September 25, 2006
Future Uncertain, but Hope Prevails

Traffic through the old Gold Rush camp of Sutter Creek this weekend again was bumper to bumper, slow and loud, but that's because Main Street doubles as Highway 49, the main thoroughfare through the Mother Lode.

Relief is en route, however. This fall, a nearly four-mile bypass just west of town is to open. It's expected to take much of the truck traffic that now lumbers through the hamlet, as well as motorists heading elsewhere.

Downtown merchants are antsy about the impact the bypass will have on the city's tourist trade, but to judge by the new businesses we saw and the tasteful refurbishment of several older places their attitude is more optimistic than pessimistic. After all, with much of the vehicle traffic expected to be diverted, the town should become calmer and more pedestrian friendly.

Two longtime restaurants that look ready to capitalize on an influx of visitors are the Chatterbox Cafe, a Main Street institution that opened in 1946, and Caffe Via d'Oro.

The Chatterbox was closed and for sale when we last spent a weekend in Sutter Creek in June, but a new partnership took it over and reopened the joint last week. One of them is Joe Silva, left above, (along with partner Joe Rohda) who sold the cafe about a year ago after running it six years. He's now back, helping crank out the restaurant's celebrated cinnamon rolls, fruit pies, biscuits and the like.

One jarring addition, however, but another sign that locals believe a new wave of prosperity is just around the corner, is a stack of pagers on a back counter at the Chatterbox. Business at the cafe generally has been brisk over the decades, but the new group apparently thinks demand is going to be so high that they need big-city pagers to give diners so they can be alerted that their table or counter seat is ready as they wait on the walk out front. The cafe also is being expanded into adjoining quarters previously occupied by a custom jewelry shop, and the owners are talking of landscaping the back yard for outdoor dining. A brief flirtation with prix-fixe dinners at the restaurant also may be revived at some point.

In the meantime, Chatterbox Cafe, 39 Main St., Sutter Creek, is open for breakfast 8-11 a.m. and lunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday; (209) 267-5935.

In another culinary change, Caffe Via d'Oro, which opened about a decade ago as a kind of foothill offshoot of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, has undergone a transformation into an upscale steakhouse with appetizers like grilled quail with pomegranate molasses and oysters on the half shell, and entrees such as grilled duck breast with a nectarine "chili" chutney and braised chicken with applewood-smoked bacon.

While the weather was balmy in Sutter Creek this weekend, there was just enough suggestion of fall in the golden light that I felt obligated to resume my cool-weather quest for the perfect rib-eye steak. Not sure Caffe Via d'Oro's massive version was perfect, but I couldn't find any flaws in the succulent and juicy steak ($24). It was one massive prime-grade cut, grilled precisely as requested (medium rare). Thin, crispy fried onion rings topped the dark and crusty beef, while an even sweeter side of barbecued beans added to the overall brawn of the plate. This is just the sort of entree for which the robust red wines of the foothills are made, and the wine list is loaded with them.

Caffe Via d'Oro, 36 Main St., Sutter Creek, serves dinner starting at 5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday; (209) 267-0535.

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