They leased a restaurant in a Bay Area forest. Next up: Michelin star.


It’s empty and it’s quiet. There are no cars, no people, and the only sound is white-knuckled hands squeaking on the steering wheel as I make my way down Skyline Boulevard in Woodside, California.

I’m currently in the middle of a redwood grove high above the bay, 7 miles away from the nearest sign of civilization, save for a few banks of mailboxes huddled on the side of the road — the absolute last place in the Bay Area you’d expect to find a Michelin star contender.

But trudge far enough along this winding avenue of giants and you’ll find one such contender in a chestnut red cabin. It’s hard to miss thanks to the timber frame, smoking chimney and big block letters across its facade that simply read: “MOUNTAIN HOUSE.”

A look at the Mountain House in Woodside, Calif., on Nov. 2, 2023.Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE
A look at the Mountain House in Woodside, Calif., on Nov. 2, 2023.Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

The Mountain House was built atop Kings Mountain sometime in the 1920s. It started as a watering hole stop for homesteaders (there’s still a dilapidated red pump outside), and then, in 1942, became a roadhouse called King’s Rendezvous that was owned by Alfred Pee, a controversial figure who got caught up in an illegal slot machine sting in Millbrae. It was rebranded as the Red Pump in 1970, Alex’s in 1977 (you’ll never guess what the owner’s name was) and finally, in the late ’80s with the arrival of Jerry and Lorraine Olson, the Mountain House.

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The couple brought the now-iconic name, white table cloths and game meat into the normally casual dining room, attracting an eclectic parking lot of vintage cars, motorcycles and horses tied to the hitching post out front. The Mountain House became a gathering place for the community — it was the site of local dances, anniversary dinners and a finish line for an annual car rally.

The couple owned it for 34 years before finally shuttering the business in April of 2022, right around the same time Will Roberts got a life-changing phone call.

An accomplished chef who spent time at Michelin-starred Saul in Brooklyn and the Village Pub in Woodside (plus helped relaunch Michael Mina’s namesake San Francisco restaurant in 2010), Roberts got an unexpected ring from a sous-chef friend who told him the Mountain House’s owners were retiring.

Customers in the dining room have a view of the forest surrouding The Mountain House in Woodside, Calif. on Nov. 2, 2023.
Customers in the dining room have a view of the forest surrouding The Mountain House in Woodside, Calif. on Nov. 2, 2023.Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

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“I always had this fantasy of having a restaurant that was close enough to civilization and town, but removed enough that you felt you were transported to somewhere else,” Roberts said.

The Mountain House was exactly that fantasy restaurant.

In less than a year, Roberts partnered with Dmitry Elperin — the Village Pub’s executive chef for five Michelin star-winning years — and the pair of co-executive chefs signed a lease to take over the gem in the redwoods, along with an option to buy the acre of pristine Bay Area land it sits on later.

They reopened the Mountain House on Feb. 22, 2023, and learned almost immediately: You don’t know what it’s like to run a restaurant in the middle of nowhere until you actually run a restaurant in the middle of nowhere.

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Owners William Roberts, left, and Dmitry Elperin pose for a photo inside the Mountain House in Woodside, Calif., on Nov. 2, 2023.

Owners William Roberts, left, and Dmitry Elperin pose for a photo inside the Mountain House in Woodside, Calif., on Nov. 2, 2023.

Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

Despite their best efforts, Roberts and Elperin completely missed their initial grand opening. A parade of storms in early February resulted in a redwood tree falling on the roof and hood vent system above the kitchen. Both were seriously damaged and needed to be replaced, forcing them to delay things for multiple weeks.

The day before their rescheduled grand opening, they lost power completely.

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“The power goes out and we’re in the middle of prepping in the kitchen, training the staff, finalizing everything,” Roberts, a Fremont, California, native, said. “At one point we all had headlamps on, holding lanterns and we looked at the staff and said, ‘We’re not going to make you stay. It’s our restaurant, we’re going to stay and clean it up.’ And they just said, ‘No, we’ll stay and do it with you.’ We all stayed into the night.”

A generator was delivered at 8 a.m. on opening day, giving them enough juice to power the dining room. They did a small seating, maybe 30 total guests.

And, as if out of a fairy tale, it snowed.

“The locals were like, ‘This is a sign, an omen.’ It was almost like a little fairy tale. But it became very much not a fairy tale when the power didn’t come on,” Roberts said, adding it took a full four days before their power was restored.

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The pair said the weather is sometimes unrelenting. The temperature can drop 10 to 15 degrees in an hour. They’ll regularly go weeks where the entire property is entirely covered in mist. Early on, Elperin couldn’t figure out why the dough for his signature loaf of bread wouldn’t rise properly — turns out, it was because the room wasn’t warm enough. The inclement weather coupled with the windy roads also leads to near-routine accidents that delay both guests with reservations and the staff that’s supposed to be serving them.

During just their second week in service, a major landslide completely washed out Highway 84, leading the California Highway Patrol to shut down much of Highway 35 to divert people away from the closure.

“I had a produce company calling me saying, ‘We can’t get through, I don’t know how we’re going to get you your produce,’” said Roberts, who then drove down to the start of the closure and convinced the CHP to let the truck through to make the delivery.

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Suffice to say, none of these things were covered at the Culinary Institute of America or French Culinary Institute for Elperin or Roberts.

But they’re all ultimately worth dealing with for one very simple reason: “You couldn’t ask for a better backdrop to have a meal,” Roberts said.

And he’s absolutely not wrong.

A fireplace in an interior dining room at the Mountain House in Woodside, Calif., on Nov. 2, 2023.

A fireplace in an interior dining room at the Mountain House in Woodside, Calif., on Nov. 2, 2023.

Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

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The sun finally crests behind the hills as I pull up to the Mountain House. Outside, a mix of Teslas and off-road-capable trucks pepper the parking lot, which is also home to a curious, life-size Neil Young statue carved out of what must have been a massive chunk of wood. I later find out that the Mountain House is where Young met his late wife Pegi, who worked at the restaurant as a waitress in the ’70s. Young used the Mountain House as the filming location for his “Harvest Moon” music video, and there’s an entire Reddit thread of people who met (and hugged) Young at the restaurant back in the day.

A wood sculpture of Neil Young sits outside the Mountain House in Woodside, Calif., on Nov. 2, 2023.

A wood sculpture of Neil Young sits outside the Mountain House in Woodside, Calif., on Nov. 2, 2023.

Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

Inside, the walls of the original cabin are adorned with forest green wainscoting, and Jerry Olson’s sports bar chic (Jerry Rice jerseys, Ms. Pac-Man tabletops, bats and balls in memorabilia cases) has been replaced by taxidermy big game heads — Roberts, an avid hunter growing up, shot and ate all of the animals with his dad — plus lots of pictures of pheasants and fish. Original hardwood floors creak and squeak whenever anyone walks across them. And there’s the distinct smell of hickory smoke, probably thanks to the fireplace abutting the entryway.

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One couple is here for their 15-year wedding anniversary, another appears to be here on a first date. I grab a table near them both and pair a Manhattan with house-made country sourdough, a California onion dip with smoked trout roe and a maple-brined pork loin with a plum chutney — all of it’s phenomenal and hard to believe, especially way out here in the woods. 

As it turns out though, we’re all sitting in the wrong part of the restaurant.

Because tucked away behind the bar, hidden from view, I later discover is the most magical part of the Mountain House. That’s where you’ll find an outdoor deck that had so many issues with branches falling on tables and the aforementioned inclement weather that Olson enclosed the entire thing in glass, creating a dining dome where you can comfortably eat surrounded in every direction (including up!) by redwoods.

There really isn’t anything like it in the entire state of California.

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The Mountain House elk burger with pepper jack and caramelized onions, left, and Juliette Piazza and Conor Cakebread enjoy dinner in Woodside, Calif., on Nov. 2, 2023.Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE
The Mountain House elk burger with pepper jack and caramelized onions, left, and Juliette Piazza and Conor Cakebread enjoy dinner in Woodside, Calif., on Nov. 2, 2023.Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

It’s there that you can enjoy a $78 three-course tasting menu, which includes things like bacon-wrapped roasted quail with herb stuffing, golden potato gnocchi with a wild mushroom Bolognese and a banana bourbon cream pie with a graham cracker crust.

All while marveling at a forest on what feels like the edge of the earth.

“When Thomas Keller started — not to compare us to French Laundry — but when he started he was in the middle of nowhere,” Elperin said.

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“He cooked by himself with five pots for like a year — 1994 Yountville was very different than it is today,” Roberts added.

“What it became, what it is now is a completely different restaurant than when he opened up,” Elperin continued. “Fifteen years ago people didn’t know where Woodside was. Never heard of Village Pub.”

And today, in a very different middle of nowhere, no one knows where the Mountain House is. Or at least, not yet.

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The Mountain House, left, and Southern fried quail with buttermilk biscuit, farm egg, mushroom and sausage gravy on Nov. 2, 2023.Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE
The Mountain House, left, and Southern fried quail with buttermilk biscuit, farm egg, mushroom and sausage gravy on Nov. 2, 2023.Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

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