By Richard Brenna
When Sammy Hagar recently bought, renovated, and reopened El Paseo in his hometown of Mill Valley, the music legend was motivated by ideals far more dear to him than money. He did it, he says, for his love of people, food, family, and wine.
El Paseo was built in 1947—coincidently the same year Hagar was born in central California—but the path of this storied property and that of the Red Rocker would not cross for almost three decades. The name El Paseo means “the passage”—an appropriate title, as the restaurant has taken a long journey since the post-World War II era. Although the restaurant has changed conceptually from time to time, having served generations of diners, the time-honored structure has nevertheless remained a beloved fixture within the quaint tree-lined landscape of Mill Valley, the summit of Mount Tamalpais towering majestically in the distance.
Entering from the street, one is led down a secluded passageway and is immediately transported to Paris, Madrid, Florence—places both exotic and steeped in history. Diners entering the property in the fading light of day find an interior of soft worn brick, dark wood, and a charming European-style décor as warm and comforting as Hagar himself. Like so many neighbors and friends who visit, Hagar himself feels at home at El Paseo.
Often, Sammy’s fans come with the hope of catching a glimpse of him. One annual tradition is when he’ll drop in unannounced to shave white truffles as a holiday gift for the evening’s guests. Then, without missing a beat (after all, he is a musician), he’ll offer wine suggestions or join in tableside photos with diners. “I try to make it the best night of their lives,” Hagar says. Indeed, the guitar hero visits his restaurant a few nights a week to sample new dishes with Executive Chef Michael Ward and do what he’s done every day since he moved to Mill Valley—have dinner with family and friends.
“This is about spending time with special people and enjoying great food and wine. Those are the things I love.” —Sammy Hagar
Clearly, the quieter thrills of life did not pass Hagar by; during his tours and travels, he developed a sensitive palate and a love of great wine. He took pleasure in seeking out the top producers in Bordeaux, Burgundy, and California. Unlike many collectors, Hagar looks to experience the wines he’s socked away and isn’t afraid to open any of the wines he’s been cellaring for the last 40 years. He became an accomplished amateur chef, too, gaining a sense for creating meals to complement specific wines. The passion that Hagar originally expressed through music extends into all of his epicurean endeavors.
Having opened restaurants across North America, he developed an eye for culinary details, and while dining one evening at El Paseo, Sammy began to entertain the idea of how he might influence and infuse his own signature style into his neighborhood restaurant of 35 years. So when the opportunity presented itself in 2009, he bought El Paseo and began an extensive renovation which would ultimately take two years to complete. Its original structure was preserved—including the reclaimed materials, like railroad ties from the defunct Mount Tamalpais train tracks and bricks scavenged from landfills after the ’06 earthquake—that now give the restaurant its timeless spirit. “El Paseo was built with secondhand materials long before that was trendy,” says David Sturno, Sammy’s hand-picked director of operations. “Sammy spent a small fortune renovating the space, just to make it look like nothing had been done.”
Combining his own passion for food and wine, he chose to team up with Tyler Florence to create a chophouse with a Marin County twist thanks to Executive Chef Michael Ward’s varied culinary background. While a 32-ounce Rib-Eye does exist on the menu, it sits alongside delicate dishes such as Winter Truffle Risotto and Kampachi Crudo.
And while the rustic characteristics of the original space remain, a concerted effort was made to enhance the restaurant’s approachability and charm. For example, the staff decided to change from traditional white tablecloths to rough-hewn wood table tops. “It was too stuffy,” Sturno admits. “White tablecloths are too formal. We wanted El Paseo to be a great neighborhood joint, not just a place for special occasions.” Added Sammy, “I wanted this place to be every bit as good as what you’d find in the city but without having to make the drive over the bridge.”
Chef Ward clearly understood that Sammy’s unique concept of a steak and chophouse was well beyond the typical quality and inventiveness of the fare served in classic steakhouses across the country. Ward has a deep respect for the produce he is working with—much of it grown in Marin County—and he spices each dish with an inspired, global touch. Such items as Roasted Guinea Hen, brined two days in advance, falls off the bone. Seared Scallops and lentils, fresh Snapper served on a bed of chorizo and quinoa paella, and Beef Basques are but a few of the succulent dishes that give the menu its unique versatility. Hagar—himself a meat lover—promises that the salads, made with premium greens, local produce, and homemade dressings, are amazing.
Not surprisingly, the wines at El Paseo are as creative and diverse as the menu. France, Italy, and Spain are all well represented on the extensive wine list, including some rare gems pulled from Sammy’s personal collection. “I’ve been collecting since the ‘70s and these wines haven’t seen the light of day since I bought them,” he says with evident pride. Also available, of course, are wines from nearby vintners in Napa and Sonoma, reminding locals and visitors alike that the art of winemaking is produced and celebrated right here at our fingertips. “I used to visit Joe Heitz, Chuck Wagner, and Joseph Phelps back when I was just starting to collect. I’d drive up to Napa on weekends.”
The local community clearly shares Hagar’s enthusiasm for wine. Several months ago, David Sturno began a monthly Collectors’ Dinner Series in which a particular wine region and vintage is selected and guests are invited to “bring a bottle from their cellar”—a recent event featured pre-’05 Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Chef Ward is then tasked with preparing a family-style, four-course, prix-fixe menu. Each diner has his or her own bottle to pair with the meal but will inevitably find themselves enthusiastically sharing with others in the group, making new friends over food and wine. These Collectors’ Dinners have proven to be a great success, some selling out a month in advance. “Next on the agenda is a weekend warm-up party we’re calling Bubbles and Bites,” Hagar says. “Starting in April, we’ll be opening the restaurant earlier Friday through Sunday so that our guests can enjoy featured Champagnes—or any wines for that matter—and Chef Ward’s great snacks in our bar or on our beautiful patios from 3-6pm,” Hagar says.
El Paseo is a truly special place in Mill Valley. From its rich history, to the care and nurturing of an idea that is eloquently expressed by Hagar himself: “This is about spending time with special people and enjoying great food and wine. Those are the things I love.”