Healdsburg for the Win

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ONE FINE DAY Jose and Ping, day visitors from the Bay Area, pose with their silky Yorkie, Benji, outside Noble Folk across from Healdsburg Plaza. Photo by Mark Fernquest.

It was my day to visit Healdsburg, and the drive up from Sebastopol was pleasant enough. I took the Healdsburg Avenue exit off Hwy 101 and parked a half-block from the Plaza. The town was quiet, with sparse traffic, in sharp contrast to the summer months, which draw enormous crowds.

From my truck I wandered past the Plaza, up Center Street, to pay homage to Bravas Bar de Tapas. Every August my brother flies his large London-based brood into San Francisco, and we have an extended family gathering in Healdsburg that includes a massive feast at Bravas with as many as 7 adults and 6 kids. This involves two tables in the back garden and a solid two-plus hours of dining. Every dish—including paella, fried chicken, escarole salad and octopus—is phenomenal.

My nod to one local institution complete, I walked back to the plaza, noting that Healdsburg Running Company, “America’s Wineiest Running Store,” has an elaborate dog-watering/feeding station out front and a friendly pedestrian alley behind it. It’s these details that make Healdsburg so delightful to stroll.

Feeling hunger’s gnaw, I chose to lunch at El Farolito, where I sat down at their on-street shaded seating for chips, salsa and a pair of divine el pastor tacos—which at $3.50 each are one of the best deals in town. Local business people dined at the tables around me, and a lone guitarist wailed “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” from the bandstand across the street in the nearly-empty Plaza.

My stomach happily full, I walked a few doors around the corner to Levin & Company Community Booksellers, dipping in to peruse their fiction and sci-fi sections, as well as their CDs and the Upstairs Art Gallery. I left the store smiling.

Later, I poked my head into Copperfield’s Books because, well, books, books and more books. At this point I must make full disclosure and inform the readership that I have worked for Copperfield’s in the past and am still on the company’s payroll. Books and I go decades back, to childhood evenings spent exploring Kepler’s original Menlo Park location in the late 1970s. These days I own 40 boxes of books. I’ve worked for four different bookstores, a book distributor and a book publisher in my time, and I’ve been voraciously reading and writing since I learned to read and write. Having never met any employees from the Healdsburg location, I introduced myself and took a look around the cozy, well-lighted store, making particular note of the print newspapers they carry.

Back outside, I decided to explore the Plaza itself. On the far side of the square I happened upon a plaque. Lo and behold, it was dedicated to Harmon Gregg Heald, the town’s founder, and marked the location of his cabin, built in 1851 “150 feet west of this spot,” and his store and post office, built in 1857 “100 feet north of here.” Better yet, the plaque itself was placed by the Yerba Buena Chapter of E Clampus Vitus on May 23, 1964. Hmmm … the Clampers have a penchant for trickery, do they not? Perhaps they also plant historic markers? I confirmed the authenticity of the plaque’s information via a Siri query on my iPhone, and crossed the street once again.

Outside Noble Folk Ice Cream and Pie Bar I spied an adorable little silkie Yorky, named Benji, and started up a conversation with his humans, Jose and Ping, who were up from the Bay Area for a fun day in Wine Country. They happily posed for a photo, in which I made sure Benji’s tiny little tie-on moccasins were visible.

But I was vaguely hungry, again. Black Oak Coffee Roasters beckoned. Back across the Plaza I strode. Citing nerves, I ordered a 12-oz. decaf Americano, which proved as rich and black as the cup it was served in. The service was impeccable, and I parked myself by the cafe entrance to take notes for this very article. Was it my frayed imagination, or did I detect a subtle caffeine buzz thrumming the cracks in my nerves? I couldn’t say for sure, because I’d already had a cuppa earlier in the day, and decaf must contain some caf, must it not? The questions we ask ourselves when no one is near enough to hear our speedy thoughts.

My morning stroll through Healdsburg over, I wandered back to my truck the slow way, looping around the far side of the Plaza and pausing to duck into art galleries. I rarely make it as far north as Healdsburg—living as I do in Sebastopol—but I promised myself I’d return, with company next time, to share the experience with a friend.

Ciao, friendly town!

Mark Fernquest lives and writes in a glass house in a West County apple orchard.