April 22, 2021

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We take pride in our travel

In a hippie Marin town, a destination-worthy bar excels at wild and colorful cocktails

5 min read

There are plenty of excellent reasons to visit Fairfax. The hippie Marin County town has long been a destination for hikers and bikers as the departure point for scenic trails around Mount Tamalpais. As the original headquarters of Good Earth Natural Foods, it was a landmark in the organic-food movement. But cocktails and drinks have rarely ranked among Fairfax’s top attractions — until now.

Quietly, since June, a destination-worthy bar from a veteran of San Francisco’s craft-cocktail scene has operated in Fairfax’s laid-back downtown. It’s called Stillwater, and it delivers a very of-the-moment kind of drinking experience, with natural wines, limited-edition hazy IPAs and cocktails that aren’t afraid to embrace bitter flavors.

The owners, David and Margaret Ruiz, are part of a small but growing movement of San Francisco bar folks branching out into Marin County. Isaac Shumway, formerly of Tosca Cafe and Bear vs. Bull in the city, opened the cocktail bar California Gold in San Rafael in 2019, an ambitious, Gold Rush-theme bar with complicated drinks inspired by historical episodes. Meanwhile, Christian Albertson and Nat Cutler, who own Monk’s Kettle in the Mission, plan to open an ambitious beer bar in Terra Linda this spring. Collectively, they stand to inject a little bit of San Francisco into Marin’s food-and-drink scene, which may become a selling point for the thousands of city residents who have relocated to Marin County during the pandemic.

Although limited-capacity indoor dining is permitted in Marin County now, the best way to experience Stillwater is by hanging out in its stylish, semi-enclosed backyard patio. Trees peek out from the gap between the beamed ceilings and the rough-hewn wooden walls. Heat lamps and a striking fireplace, which looks like an asymmetrical obelisk, keep the seating area warm enough that you won’t mind ordering ice-cold drinks and a platter of oysters on the half shell, which is exactly what you should do here.

The Hearts Desire cocktail, made with blanco Tequila, Sherry, thyme, grapefruit and lemon.

Scott Strazzante / The Chronicle

This is the second Bay Area bar for David Ruiz, who is also a partner in the Mission District bar Junior. After he and his wife, Margaret, moved to Fairfax in 2018, it occurred to them that the area could use a serious place to drink. They happened into a space that had housed a number of locally beloved restaurants over the years, like Cafe Amsterdam — where Margaret Ruiz once worked — and the Sleeping Lady.

“People in Fairfax have a nostalgic feeling about this space,” David Ruiz says. “We wanted to make sure we honored the feeling of the town, at least as we perceived it.”

At Junior, David Ruiz drew a following for his next-level selection of mezcal, for which he developed a passion while living in Oaxaca, Mexico. As he and Margaret were preparing to open Stillwater, he was careful to avoid getting pigeonholed. “Everyone was like, ‘it’s gonna be a mezcal bar!’” Ruiz says. But he wanted Stillwater to be an everything bar. “I never want it to be just about mezcal,” he says.

Still, there is a definite agave influence here, with cocktails like the No Voodoo ($14). It combines mezcal with a syrup infused with loose-leaf dried lemongrass, a complex note that harmonizes with pert lime juice and minty Fernet Branca. The Twist of Cain ($14) employs a different Oaxacan spirit: rum, whose richness is amplified by a pineapple gum flavored with Chinese five spice. Fruity Lillet Rouge, a wine-based aperitif, stands in for bitters.

David and Margaret Ruiz and their son, Dillon, 9 months old.

David and Margaret Ruiz and their son, Dillon, 9 months old.

Scott Strazzante / The Chronicle

Regardless of whether Ruiz wants Stillwater to be a mezcal bar, even he would have to concede that one of the best drinks on the menu is a margarita made with both Mero Mero’s espadin mezcal and Pueblo Viejo’s blanco Tequila. Bright with citrus, earthy with agave and deliciously salty, it’s a quenching example of its type.

The food at Stillwater is the work of chef Cameron Meyers. It’s a lot of bar-food staples — creamy Kennebec fries coated in Old Bay, a cheeseburger, tacos piled high with purple cabbage — but they’ve been updated to look and taste as colorful as the cocktails. A charred segment of lime and a cucumber-horseradish mignonette accompany Hog Island oysters ($40 for a dozen); the presentation almost makes it feel as if you’re making a cocktail out of each slurp of bivalve.

A great match for the oysters would be a citrusy cocktail like the Alpine Sour ($12). In it, grapefruit and lemon lift the base notes of gin, allspice dram and rabarbaro, a type of amaro made from rhubarb. Another good move would be to order a glass of Deux Punx’s Fizz Lift, a pet-nat made from Muscat grapes ($13/glass). It’s the house wine at Stillwater — the bar bought 75% of Deux Punx’s sparkling-wine inventory last year — and, though bone-dry, tastes like honey, lychee and orange blossoms.

In a very twee move, the pet-nat is served in a coupe, rather than the customary white-wine glass, because, as Ruiz says, “I like a big pour of sparkling.”

Natural wines on display in the front window of Stillwater in Fairfax.

Natural wines on display in the front window of Stillwater in Fairfax.

Scott Strazzante / The Chronicle

Wine has become a bigger focus at Stillwater than the team had originally envisioned, thanks to the pandemic. The bar opened in June (six days after the Ruizes had a baby), and in the months leading up to its debut, they didn’t know whether they’d be allowed to have in-person dining at all; they were prepared to do a takeout-only model.

Dylan Jones, who oversees Stillwater’s wine list, put together a collection of natural wines that they could offer at retail and launched a wine club — a pivot that many new and existing Bay Area restaurants have made during the past year. He leans heavily on local producers, like Deux Punx (whose winemakers live in the Bay Area but source most of their grapes from Humboldt County), Donkey & Goat, Las Jaras and Luuma.

With COVID precautions still in place, the full version of Stillwater is yet to be realized. “It’s so weird to think that we’ve never had people sitting at the bar,” Ruiz says. He’s slowly stocking up an enviable back bar with rare bottles of whiskey, amaro and, yes, mezcal. If Ruiz’s track record at Junior is any indication, it will be a very rewarding bar to sit at.

“We’re still waiting for the chance to really hit the vibe that we want,” Ruiz says. “But seeing people enjoy the place, even in abbreviated ways, has been enough to make the whole year worth it.”

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