A Diner with a View

P icture these scenarios: You’ve got a car full of hungry kids and a dog that just spent the day rolling in wet sand at Doran Beach. Or you’ve just worked up an appetite hiking on the Kortum Trail or surfing at Salmon Creek. Now you’re looking for a casual place to eat that won’t break the bank. The big, red, hot dog flags that flank both entrances to Smith Brothers Road off Highway 1 in Bodega Bay show you where to turn westward and head down to The Dog House, quite possibly the friendliest place to eat in West County.

Specializing in Chicago-style hot dogs, served with all-you-can-eat fries and old-fashioned, thick, blended-from-scratch milkshakes, this family-run and family-oriented little diner at the south end of town has both indoor seating and outdoor picnic tables looking out at the bay. While your hand-cut fries are crisping in the fryer and your cooked-to-order burgers (beef, turkey or veggie) are sizzling on the grill, you can study the walls covered with colorful signs and posters and the nostalgic knickknacks on the counters, while the kids occupy themselves with crayons and coloring books. If you’re a sports fan and your team is playing, you can grab the remote and switch the TV from music to your game. When your hot dog or burger is ready, dress it up at the condiment bar, find a place to sit and enjoy the bay view, watch the wind-surfers and the occasional bald eagle flying overhead.

The dog-friendly vibe goes two ways—The Dog House not only serves hotdogs, they serve your dogs. Free dog biscuits are provided for your four-legged friends, with plenty of space for them to gnaw and enjoy them among the succulent-filled pots surrounding the picnic benches. If your dog has a bigger appetite, you can ask for the dog meal: no bun, no fries, just the meat, sometimes cheese, with a dog biscuit on the side.

Shannon Marsi, along with her parents Rebel and John Marsi, bought The Dog House in June 2013 from the family of original owner Van Hoover, who passed away the previous January. Shannon had worked for Van for 10 years, starting when she was only 17, and, when he was gone, “Van’s kids wanted us to take over,’’ she recalls. The Marsi family are long-time members of the community and Rebel has fond memories of some customers that go back for years: “I’ve seen them in their mommy’s belly, and now they’re bringing in their own kids.”

Just across Highway 1 is the Bodega Bay School (where Rebel’s oldest granddaughter is a student). A photo is prominently displayed of the day they hosted all 24 students for lunch on their field trip to the post office next door. Now Shannon and her fiancé Sean Amoroso, a commercial fisherman, have a daughter of their own, 11-month-old Liliana, who was gleefully babbling away in her high chair, teething on a pickle plank during our conversation. Shannon took some time off after giving birth, but she’s happy to be back at work. “I missed it, I love seeing all my people.”

Shannon and her two younger sisters grew up on a ranch in Bodega, where Rebel and John were property managers for 26 years, surrounded by lots of animals—dogs, cats, ducks, chickens and cows. Both of her parents still work part-time at the ranch, but Rebel trades off cooking duties behind the counter at The Dog House with Shannon, while John’s specialty is both hunting out and creating the eclectic colorful décor of the restaurant—indoors and out. He likes to go online to scout colorful bits of whimsy, like the replica posters of 15-cent soft drinks, the homages to Betty Boop and wiener dogs (both the edible and four-legged kind) that decorate the interior, the miniature lighthouses that sit on a shelf high above the counter, and the dog magnets that line the shelf bottom. John also built the 18-foot long metal sculpture of a wiener dog that stands at attention above the grass-roof of the restaurant, visible from Highway 1. Each year, he builds a float for the Bodega Big Event—the annual fire department fundraiser—for the one-block long parade. There are always dogs onboard, and the humans toss gummy hot dogs to the crowd. John clearly loves this aspect of his work, saying, “You’ve got to have fun!” The family sells hot dogs from the cart John built, which is also available for other events.

Although The Dog House is right by the shore, you won’t find fish-and-chips here. Shannon explains, “When you cook fish in the same oil as the fries and onion rings, it leaves them tasting ‘fishy,’ and kids don’t like that,” so they leave the fish-and-chips to the other Bodega Bay restaurants and keep The Dog House “the alternative to seafood.” The exception to the rule is the wild salmon burgers, but those are grilled, not fried. Chicken tenders have been added to Van’s original menu; otherwise it’s basically the same fare that The Dog House has been offering since 1986.

Let’s talk about those all-you-can-eat fries. They are hand-cut daily from Kennebec potatoes that are grown locally by Imwalle Gardens in Santa Rosa (also the provider of romaine lettuce, onions and tomatoes). The first generous, crisp, hot portion fills the paper boat, nestled against your dog or burger (an oval patty of fresh ground chuck, hand-formed to order), which is folded into a lightly grilled, sesame-topped bun.

he hot dogs are made by Vienna Beef Ltd., a company founded by Austrian-Hungarian immigrants who introduced their family frankfurter recipe at the World’s Columbian Exposition (aka The Chicago World’s Fair) in 1893. This all-beef hot dog—and the condiments that go on top—are what make it the quintessential Chicago-style dog. In addition to sauerkraut, ketchup and mustard (French’s classic yellow or the spicy and vinegary Vienna Brand Dusseldorf), you can dress up your dog with an array of toppings from the condiment bar: bite-sized, briny, medium-hot Sport Peppers, neon-green Chicago-style cucumber relish, kosher pickle planks, and fresh chopped onions, crisp lettuce, and sliced tomatoes.

The menu includes two types of Vienna’s all-beef chili (one with beans and one without), burgers (beef, turkey, salmon and garden), a BLT, grilled cheese, steak sandwich, chicken sandwich, and eight varieties of hot dogs, including corn dogs, bratwurst and chili cheese. You can order bacon on anything. The onion rings are sourced from Brew City, thick-cut, and beer battered. Milkshakes, malts and floats (made with Cascade Glacier ice cream from Eugene, Oregon) come in chocolate, strawberry and vanilla. In addition to coffee, tea and fountain soft drinks, you can choose from eight kinds of Snapple, Red Bull, San Pellegrino citrus sparkling waters, and Stewart’s root beer, cream soda, orange and cream, and key lime sodas. They also serve domestic and premium beers and their own custom label wines (produced by Windsor Vineyards) by the glass or bottle.

And if you’re out and about before The Dog House opens at 11 a.m., Captain Davey’s Ice Cream and Espresso, right next door, opens at 7:30 in the morning to get your day started. Captain Davey offers 16 flavors of Cascade Glacier ice cream, sundaes, hot and cold espresso drinks made from Coast Roast Coffee, Italian sodas and hot cider, and pastries from Village Bakery.

The Dog House is open daily 11-6. You can call ahead for takeout: 707-875-2441. Free Wi-Fi. SD