What makes a restaurant "the best"? Judging from the range of comments on dozens of local eateries in this hard-fought category, it really depends on the diner. Recurring words and themes regarding 3 Foods Café included: unpretentious, atmosphere, comfortable, affordable, fun and delicious (not necessarily in that order). As one commenter put it, "A restaurant is more than the food, it's the experience." Another praised the "savory, funky, fun meals." "Diverse and accommodating," said yet another. Diversity is definitely the rule here, along with whimsy. Start with wedges of pita and Fuji apple dipped in olive oil and Egyptian spice blend. Or maybe "Golden Nuggets," tater tots with surprising dips. Or the "Light and Lovely," a salad with gorgonzola, apples and caramelized walnuts. My faves: "Piccadilly Gone East" -- ahi tempura, pink in the middle, with miso aioli and rice wine vinegar for dipping and "Harold and Kumar," sliders (Humboldt grass-fed beef, of course) with blue cheese, frizzled leeks and aioli. Vegetarian options? Of course; gluten-free too. And they deliver (in more ways than one). (835 J St., Arcata.) -- Bob Doran
Eye of the Tiger Nominee: Curley's. "Curley's survived the rather unfortunate and unplanned move to Fortuna yet maintained its quality food. The staff remains among the best in the area, efficient and friendly but not pretentious. It is a great place to take the family and the cozy, curtained booths make a great place to celebrate an anniversary or other special occasion."
Saddest Answer: Sizzler. "One-dollar beer."
All that's left is the three-peat! For the second year in a row, Old Town Coffee & Chocolates hath proven itself to be the throbbing pulse of Old Town by claiming the Journal's coveted Best Coffeehouse crown. All hail...
For frequenters of the neighborhood, the honor will come as no surprise. Place be hoppin'. From the moment the doors open in the morning to give joe-sippers refuge from the gray Eureka skies, ’til the baristas are shooing out the final Open Mic lingerers at night, the joint is constantly bustling. Have you ever tried to get coffee there during Arts Alive? Yeah, it's a popular spot.
Coffee? Check. Chocolate? Check. But OTC&C is not only for warm liquids and candy. Journal readers may recall a recent "Town Dandy" rant bemoaning the lack of cheap lunch options near the new Eureka NCJHQ. Well, I know of at least one. For me, OTC&C has been my more-than-regular midday meal destination thanks to their delicious rotating $4 soup selection. They give you not uno but dos buttered rolls. Very nice. Open your eyes, Sims! (211 F St., Eureka)
-- Andrew Goff
Best Heart-of-the-Matter Answer: Brio. "The Blue Bottle coffee is like crack. Literally."
Frothiest Answer: Cafe Mokka. "They steam soy milk better than anywhere else."
Undeterred by the fact that online sales and downloads are killing established brick and mortar music stores, two serious music fans, Matt Jackson and Adam Pokorski, decided to open a record shop -- Missing Link Records. How are they succeeding, given that they're tucked away in a tiny hole-in-the-wall location behind the Arcata Co-op? Asked about their plans before they opened a year and a half ago, Matt told us: "What we want is a place where music heads can come and just hang out and talk about music." So shelf space was sacrificed for a couch and an easy chair that holds a guitar anyone can strum. The central focus is a curated collection of vinyl and hard-to-find discs from indie labels you've probably never heard of. From the classics (as in "used") to cutting-edge metal, soul, old time, blues, country, rock, etc. -- all of it is music they want to share. A store for music heads run by music heads: What a concept. (819 J St., Arcata)
-- Bob Doran
Most Improved Nominee: Mantova's Two Street Music. "Biggest music shop around. Sweet people. Competitive prices. Wins the 'Extreme Makeover' prize of the year, for all the renovations and new brands brought in by the new owners. Open for Arts Alive! with live bands. Rock on."
Best Public Service: Beautiful People Boutique. "It's incognito location is half its charm! This store changed the face of fashion for Humboldt County and taught hippies to dress better. Most of their clothes are locally made by the store owner, and the vibes are great. I feel like I'm at a festival when I go in there."
Victory for Eureka! It is always a battle of the dives; this year, Old Town's beloved local, the Shanty, snatched the crown.
How do we love thee, Shanty? It's the bartenders. It's the patrons. It's the patio, the ping-pong and the art and the booze. The reasonably priced, stiffly poured booze. All that booze. Maybe most of all, though, it's the militantly unpretentious atmosphere, which somehow tells all different types of folk that this is their place, that wins our hearts. Walk in, and welcome home.
Look, you want food? You want live music? Sure, who doesn't, from time to time? But where any bar can set up a kitchen or a stage, it takes some kind of magic to make your place the kind of place where people go not only to bullshit with their friends, but also to strike up conversations with the next table over. The Shanty has that magic.
-- Hank Sims
Most Interesting Answer: The Pearl. "First of all, there are a lot of great bars in Humboldt. In my opinion, The Pearl is the 'best bar' because it is the only bar that is not typical Humboldt. A place where one can escape to urban for a drink or two. Hint: The Steelhead Double IPA. Fresh, cold, and cheap!"
Least Reassuring Answer: The Palace, Ferndale. "Most of the rednecks in there won't beat you up for no reason."
The music of AkaBella is about as pure as it gets: Five voices singing songs from all over the world, unaccompanied -- a cappella -- in gorgeous harmony. Formed five years ago, the group hit serious stride in 2009, releasing The Beltane Sessions, a self-produced album that included African, Balkan and traditional American songs along with originals. They performed at the Oregon Country Fair, California WorldFest in Grass Valley and the Harmony Sweepstakes, an a cappella competition in San Francisco, and formed SongCorps, a non-profit under the Ink People umbrella facilitating research and educational outreach.
With assistance from adoring fans, they did a SongCorps tour in the summer of 2010, working their way up and down the West Coast singing in schools, studying with various teachers and performing in folk clubs and house concerts. In August they did one more house concert in Arcata, their last "for a long, long time." Yes, they're parting ways, some staying here, others following their hearts and taking their songs elsewhere. Don't worry, they promise they'll be back.
-- Bob Doran
Most Upbeat Answer: Absynth Quintet. "What can you say? Scrumptious noise. Tight beat. Not easy to pigeonhole. And they're all having a whale of a time."
Most Rocking Answer: Magnum. "Terrence has a nice voice. Deric plays a mean guitar. The bass player has big balls and the drummer a long beard."
Best Local Beer
For a community this size, the local brewski selection is as staggering as a barfly at closing time. We tallied more than 25 legitimate vote-getters in our readers' poll, along with a spattering of illegal aliens (sorry, Boont Amber Ale fans, but Anderson Valley ain't in Humboldt). Yet for all the up-and-comers, with their acai berries and their chili peppers, none could top the elder statesman of tap handles -- the only beer in the bunch that's of legal drinking age: Mad River Brewing Company's flagship man-soda, Steelhead Extra Pale Ale, has been cooling local palates since 1989.
Readers describe this American-style ale as "smooth, balanced and dependable," but here at the Journal, our rigorous journalistic standards demanded an editorial board taste-test refresher, just to, you know, make sure it passed muster. Have we mentioned the joy of living within walking distance of our new Old Town offices? Cheers.
-- Ryan Burns
Meatiest Answer: Six Rivers Moonstone Porter. "Tasty, lush, rich, and fulfilling. Refreshing without the overwhelming hoppy bitterness of an IPA. It's barley, it's hops, it's protein; it's a meal."
Most Unintentionally Sarcastic Answer: Eel River Acai Berry Wheat. "I don't like beer but this tastes good."
Best Export Product (Apart from Weed)
The wide range of responses in this category -- from burl to Jessicurl, micro-brews to marimbas -- suggests a more diverse economy than what the common Humboldt caricature would suggest. (Come to think of it, there were a lot of food products on the list -- still, let's skip the munchies jokes, shall we?)
For all the variety, though, the results weren't even close: Cypress Grove Chevre took the (goat cheese-) cake. Theirs is a remarkable success story, starting on the stove-top in founder Mary Keehn's kitchen and ascending into the highest circles of foodie renown, where the company's creamy, piquant goat cheeses -- including Truffle Tremor, Purple Haze and their signature Humboldt Fog -- have racked up loads of international awards.
The obvious irony here is that over the course of our readers' poll, the company's ownership was itself exported from Arcata to Switzerland, thereby giving this award an added -- albeit poignant -- dimension. Let's hope the new owner, Swiss dairy giant Emmi, follows through on its promise to keep the operation here on Humboldt terroir.
-- Ryan Burns
Best Sincere Answer: Casa Lindra Salsa. "Seriously have you tasted this stuff? It's like angels singing in my mouth."
Most Rebellious Answer: Grass. "’Cause it is another name for weed."
Best Annual Event
Fighting back an intense OysterFest onslaught, the Kinetic Grand Championship is still the most anticipated annual assemblage -- according to NCJ readers, that is -- on the North Coast calendar. For the freakin' Glory!
If you think about it, the race is a pretty logical "Best Of" pick. One way or another, kinetic krazyness always seems to find a way to garner some national media attention -- two years ago, the "Octomom" sculpture made Perez Hilton; this year the race garnered, oh, about a sentence in ESPN Magazine. Humboldt Pride, baby!
This year marked the 42nd year since Glorious Founder Hobart Brown raced Glorious Challenger Jack Mays down Ferndale's Main Street. As it's grown, the race has inspired imitators to hold competitions as far away as Australia. But none compare to the three-day, 42-mile behemoth dubbed the "Triathlon of the Art World." Word to the wise: If you're planning an event and think to yourself, "I know, I'll cash in on that Memorial Day weekend crowd," think again. It's booked.
And remember, on race weekend, there is nothing to see on Sunday night at Crab Park. Just stay home.
-- Andrew Goff
Best Annual Side-Effect Nominee: Oyster Fest. "Beer, oysters, bands, kids calling oysters -- relaxed event on the Plaza that does not smell like B.O."
Best Unexpected Answer: Plan It Green. "The scale and professionalism of an event you'd expect to see in a major city. Growing larger every year -- next year will be two full days! Not just solar displays and natural building classes, but the Farmers Market, a parade, kids activities, amazing green bookstore ... it just gets better every year!"
Come on now, "best person"? Like we can somehow take each resident of Humboldt County and run a screen test of his or her oxygen-carbon-hydrogen-etc self and decide that one person's mass of the same molecules is better than another's?
Of course not. But forget the chemistry, dears. Betty Chinn -- hands down our best person -- embodies something beyond the physical self, beyond mere figures on the periodic chart, and certainly not measurable by laboratory means. Call it what you will, but we think one of our readers really nailed the wonder of it: "Every time she smiles, an angel births a kitteh."
Seriously, we are thankful this down-to-earth woman who cares for and advocates for our homeless people, who was homeless herself -- and persecuted -- as a child in China, calls our patch of redwoods home. Our state's First Lady Maria Shriver has honored her. President Barack Obama has honored her. And now our readers honor her. Although, we must admonish, some of you readers should try to be better persons yourselves, like the joker who said: "She makes up for a lot of HumCo low lifes." Hey, person, Chinn up! (Sorry, Betty.)
-- Heidi Walters
Sweetest Answer: Mac McClary, HSU retired journalism professor. "Because he's overall a sweetheart of a person. I wish he was my grandpa sometimes. He tells the cutest jokes. He's getting older, and he admits he's not as fast as he used to be, but he continues to run every day and I find that impressive."
Snarkiest Answer: Mark Larson. "Tall, quiet, Scandinavian."
Best Visual Artist (Apart from Duane Flatmo)
Who in the Humboldt County art game has more hustle than Lush Newton? (Apart from Duane Flatmo.) You may not know her name -- yet -- but if you have eyes in your head in Humboldt County you've seen this young woman's work. She's just about everywhere: designing sets for productions at the Arcata Playhouse, making up outfits for support crew in the Kinetic Sculpture Race (those giraffe heads were hers), hawking stickers and T-shirts on Cafepress and Crawdaddy's Odditorium.
Then, of course, there's her straight-up painting and sculpture. Like many of the high-pollers in this year's competition, she tends toward the outsider art aesthetic: big, bold colors and playful, sometimes twisted figures. She's drawn to the circus and the carny barker, the fabulous freakshow that Humboldt County life can sometimes resemble. Pro tip? If you want to authenticate a Newton, look for the bone-in ham. She's fond of the pork.
-- Hank Sims
Highest Praise: Jim McVicker. "He's stood the test of time, and his work is always at the highest level. And he always makes Humboldt County look magically wonderful."
Most Intriguingly Inscrutable Answer: Matthew Oliveri. "He's taken on a really fantastic new medium that is bold, iconic and just plain hard to figure out."
Best Nature Experience
Last year's winner for Best Place to Take Visitors, Fern Canyon again lands a spot in our readers' poll, inspiring in the process some impassioned attempts to translate its beauty into mere words: "Gorgeous," "breathtaking," "magical," "primeval," "a cathedral of nature." More than just a place, the Fern Canyon experience includes the car ride there, which takes you through golden fields of Roosevelt Elk and a dense forest of imperial coast redwoods, dramatically lit by dusty sunbeams. The winding dirt road eventually spills you onto the sand and driftwood of Gold Bluffs Beach, whose campground is a splendid destination in its own right (sites available at the entrance kiosk on a first-come, first-served basis). When you do finally step into the cool crevasse of the canyon proper, with its living walls, babbling stream and cross-hatched log bridges, breathe deep -- the oxygen here is delicious. (Two miles north of Orick, head west on Davidson Road and drive to the end.)
-- Ryan Burns
Most Awestruck Answer: Rowing on Humboldt Bay. "Where else can one experience the thrill of gliding over glassy water while a peregrine hunts overhead, a jellyfish flounces beneath the surface, and a seal pops its little head up to say hello? The endless sloughs for exploring the nooks and crannies of our watershed, diving pelicans, a bald eagle stoically watching from his perch near the oyster beds ... all this from a rowing shell, a kayak, or a little skiff ... nirvana is here and it's salty!"
Least Helpful Answer: It's A Secret. "If I tell you this, and you publish it I'll have to deal with all your readers in my favorite spot."
You enter the Wildcat innocently, after a pussycat car-stroll through Vicky-gooey Ferndale, turning at the tall iron-and-wood Capetown-Petrolia sign that resembles an elegant arch into a graveyard. The ’Cat purrs briefly along, then hunches and begins to twist, tossing you deep into the Doug-fir wilds. At the top of the first long hunch you emerge, likely from fog, into wind and bending grass to travel beside "soaring hawks and hovering kestrels," as one reader noted. You drop down toward the Bear River. Then you're scrabbling up into the sky again on her skinny, knobbly spine. The world opens. Remote. Spacious. Cape Mendocino, the farthest-west point on the California coast. Dizzying ocean. Empty beaches. Ocean House, lonesome ranch outpost in a sea of grassy ranchland. Then down. Then up. Deeper in. To the Mattole, the mysterious Bear River Valley, the King Range, the Lost Coast and untold adventures.
"It's insane!" said one reader. "Drive it and you will know," intoned another.
-- Heidi Walters
Most Scenic Answer: GO Road. "'Best' is a misleading adjective for this forgotten wilderness highway. What began as a timber harvest expressway from Gasquet to Orleans (hence the "GO") ended in multiple court battles for Yurok, Karuk and Tolowa religious rights and environmental preservation. Thus, the road was never finished. You can see each end of the road across the headwaters of Blue Creek, the largest tributary of the Klamath below the Trinity River. Climbing from the floodplain of the Klamath at Orleans, the GO road affords views of the Pacific Ocean, Mount Shasta and everything in between, weather permitting. The road cut carries you into the lower southern extent of the Siskiyou Range, one of the oldest and most biologically diverse mountain ranges in the world."
Silliest Answer: Dolly Varten Way, Arcata Bottoms. "It is used by maybe 10 cars per day and reminds me of, well, Dolly Parton."