If you don’t normally frequent the charming Sierra foothill towns of California’s Gold Country, you might miss Amador City. But this tiny town — at a third of a square mile, it’s the smallest city in the Golden State — has tales to tell and treasures to discover.
The drive — two hours from the Bay Area, when highway 580 cooperates — is beautiful. Cityscapes evaporate, giving way to scenic pastures, fruit stands and orchard groves, and eventually depositing you at the quaint intersection of two country roads, where Amador City offers plenty of big city sophistication in the littlest one there is.
Friday night: Settle in
Check in at the recently renovated Imperial Hotel, which has ruled the city’s crossroads since 1879. The Sanguinetti family rebuilt the historic brick edifice after an 1878 fire that basically decimated this Gold Country town.
The boutique hotel reopened in April after extensive renovations to the property, guest rooms and restaurant, which is under new ownership by Kevin Carter, founder of Banded Hospitality Group, and partner Cassie Davis. Their Banded Family Ranch is up the road, where produce and hops are grown for their local businesses, which include Break Even Beermakers, as well as the hotel and its restaurant, bar and “snug,” a lounge.
The updated boutique hotel is true to its historic roots, but filled with modern creature comforts. So after settling into your room, with its exposed brick walls and crisp white linens, head for the bar for a legit cocktail. Try a Bitter Solstice, perhaps, their spin on a negroni with cocoa nib-infused Campari, a California Spritz or a milk punch. The bar menu offers elevated bites that range from a crispy chicken sandwich ($14) with aioli and pickled onions to ahi poke ($17) with avocado and wonton crisps. When I was there, they were serving chopped tartare with pickled shallots and nori chips.
Details: The bar, restaurant and snug are open Wednesday-Sunday for dinner and drinks, plus weekend brunch. Rooms at the Imperial Hotel start at $200. 14202 Old Highway 49, www.imperialhotelamador.com
Saturday: Eat, sip and play
Start at Small Town Food & Wine, a labor of love by Ginger Budrick-Carter, who returned home after working in restaurants around the state. Those Chez Panisse posters on the wall are family keepsakes; her father, Jerry Budrick, was an early partner at Berkeley’s iconic restaurant before moving to Amador County to open a place of his own, the now-closed Caffè Via d’Oro. Grab some coffee and a breakfast burrito and peruse the paper while eavesdropping on local mountain bikers talking politics.
Then head out for a walk in any direction, up scenic Amador Creek Road or along Old Route 49 to the Keystone Mine, which was founded in 1851 and produced some $24 million in gold for the next century.
Once Amador City’s shops open — around 11 a.m. — you can spend several hours strolling along, browsing the artfully displayed windows and shopping at Meyer’s Antiques & Victorian Closet or the tastefully sparse, French-driven Dreamy Whites boutique. Duck into the Amador Whitney Museum (free!) for an eye-opening exhibit of local history. You’ll find San Francisco’s 3 Fish Studios here too. They’re the ones who created the iconic image of the grizzly bear hugging the state of California.
Grab lunch and a beer over at newly-opened Break Even Beermakers, where the impressive brews are crafted by Aaron Wittman, previously from Oakland’s Cellarmaker.
“We are trying to change the conversation of how people are talking about and feeling about beer,” Wittman says. “We want to move away from stylistic descriptors to regional, ingredient-driven descriptors.”
The handful of low alcohol beers on tap includes the lovely Amador Gold, which pairs perfectly with the housemade focaccia selections (definitely order a side of the amazing white dipping sauce), as well as sandwiches, pickle plates and inventive salads made by chef Justin Lewis.
After a brief siesta in your relaxing room at the Imperial — perhaps gazing over the downtown bustle from a wicker rocking chair on the balcony — you can start thinking about dinner downstairs. (Ahem, make reservations.)
The Imperial’s restaurant is helmed by executive chef Max Benson in collaboration with consulting chef Michael Evans of San Francisco’s Atelier Crenn, Bar Tartine and Commonwealth. Chances are, you’ll be welcomed by Benson’s wife Brittany — turns out there are many Amador City industry couples, solidifying the community vision of hospitality — or general manager Shelly Scott, who has worked here since the 1990s.
There’s a prix-fixe menu, but a la cart is also a fine way to go, with seasonal dishes like grilled peach panzanella ($17), Mediterranean mussels ($21) with chervil garlic broth and whipped potatoes or caramelized sea scallops ($36) with tomato fennel salad, fingerling potatoes and romesco.
Details: Small Town Food & Wine is open Tuesday-Saturday at 14179 Main St.; www.smalltownfoodandwine.com. Find Meyer’s Antiques at 14183 Old Highway 49, www.meyersantiques.com; Victorian Closet at 14176 Main St., www.victoriancloset.com; and Dreamy Whites at 14171 Main St.; www.dreamywhitesatelier.com. Break Even Beermakers is open Thursday-Sunday at 14141 Old Highway 49; www.breakevenbeermakers.com.
Tempting as it is to head downstairs to the Imperial restaurant for the fried egg and scallion, cheddar and bacon pancakes ($14), there’s a temptation just across the street. The End of Nowhere offers burgers and hyper-local sips at an establishment kitty corner to the hotel.
New York City sommelier Chris Walsh launched the label in 2016 when he moved back to Amador City, wooed by his hometown’s slower pace. This wine bar and eatery was inspired by its eatery pop-ups, which launched during COVID and have wonderfully stuck. Order a glass of a Little Faith blend of orange muscat and pinot gris to accompany your burger and a bucket of spiced fries.
Then soak in the last bit of small town charm before heading back to the city.
Details: The End of Nowhere is open Friday-Sunday with reservations at 14204 Main St.; www.endofnowhere.wine.