A Czechoslovakian Restaurant in Northern California Circa 1960
Schnitzel in Marin County
Recently, I got to experience a long-held dream, if only for a couple of weeks: living in the woods with only a diabetic cat for company.
I had jumped at the chance to cat-sit for friends who live in a cabin in Inverness, CA, a town of around 1,000 on the southwestern shore of Tomales Bay, on a jagged peninsula north of San Francisco. The cabin, set high up on a ridge overlooking miles of forest, comes as part of the job when you work as an ecologist studying the local owl population. Yes, cat-sitting (and owl-observing) is nice work if you can get it.
On my first full day, after a night struggling with jet lag and the feline alarm clock, the sun was already high in the sky when I coasted the car down the hill in search of coffee and perhaps some kind of wholesome muffin.
It may be rural, but this corner of Northern California is far from undiscovered. People come to hike along dramatic beachside cliffs and spend many happy hours at Hog Island Oyster Company. (There is also an excessively-Instagrammed shipwreck that an amateur photographer accidentally set ablaze last year, apparently after trying to create a dramatic backdrop using sparks from steel wool.) But despite the robust visitor numbers, West Marin still has an appealing idyll. Inverness has only a couple of small clusters of businesses along the bayshore, all looking on-message for Marin County: clapboard storefronts, dusty general stores, and ocean-themed inns.
So I did a double take when I saw Vladimir’s: a cartoonish, colorful, squat building, flanked by an old-fashioned coat of arms fitting for a Medieval Inn at a theme park, plus several sets of old-school skis propped underneath for reasons, at that point, unclear.
Vladimir’s turned out to be a Czech restaurant, specializing in Moravian cabbage rolls, garlic rabbit, paprikash… and Wienerschnitzel. As a quasi-Austrian (and a quasi-Wiener no less) I couldn’t pass that up, so I thought, screw the muffin and coffee. My first breakfast in Inverness was a Schnitzel, with potato salad, red cabbage… and yes, a stein of Pilsner. (In my defense, it was well past noon.)
To shamefully paraphrase someone I have no business paraphrasing, one could say that all good Schnitzels are alike, but bad Schnitzels are bad in their own way. Maybe the cut of the veal is not tender enough, or it’s too thick, or undercooked, or the breadcrumb coating is too soggy, or the crumbs are too sparse. This one was not the best I ever had, but it still scored respectably on all those fronts.
It was only afterwards I learned that the local wisdom is that you go to Vladimir’s for the history, not the food. The story is that founder Vladimir Nevl skied over the border from Czechoslovakia into Germany when he was 18 to escape the Communist government. He ended up in Australia for a while, before landing in California, and opened the restaurant in 1960.
Nevl died in 2008, and now his daughter runs it. They’re proud to say the décor has not changed since it was opened. And that’s really the best way to describe the place: a Czechoslovakian restaurant in Northern California, circa 1960. Dim lighting, bucket-sized beer steins behind the bar, chandeliers, trophies, pencil sketches of Czechoslovakian towns, and every inch of the wall covered in old photographs of horses and other hobbies of Nevl’s—who apparently liked to wear full equestrian gear in the restaurant.
The dark interior certainly has a rumpled charm, bordering on the dusty. Maybe Vladimir’s isn’t about the food. But I still wouldn’t say no to Schnitzel for breakfast.