Larrupin’ Welcomes You In
Photos and Story by Bob Doran
Larrupin’ welcomes you in. The place has a cozy, down-home feel. Part of it is the ambience of the place, warm colors everywhere, chic but funky, elegant but homey, good smells and good food emerging from the kitchen.
Officially it’s The Larrupin’ Cafe, but it’s just Larrupin’ in Humboldt. Dixie Gorrel, the grande dame, founder, owner and the soul of the place, would explain it’s a southern word, learned from her southern grandmom. “It’s larrupin’ good food, honey!” as Dixie explained more than once. It is good, and we’ll get to the menu, but first a bit of history.
Paul Fitzgerald is the chef/manager now and he’s got a story to tell, but we’ll start with Dixie. This is a restaurant with a long larrupin’ story, over 30 years in Trinidad. But it begins sometime in the ’70s — in Arcata.
Back then Joyce Hough, of the Joyce Hough Band, and her husband, Fred Neighbor, had a band called Freddy and Starliners. They were the house band at a floundering bar just off the Arcata Plaza, and ended up buying the place and renamed it the Jambalaya. The Jam, as it was affectionately known, became a cultural mecca where you could experience music, art, theater and poetry. (It was also my hangout.) There was no kitchen, if you were hungry, they had a bread and cheese board, maybe a hard-boiled egg. Eventually Fred and Joyce turned over to their friend Chloe, and around 1979, Dixie started doing dinners at the Jam.
Dixie was an excellent cook, known for the casual party circuit in Westhaven and Moonstone Heights. For a few years on Friday nights, she’d bring dinner to the Jam. There was no menu — it wasn’t a restaurant (I don’t think there were permits involved) — you’d pay a little money and get a salad, some of her famous brown bread and a main dish, maybe half a Cornish game hen, or beans and rice, whatever — you got a good meal. “It started out at $3.50, can you believe that,” Dixie recalls.
The consensus was, Dixie should start a restaurant. And she did, with a little help from her friends, and her Norwegian partner Per Ingelsberg. “A lot of help,” she says, especially from Per, who she describes as “my husband, my partner and my best friend.
They took over a “rowdy” beer bar between Westhaven and Trinidad, where she says, “the sheriff was called almost every night.” A grill and a smoker were set up in a shed out back, and Dixie did her best to make it warm and inviting. Her exotic decorator’s touch gave it a totally different sort of feel. The dishes from Cost-Plus were mounded with salad, twice baked potatoes or rice and a choice entrées. Nothing a la carte. Many of the the dishes are still served: ribs with a southern-style barbecue sauce, brisket, grilled fish with a dill sauce, chicken wrapped in phyllo dough, spanakopita for the vegetarians and that Cornish game hen with an orange glaze. Everyone got an appetizer tray with that brown bread, lox with a Scandinavian mustard dill sauce, slices of apple or pear, chèvre from her friend Mary at Cypress Grove (they were early adopters).
Larrupin’ was a success right from from the start, and after a time, they looked around for a place with more space. The Colonial Inn, on the other side of Trinidad, fit the bill. Dixie figured they’d have to get rid of the colonial columns out front because they were symbols of slavery days. They ceremoniously pulled them down and almost tore the roof off in the process.
The new location was an even bigger success. Larrupin’ was on every best-of list, became where you’d go for birthdays, anniversaries, graduation dinners (better make that reservation now) just the place to go for an unforgettable meal. A side business was established bottling Larrupin’ Goods: Red Sauce for bbq and Mustard Dill Sauce that were sold in local stores — they still are.
The years passed, it wasn’t always easy. Chefs came and went, the place had its own well and septic system that were hard to maintain, as some point as she put it, “I got tired.”
Meanwhile, at the other end of California, Paul Fitzgerald was learning the restaurant business. “I’ve always worked in restaurants,” he says. That included seven years working at Ruth’s Chris Steak House in San Diego, which he calls “a corporate company” and one of “the largest fine dining steak houses in the world.” From there he moved on to West Steak and Seafood in Carlsbad. “I was the general manager. We had a 160 acre ranch “and sourced everything locally.”
He worked hard, didn’t take a vacation for almost five years. “Eventually they told me that if I didn’t take my vacation time that I was going to lose it. So my wife and I got in the car, hit Highway 1 and took it all the way to Oregon and had a great trip. On our way back to San Diego, my mother-in-law called on the phone and said ‘You have to get off in Trinidad. We had no intention of stopping because we had never heard of it, but we were like ‘Okay.’” There was something about the town, he wasn’t sure what it was.
A few months passed and Paul heard that Larrupin’ had closed. They were looking for someone who maybe wanted to buy the place, or at least run it and get it going again. He says he wasn’t exactly looking to change jobs, but, “Somewhere along the line Dixie called me and we hit it off… We found out that we had some of the same ideals: have a great environment, the best possible food you can find, always get everybody to come back. It’s supposed to be a party everyday. That’s kind of how we ran our restaurants down there [in San Diego] — The customer’s always right.”
He doesn’t remember exactly when he realized it was time to make a move north. “Maybe it was from sitting in traffic all the time, he says. “I had never seen the place, not even in pictures. Then I called Dixie back and said, ‘Hey maybe we should get together and talk,’ and the next week I flew up and sat in the dining room. Everything went well and before I knew it I was going back to give my notice.” Six weeks later he was the new proprietor of the Larrupin’ Cafe.
That was three years ago. Paul wasn’t about to mess with a winning formula, but he added some things to the classic Larrupin’ menu. “We’ve added a phyllo wrapped cod that we do with a lemon caper cream sauce. We added steelhead. We added stuffed portobello mushroom as a vegetarian item, and lamb chops, prime rib, venison chops. The filet [mignon] has been the big seller, we can’t stock enough.”
Paul emphasized the fact that all the produce is organic — and sourced locally. “I pick up a lot of stuff from Little River Farm and from Janet at Redwood Roots. And that produce is just insane. So good. Fresh. It really does make a difference. Everything else I pick up from the farmers’ market.”
Saturday mornings you’ll typically find Paul and one or both of his kids wheeling a red wagon around the Arcata Plaza. He’s on a first name basis with many of the farmers, name checking Ed at Earthly Edibles, Ino at I & I Farm, Ben and Kelsey at Rain Frog Farm, Claudia of Claudia’s Organic Herbs, Mike from Willow Creek Farms. You can tell that in the few years he’s been here, he’s become part of a community. And that’s important to him.
“One of the things we enjoy about having the restaurant is we can do things for the community,” says Paul. He mentioned the recent Culinary AllStars salsa contest where he worked with kids from Trinidad Elementary and wine and food fundraising dinners they’ve been doing at at Larrupin’ for local schools. “It’s a good way to give back,” he said.
When it comes down to it, there’s more to a restaurant experience than the decor and the “larrupin’ good” food. You gather with friends and you become part of something special. As Dixie put it, “It’s about community.” And that makes all the difference.