This winter’s onslaught of storms has brought dazzling superblooms to Northern California, and in Sonoma County, that means vast meadows of mustard flowers. Once you’re done frolicking through them, keep driving down Bodega Highway toward Freestone, and you’ll end up in an unlikely culinary capital—Bodega, California.
If you’ve heard of Bodega, maybe it’s because you’ve seen Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, an iconic thriller that sics a vicious flock of seagulls upon the residents of this coastal village. Or you may be getting it confused with nearby Bodega Bay, a tourist-trodden resort town that bears little resemblance to in-land Bodega, which, by comparison, feels like an unassuming time capsule.
The entire 55-square-mile area, first home to the Miwok and Pomo, was colonized by Russians, Spaniards and ultimately deeded to Capt. Stephen Smith by the Mexican government in 1844, according to the Rancho Bodega Historical Society.
Today, Bodega’s main street is sparse and charming—on one side, a general store, antiques shop, artists’ coop and gallery; on the other, there’s little more than a white-steepled Catholic church, a post office and an old roadhouse saloon, which is the true draw to this town of fewer than 600 residents.
Ornamented by a vintage 7UP sign out front, the Casino Bar & Grill is at once a relic of a bygone era and as important to Bodega as ever. Bikers, hippies and, increasingly, yuppies share space within the wood-paneled barroom, shuffling between the pool tables and the bar, which is cash-only and pretense-free. Draught beer and well drinks reign supreme. When asked for a Moscow Mule, the bartender responded that the bar has no ginger beer. Across the room, there’s a herd’s worth of stag heads mounted to the wall.
The Casino Bar & Grill has been a constant in Bodega since Art and Evelyn Casini bought it from Art’s brother Nebo in 1949. There’s no actual gambling—besides maybe the occasional pool shark’s hustle—Casino is simply a play on the owners’ surname. By all accounts, Art was a pillar of the community, nicknamed "The Mayor of Bodega" for his generosity of spirit and commitment to the town. There’s a framed award from the Bodega Volunteer Fire Department in the back dining room recognizing the Casinis for providing shelter to residents displaced by the great Bodega floods of 1981 and 1982.
Art passed away in 1983, and according to the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, Evelyn has considered retiring several times, but evidently boredom set in, and most days, she can be found behind the bar, stationed at a well-worn grill, flipping burgers. She’s nearing 100 years old.
From the look of the place, you’d think that pool is the biggest draw, but make no mistake, the food is the real pearl here. Evelyn’s burgers are superb—again, that old grill helps bring out amazing umami flavors—but the hidden star of the Casino’s kitchen is Mark Malicki.
A self-described “bar cook,” Malicki serves weekend supper at the bar with a different menu nearly every day. Google calls his cooking “New American,” but we can do a little better than that. Malicki uses traditional tavern fare as a base to create nourishing food that makes you feel like you belong at the Casino.
Last Sunday, Malicki offered ember-grilled oysters, haddock chowder, stinging nettle gratin, butter beans, beef stew and chocolate hazelnut pudding cake for dessert.
The oysters were the platonic ideal of West Coast brine, plump and accompanied by a wedge of Meyer lemon. The butter beans, a Southern comfort food reminiscent of Sunday supper after church services, is rounded out with chorizo, kale and a slice of rustic bread with a generous layer of garlic spread. Malicki embellishes the beef stew with freshly foraged hen-of-the-woods mushrooms and buttery mashed potatoes to soak up the light yet rich gravy.
In a recent Facebook post on the Casino’s page, the Petaluma resident addressed how he feels about being called a chef. “I tend to shy away from that moniker. What with my ‘chefdom’ being sandwiched between the potato chip rack and beer cases,” he wrote.
Malicki is currently raising money through a GoFundMe to open his own place—under the banner of “a non-conforming restaurant proposal”—and he described his dream scenario as a Monday through Friday eatery that he could cede to pop-up chefs on the weekends, presumably paying forward the gift bestowed on him by Evelyn.
“My ideal restaurant is a place that not only allows me to make a good living, but everyone who works there,” he wrote. “A job that pays a salary where you aren't having to choose to get new brakes for your car or pay your kid's orthodontist. […] If I had to describe myself, I'd say I'm a socialist who likes wearing Tom Ford. I like to share and I do enjoy the rewards income provides.”
All told, Malicki’s cooking is a pure reflection of what the Casino represents in Bodega—a place where some things never change while others are constantly evolving.
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