If you live in the Sacramento region, chances are you’ll be driving through historic Placerville sometime this year. Gold Rush buffs, couples seeking a romantic getaway, wine lovers exploring nearby wineries and families headed to Apple Hill all pass through (or around) this captivating town en route to their adventures. And when they do, Jeff Thoma is banking on the fact that they’ll be hungry.
Thoma, with wife Judy and stepson Ben Carter, recently opened an appealing restaurant called The Independent on Placerville’s Main Street, a mere gold nugget’s throw from their flagship eatery, the cozy Heyday Cafe. I visited one balmy night recently, grabbed a seat at the lively bar and savored a lusciously refreshing bourbon ginger smash, made with orange cognac, fresh mint, lemon and a vivacious housemade ginger syrup. While I was tempted to settle in at the bar to dine, the allure of the patio was simply too powerful.
Perhaps the restaurant’s biggest draw, the outdoor dining area is delightful. Peaceful and shaded by big umbrellas during the day, the intimate, walled-in space features a contemporary water fountain whose subtle burbling creates a soothing background murmur. There’s also an outdoor fire pit ringed by tables and chairs, and an outdoor fireplace that’s certain to be alluring in the chillier months.
We nibbled on chef Ryan Montgomery’s fetching ahi tartare appetizer, adorned with an airy avocado mousse and crispy fried jalapeño chips, as we perused the menu. The restaurant’s cuisine—Thoma calls it American fusion—takes traditional regional dishes and gives them a twist. For example, the kitchen serves Southern-inspired buttermilk-fried chicken with roasted garlic and cheddar grits.
We tucked into a pretty crab Louis salad, marveling at the generous amount of snow crab on top of the lettuce. Made with a spicy citrus-chili dressing, the salad was dotted with hardboiled egg wedges, juicy tomato halves and cucumber slices. It was a light and tasty option on a sunny afternoon. The calamari, though a bit over-battered, was flavorful, and it came with a lusty arrabbiata sauce for dipping. But a second sauce—cucumber mint—was a jarring and curious partner to the battered tentacles. Next time, I’ll ask for another helping of the arrabbiata.
Other pleasing dishes included a lovely house-cured lox, whose pinkish-orange flesh was swirled like a rosebud and snuggled into a pile of fried capers, red onions and triangles of sage flatbread drizzled with tangy horseradish crème fraîche. A beautifully grilled halibut was served on creamy root purée, and a Belgian endive salad—though heavily dressed—was scattered with scrumptious candied walnuts and robust chunks of Maytag blue cheese. The Independent makes a delicious burger:
The half-pound Certified Hereford prime patty capped with melted white cheddar was plump and flavorful, the bun fluffy and satisfying, and housemade aïoli added a distinctive kick.
Less inspiring was the prime rib. Though the menu said it was slow-roasted on a rotisserie, the meat arrived with grill marks and was disappointingly tough. After struggling with it for a while, I gave up on the meat and spent the rest of the evening trying to poach pieces of my friend’s halibut. And the much-touted turnip fries also failed to impress: Though they looked similar to french fries, the bland, earthy taste smacked of, well, turnips. As I bit into them, all I could feel was a visceral longing for the Real Thing.
The dessert menu was limited, including housemade chocolate ricotta cheesecake and vanilla gelato sundae with fudge, caramel sauce and fresh berries. I appreciated the velvety crème brûlée. Expertly caramelized and just sweet enough, the custard was a gentle and satisfying way to finish dinner.
Expect a pleasant meal, served up with genuine friendliness, when you visit this attractive new spot in Placerville. Whether you’re in town for a leisurely amble or heading up the road with the kids for a boxful of Fuji apples, this is one Gold Country restaurant worth checking out.
THE INDEPENDENT RESTAURANT AND BAR: 629 Main St., Placerville
BEST DISHES: Burger, ahi tartare,Belgian endive salad
DRINKS: Handcrafted cocktails are standouts
NOISE LEVEL: Manageable inside, not an issue on the patio
KID-FRIENDLINESS: Not kid-centric, but kid-friendly
HOURS: Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday 11 a.m.–9 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11 a.m.–11 p.m., closed Tuesday