Tahoe is all about the outdoors — including eating
July 4, 2013 | LakeTahoeNews.net
By Susan Wood
If Belgium can allow France to claim its fries, then maybe Spain will surrender its honorary al fresco dining niche to the United States – if only for a day.
After all, it’s the Fourth of July – America’s signature holiday that marks a summer fun of eating, drinking, schmoozing, relaxing and taking in one’s outdoor surroundings.
Al fresco is the Spanish derivative of “outside at a fresh temperature.” It’s a type of dining that’s popular in the summer and is designed to promote pedestrian activity. Think Paris, then transport yourself.
Flanked by the Sierra Nevada mountain range, the Lake Tahoe region has no shortage of such places to take your dining party outdoors. The options on each shore range from the very childlike and biker babe-like to beach party-ish and elegant settings steps from a fine dining restaurant.
Some places scream tourist. Others are known as local hangouts. Several mix them up.
A few offer mountain scenery. Many provide lake views.
High marks go to the Lone Eagle Bar and Grill in Incline Village. Its patio seating, albeit limited, provides the epitome of relaxation outside its indoor bar and restaurant. Cushy, padded seating on the wooden chairs and chaise lounges let you settle in next to the beach. Don’t be surprised to see chairs set up for a wedding on the shoreline. Order a concoction from its creative cocktail list and the mushroom pizza off the appetizer menu.
Music that’s not overbearing is piped in to add to the ambiance. Watch the boats go by as the sun sets across the wide swath of lake. If you find you’re just not close enough, there’s always the pier bar where a patron may sit inches from the water.
“I feel like I’m on the water,” one woman said, enjoying the lakefront view with her friend.
Even the employees like being there.
“This is definitely the best job for the view,” bartender Shane said.
Few places can lay claim to being at a bar so close to Lake Tahoe. One of my past favorites that made me a no show twice was the West Shore Café in Homewood across from the ski resort. First, it wasn’t open in early June, then it was closed for a wedding last Saturday. Their loss.
Chamber’s Landing may be an alternative for some, but not for those seeking more of a local connection to Tahoe. The pier bar seems all about the tourist – without the service. Get your own so-so drink that tries to be a knock-off of the Rum Runner of the Beacon fame.
The Beacon near Camp Richardson on the South Shore is the proverbial beach-bar-party scene on hot summer weekends. Live bands crank out the rock ‘n’ roll outside where you can sink your toes in the sand and people watch for hours. Expect lots of skin. The seating is closely guarded by security on busy days, but the staff is friendly about their jobs. No dogs and no taking your drinks out of the restaurant domain.
South Lake Tahoe’s version of al fresco on a pier has made a painful transformation from the late Blue Water Bistro. The Boathouse says cheap all over it the minute one arrives and leaves on what looks like an oil pan for a parking lot. The picnic tables are funky, the signs are nonexistent, the food is incredibly limited and the service is remarkably slow, which is too bad. (I will always love walking on that pier.)
Down Highway 50, the Riva Grill at the Ski Run Marina is set back from the shoreline but gives the diner a sense of being there. The seating is a bit crammed outside, but maybe after a few Wet Woodys it’s not as noticeable. (Here’s a hint: Either sit high on the wooden bench and not in the cheap plastic chairs in the aisle or sit inside next to the large picture windows.)
Another marina boasts a popular place in the Tahoe Keys. The Fresh Ketch may also leave a “cheap” feel with its plastic furniture on the grass outside its superb indoor bar setting, but it gets major points for providing a two-hour courtesy for boat-in dining to kayakers and canoers. The staff is friendly and the drinks are good. Diners will get a kick out of reading the boat butts with cutesy names.
Tied with Lone Eagle for the best lakeview experience is by far Brooks Bar at Edgewood Tahoe Golf Course. The best mojitos here meet the best lake setting with the golf course on one side and the lake on the other. The lapping waves beckon you to the beach. The golf course greens call for a roll in the grass. If it’s nippy or if you just want ambiance on the patio, belly up to the fire pit and ask for a heater lamp. The staff would be happy to accommodate.
A close second to the other two is Sunnyside – which lives up to its name. It’s almost as if the seating is tiered to accommodate as many people as possible trying to secure a 180-degree view of Lake Tahoe. There’s nothing like basking in the sun on the patio steps away from the outside bar with the beach close by. Brenda said she’s transported to Hawaii or Arizona at Sunnyside.
The wooden furniture is more upscale than most. The drinks are superb and appetizers are good. A few rooms for rent upstairs beg for a West Shore stay.
It’s so comfortable on what’s touted as “Tahoe’s largest outdoor deck” that dining alone on the long counter is more than acceptable.
Take me to the river
Tahoe City can stake claim to a bar and restaurant with history and a lot going for it. The Bridgetender situated along the Truckee River near Fanny Bridge offers an ideal setting for R&R, especially after partaking in the various recreational activities this lake town encourages.
When I say wooden furniture, I mean furniture that appears to be carved out of a log from a fallen Jeffery pine. The bar in the middle of the tables has Tahoe written all over it. The historic place has an ambiance. If it’s not enough to hear the river noises, a fountain over the small pond up front is quite soothing. The staff brings its “A” game.
The River Ranch has also been a Tahoe summer favorite with its sit-next-to-river patio amid the trees – but a wedding party got there first.
And this is Tahoe
There’s no way to dismiss the places that represent the mountain scene of Lake Tahoe and beyond.
One of the favorites is a short drive to Meyers. The al fresco experience at the Getaway Café banks a view of Cowboy Rock and Freel Peak while sitting amongst the flowers planted with love and care. There are tables for two and four and six. Umbrellas are out to provide adequate shade, but one can thoroughly enjoy baking in the sun. The pine trees surrounding the place say Tahoe. The straw grass placed on the lawn says rural. (Note: the food is always good, and it’s far enough off Highway 50 to mask the noise.)
Turn left on Highway 89 from the Getaway, and you can truly get away to Sorensen’s Resort. An absolute favorite, the aspens exemplify the Tahoe outdoor dining experience. It’s as if the trees are cradling you when sitting on the patio. Between the chirping birds and quaking aspen leaves in the breeze, diners will feel as though they’ve stepped into a spa.
What’s the best seating there? Nestle into the high-backed wooden chairs, put your feet on the footstools and set up a mini table setting between the chairs. Don’t even think of leaving without ordering the berry cobbler. Try it with a Sprite or a Pinot Grigio, depending on your mood, and you may be parked there for hours as the leaf peepers or bikers come and go.
Brothers bar maintains a long reputation for attracting a biker crowd, and for good reason. It’s fun, the bartender is on top of his business and the outdoor patio gets the full exposure of sun along Highway 89 north of the Y in South Lake Tahoe.
The picnic tables seem appropriate for a fun-and-games kind of place. If the horseshoe tournaments don’t bring you in, perhaps the large screen television on the patio for Monday Night Football may give you a change in scene from a living room.
There’s a fire pit for chilly evenings. But it’s the outdoor bar for major parties that says al fresco summer dining.
Across the highway on restaurant row, the Rockwater has a few options for al fresco dining. The grassy area can accommodate large parties in an open setting. The deck setting next to the outdoor bar is nice for some shade or to sit under the mounted heaters, depending on the temperatures outside. Fun activities like karaoke Wednesday nights round out the experience, and it’s good to know one can just sit outside and watch sports on the outdoor televisions.
It gives it a sports bar feel. But with that, the bar could stand to be a little less loud. The music blasts. At least it’s difficult to hear the traffic. (Note: the service is notoriously slow, so don’t be in a hurry.)
For more on roadside dining, hit the Coyote Grill at Round Hill, where wine and appetizers beckon and dogs are welcome. Sure, you’re practically sitting in the parking lot. But according to Amy: “Tahoe’s so nice, the views are even good in a parking lot.”
Wire chairs and tables are probably easy to clean. The food and service are adequate.
The best restaurant service and arguably food at the lake sits halfway up Ski Run Boulevard at the Blue Angel Café.
This is an eatery that paints a creative menu like it’s fine art. The café is planning to put out more tables and planted new sod next to the planter boxes to satisfy its loyal clientele’s thirst for outdoor dining. Bike racks out front make it obvious this restaurant knows its patrons better than most.
Also new to the whole Al fresco scene is Scusa, the Italian restaurant at the end of Sierra Boulevard right on Highway 50. Upon a stormy night, I peeked out to its new setting to find a cozy spot out back with crushed rock at its base, iron tables and chairs, a fountain flowing, heat lamps ready and a high fence to seal off the area.
Whether in or out, the food and wine with an elegant, adult-like setting is always worth going for.
For the casual flair
Want to feel like a kid again? Since everyone screams for ice cream at Lake Tahoe in the short summer season, the places that offer it and provide it will do much business in those months.
It’s hot. Our first thought is a soft serve cone from the Sno-Flake Drive-In, a mainstay in urban South Lake Tahoe. But of course, we’re not alone with our thought. The few picnic tables outside fill up fast. So as an alternative to consume this feast (even in a small size), Kae and I sat with our legs dangling off benches surrounding flower plants right alongside Modesto Avenue.
Looking across to the Tahoe Tribune building brought back many memories, some even good.
The Al Tahoe neighborhood brings out many people on their bikes. Sno-Flake might want to add racks for these patrons.
Cycling on the North Shore to Squaw Village easily made Kae, Roni, Brenda and me hungry for a smoothie. TheMountain Nectar touts about a dozen different flavors of smoothies and some milkshakes that had me taking note why I wanted to return some day.
If you go in the morning, sitting in front of the fire pit in the slanted wooden chairs outside the Fireside Café is wide open to the first takers.
It wouldn’t be summer without real ice cream on the South Shore at the Camp Richardson Ice Cream Parlor. Kae decided a lunch break last week should involve some sugar. Seven picnic tables are inviting to sit while she eats the huge scoop. Plenty of shade is provided by the tall pines. While the shop is right on Highway 89, the tables are back far enough for it not to be annoying.
Beyond the Lake Tahoe area
• The best in Pacific coast outdoor seating may be found at the Inn at Spanish Bay. You can’t go wrong with Carmel Bay in full view.
• While in Scottsdale, a diner can get a show from the Cantina Laredo patio as the waiter whips up the guacamole, right at the table.
• The show continues at the Troon North Golf Course Clubhouse, where a family of javelinas entertains diners at the sunset hours.
• While in St. Helena, check out the patio dining at Tra Vigne for brunch – in particular on Mother’s Day. The Tuscan Courtyard lives up to its name, where the trees provide shade without clunky umbrellas.
• SolBar restaurant in Calistoga allows dogs, which was quite annoying at a fine dining restaurant.
• Like kids? Bring yours to Skipolini’s Pizza’s patio in Clayton, where Kae grew up, or in Walnut Creek. The pizza itself would prompt one to drive 10 miles out of the way to have one.
Kathryn Reed contributed to this article.
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