Pat Kuleto and Nick's Cove
San Francisco’s preeminent restaurateur opens a place in remote Tomales Bay
So people think we’re crazy for doing this?” Pat Kuleto asks after conducting a tour of Nick’s Cove, his recently opened $14 million restaurant / cabin complex straddling a lonely stretch of Highway 1 alongside Tomales Bay, north of Marshall.
After pausing to reflect, he answers his own question: “Well, thank God for crazy characters; without them the world would become so sterile.”
Kuleto, who’s been immersed in the competitive Bay Area restaurant scene for over 35 years, then offers an engaging grin along with a slice of his business philosophy: “Nowadays, everything’s a copy of something else,” he says. “There’s so little that’s original.”
Still smiling, he observes that many times it’s the so-called crazy people who wind up making things happen, creating change and leading where others fear to venture. “Someday I may be sitting around wondering why I ever did this ‘crazy’ project,” he says, “but it’s what I’ve been doing all my life, and there’s no reason to change now.”
Indeed. Back in the 1980s, the brash yet unassuming Kuleto opened Fog City Diner in San Francisco at an Embarcadero location known as a “graveyard for restaurants.” Earlier still, he’d launched Kuleto’s in a neighborhood many considered at best questionable for culinary success. Both are still operating, having long ago become San Francisco institutions. Other restaurants Kuleto either opened or has a hand in operating include Farallon, Boulevard and Jardinière in San Francisco and Martini House in St. Helena. And in November, with his longtime business partner, chef Mark Franz, he will open Water Bar and Epic Roasthouse on the Embarcadero south of the Ferry Terminal Building, near the outdoor sculpture named Cupid’s Span.
“I’m more excited about Nick’s Cove than any other place I’ve ever opened—I could live here,” Kuleto declares, kicking back in a cushy leather chair in Big Rock, one of eight handsomely restored bay view cabins dating back to the 1930s. The cabins (they hold a total of 12 units that together can sleep 28 people a night) surround a 50-plus-year-old restaurant that’s been painstakingly rebuilt and refurbished into a chic indoor/outdoor 21st-century establishment that evokes the roadhouse era of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s.
But getting to Kuleto’s “I could live here” condition was a long and sometimes lonely battle. Before buying the property, he was assured by a roomful of Marin County’s politicos and powers-that-be that restoring Nick’s Cove and the nearby cottages would be doable, if not exactly universally welcomed. “Eventually, it took eight years and involved over 50 governmental groups, each having to give its independent approval,” Kuleto reflects. “Our problems were, we were too close to the bay and too far from a source of usable water.”
In addition, to no one’s surprise, the project’s West Marin neighbors had some worries about “this big-city restaurant guy building a fancy-schmancy resort.” With patience and perseverance and the aid of his staff, Kuleto, who years ago spent many a summer fishing on Tomales Bay, overcame the obstacles and opposition and began constructing Nick’s Cove in the spring of 2005.
“I spoke at more public meetings than I’ll ever remember,” he says with a hint of exhaustion in his voice. “We responded to every possible concern.”
Some examples of the challenges:
1. Being limited to only 16 toilets, each requiring “an underground concrete septic tank the size of a boxcar,” Kuleto says.
2. The on-site discovery of the California red-legged frog, an endangered species, which required, among numerous protective actions, hiring a red-legged frog monitor full time during construction. (Kuleto estimates the frog cost Nick’s Cove $2 million, and its menu will note as much. “Across from ‘Red-legged Frog,’” he says, “we’ll list the price as $2 million.”)
3. Installing four 10,500-gallon water tanks behind a row of trees.
4. Restoring to working order a cavernous early 1950s restaurant that “had way too many rotten beams and far too few square corners,” the project’s designer recalls.
5. Taking steps to mitigate the impact of locating the restaurant kitchen directly over a rather lethargic stream, to the tune of more than $750,000.
“In hindsight,” Kuleto confesses, “we probably wouldn’t have done this project.” Then, he perks up. “But let’s be honest. We’ve created a space that’s unique to the entire California coast.” Located three and a half miles south of the farming town of Tomales (population 262) and an equal distance north on Highway 1 from the sleepy community of Marshall, Nick’s Cove is a long way from anything remotely comparable. “And look what we have when you get here,” Kuleto says. “There’s a quarter of a mile of beach beside you, lush forests behind you, views of Tomales Bay and Hog Island in front of you, and plenty of chances to kayak, fish, bike and hike all around you.”
Nick’s Cove, with seating for 130, will be open for lunch and dinner every day, its menu emphasizing local produce, seafood and meats. “That hillside will be terraced for growing organic vegetables,” Kuleto says, motioning inland. “Before long, we’ll have our own oyster operation,” he adds, gesturing toward the bay. He and his 35 limited partners, many of them Marin residents and businesses, are confident the ambitious project “pencils out.” Sure, there’ll be foggy weekdays when the restaurant will be slow and the colorful cabins sparsely occupied, he concedes, but it’s weekends that will drive the business.
“There are 104 weekends a year,” he says. “And we’ll have something going on for every one of them.” Anticipated attractions include fly-fishing clinics and contests, kayak classes and tours, and classic car shows and rallies. “Nick’s Cove will be the perfect place to get married,” he adds, “and it’ll be ideal for a corporate retreat.” While the cabins, with rates as high as $1,000 a night, are decidedly upscale, the restaurant “will have something for everyone,” Kuleto insists. That includes “RV tourists and their families, bicyclists in those spandex outfits and the Harley crowd in their black leathers.”
Adding to the allure are a fully restored fishing pier, including an old-timer’s fishing shack, that juts 400 feet into Tomales Bay; cabins with Ben Franklin fireplaces inside and swirling hot tubs outside; and an online preregistering system that precludes cumbersome check-in. “All you do is pick up a key and go to your cabin,” Kuleto says, “where you’ll find a complimentary bottle of wine and a fully stocked bar—with normal-size bottles.”
In addition to opening parties for investors, the trade and “friends and family,” Kuleto recently held an extravaganza, complete with fireworks, for his Tomales Bay neighbors. “For the most part, they were very supportive of what we wanted to do,” he recounts. And the same now goes (if not doubly so) for the media: “Every travel magazine in the world, from Men’s Journal to Condé Nast Traveler, wants to do a story about Nick’s Cove.” Flashing a smile of immense satisfaction, he adds, “They’re all just crazy about the place.”
Nick’s Cove is Marin Made
Marinites who are making it happen
OK. PAT KULETO—who now resides in Napa Valley and whose restaurants are mostly in San Francisco—may be the big kahuna of Nick’s Cove, but plenty of Marinites played and are playing leading roles in the resort restaurant’s development and operation.
For starters, San Anselmo’s Mark Franz, Kuleto’s chef partner in Farallon and many other ventures, is also a part-owner of Nick’s Cove. Also living in San Anselmo is Alexandra “Alex” Wines, the project’s chief designer and on-site problem-solver, who’s worked with Kuleto for 11 years… Starting eight years ago, Marin County Supervisor Steve Kinsey, a Woodacre resident, was convinced Kuleto’s organization was ideal for the restoration of Nick’s Cove and Cabins; he encouraged the project to go forward and helped guide it through the maze of regulatory bodies… San Geronimo Valley resident and former Marin supervisor Gary Giacomini was the project’s legal counsel and recently stated, “The place is stunning; I’m very proud of Nick’s Cove.”
Gary Ross and Mike Stone of San Rafael’s Tile and Stone Concepts of Marin supplied, among other things, the cabin’s antique bath tiles and the terra-cotta flooring in the restaurant… John Molloy of Fairfax handled the interior and exterior painting, while Peter and Tom Bricca, of Ross, famous for their decorative finishes, provided the trompe l‘oeil and antique touches, and the hand painted signage was done by Woodacre’s Roderick Smith… On-site construction for the $14 million project was the responsibility of Tim Furlong of Furlong Brothers Construction in nearby Tomales.
Now that Nick’s Cove is up and running, Marshall’s Luc Chamberland, formerly of Hog Island Oyster Company in the S. F. Ferry Building, is the restaurant’s general manager, and Point Reyes Station’s Greg Cockroft, from Manka’s Inverness Lodge, will oversee cabin accommodations. And finally, a commemorative history of Nick’s Cove—stretching back over 150 years—was written by West Marin historian Dewey Livingston.