by Torrey Douglass
There’s nothing like the fries at Lauren’s. Thick salty wedges, with fluffy potato inside and crispy golden skin, these fries will haunt your cravings forever after your first sampling.
They come alongside the best burgers in Boonville—fresh and juicy, with a large lettuce leaf that is truly green, a pile of savory sauteed onions, and a healthy slab of tomato, all arranged on bread that was made by people who would not be ashamed to look you in the eye (unlike their mushable counterparts at the grocery store). Lauren’s burgers are so great that, despite the other tempting options, it’s hard for my husband and me to order anything else. He goes medium rare beef; I go veggie burger. Salad or fries? Is “yes” an option?
Sometimes we do manage to break with habit and order other things. The husb swears Lauren’s meatloaf is the best he’s ever ordered in a restaurant—full of flavor and never dry. The salad with beets, gorgonzola, and walnuts is a fave for me. The creamy tang of the cheese with the nuts adds a richness that borders on indulgent. The kids have graduated from the simply prepared “Nora’s Noodles” (pasta with butter and cheese) to pizza (plain or pepperoni), and my growing son now fills his hollow leg with the nachos, a plate piled high with cheese covered chips, jalapeños, and homemade salsa. He would order two if I let him.
It’s not just the kid-friendly food options that bring families through the door. On every table sits a small stack of blank paper and a little pot of colored pencils. Making food to order takes time, and waiting is easier when kids (and itchy grown ups) can stay occupied. There are more art supplies, toys, and books over in the kids corner, too, which goes a long way toward keeping grownup- only tables happy as well.
Lauren Keating of Boonville opened the restaurant in 1996 when her daughter was five. The kid-friendly perks developed naturally from being a working mom. She had originally moved to the area to farm, and though she soon realized cooking food was a better fit for her than growing it, the experience left her with an empathy for local farmers and the challenges they face. As a result Lauren has cultivated a number of long-standing relationships with local farmers, purchasing regularly from Brock, Blue Meadow, and Petit Teton farms, to name just a few.
To keep prices reasonable, not all produce is sourced locally, but those that are get pride of place on the menu, gracing the specialty pizza and pasta dishes and starring in seasonally inspired salads. At the time of writing, you could order Pasta with Italian Sausage from Mendocino Heritage Pork, with mushrooms and greens in tomato sauce, or pizza with grilled asparagus, green garlic cream, and onions, all locally sourced.
Lauren’s is more than a place to get a well cooked meal that won’t break the bank. It is Boonville’s hot spot for art shows, live music, and other community events, like the annual AV Ambulance dinner, and the occasional end-of-life gathering. Don’t expect to take over the whole place, however. Lauren sticks faithfully to her hours and never closes for private parties.
Dennis Hudson, local artist and member of the ukulele band The Ukeholics, compares Lauren’s to the French salons of the 17th and 18th centuries. Before moving to Anderson Valley, Dennis spent over three decades as the lighting designer and master electrician of the San Francisco Ballet, so I trust his opinion when it comes to the visual arts. He says, “It’s a salon in the true sense of the word. People get into conversations about everything. That’s the place.” Lauren’s has hosted a show of his drawings, several Ukeholics gigs, and, when there’s a gap in the calendar, you might see his collection of over 50 ukuleles from the 1920s to the present on display.
Steve Derwinski of Boonville, all around artist-craftsman-designer and lead saxophonist of the band Joe Blow, agrees that Lauren’s is an important place for sharing local art and music. “Quite simply it is the only game in town. It’s the people that make the party, and Lauren’s attracts a really good crowd of people.”
Local artists of all ages get a turn on the walls. Artist and art educator Cathleen Michaels works with Anderson Valley elementary, junior high, and senior high school students on photography, poetry and bookmaking projects. Recent exhibits include a collection of children’s art from the elementary school curated by art teacher Chris Bing and the Photo Voice Project from the AV High School. Cathleen has seen students “gain valuable firsthand experience of bringing an art exhibit and opening reception presentation together for their families, teachers, peers and the larger community. Community members and visitors who stop in have the uniquely powerful opportunity of seeing student perspectives and voices through art. It’s really a remarkable kind of exchange.”
Dennis agrees, saying, “I admire Lauren for her matter-of-fact support of local artists. She doesn’t take commissions. We have access to be seen and heard, and you don’t normally get that unless you pay for it.”
The restaurant turned 20 last year, and in her usual wry delivery, Lauren reflects, “it doesn’t get easier.” She works hard to stay on top of changes in clientele habits and taste, and behind the consistent quality is a lot of thought and effort. Fortunately she has a new business partner to help with the load and eventually take over the restaurant. Natalie Matson lives in Boonville and grew up in Mendocino County, where her family has lived for five generations.
The mother of three boys ages three to nine, Natalie loves how the partnership lets her explore different interests. In the cold months she does a pop-up dinner on Sundays, where she enjoys a break from the floor and gets a chance to strut her stuff in the kitchen. She makes jams from local fruit, a tradition originally started by Lauren’s daughter, Nora. She also grows micro-greens for the salads and keeps the music events on track, spearheading the once-monthly open mic night and booking bands for live music on the occasional Saturday night. She cites the restaurant’s role as community hub as her favorite aspect of her new job. Of Lauren herself she says, “I’m surprised she can still outwork me.”