Fremont Diner (The Fremont)
2660 Fremont Drive
Sonoma, CA 95476
For me, the term “diner” conjures up images of neon, white and black checkered tile, red leather stools, wise cracking waitresses, and greasy spoon food of questionable origin. In reality, these days, good food can be found anywhere. Lunch counters, strip malls, and of course, diners.
Fremont Diner is best described as a “slow food” diner. Ingredients all locally sourced. Time, attention, and care is paid to every aspect of every dish. This is not what you would consider your average “diner”.
Located on Highway 12/121 that cuts through Napa Valley and Sonoma, Fremont Diner is actually easy to miss. You could drive by it every day and barely notice the understated sign, the rusting truck out front, and the gas station diner appearance.
The interior is clean, but sparse. Wooden tables set up in 4′s, dining room in an “L” shape, the seating capacity is actually fairly low. I get the feeling they like it that way.
One very nice feature is the seating that allows people to dine in the kitchen. A small bench has been set up, with a full view of everything going on. A great opportunity to watch all the action.
Drinks (outside of coffee) are self-served out of the cooler. An odd, eclectic combination of soft drinks are available.
Part of the menu is written in chalk around the order desk, the other half on a clipboard next to the counter. Things are very casual here. A variety of staple diner dishes (burgers, milkshakes, sandwiches) are available, but it’s the Southern influenced, locally inspired specials that make this place great.
When we were last there, they had freshly fried artichokes on the menu. I’ve actually never had fried artichokes that I enjoyed – even in the Salinas/Watsonville region that’s famous for their artichokes. And…i still haven’t. These were crisp, nicely fried, with great fresh artichokes. But frying artichokes seems to make them mushy – and that removes a lot of the appeal of artichokes for me, which is the texture. A nice dipping sauce accompanies these, so if you like the texture of fried artichokes, these might be for you.
What drew us to the Fremont Diner was the fried chicken – called Nashville Fried Chicken on the menu, and definitely failed to disappoint. Tender, moist, juicy chicken that had been battered with crisp, spiced batter. This was fantastic fried chicken – not quite as good as Gus’ Fried Chicken, but very close.
Other highly regarded dishes include the burger – made with Marin Sun Farms beef and cooked to order.
A nicely ground patty, loaded with flavour from the grass-fed beef. Moist, perfectly cooked with fantastic caramelization. Good bread, nice flavour, this is a good burger with good ingredients. Probably not enough to motivate a trip out from the City, but they do a very nice job. The fries are decent too.
The most well known sandwich is their pulled pork special “The Whole Hog” – which, unfortunately, they were sold out of that day. One common complaint about Fremont Diner is how often certain things cycle on and off the menu, and how things can not be ready, or sell out, or not be available on a given day. I personally have no issue with it – i think it’s great that they keep a manageable menu, and serve limited orders. It keeps things fresh, it keeps things in demand, and it encourages people to try other things.
Anyway, there is usually a nice selection of southern BBQ dishes – the only one available this day was the brisket. A huge fatty cut slathered in BBQ sauce . It was decent, by California standards – decent smoke flavour, nice color. It lacked the complexity of southern BBQ that makes brisket so compelling, but this was pretty good Q for something north of the Mason-Dixon line, and a generous portion at that.
The biggest disappointment of the day came in the form of the shrimp burger. A nicely breaded and fried patty of shrimp, the patty itself was a little under seasoned, but use some decent shrimp. A bit sweeter would’ve been nice, but it was definitely good. The problem with the burger is the salad and other condiments added to it – I find shrimp is such a subtle flavour when deep fried, the texture of the cabbage coleslaw added crunch, but completely overpowered the shrimp itself. Ended up tasting more like a fried bits with coleslaw kind of burger. On top of this, the breading got quite soft and soggy from the salad over time.
To finish up, a selection of pies – available in McDonalds pie shapes (rectangular), with a decidedly un McDonalds taste. Fresh crust, crispy, flaky, with hot, fresh chunks of apples, with powdered sugar on top.
These pies are fantastic. Hot from the fryer, nicely balanced sweet and tart, a really nice way to end the meal.
Looking at the whole Fremont Diner experience, there are some definite hits and misses. I found the service to be friendly and approachable, albeit things were definitely slow. A few parts of our order were missed, but were quickly rectified. In terms of diner food, there are some definite standouts. Burgers, milkshakes, and the fried chicken were all outstanding. The BBQ wasn’t up to Southern standards, but was a fairly decent serve, and good value.
I think more importantly, I love what the Fremont Diner are trying to do. They took an old run down burger shack and have turned it into what I feel all restaurants should try to do – offering fresh local ingredients, and taking the time to prepare good food. They may not always hit the mark, but there are enough successes, and the principles are there, for a great diner to be there for a long time.