After a long day enjoying the abundant recreational opportunities in North Lake Tahoe, from skiing and boarding in the winter, to hiking and rafting in the summer, hungry adventurers need a good meal for fortification for the next day. A variety of Tahoe favorites have been satiating appetites worked up by the clear mountain air for years, while others are relative newcomers. Here is a list of tried and true favorites.
1. Graham’s Restaurant
1650 Squaw Valley Road, Olympic Valley
Graham’s tops the list because of the quality of the food, cozy, fire-lit ambiance in Squaw Valley’s first cabin, and friendliness of Graham himself. Graham’s, located near the ski area, features California cuisine inspired by Old World recipes from Italy, France, Spain and Middle East, complemented by an extensive wine list with over 800 selections from California, Europe and Australia. Seasonal selections range from venison and elk to Spanish paella and Moroccan lamb shanks.
Right up there with Graham’s is Wolfdale’s in Tahoe City, which features innovative cuisine with an Asian flair. Wolfdale’s is sophisticated without being intimidating and expertly blends East and West in an un-fussy way. Only the freshest ingredients grace the plate, and the presentation is impeccable. The menu, artwork and even the unique dinnerware changes frequently, offering a fresh interpretation of seasonal flavors. A dish as common as fish and chips is transformed under chef-owner Doug Dale’s direction, utilizing sea scallops and halibut accompanied by macadamia slaw. Mountain favorites such as grilled elk chop can be found next to Asian braised duck on the menu. Wolfdale’s also has a small bar area, and is a pleasant place to relax after skiing or boating.
3. Christy Hill
115 Grove Street, Tahoe City
The views of the lake can’t be beat, perched just above the shore, and with its sophisticated and intimate interior it is a perfect special-occasion venue, voted “Most Romantic Restaurant” by the San Francisco Chronicle. With 25 years of history it’s a restaurant that has withstood the test of time. The menu can be described as California Fresh with a strong French influence, and it’s no surprise, with the French influence, that the wine list is impressive. Duck confit and grilled duck with white beans represents the French heritage, while dishes such as Moroccan spiced lamb loin get a little more adventurous. Recently acquired by Robyn Sills and Ed Coleman (Pianeta Cucina Italiana and Pacific Grill/Bar of America) it appears that Christy Hill will maintain its iconic status far into the future.
Truckee has seen an infusion of new restaurants over the last few years, and Moody’s Bistro and Lounge has become a favorite, often jammed with patrons on the weekends. The owners, JJ Morgan and Mark Estee, are pursuing plans to expand the restaurant, no small task as it sits in the Truckee Hotel, a historic site. The focus of the menu is fresh, seasonal food, staying close to the farmer and remaining local. They serve their own house-made charcuterie and offal, antelope, cassoulet and fresh fish, among other tempting dishes. Joseph Nace, the wine director has won the Grand Wine Spectator award twice, so not surprisingly, the wine list is far-reaching. A major draw at Moody’s, in addition to the food, is the excellent jazz entertainment that is a regular offering.
10118 Donner Pass Rd., Truckee
Chef Billy McCullough (formerly of Wolfdale's in Tahoe City) brings a unique blend of Thai, Japanese, Indian and Malaysian influences to the food at Dragonfly, offering fresh interpretations to classics such as futomaki and shu mai. Examples of other offerings include pork shanks with a Jamaican jerk glaze and grilled New York steak, in addition to a full sushi menu. Their upstairs location on Donner Pass Road is larger than it looks from the outside, and offers a casual, relaxed atmosphere.
6. Pianeta Cucina Italiana
10096 Donner Pass Rd., Truckee.
Pianeta Ristorante is located near the well-known Bar of America and companion restaurant, Pacific Crest Grill, all owned by Robyn Sills and Ed Coleman who appear to be building a successful gastronomic empire. Pianeta Ristorante offers an excellent rendition of Italian favorites such as Ravioli Bolognese and house-made veal meatballs with pasta. The small restaurant has an upstairs loft so they can accommodate more people than you would think on initial glance. The wine list is extensive and represents Old World and New World wines that complement the dishes.
10142 Rue Hilltop (Off Brockway Rd.), Truckee
Cottonwood Restaurant, a longtime favorite, overlooks the town of Truckee and is filled with history. The restaurant is sited on one of the oldest ski lodges in the country, operated by Charles F. McGlashan around the turn of the century. After purchasing the land from railroad developer Charles Crocker, McGlashan developed a ski area with several rope tows and a Poma lift, which operated until 1969. The restaurant opened in 1988 and provides the same expansive views of Truckee from high on a hilltop now as it did a century ago. The historic building looks rustic, but the menu is modern with selections such as skewered grilled Arrachera beef flank steak with tomatillo salsa, pine nut crusted Southeast Asian basa or butternut squash enchiladas with ancho chile mole sauce.
8. Pfeifer House
760 River Road, Tahoe City
Entrees: $19-29 +
The Pfiefer House, the grand dame of classic European-style restaurants in Tahoe, is one of the oldest, established in 1939. The Old World charm fits the historic surroundings and the menu, while classically German, has been refreshed and lightened to take advantage of seasonal California ingredients. Vienna schnitzel, Hungarian beef goulash, Swiss bratwurst and Bavarian apple strudel will satisfy the most voracious hunger. Visitors frequenting Squaw Valley or Alpine Meadows will find the Pfeifer House conveniently located between Alpine Meadows and Tahoe City.
9. River Ranch
Corner Highway 89 and Alpine Meadows Road
River Ranch has been an institution for 35 years, sitting on the banks of the Truckee River at the entrance to Alpine Meadows Road. Popular in the summer as the take-out spot for those rafting the Truckee River, it is also a favorite après-ski gathering with a large lounge and fireplace near the bar. The restaurant, featuring California continental cuisine, offers spectacular views of the Truckee River. The menu offers traditional steak house fare such as pepper steak and filet mignon, but also more unusual selections, including lamb shank, wild game meat loaf and elk.
The rustic cabin is inviting from the outside while the interior iscozy and welcoming. The soft lighting and natural wood of the log cabin contrasts with the diverse art and artifacts to provide a romantic backdrop for this restaurant, hidden behind the Tahoe Biltmore. A Zagat-rated North Lake Tahoe institution for more than 20 years, Soule Domain is a locals favorite, and oft recommended to out-of-towners looking for a special place to take a date. The convivial atmosphere, white tablecloths bedecked with flowers even in the dead of winter and flavors from around the world assures a warm welcome and a touch of class. The menu might feature such varied dishes as curried cashew chicken, duck with orange, raspberry and Grand Marnier, and shrimp sautéed with pasilla peppers and cilantro.
11-13. Honorable mention:
Jake’s on the Lake (Boatworks Mall):
780 N. Lake Blvd, Tahoe City
Gar Wood’s Grill and Pier:
5000 North Lake Blvd, Carnelian Bay
These three perennial favorites are listed together because they offer a similar experience and are long-time favorites. While the menus are not as exotic or innovative as other restaurants in the area, they have the distinct benefit of being located on the shores of Lake Tahoe, offering exquisite views in any season and dock-side access in the summer. The food is solid and consistently well prepared, and they can accommodate large groups and families. They each have a large bar area and are a popular place to go for drinks. Your choice among the three is likely to be dictated by your location. Sunnyside is located on the West Shore, Jake’s on the Lake is in Tahoe City and Gar Wood’s is in Carnelian Bay.
To reach North Lake Tahoe from San Francisco by car (approximately 4 hours, depending on traffic and weather):
- Take Interstate 80 east (stay on 80 through Sacramento).
- Exit at Truckee onto Highway 89 south following signs to Lake Tahoe/Tahoe City