke my Baja obsession and fell in love with the red and golden beet salad ($9) too. Chunks of sweet beets, roasted so their flavors concentrate, are piled on buttery/peppery arugula. A warm knob of goat cheese crusted with roasted walnuts, and delicate citrus vinaigrette, rounds out the presentation that is perfectly balanced in contrasting flavors and textures.
Slightly heartier: a combination of butter lettuce and radicchio with fresh fruit of the season (most recently slices of fig), Applewood-smoked bacon, Point Reyes blue cheese crumbles and spiced pecans splashed with white balsamic vinaigrette, then garnished with a drizzled red balsamic reduction ($11).
You can easily make a meal of these salads, particularly if you add the option of chicken, prawns or salmon for a few dollars more.
Depending on the type salad, the amount of dressing can be just right or heavy-handed. Fussy about this? Order the dressing on the side.
A warm quartet of grilled-just-to-translucent diver scallops on miniature crisp corn tortillas were appetizingly complex pucks thanks to layers of guacamole, cherry tomato salsa and micro greens ($10).
Main dishes include one of the more creative vegetarian entrees I've seen: a whole poblano chile ($18) stuffed with quinoa, mushrooms, goat cheese and pine nuts, then fire-roasted until it develops a smoky, unctuous quality. It's cloaked in a roasted red chile sauce and teamed with molded tomato-flavored rice and grilled squash.
Beef short ribs with sauteed rainbow Swiss chard, Yukon gold mashed potatoes and crispy buttermilk battered onion rings ($24) were scrumptious. The slow-cooked, deeply braised meat was so tender it fell apart when I looked at it. The chard cut the richness while the potatoes played to it, and the five onion rings were feather-light, greaseless and addictive. I could have downed another 15 more.
Other must-try Panama specialties include a 12-ounce fresh-ground burger of Star Ranch Angus beef with avocado, Tillamook cheddar, tomatoes and Applewood smoked bacon on a fat La Brea bakery roll with guajillo and pasilla chile aioli ($14). It's a coronary on a bun, but what a succulent way to go.
Desserts (most $9) are all made in-house, such as seasonal fruit crisp, molten chocolate cupcake and a hunk of bread pudding with cherries and brandy caramel sauce. A towering sundae of Ciao Bella Tahitian vanilla ice cream blanketed with Belgian bittersweet chocolate sauce, studded with pecans and mounded with whipped cream, could feed four. I'm partial to the extra-tart lemon pie, bracing enough to make my cheeks cave in. It's a refreshing contrast to some of the rich, savory fare.
Butterscotch crème brulee ($8) was the only disappointment at my most recent meal. The price seemed excessive for a demitasse cup filled with five bites of mild custard under a thin film of crunchable sugar. Sure, there were two brown sugar cookies on the side and plenty of whipped cream but, compared to that huge sundae, the value didn't cut it.
Service here is among the best in Marin. Many of the servers are long-time employees, and they know the menu, which changes seasonally, like they know their own names.
There's an active live music program as well. Check before you go about to find out what nights feature local combos or solo acts that play everything from vintage to modern jazz, traditional folk and pop/rock. If you are inclined to quietly talk with your dining companion, you may want to pick one of the non-live-performance evenings.
If you've never tried the Panama Hotel, you are in for a treat. For anyone who loves San Rafael, and enjoys exploring some of its colorful, lesser-known neighborhoods, the Panama Hotel is arguably the jewel of Gerstle Park.
The Panama Hotel is at 4 Bayview Street, San Rafael, 457-3993, www.panamahotel.com; on Facebook search The Panama Hotel and Restaurant. It's open to the public daily. Lunch, Monday to Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; dinner Tuesday to Saturday 5:30 to 9:30 p.m.; Sunday brunch 10 a.m. to 2p.m. Available for private parties and events.