By Ellen Shick
It is with great pride that Snail of Approval – Slow Food in Sonoma County, a joint project of Slow Food Russian River and Slow Food Sonoma County North, has presented the Snail of Approval to Handline Coastal California. This seafood eatery is located at 935 Gravenstein Hwy. South in Sebastopol, in what used to be the Foster’s Freeze drive-in. Handline offers farm-to-table food that is good, clean, and fair. Handlining is one of the oldest forms of fishing and oriented towards sustainability: in the words of the restaurant, “fishing by hand while thinking long-term.”
Dynamic Sebastopol Couple
This represents the second Snail of Approval for the wife and husband team, Natalie Goble and Lowell Sheldon, Sebastopol locals. When they are not spending time with their two sons, ages one and three, they run two restaurants with 80 employees in total. In 2007 Sheldon had a dream to open a sustainable organic restaurant in his hometown, and Lowell’s opened that same year. It quickly gained popularity with an all-organic menu that fuses Italian traditions with local West County fare. Lowell’s earned the Snail of Approval in February of 2018, and with Sheldon’s steadfast commitment to sustainability, it is no coincidence that Handline receives the same high praise. In keeping with their commitment to community building, Lowell and Natalie have created their West Sonoma County Field Guide, a collection of local wineries, scenic trails, spas, and other favorite spots along the Sonoma Coast.
West Sonoma County Field Guide
Destined to be a chef
At Handline’s wine and beer bar, Natalie Goble and I sat down to talk about her life and how she became a chef. During our visit, I learned that Natalie began developing her skills at age 21 while working with Daniel Kedan, owner of Backyard (another Snail of Approval recipient). She radiated an inner peace, a solid grounding and a confidence that comes from living out your core beliefs and keeping the important things in life in balance.
Natalie is a local gal, raised on 24 acres on Green Valley Road in Sebastopol. Her father purchased their home in the 1980’s during the “back to the land” movement. They raised apples, kiwi, and persimmons. Through her home garden, Natalie developed a connection to nature and an understanding of sustainable food systems. After earning a degree in philosophy from UC Santa Cruz and with some world travels under her belt, Natalie returned home to Sebastopol and started working at Lowell’s as a cook. It turned out to be an excellent match. Lowell and Natalie fit like a glove and found that they worked side by side in perfect harmony.
Local, sustainable sourcing
During our visit, the waiter brought Natalie one of her L.A.-inspired creations: the mighty salmon burger, which stood several inches high with its generous slab of local salmon. It reminded me of one of those juicy California burgers where the special sauce oozes out, runs down your arms and drips in puddles on the plate below. I realized that this fabulous burger personified the farm-to-table, seasonal, and collaborative principles that Natalie and Lowell bring to their restaurants:
- The salmon comes from local fisheries.
- The hand-cut French fries are made from Kennebec organic potatoes grown especially for Handline by New Family Farm in Sebastopol.
- The slaw comes from local farms such as Bohemian Farmers Collective, Confluence Farm, Singing Frogs Farm.
- The staff is treated like family.
Handline’s concept embraces Slow Food principles.
During the Snail of Approval process, Lowell shared some important background. He stated, “The trout we source comes from McFarland Springs, which is the world’s first deliberate collaboration to responsibly farm sustainable fish. The result is a sustainable and wonderful artisanal product.” Handline now offers a fish market where customers can buy fresh fish in season and learn where their food comes from. For example, their San Francisco purveyor for halibut is Water 2 Table, focusing on hook-and-line fishing.
In addition, Natalie and Lowells’ stewardship of the land and connection to the community is at the center of their ethos. They participate in “Dining Out for Life,” the annual dining fundraising event to raise money for AIDS service organizations. This year they took part in the “Dine and Donate” program, with 30% of each purchase going to support Sebastopol Charter School.
Sustainability in practice
Connection to the farming community is robust. Their family farm, named Two Belly Acres (a play on “two bellyachers”), provides 60% of the produce for their restaurants. In addition, as Lowell will tell you, “We work directly with no fewer than two dozen farmers and producers.”
Light years away from the typical L.A. burger after which it is modeled, the beef in the Handline’s burgers are “sourced from local Mindful Meats/Marin Sun Farms. Their cows live long and healthy lives as pasture-raised dairy cows. One cow alone provides over 80,000 pounds of food in her six year lifetime, in the form of milk, butter, cream, cheese, ice cream, and beef.”
Their respect for the environment extends all the way to the parking lot. When the large driveway in front of Foster’s Freeze was torn up, they used the discarded chunks of concrete to build a lovely Gabion wall around the restaurant, which keeps out the sound from passing cars and adds to the rustic yet new-age feel of the place.
The story continues with cocktails
The dynamic couple is not stopping there. December 20, 2018, saw the grand opening of their third establishment, the Fern Bar. located in the historic Barlow district, once home to Sebastopol’s apple canning industry. The Fern Bar serves cocktails and share plates in the style of a modern American bar with a garden-to-glass focus. Perhaps you remember the term “fern bar” used in the 1970’s to refer to a trendy tavern. When entering the Fern Bar, customers find themselves inside a lush greenhouse. There are several cozy spaces lined with soft green couches, hanging plants, and sunny window seats.
Natalie said their fern-bar idea had always been on the back burner, and she is happy to see it come to fruition. Much like Foster’s Freeze embodied the cultural history of California burger drive-ins, Natalie is firmly grounded in Sebastopol’s apple history. Now she is coming full circle. The Slow Food chapters give a big thank you to Lowell and Natalie for their passion and commitment to food that is good, clean and fair. After I try one of those enormous salmon burgers, I will be stopping by the Fern Bar for a cocktail. Want to join me?
About Ellen Shick
Ellen Shick is a proud Slow Food member and is always on the lookout for ways to feed the world, one delicious meal at a time. Traveling through Italy has become a passion and life journey. Ellen’s blog An Italian Dish is her place to share travel adventures, recipes, photos, books, and stories about her love of Italy, the food and the people.