A few years ago, restaurant designer Shawn E. Hall was hired to rebuild the Pine Cone, Sebastopol's longstanding diner, which had served up eggs and hash to the community for almost half a century. After gutting the interior, exposing the original brick and beams, and installing a new kitchen, Hall agreed to help find a new owner for the space.
"Designing a restaurant is like giving birth to a child and then giving it away," Hall tells me on a recent morning. "I get into a space and I find its bones and I bring it to life. So I decided it might be fun to actually have my own restaurant."
And that's how Hall, designer of 35 restaurants, including Hopmonk and Willi's Wine Bar, found herself running Sebastopol's hippest diner, the Gypsy Cafe.
First, let's get one thing straight: all rhetorical nuances and political correctness aside, the "gypsy" refers not to the Roma people, but to Hall's eclectic flea-market-and-architectural-salvage aesthetic. "'Gypsy' is an attitude," says Hall, who's been re-purposing materials since "distressed" referred to someone's state of mind, not their shabby-chic end table.
In this, Gypsy Cafe is an homage to Hall's mother, Norma, an orphan who once made a dress out of her bedspread so she could go to the school dance, where her scalloped hem made her the belle of the ball. A self-taught designer, contractor and seamstress, and a single mother, Norma supported her daughter by renovating houses in exchange for rent.
"We lived in 13 houses in eight years," Hall tells me. "She was the first person I ever saw make a table out of a door." (Fittingly, Hall is likely the first person most have seen make an elegant table out of an old radiator grate.)
A native of Missouri, Hall earned a degree in environmental studies from UC Santa Cruz. The first restaurant she designed was a Jamaican joint called Miss Pearl's Jam House in San Francisco, where she lived for 20 years. "I wanted to make it as authentic as possible," says Hall, who loves to uncover the intrinsic beauty of a space. "So I went to Jamaica."
Remnants of her wanderlust can be seen all over the walls of the Main Street Sebastopol cafe, hung with old signage, blown-up photographs (a Jamaican fruit stand, a Moroccan egg cart), and gathered antiques—boxing gloves, a transistor radio, even a turquoise kiddie T-Bird.
Each item tells a story—like the framed yellow crocheted doily in the shape of a pineapple (the symbol for hospitality), a gift from a customer in honor of the cafe's first anniversary. Or the old sign that says "Draperies" hanging over the bar, given to Hall by a couple who collects antiques. "They basically ate free for a year," she laughs.
Several old doors are incorporated into the cafe's décor, apt metaphors for Hall's personal philosophy. "It's about having an open door to life, being open to new experiences and cultural diversity," Hall says. "Besides just getting sustenance," she says, eyes twinkling, "I want people to feel like they're on a little vacation."
Staffed by Hall's friends and family—including her boyfriend, two best friends from college and a daughter-in-law—Gypsy Cafe breeds repeat customers, whether they be daily locals or far-flung travelers. (Just recently, a British couple vacationing in Yountville were thrilled to find a great restaurant that was, as they put it, "not too posh.")
"We're not highfalutin', we're not trying to be the best," Hall tells me, "but we're darn friendly. We will take good care of you." Perhaps this is why an astounding 1,400 people have signed up to receive Hall's weekly email newsletters, which keep people posted about upcoming events like the Tilted Shed Ciderworks pourings and the popular Friday night dinners (pot roast and fried chicken are menu favorites).
But if it's standard diner food you're after, take note: this is no greasy spoon. Yes, all the usual suspects are on the menu—pancakes, corned beef hash, huevos rancheros, Cobb salad, a slew of burgers—but chef Martin Maigaard brings a fresh approach to the classics. Standouts include the Grits and Greens, with eggs, garlic wilted greens and bacon lardons ($12), and the Sriracha burger with pickled cabbage, limed onion and Sriracha mayo on a potato roll ($11.50). This being Sebastopol, vegan and gluten-free options abound.
Running a breakfast and lunch joint in a flimsy economy may seem like a fool's gamble, but a year and a half after opening, the Gypsy continues to carry the Pine Cone's "town cafe" torch. At 10:30 on a recent Thursday morning, the place is buzzing with life; Hall greets an incoming regular, who, she mentions, always gets scrambled eggs.
"My mom dreamed of having a storefront in a small town," says Hall, who recently designed Mateo's Cocina Latina in Healdsburg and is at work on the Point Reyes Oyster Bar. Though Norma died 20 years ago, her legacy clearly lives on here.
"I've been successful thanks to my mom," says Hall. "My longtime friends visit the cafe, and the first thing they say is, 'Norma would have loved this.'"
Gypsy Cafe, 162 N. Main St., Sebastopol. 707.861.3825.