Nibbling on a slice of duck-leg jerky, sipping a glass of pinot noir, and watching the sun hover above the Pacific from the deck of the newly renovated Harbor House Inn, it’s easy to sense that the coastal hamlet of Elk is about to become much better known.
The former lumber town, about 15 miles south of Mendocino, has gently slumbered for decades, visited by the curious few, some just taking a break while driving down Highway 1.
Yet with the re-opening of Harbor House in May — featuring a 25-seat restaurant run by Chef Matthew Kammerer, most recently executive sous chef at San Francisco’s renowned Saison — Elk stands to become a destination unto itself.
Kammerer and Amanda Nemec, his partner in life and business, have spent more than a year renovating the 101-year-old inn.
The building has some dramatic touches, such as redwood beams that evoke Elk’s lumber history and a 6-foot-diameter slice of petrified wood on display in the entryway. Over the past year, Kammerer and the kitchen crew have planted 15 raised vegetable beds in a garden that slopes down to the ocean.
They’re growing alpine strawberries, pineapple sage, radishes, turnips, some of it picked, taken to the kitchen, and on diners’ plates in less than a half-hour. An inveterate forager, Kammerer also collects seaweed from the beach below the inn, and mushrooms from Mendocino’s forests.
He and Nemec intend to offer diners a sense of place, so virtually everything served comes from within a 50-mile radius of the inn, including wine such as the Pinot from nearby Drew Family Cellars.
Fresh fish is purchased at docks from fisherman, and the fare is Asian-inspired, not heavy, with a healthy dose of sea vegetables and pickled delicacies.
Overnight guests stay at the inn’s main building or reside in cottages next door with spectacular views of the coastline and ocean.
As relaxed as Elk can be, there are things worth doing, such as visiting Elk’s museum, which reveals the town’s lumber history and doubles as a visitor center. The Greenwood State Beach Visitor Center and Museum is staffed by Martin Christiansen, whose grandfather ran a mill for L.E. White, a lumber company based in Elk about a century ago.
“My grandfather’s name was John Simpson Ross,” Christiansen said, pointing to a photo on the wall. “There’s a picture of him here.”
L.E. White was taken over by Goodyear, the tire company, and the building that’s now the museum was once the company’s local office.
Filled with relics from Elk’s lumber heyday, the museum has an antique adding machine, an early washing machine that looks like a giant butter churner, a Western saddle dating to about 1900, and an ornate woodstove that provided comfort during Elk’s bone-chilling winters.
Originally named Greenwood by pioneers in the 1820s, the town, when the U.S. Postal Service reached California, changed its name to Elk because there was a city called Greenwood near Sacramento.
But some locals still refer to it as Greenwood, and the narrow curving ribbon of asphalt that leads to Elk from the Anderson Valley is called Philo-Greenwood Road.
At the museum, Christiansen says that the bits of steel in the floor came from logger’s spiked boots, a pair of which are on display. Some 5,000 or more men lived at lumber camps in the woods, he said, and about 1,000 lived in town. Today, Elk’s population is just over 200 people.
If you go to Elk
Where to stay
Harbor House Inn: Rooms from $350, prix-fixe dinner $150; 5600 S. Highway 1, Elk; 800-720-7474, theharborhouseinn.com
Where to eat
The Elk Store: Deli and grocery, 6101 Highway 1, Elk; 707-877-3544, theelkstore.com
What to see
Greenwood State Beach Visitor Center and Museum: 5980 Highway 1, Elk; hours vary; 707-937-5804
The Artist’s Collective: 6031 Highway 1, Elk; 707-877-1128, artists-collective.net