Where Past and Present Meet
by Esther Liner
If you didn’t know where you were headed, it would be easy to miss small-town Upper Lake. Tucked on a side street off of Highway 20—that is, in fact, Main Street—this downtown is just a few blocks long, and yet it is sprinkled with shops and restaurants that so clearly speak of a particular era that it is possible to imagine going back in time itself.
Near the end of this stretch of businesses sits the Blue Wing Saloon and its parent inn, the Tallman Hotel, both lovingly restored as proud stewards of the town. A marker placed by the California Register of Historical Resources is slightly hidden beneath the branches of a tree in front of the courtyard connecting the two main buildings. It gives a hint at the past, briefly mentioning the hotel’s founding “sometime before 1874,” the destruction of the Blue Wing Saloon during prohibition, and the times the hotel found other roles, as a boardinghouse, for instance.
By the early 1960s, though, the business was empty. It stayed that way for decades, until 2003, when Lynne and Bernie Butcher purchased the property. With an eye on the past and an appreciation of modern demands, they reopened the Blue Wing Saloon in 2005 and the hotel itself a year later.
The updates stand as a testament to the beauty of marrying the past to the present. The Blue Wing, for example, is a cozy space, warmed by the wood of the tables, bar, and ceiling. It’s dotted with hints of the past, including the hotel’s original 1902 upright piano and the redwood wainscoting repurposed from the original inn. The bar is wide and stately, backed by a mirror that could just as easily reflect pre-prohibition patrons as it does the everyday visitors of our time.
The dining area—with tables built out of a black walnut tree from the property—extends to an outdoor space complete with a porch outfitted with both heaters and fans, as well as a pebbled courtyard. The live music often featured inside is even piped to the veranda for diners outside to enjoy.
It is evident that details matter here, and that attention extends to the food. With a clear focus on fresh and local options—the restaurant features only Lake County wines and relies on nearby J-S Ranch for its bison— there are standouts throughout the menu. Take, for example, the Italian Doughnut Holes, offered at brunch and served with a thick fruit compote. They are light and flavorful, rolled in cinnamon sugar and reminiscent of an incredibly elegant, deconstructed jelly doughnut. The Huevos Rancheros, meanwhile, are a carefully built concoction of smoky black beans, crispy tortillas, and expertly-poached eggs, touched off with a slight saltiness by the cotija sprinkled throughout.
Like brunch, lunch and dinner offerings change seasonally and offer a range of possibilities for both vegetarians and omnivores. The burgers appear on each menu, with a choice of beef, bison, or a house-made veggie patty anchoring the meal. Garlic or sweet potato fries, bacon-wrapped meat loaf or baked Dungeness mac n’ cheese, cioppino or a rotating cast of soups, a sophisticated grilled cheese sandwich or a beet salad brightened by fennel—the options highlight modern, simple California cuisine at its most appealing.
Desserts, too, are worth noting. All are made in-house and again feature what is seasonally available. A strawberry- rhubarb tart with vanilla ice cream, its crust light and extremely flaky, begs to be finished, while a brownie sundae reinvents itself as an ice cream sandwich speckled with chocolate chips and served with a sauce made from cherries. It’s a difficult, tantalizing choice. Bourbon butterscotch pudding and a dark chocolate torte are tempting, as are the specials from the full bar and even the coffee, sourced from Ukiah’s Black Oak Coffee Roasters.
Throughout the meal, images of how the past dances with the present again come into focus. It’s hard to imagine cocktails like a Ruby Red Paloma or a Redwood Valley Manhattan on the menu of the original Blue Wing Saloon, for example. Yet it’s entirely possible that the innkeepers of days gone by sometimes offered homemade vanilla ice cream or a seasonal crisp to their guests on a similarly warm evening that invited lingering, music, and laughter.
It is this balance, offered in a beautifully- restored spot, that is perhaps the most appealing part of the revitalization here—a whisper of how things might have been, a taste of what they’ve become, and a hint to how they might continue to grow, on this small street, in this small town, just off of Highway 20.
The Tallman Hotel and Blue Wing Saloon
9550 Main Street, Upper Lake
Blue Wing hours: Brunch on Sundays 10:30am–3:00pm
Lunch & dinner seven days a week until 9pm