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TASTE OF TRAVEL

Breakfast With Breakers on the Side : Up and down the wild Mendocino coastline are restaurants that take special pride in the No. 1 meal of the day.

June 20, 1993|HEIDI HAUGHY CUSICK | Cusick is a free-lance food writer who lives in Mendocino.

MENDOCINO — Even though I migrated here in the mid-1970s, I am still moved by the dynamic ocean views, Victorian structures and frenzy of wild and cultivated flowers that bloom in the fog-spackled air most of the year. Others must agree because travelers from around the world drop by our little village of 1,200. They know about the scenery and the history and perhaps that there are good meals here and there. But what they may not know is that breakfast is the meal Mendocino does particularly well.

For me, morning means a jog around the Mendocino headlands, skipping over banana slugs and searching for whales on the horizon. It is a trot along craggy bluffs edged with wildflower-lined trails. That is, until an offshore breeze circles the village, catching wake-up aromas of sausage, pastries and freshly brewed coffee. I am lured back to the village by the scents from bakeries and cafes on the Victorian-facaded streets of this town where I live.

But even someone who hates morning, as well as breakfast, could be tempted by our local fixation on early morning dining. And even the visitor who doesn't stay in one of the local inns where there are signature morning feasts (the Agate Cove Inn in Mendocino cooks breakfast over a wood stove; Glendeven Inn in Littleriver delivers baskets of pastries to the rooms each morning) can discover plenty of breakfast opportunities from Mendocino to Elk, about 20 miles south.

Many restaurants serve it, and settings range from cozy to panoramic, funky to ritzy to Victorian. Menus reflect the personalities of the cooks while being as informal as befits breakfast hours and Mendocino's dress-down style. Here are a few of my favorite places:

That Cafe Beaujolais--our only nationally recognized restaurant--serves a good breakfast will come as no surprise to its fans. For the past 15 years, Margaret Fox's restaurant has been known for fine food. I live across the street and still find my way down there as often as possible, especially when a south wind sends wood-fired bakery invitations across my yard.

Fox never seems to tire of creating great omelets. My favorite is filled with spicy black beans, salsa, guacamole and cheese. Another is robust with Italian sausage, roasted eggplant, peppers, ricotta and pesto. Although locals might consider the prices high at $7.95 for an omelet with a side of coffee cake or an order of cheesy garlic country fries at $4.50, the portions are generous. Add to that the pleasure of eating in front of the fireplace in the country-style dining room, and the experience is one as likely to draw locals as out-of-towners.

In addition to the omelets, I love their peppery potato and carrot pancakes served with homemade applesauce and chicken and apple sausages ($9.25). I also like the Mexican tofu scramble that combines potatoes, roast garlic, guacamole and the cafe's famous black bean chili ($8.95).

If the deck is open, ask to be seated there. The greenhouse-like atmosphere, with a view of the garden, is warm, even on foggy days. I come here for special occasions and for the early bird breakfasts served during the winter.

Down on Main Street, with its panorama of unspoiled forest to sea, stands the Victorian-era Mendocino Hotel. Built in 1878, the hotel was refurbished in 1975 in the affluent style that epitomizes the grandeur of its turn-of-the-century epoch.

Next to the dark formal dining room appointed with antique stained glass and oak furnishings, the garden room provides a lustrous setting where I like to go for chef Colleen Murphy's breakfast dishes. Settled into the wrought-iron garden furniture, I orderitems that sound familiar but are embellished with a special twist. Pecan pancakes come with a not-too-sweet pear marmalade ($6.95). Biscuits and gravy turn out to be homemade brioche topped with pancetta and a pork-and-brandy-based gravy spiked with green peppercorns and softened with cream ($6.50).

Starting the day with the hotel's version of eggs Florentine ($6.50) is sunrise itself in its presentation of two sunny-side-up eggs framed by a border of sauteed spinach flecked with sun-dried tomatoes and feta cheese.

If none of this tempts you in town, there are more options down the coast.

Just two miles south on California 1, the Little River Inn is the place to go for a pancake fix. A beautiful resort with forest-green-and-white gingerbread trim, it overlooks Van Damme State Park beach--a favorite spot for abalone divers and whale watchers.

The focal point of the dining room is the Monet-like flower garden that fills the picture windows with color. But this is really a place for pancake lovers. From an old family recipe, the Swedish pancakes are light but rich with butter and cream ($4).

Further south down the coast is the best place for both food and view. It's the most expensive breakfast in town, but it is perfect for a splurge.

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