San Rafael is Marin County’s largest city, with a population approaching 60,000 people, and is a great place to kick off my new “Best of Marin” series featuring some of my favorite spots in our beautiful county. This list of the best of San Rafael is by all means not all-inclusive but is a great place to start! The city of San Rafael is undergoing a renaissance, with exciting new restaurants and shops opening along the revitalized 4th Street corridor. Promoted by the very active Downtown San Rafael Business Improvement District, San Rafael hosts a variety of cultural events each year including Litquake San Rafael, the 2nd Friday Art Walk and Italian Street Painting Marin.
Best of San Rafael #1: Rafael Theater
Locals call it “The Rafael,” but technically this art-deco movie palace built in 1938 on 4th Street is called the “Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center.” The Rafael is a beautiful theater inside and out, completely refurbished in 1999, and houses three screens which show a variety of eclectic films from around the world. It is also one of the venues for the celebrated Mill Valley Film Festival each fall.
Please click here to see what’s currently showing at The Rafael, and please consider becoming a member to support this unique community resource and the entertainment it provides.
Best of San Rafael #2: Sol Food
If you drive through downtown, it is impossible to miss Sol Food’s bright green building at the corner of 3rd Street and Lincoln Avenue which boasts a line out the door often until late in the evening. There’s a good reason for that long line. Serving highly-addictive Puerto Rican / Caribbean cuisine, Sol Food (named after co-owner Marisol Hernandez) has been a San Rafael (and now Mill Valley!) staple for more than 10 years now. Featuring both in-restaurant dining and delivery, the restaurant serves delicious mostly-organic food at reasonable prices. Did I say delicious? I fear that’s an understatement. After your first meal there, you will understand. My personal favorites are the Pollo al Horno (chicken baked in the oven) and the Camarones Criollos (shrimp in a spiced red sauce.)
Tip: If it’s Sunday, ask for the “Sunday Special” which last I checked was not on the menu. You won’t regret it.
Best of San Rafael #3: Le Comptoir
Le Comptoir on 4th Street is a relatively new addition (April 2016) to the Marin dining scene and those who follow my Facebook page know I’m a huge fan. In fact, I have been asked on more than one occasion if I am an owner or investor (sadly, I am not.) My review of Le Comptoir on my blog has now been read more than 10,000 times. Le Comptoir serves delicious yet unassuming French fare from the same team that runs the very popular Gamine restaurant in the city. The restaurant often feels more like a dinner party than a restaurant, with servers chatting with regulars and a great energy level. It’s not uncommon for diners to pour out on the street well into the evening after their meals to visit with one another.
The epicerie, or shop, is just next door and open daily from 11 am to 6 pm. It features a wide assortment of cheeses, wines, and other gourmet items, many of which can only be found at Le Comptoir outside France. While they do maintain some tables for walk-ins that begin lining up at 5:15 on weekends, reservations are highly advised for this hot new San Rafael dining spot.
Best of San Rafael #4: Wildcare
Wildcare is an amazing organization near Albert Park that provides vital services to all of Marin’s residents, including those with fur, feathers and even scales. Given that so much of Marin County is preserved open space, human / wildlife interactions are common, with deer sometimes crossing roadways and owls sometimes nesting in our garages. When there’s an issue – whether it’s an animal in distress or just a nuisance (hello, Mr. Raccoon…) Wildcare is there to provide counsel and intervention if necessary.
Wildcare says they care for 4,000 animals a year from 200 different species. There are a variety of volunteer opportunities available if you are interested in supporting this worthwhile organization.
Best of San Rafael #5: The Ridgewood Fire Trail
There are so many hikes in Marin that I enjoy, but the Ridgewood Fire Trail is still my go-t0 hike when I’m pressed for time and craving beautiful views. This trail is located at the top of the ridge which divides San Rafael / San Anselmo from Terra Linda, and provides gorgeous 360 degree views. It is easily accessible via the Fairhills Neighborhood and parking is easy. Please remember to be considerate of residents near the trail head. I usually park a block or two away and keep my voice low as I pass the homes. Please read my blog article for more information on this wonderful hike.
Best of San Rafael #6: West End Nursery
Residents of San Rafael have many options when looking for plants and supplies for their gardens, including Home Depot, Orchard Supply, the new Chase Ace Hardware on 4th Street and Sloat Garden Center. They are all wonderful, but my favorite is West End Nursery. This family-owned nursery (since 1909!) just won San Francisco magazine’s Best of 2016 award, but even if that were not the case, West End Nursery has been on my list for quite some time. Each spring I purchase my tomato plants there, and find myself returning throughout the year for their broad plant selection, knowledgeable personnel and easy shopping experience. I cannot remember ever waiting in a line at West End Nursery.
Tip: Watch for their rose sale each spring — they bring in a broad assortment of popular favorites and newer exotics. This year I purchased a Legends Rose there and it has quickly become the star of my rose garden.
Best of San Rafael #7: Panama Hotel
Panama Hotel in the Gerstle Park neighborhood has been a San Rafael institution since the 1970s. Located in a Victorian inn dating from the early 1900s, this eclectic inn and restaurant is extremely popular with locals who enjoy the food, the live music on weeknights and the spacious indoor / outdoor dining area. I love the ambiance — it really does feel like being on vacation when you visit. Same day reservations are often difficult to obtain so make sure to plan ahead if you decide to visit. There is often live music on weeknights, and their courtyard is a delightful spot for lunch.
Tip: If you can’t decide on dining indoors or out, ask for the “breezeway” near the entry. It’s a little bit of both and you get to people watch as everyone arrives for their meal.
Best of San Rafael #8: Marin Sanitary Service
You didn’t expect to see this on my Best of San Rafael list, did you? The award-winning Marin Sanitary Service (MSS) was co-founded in 1948 by Joe Garbarino to service the garbage needs of Marin County which was enjoying a post-war population boom. Three generations of the Garbarino family now operate MSS, and it has evolved into a state-of the-art waste disposal and recovery facility. The company also handles about a third of Marin County’s curbside waste and recycling collection, providing service in Kentfield, San Rafael, Fairfax, Ross, Greenbrae, Larkspur and unincorporated Marin.
The Marin Resource Recovery Center (“the dump”), on Jacoby Street in San Rafael, is a sight to behold. The size of three football fields, it’s one of Marin County’s largest covered structures and once inside looks like something out of a science fiction movie with huge pieces of equipment moving waste into different piles based on type and content. Very popular with the kids, but keep them inside your vehicle for safety. Tours are available for children to learn more about waste recovery and recycling (see photo, above). A popular part of the tour is “The Ranch,” featuring pigs and other farm animals which play a role at MSS in waste diversion.
A true asset to Marin County, Marin Sanitary now recycles about 75% of the waste that enters their facility.
Best of San Rafael #9: Johnny Doughnuts
This little magical doughnut emporium opened several years ago in San Rafael at the west end of 4th Street (adjacent to the West End Neighborhood) and has met with great success. And with good reason – their doughnuts are absolutely delicious. The shop has since expanded, taking over the storefront next door, and they recently announced their intention to open their first shop in San Francisco. They serve more than 25 flavors of doughnuts daily and feature coffee from the Bay Area’s own Equator Coffees and Teas. Once you try their doughnuts you will become a regular, guaranteed!
Best of San Rafael #10: The Mayflower Pub
The Mayflower Pub, founded in 1971, claims to be the first British / Irish pub in the entire Bay Area. It’s one of the few late-night places in Marin County, great for a bite to eat or a drink after a movie when other venues are starting close. However its welcoming atmosphere, authentic British pub menu and diverse crowd make it a great spot to visit anytime. Once you enter you will wonder if you’re in San Rafael or England, with English sailing photos and sporting banners adorning the walls. Owner Tony Crafter is the “real deal” — an English pubmaster who works the crowds and talks to everyone, regulars and newcomers alike. Most of my friends say “I can’t believe this is San Rafael” as they enter, and before long they are ordering the fish & chips and talking about their last trip to London.
In a vibrant city like San Rafael, it is difficult to stop at 10 “bests” but I must end this article here. However, I’ll add some honorable mentions that I hope to cover in a future article:
What did I miss? Please feel free to add your own favorites to the Best of San Rafael list in the comments section below.
I love Marin County, all of its towns, and enjoy exploring new venues as I write this blog. As always, I am happy to help with your real estate questions and needs throughout Marin. Please call or text me at 415-847-5584 if I may be of assistance. (No compensation direct or indirect was received from businesses on this list and in fact they will all be surprised at their inclusion on this list.)