I was lucky enough to visit Claremont recently to get a preview of the city’s 3rd Annual Restaurant Week. With a population of just under 35,000, I was astounded by the quality and variety of things to see and do. First up was a stop at the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden. On a picture perfect afternoon, this was an ideal introduction to Claremont. In the midst of being wowed by the natural beauty surrounding me, I stopped at the Butterfly Pavillion The patient staff pointed out cocoons that otherwise would have escaped me. I passed by a pond teeming with tadpoles, frogs and fish and then made my way down the trail and back to my car.
Following the scrumptious tastes of foods to be offered during Restaurant Week, I took the short stroll from the DoubleTree by Hilton to Piano Piano. After listening to a solo guitarist/vocalist perform on the large stage, the stars of the show made their entrance. Piano Piano is a high energy restaurant/bar that truly comes to life when the dueling pianists take the stage. They coax requests from the audience and do their best to bring folks onstage. The night we were there, a birthday celebrant and his friends performed a rousing rendition of the Village People’s YMCA. There are plentiful food and drink choices and Piano Piano makes for a fun evening.
After nibbling on my DoubleTree cookie, I hit the hay to prepare for a busy next day. After breakfast and a short shuttle ride to Claremont Village, I began my village stroll with a stop at Some Crust Bakery for coffee and a bite of something sweet. It made my heart happy to see a locally owned business so full of people and doing so well. Whatever sort of breakfast you’re craving, this is the spot to find it! The star of the show was the egg slider. On your choice of bread you get two fillings and a choice of sauce. Next time I’m arriving hungry. There’s also an ample selection of fresh-baked pastries, pies and sandwiches.
Like bagels? 42nd Street Bagel has 27 different varieties along with a nice selection of shmears. Proprietor Fred Zitar made sure we got to sample anything we wanted. The bagels were perfection and are available by themselves or as part of a breakfast sandwich or melt. At lunchtime you can order your sandwich on a bagel or French roll.
We walked across the street to the Folk Music Center where Ellen Harper greeted us. The walls are adorned with musical instruments of every kind – guitars, banjos, mandolins, dobros and more, and as you walk around you see any and every kind of musical instrument you can imagine. I hadn’t seen an autoharp in decades! I kept seeing Ben Harper t-shirts and CDs throughout the store, but didn’t make the connection I asked Ellen. Ben is Ellen’s son.
It had been a good 15 minutes since we’d had anything to eat, so thank goodness our next stop was at the Last Drop Café. Owner Mike Manning greeted us with a platter full of sandwiches made on their delicious whole wheat bread. When he learned a member of our group was on a gluten-free diet, he had the kitchen make something special for her. The Last Drop specializes in freshly prepared sandwiches, soups and salads.
Next stop was the Cheese Cave. Co-owner Marnie Clark arranged an all-American tasting for us featuring a goat cheese from River’s Edge Chevre in Oregon called Up in Smoke, a sheep cheese from Golden Valley Farm in California called Golden Ewe and a dry jack cow cheese from Vella Cheese Company in California called Vella Dry Jack. Marnie clearly knows and loves cheese and has an excellent assortment as well as a great selection of wines. She’s happy to offer pairing suggestions.
With my tummy feeling already full from all sorts of treats, we took a short drive to Hotel Casa 425. This boutique hotel is part of the Four Sisters family of 17 unique California inns. Featuring an open courtyard with a welcoming fire-pit, Casa 425 also has an intimate lounge offering small plates and cocktails, beer and wine. The 28 rooms are contemporary, comfortable and spacious. Rates range from $199 to $400 per night. You get a lot for the money including free wifi and a European style breakfast.
I’ve never experienced a place like The Junction before. Owner Johan Lieuw has come up with what he describes as a fusion of Spanish and Chinese. Throw in a little Korean and Mexican and you’re on the right track. Plate after glorious plate of food kept appearing. Where the hell was it all going to go?!? We sampled Junction olives, spicy peanuts, stuffed dates and figs, avocado mango salad. scallop carpaccio, watermelon salad, ginger butter escargot, jalapeño bombs, soft shell crab tacos and I’m sure I missed something. This was some of the tastiest, most beautiful and creative food I’ve experienced in a good long time.
There were just two stops left on our Village Walk. Sal Medina is the proprietor of Packing House Wines. He estimates he tastes about 11,000 wines a year in selecting what goes on his shelves. The criteria he uses are quality, price and availability. We tasted four wines on our visit, starting with the non-vintage Segura Viudas Brut Cava. This Spanish sparkler goes for about ten bucks a bottle and you just can’t go wrong with it. Next was the 2013 Tamellini Soave Classico from Italy, a nice crisp Italian white that retails for $17. We tasted a $24 Oregon Pinot Noir, the 2013 Evening Land. I’m a big fan of Pinot and this is a great value. Finally we tasted the 2013 Turley Juvenile Zinfandel from Paso Robles. At just under $30, this is sure to please any Zin lover. Make sure you check out Packing House and make time for a chat with Sal.
Vom Fass roughly translates as “from the wood.” Co-owner Kim Peeples showed us this unique concept by giving us tastes of different spirits straight from the barrel. I tasted gin, Scotch whisky and bourbon, but only a fraction of what’s available on the shelves. They will bottle your selection in your choice of size. They also offer oils and vinegars that you are welcome to “try before you buy.”
My visit to Claremont was an eye-opener. I had no clue this little city had so much to offer so close to home. With so much to do and see, I think it would be well worth your while to arrange a couple of days there.
Tom Plant launched WINEormous in 2009 and is a member of the International Food Wine and Travel Writers Association. Based in Temecula, California, he offers intimate winery tours for no more than seven people. Tour details and pricing are available at www.temecula-tours.com. Call now to book your Temecula Winery Tour at (951) 907-9701! Ask about special discounts.