Across the Golden Gate Bridge north of San Francisco, Marin County is beautiful, historic, progressive and comfortable, home to some of the most affluent and sought-after ZIP codes in America. But apart from giving rise to the sport of mountain biking and inventing the term “420,” it’s not known to be the coolest part of the Bay Area.
Or is it? Notoriously hostile to growth in spite of plentiful tract housing—its population has barely budged since 2000—Marin now has a dynamic new spot with incredible food. That would be the city of Larkspur, first laid out in the 1880s and named for the purple-blue delphinium that grows worldwide (although it was mistaken for lupine).
With a population of roughly 13,000, it’s neither overrun by tourists like Sausalito nor as insular as Mill Valley can feel. At the intersection of a ferry terminal, a newish rail line and a series of bike paths, Larkspur—or specifically, Larkspur Landing’s Marin Country Mart—is now home to outposts from a number of well-known San Francisco restaurants. A kind of curated outdoor shopping zone with a Saturday farmers' market, it’s almost a satellite location of San Francisco’s Ferry Building, from which it can be reached in 30 minutes via ferry, seven days a week.
Not a Mall
Malls in the Bay Area seem to be either exploding with newfound popularity (Stonestown Galleria) or on life support (San Francisco Centre, formerly the Westfield). But it’s not really accurate to call Marin Country Mart, with its five central buildings plus a handful of others sprinkled around the parking lots, a mall.
“It’s a traditional shopping village,” said marketing manager Kate Wolfson. “You have a cobbler. You have a candy store. You have the toy store, the bookshop. The trading post is a functional post office. That in itself is a community hub.”
Marin being Marin, there’s a Birkenstock store, and the post office with its vintage Coke machine is filled with the kind of booster-y, civic pride apparel you might call “Marin-icana.” Yes, there’s a Starbucks and a SoulCycle, but there’s also a Hog Island Oyster Co., a Design Within Reach, a Fred Segal and a Sunspel, the high-end British menswear brand that Daniel Craig sported as 007 in Casino Royale. El Huarache Loco, a graduate of food incubator La Cocina, has been there for more than a decade.
Cynthia Benjamin, a designer eyewear shop, is opening soon. So is Fort Point Beer Company, with its distinctive can designs and much-loved brews Animal and Villager. Fort Point has a taproom at San Francisco’s Ferry Building and traces its origins to a smaller-scale brewing operation in Mill Valley—perhaps one more data point indicating that Larkspur is eating its fancy neighbor’s lunch.
Marin Country Mart is growing—but at a measured pace. According to Diana Rodgers, the director of events, the real transformation occurred during the pandemic when 24-Hour Fitness and Marin Brewing Company vacated their spaces. The team was able to carve up and reuse them, helping to make Larkspur Landing into a proper destination. When Rodgers got there 12 years ago, she told The Standard at a farmers' market in December, the main attraction at the shopping center was the American Automobile Association.
“You know, where you go to register your car,” she said.
It was especially fortuitous when SMART, or Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit, extended its line from San Rafael to Larkspur Station, enabling people to travel from as far north as Windsor into San Francisco without a car (via the ferry connection at Larkspur). The train station is an eight-minute walk from the ferry, via a concrete pedestrian overpass spanning Sir Francis Drake Boulevard.
“It’s no accident,” Rodgers said. Referring to a recent cohort of newly opened restaurants, she added, “And happily, everything’s opened up this last couple weeks. Retail means finding new ways to survive, because there’s so much online now, right?”
Downtown Larkspur is a mile or two inland from Marin Country Mart. Its historic district is anchored by the Streamline Moderne-style 1936 Lark Theater on one end and Perry’s seafood-and-burgers restaurant on the other. It, too, has fairly new outposts of well-known Bay Area food businesses like Boichik Bagels and Equator Coffee. But the real action is by Larkspur Landing, which saw a Souvla open in November.
Charles Bililies’ Greek “fast-fine” restaurant is one of the most successful enterprises to come out of the 2010s San Francisco food scene, known for its excellent lamb sandwiches and “juicy potatoes” that catch rotisserie drippings. With its pergola and olive tree-lined seating area, the Larkspur location is the sixth Souvla location and the first one Bililies didn’t design himself.
“As we come up on our 10th anniversary this coming spring, we know that many of our very early and loyal guests are now at different points in their lives, both personally and professionally,” he told The Standard. “A lot of that is them moving and/or working outside of San Francisco but remaining in the Bay Area. We want to bring Souvla to where our biggest supporters live and work.”
Even on a drizzly afternoon, Souvla has a line out the door. So does Loveski, a “Jew-ish” deli by Christopher Kostow, who comes from the other end of the Bay Area dining universe—both geographically and in terms of price. The executive chef at The Restaurant at Meadowood, he won a James Beard Award and maintained a three-Michelin star rating for nearly the entire decade of the 2010s until the Glass Fire swept through St. Helena and Calistoga in September 2020, incinerating the property and well over 1,000 other structures in Napa County.
The plan, Kostow insisted, is to rebuild. In the meantime, Loveski has a location in Downtown Napa’s well-known Oxbow Public Market and, as of early December, a second location in Larkspur cranking out yeasty bagels and Reubens. His parents happen to live in town, but the team opened there for other reasons.
“It’s great company to keep,” Kostow told The Standard. “We’re friends with Farmshop and Souvla, and it felt like a good fit.”
Patrons in Napa, he added, tend to be conservative orderers, whereas Larkspur’s location between San Francisco and wine country delivers the best of both worlds: an urbane, relatively well-heeled customer base with adventurous palates, eager to try things like matzo ball soup “Den’s Way,” an ode to his wife’s Southeast Asian heritage.
“Den is my Thai mother-in-law, and it’s made with lemongrass and chilies,” Kostow said. “It doesn’t sell all that much in Napa, but sells a ton in Marin. It’s appreciated and enjoyed, and that helps tell the story of the concept.”
A No Man’s Land for Everyone
Brett Thurber, co-owner of the e-bike shop New Wheel, has been excited about these changes for a long time. In terms of transportation alternatives, Larkspur is almost a fulcrum for the entire Bay Area, connecting the North Bay to East Bay via the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge’s bike path and to San Francisco via Marin’s recently completed North-South Greenway across Corte Madera Creek—which just so happens to pass by New Wheel’s Larkspur store.
“People’s conception of what’s possible is narrowly defined by what their experience is,” he said. “If you haven’t ridden from Point Richmond to Larkspur [across the bay], you would just assume it’s impossible.”
Larkspur Landing, Thurber said, is the perfect place for Marin County to build dense housing, which is scheduled to happen over the next five years.
Until recently, it had been a “no man’s land,” but the combination of transit options helped catalyze it into what it is today. As recently as 2016, when the New Wheel opened, there wasn’t even a bike lane on the street—although Thurber is quick to note that the ferry terminal’s massive parking lot has acres of unused space that could be reimagined as well.
New Wheel’s mission is to get people out of their cars and onto electric bikes, and new families are increasingly the Larkspur store’s bread-and-butter.
“A lot of young families are moving to San Rafael, and they’re our No. 1 customer for practical daily e-bikes that are high-quality and safe.”
And just as fortune favors the bold, Bay Area microclimates favor east-facing shorelines with large hills to their west, making Larkspur the meteorological equivalent of San Francisco’s warm, sunny Dogpatch.
“The weather there is really nice, too. I don’t think people appreciate it,” Thurber said. “When I bike from the city over to the Marin store, basically when you hit Corte Madera, the fog burns off.”