“Fine dining” and “family friendly” are phrases not often used together in describing a restaurant, but Occidental’s Hazel restaurant manages to blend the two perfectly. Owners Jim and Michele Wimborough searched for years for the right place to open up a restaurant together. They were seeking more than just a restaurant venue—they wanted a sense of community and a good school for their 10-year-old son, Graham. They found both in the town of Occidental.
“It’s been such a whirlwind. We looked at this place in March, and leased it in April. We sold our house in Oakland and bought a place in Camp Meeker. Then we moved the weekend before we opened,” said Jim. The family came to help with painting and getting everything ready. They opened Hazel for business on July 16, 2015.
“We’re really happy that we’re here. You have this dream of what it’s going to be like — and it’s already been fulfilled. People are ridiculously nice!” he said.
Michele agreed. “We’ve been embraced by the community and we already have our regular customers. And we wanted to live close to where we work. It’s made a huge impact on our life to live less than two miles away. And Graham hasn’t looked back. We asked him if he missed the city and wanted to go for a visit, and he said, ‘I don’t want to hurt your feelings, Mom, but I’m just not a city kid.’”
“We had been looking for a long time, for 10 years,” Jim said. “It’s hard to find a place.” The couple, who met auspiciously on Christmas night in 1999 at Lucky 13 Bar in San Francisco, married 2001 in Monte Rio, renting a house on the river for their wedding celebration. In May of 2014, they came up to Occidental for Jim’s birthday weekend. So it seemed right when the cozy building at the north end of town—where Bistro des Copains had been— became available in early 2015. And, Salmon Creek School, two miles down the road, was the perfect fit for Graham.
Both chefs are California natives. Jim grew up in Livermore and went to California Culinary Academy when it was still on Polk Street in San Francisco, but “I basically trained on the job,” he said. “San Francisco in ’98 and ’99—there was no better place to be.” Prior to the move to Occidental, he was chef at Zut Tavern in Berkeley.
Michele came up from Southern California to attend Mills College; she left a career as a retail buyer after she and Jim got together, and she learned the art of pastry at San Francisco’s Tante Marie Cooking school. The desserts at Hazel are her domaine, and she has declared that “Friday is ‘pie day.’ I like to do whatever is seasonal,” she said. The dessert menu also includes some dishes that never go out of season, like Bittersweet Chocolate Pot de Creme and the Hazel Sundae with salted caramel and hot fudge. The weekend brunch menu features Michele’s beignets with homemade jam.
Her father, a passionate home baker, drove the sourdough starter that the Wimboroughs use for their breads and pizzas from his home in Florida, across the country, feeding and watering it along the way, and delivered it to them in Occidental. Hazel’s pizzas have a texture and flavor that is only possible with the combination of sourdough baked in a wood-fired oven, crispy and chewy at the same time.
The dining room has a cozy family feel; the staff can easily communicate with each other and their patrons from the open kitchen, and wonderful smells of roasting and baking fill the room. The menu highlights the best of local foods, with cheeses from Valley Ford Creamery, and Pugs Leap in Petaluma. Jim likes to roast whole branzino and petrale sole from Bodega Bay. Locally foraged, roasted organic mushrooms appear in a Red Quinoa and Butternut Squash dish and on the wood-fired pizzas.
The ribeye steak featured on the menu is from Piedmontese cattle raised in Montana, which, Jim explained, “is a smaller breed that contains a certain gene that allows them to produce well-marbled meat on a grass-fed diet.” Enzo Pollaco of Manna Foods in Berkeley delivers meat each day and lingers to have a glass of wine and lunch at the counter facing the kitchen, where he can schmooze with the chefs.
Jim feels strongly connected to the previous generations, their spirit, and their traditions. The restaurant’s name honors his great-grandmother Hazel, whose personality and love for food and hospitality made a lasting impression on him. When Jim was small, the family would hitch up a trailer and drive to his grandfather’s home in Scotts Bluff, Nebraska and then they would all go to Hazel’s house in Moral, Nebraska. “It’s a good family—they’re lovely people,” he said.
The produce on Hazel’s menu is raised in West County by The Bohemian Farmers Collective, which has several gardens, including one at Ocean Song Farm and Wilderness Center, and from New Family Farm and Rafter Ranch. Cherry tomatoes and kale come from the student-tended gardens at Salmon Creek School. There’s a selection of good local wines and beers. “We buy wines we like from people we like,” Michelle said.
Jim is assisted in the kitchen by sous chef Hunter Bryson (formerly of Bistro des Copains) and line cooks Wyatt Keith, a graduate of Culinary Institutes of America, and Andrew Campbell, only 19 years old, who graduated from Piner High School’s culinary program and, according to Jim, “is as good as any of the other chefs we’ve seen. You don’t need an expensive culinary school. You just need the passion for cooking.”
The wait staff provides warm and attentive service with special homey touches. Server Megan Buser was rolling wet towels and setting them on a plate with a wedge of lemon for patrons to clean their hands after digging into the pork ribs with pomegranate molasses barbecue sauce.
The kitchen at Hazel was well-equipped with two handsome wood-fired ovens already in place. The Wimboroughs added an espresso maker and a Hobart 20-quart mixer for making dough and grinding meat for burgers, meatballs and housemade sausage. They keep the ovens in constant use.
Jim has had a lot of experience working with wood. “You build the fire hot in the evening, up to 700 degrees for baking pizzas, then bake bread in the morning after it cools down to 500 degrees. It stays hot from Sunday night until we open again on Tuesday. We use almond wood and apple wood, which burns nice and hot, and kindling from old wine barrels.”
The decor is as warm and inviting as the staff, with creamy walls hung with charming bird prints from an antique book and a large geometric oil painting on the South wall by the late Ben Aiken, a family friend who was like an adopted grandparent to Jim. There’s natural wood wainscoting inside, and a few tables on the porch for fine-weather dining.
Whether you dine there or order a pizza to go, you’ll find a perfect blend of high quality ingredients and warm family traditions. Hazel is open for brunch on the weekends from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., and for dinner Tuesday through Sunday from 5 to 10 p.m. SD
3782 Bohemian Hwy.,Occidental