Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Fare to Remember in Sonoma: The Fremont Diner

You know me. If I find a memorable spot for a meal, I'll share it with you. But this one... well, I've been tempted to keep this place to myself. But alas, I'm afraid the cat's pretty much out of the bag by now judging by the increasing number of cars in the parking lot, so what the hell. Get yourself to the Fremont Diner. Now.

It used to be a dive. It used to be Babe's - a dilapidated shack on the two-lane highway between Napa and Sonoma. I never stopped there - not once - despite a daily commute that took me right on by, twice a day. Apparently no one else did either, because Babe's fell into shuttered disrepair.

But this past year, the place went through a transformation. The weed patch parking lot gave way to a lovely crushed granite patio, complete with picnic tables and colorful umbrellas. The weathered and tilting building got a facelift and a fresh coat of whitewash. The place had some bustle, some activity. I eagerly watched the transformation, and hoped that the finished project would be a worthwhile place to grab a snack or maybe, just maybe, a spot to get a decent cup of coffee on my way to work.

Those hopes have pretty much been blown out of the water. This place rocks.

In all of it's retro shabby-chic-ness (complete with rusting antique truck parked outside), the people behind The Fremont Diner are turning out fabulous diner fare with somewhat of a Southern flair, all with the freshest local ingredients possible (purveyors and sources always listed on the menu). They're open for breakfast and lunch, and even though there are standard offerings (their already-famous "whole hog" BBQ, biscuits and gravy, fried pies or fried green tomatoes, for instance), there are daily specials based on what's fresh (the soup of the day is always a treat).

The Fremont Diner is not a joint to visit if you're looking for "health food" per se - even though there are a couple healthy options. But honestly, go for the diner classics if you're making the trip: burgers, BLTs, grilled cheese and the like. I recently splurged on a cheeseburger there as a special treat (I can't even remember the last time I had a diner cheeseburger!) - and it was "all that." It looked like a burger you would make at home - fresh ground beef, hand-formed patty, dripping with juice and super moist. Theirs is a simple presentation (you have to ask if you want things like lettuce, onions, tomatoes) - but that's because the burger is the star - no need to pollute it with accoutrements. But if you do get accoutrements... they are stellar. House made pickles and pickled onions; light and crispy onion rings; perfectly crisp bacon. Mmm.

At any rate, The Fremont Diner's food and the ambiance are winners. I've been several times now, and I will continue to go back and obviously recommend it to others. I hope you can see from the few pictures I took (mostly with my iPhone) that it's as cute as a button - a throw-back to diners of old without being kitschy or trite. And I can't say enough about the food.

But... (don't you hate it when there's a "but"?) there is room for improvement. Granted, this place is young, still finding its pace. But if I ran the world, here's a few things that I'd change or make better (here's where the marketing pro in me rears her ugly head):
  • Signage. The signage for The Fremont Diner is terrible. They got some new signs when they opened, but they are too small to be readable from the road, and of such poor design that even up close they're pretty illegible. Bummer. And there's still some random signage left over from the days of Babe's... huge mistake, in my opinion. But I think the powers that be at The Fremont Diner know their signage is inadequate - they've taken to putting out sandwich boards on the road. Better, but it just adds to the hodgepodge. Blow it all away and start from scratch, that's what I say.
  • Website. Seriously, no website? There's plenty of reviews on Yelp and Chowhound, and they even have a Facebook fan page (of course I'm a fan), but no website to call their own. Huh?
  • Hours. The Fremont Diner's hours appear to be what you'd call "flexible." The signs say they open at 7 a.m., but I'm often driving by at exactly that same time and rarely, if ever, is the place anything but dark. For that reason, I still have yet to stop in for that highly anticipated cup of coffee to go. Which is a shame - I hear that their coffee is pretty darn amazing. Another beef about the hours - they're closed on Sunday. The owners must have pretty strong moral grounds for not capitalizing on the weekend Wine Country traffic that flows past the diner in a steady stream. I respect that. But selfishly, Sunday is the only day I ever have the time or the inclination to go out for breakfast, and if you've read much of this blog, you know that I'm on a quest to find a good breakfast place in my neighborhood - and this could be it! So I have yet to try their amazing-sounding breakfast items. It's a source of great sadness in my heart.
  • Hospitality. Now this is a minor issue, and something I only experienced once in the several times I've been there, but as the saying goes, you only have one chance to make a first impression. On my very first visit - a lunch date with my mom, where I had talked up the place based on its online reviews alone - we were greeted (or not greeted, as the case may be) by the most sullen teenager perhaps this side of high school detention. Our inquiries about the menu were met, literally, by blank stares. When we did get an answer, it was generally "I don't know." What kind of dressing comes with the salad? "I don't know." Is there a soup of the day? "I don't know." Are you open on Sunday? "I don't know." She didn't know? Seriously? This was the face of the business, and she didn't have even the most basic knowledge of her job. Perhaps it was the first hour of her first day on the job - I have no idea. But if that's the case, you still don't shove a greenhorn to the wolves and hope she survives. I haven't seen that girl since, and every other experience of mine at the counter has been warm, hospitable, cheery and efficient. But based on that one experience alone, I don't know that my mom is eager to give The Fremont Diner a second shot. Lucky for me, I was.
So there you have it - a flat-out shameless plug for one of the newest destinations in my neck of the woods. If you've been there, leave me a comment and let me know how your experience compares. At the end of the day, I love the place. Although there's some room for improvement, I expect that The Fremont Diner is just going to keep refining and thriving. I'm excited to be along for the ride!


  1. Found you in a comment on Sorry Not My Table and was thrilled to see this review. You've got some good stuff here.


  2. We just found this place on Yelp when looking for a breakfast spot this past Saturday morning. I was very impressed with how well-thought out everything was..the presentation, the food, the atmosphere, the cute products and antique memorabilia. It all made for a lovely experience. That being said, we went for breakfast at 11:00...and they were no longer serving breakfast. Huh? I guess country folks get their days started earlier. We ended up getting lunch instead, which was super-delicious. They should consider having a breakfast/lunch crossover time window between 11am and 1pm and they should create a website not only for the sake of their business but to publicly acknowledge the purveyors and farms that provide the delicious products that they use. It was a great experience overall though, and I can't wait to leave SF and head up there for a meal again soon. This time with more friends!

  3. We have been there and loved the food but it did take a while to get breakfast out to us. Once we got it we raved about it but when you have a larger table and you want to eat at the same time it is very frustrating waiting so long for all the food. Secondly, the coffee thing altough great is a pain. $2.00 for each cup of coffee is outrageous no matter how much you think of it. I have had some of the best cups of coffee in the world and this wasn't by far one of the bests in my opinion. Maybe I am just not one to pay $2.00 a cup. Now the orange juice on the other hand killer, the waffle amazing. Overall I have to say the food is worth a trip to the diner.

  4. now open on Sunday!!