FOOTHILL FLAVORS 1517 words
The Ghosts Who Come for Dinner
By Antoinette May Herndon
Oh, the days grow shorter . . . September . . . September’s gone! October slipping away. Cold, brown November lumbering toward us like Frankenstein.
Halloween hovers close, the cauldron bubbles as the Great Pumpkin casts his shadow. Isn’t it time to lay at least one ghost to rest once and for all? What better way than to dine at some of the area’s best restaurants, restaurants that also happen to be haunted.
I don’t just think there’s a ghost lurking the hallways of Mokelumne Hill’s Hotel Leger, I know there is.
Picture this: Charles and I were having dinner on the hotel’s balcony with out of town friends, Mark and Marlo Falkner. Marlo was sitting across from me in the doorway. Behind her, slightly to the right, was a service table.
Nothing else. Get it, there was nobody there. Except suddenly, Marlo gave out a loud yelp. Someone or something had grabbed her by the shoulder.
That’s one story. The hotel has many. One of the most historic hostelries in the Mother Lode, the Leger (pronounced “luh zhay”) has always been the center of town activity. A hotel has existed on the corner of Lafayette and Main since 1851. Up until 1866, the building included the county courthouse with a convenient downstairs dungeon and a hanging tree out back.
Since “the Hill” was the biggest, baddest, most important mining camp in Calaveras County (according to the records, 17 people killed there in 17 weeks, then five more shot the following weekend), it scarcely seems surprising that such riotous goings on would inspire a legion of restless spirits.
One evening Jane Canty, a former Leger owner, cleaned up the dining room after a party. Jane used three keys to lock three doors before leaving late at that night. She returned the next morning and unlocked the doors only to find the room in total disarray. Tables were shoved together. Dishes, glasses and silver used.
“A hoax seems unlikely,” she says in retrospect. “The mess was so elaborate—a lot of trouble to execute and difficult to conceal.”
Then there’s the afternoon that a former hotel manager, Shana Molotch, leaned against the ice machine in the cellar chatting with a plumber. “Is this place haunted?” he asked.
Shana shrugged. “People believe what they want to believe.”
The next moment Shana became an instant believer when something shoved hard enough to knock her forward. Red marks remained on her shoulder for two days.
Nobody likes a ghost story better than I do, I could go on and on about the Leger’s haunted history, but this is supposed to be a dining column. The Leger has new owners, Tracy and Daryl Zellers, who have posted an exciting new menu.
There are lots of selections from which to choose but I favor the fish and chips. The fish, usually cod, is light, fresh and tender, hand-breaded and dipped in egg yolk—it just couldn’t be better. The fresh yummy chips are wrapped in paper. Ok, so it isn’t
the London Times but can the Lodestar be far behind?
(The Hotel Leger, 8304 Main, Mokelumne Hill. Phone: 286-1401.)
Jamestown’s picturesque Willow Steakhouse also has a story to tell. Kim Lorensen, a member of the wait staff, has been singled out for ghostly manifestations. “Someone— something call—calls my name when there’s nobody there,” she told me. “And that’s not all. Many the staff have seen cups and silverware move through the air of their own volition.”
None of this seems too surprising since the Willow has enough history to stir up a legion restless shades. First off, the original 1862 structure was built on the site of a collapsed mineshaft that took the lives of 24 men. A series of devastating fires followed, then a succession of lynchings and murders.
One might surmise that such a collection of tragedies would leave a dark aura about the place. Au contrair! The Willow Steakhouse oozes gilded Gold Rush glamour. Think oak wainscoting topped with flowered wallpaper and cozy oak booths flanking a row of tables with high-backed chairs.
It’s easy to imagine the illustrious celebrities of the past who are said to have dined there: the gracious Mrs. Robert E. Lee, the gunslinger Bat Masterson, and the illustrious President William McKinley. A fun surprise at the Willow is the fondue served in lieu of bread and butter. It’s a thick, lush fondue with a strong cheddar flavour. A favourite entree of mine is the pepper steak which comes covered with green peppercorns and a to die for brandy cream sauce.
(The Willow Steakhouse. 18723 Main St., Jamestown. 984-3998.)
“Twas the sad tale of floating Flo that lured me to another Jamestown bistro, the National Hotel Restaurant.
How’s this for a classic ghost story:
More than 100 years ago, Flo, 19 and pretty, checked into the National Hotel with a story to tell. A New York heiress, she’d met Henry, a handsome young lawyer, while traveling by train to San Francisco.
It was love at first sight, Flo confided to the other hotel guests. Henry proposed marriage, but knowing her relatives would be outraged, the couple planned to meet six weeks later in Jamestown where Henry was to travel on business.
Flo kept her rendezvous with Henry at the National—separate rooms of course. A wedding was planned, only days away. Flo hired a local dressmaker to sew a lovely lace-trimmed wedding gown. On Christmas morning Henry presented Flo with a diamond ring.
The day after Christmas Flo sat in the dining room waiting for Henry to come down when a shot rang out. The story goes that a drunkard stumbled into the doorway of the hotel and shot Henry as he descended the stairs. Flo found him at the bottom lying in a pool of blood.
The hotel staff heard uncontrollable sobs throughout that day and night, and the next night and the one after that. On New Year’s Eve they heard nothing. Alarmed, the manager entered Flo’s room to find her seated by the open window dressed in her wedding gown. She was dead.
“Heart failure,” the doctor said, but those who’d come to
know Flo bore witness that her heart had not failed—it had broken.
That night revellers passing by the hotel were startled by the apparition of a “woman in white” floating at an upstairs window.
There are those who believe that Flo still floats—mainly through the National Hotel’s dining room.
Even if you come up short on a Flo sighting, you’re certain of enjoying a splendid dinner at the National. The restaurant has received Triple A’s coveted 3-Diamond Award for thirty years.
The dining room of the 1859 hotel is warm and comfortable with lots of charming old paintings and photographs. There’s a sense of history everywhere you look. Think 19th century elegance transformed to 21st century comfort.
Try the National’s signature dish, scampi etoufflee—prawns sautéed Cajun style with scallions, and tomatoes, mushrooms with white wine and herbs.
(National Hotel, 18183 Main St., Jamestown. Phone: 084-3446.)
Time doesn’t stand still at Amador City’s Imperial Hotel but it does slow down a bit. Things happen here . . . sometimes before your very eyes.
The hotel, bar and restaurant, built in 1879, has seen enough action to draw any number of spirits. Mary Ann McCamant, who, with her husband Jim, owns the Imperial, claims to have seen at least one.
She tells of a gunslinger who met his end at the hotel. Sometimes the one-time bad man forgets his place in the cosmic scheme of things. That’s when Mary Ann placates his restless shade with a shot of whiskey left in the room where the bad guy met his maker.
The Imperial’s dining room has frontier elegance. Picture exposed brick, silk hangings and vivid paintings. Whimsy is the operative word and it makes for a fun evening.
For a delicious seasonal treat, try the pumpkin ravioli served with butter, garlic, wine and sage sauce. But be certain to save plenty of space because desserts are a specialty at the Imperial.
Each is a creation of the celebrated Ingrid Fraser, a Culinary Institute star known throughout Northern California for her elegant and delicious cakes. Sunset Magazine features Fraser’s desserts and recipes and she teaches pastry classes through the Amador County Learning Network. Faced with such temptation, who wants to be strong? The season offers a ready excuse. Just say: “The devil made me do it.”
(Imperial Hotel. 14202 Old Highway 49, Amador City. Phone: 267-9172.)
Antoinette’s Note: My ghostly guide, “Haunted Houses of California” (Wide World Publications) is available at any bookstore or can be ordered from Amazon.com. Buy one, drop by the house and I’ll sign it for you. Did you know that our place in Mokelumne Hill is haunted? Come see, we welcome trick or treaters come Halloween.
Lovebirds, Brenda Nasser and Ed Cline originated the popular Martini Night at the Hotel Leger. They welcome spirits of all kinds.
The usual suspects at the Hotel Leger enjoy all kinds of spirits. Photos by Bob Pynenburg