A Million Miles from Mundane

When you consider “Bistro,” your mind conjures images of intimate tables surrounded by evocative art, with magnificent servers prowling the dining  room with a cat’s innate grace. The food is fresh and simple in its list of ingredients, prepared practically before your eyes.

Which brings us to the just-arrived Four65, the Wood-Fire Bistro at the heart of downtown Highlands.

The interior is evocative of its 20th century antecedents. It’s adorned with art, and the particulars of the table recall the touches of Art Deco that cropped up in those bistros in the 1920s and 30s – just look at the serving dishes, and the black stainless steel flatware could have been envisioned by a fabulist like Man Ray. And though surrealism has never been my cup of fur, I’d wager that the whimsical salt and pepper shakers must be a sly wink to Jean Cocteau.

(For a modernist joke that would have made Cocteau chuckle, ask your server where the restaurant obtained those salt and pepper shakers.)

And all of that design flair is in obeisance to the set of wood-fired ovens at the back of the restaurant. These are modern glories built upon designs created back in Naples, when the first pizzas were being shaped. They and the dazzling illuminated onyx bar give the place an energy that’s all its own.  

We started with Wood-Fired (naturally)  Brussels Sprouts, a herculean Caesar Salad, Margherita Pizza, and a Cast Iron Wood-Fired Grilled Cheese Sandwich.

And bread! Now I’ve written on and on about my life in San Francisco, and Paris, and Pamplona in Spain, so you know I’m a bread snob (Tricia says, “An insufferable bread snob.”)

This is remarkable stuff. If I could devise a plan to show up every day and just order a loaf of this bread, well, obviously it’d kill me, but I’d die a happy man.

The Pizza is an elevated creation that’s true to its Mediterranean roots. The tomatoes and basil are grown in the restaurant’s garden, the Bufala cheese is processed locally, and the dough is kissed by those impressive ovens for no more than 90 seconds. These pizzaiolo, whoever they are, have obviously spent years refining their craft.

Let me slip on my Scientist Chef Hat and explain why a Neapolitan Pizza is such a different creation from its New York
style descendent.

When pizza began to be served in the Italian enclaves in New York City, cooks used coal-fired ovens to replicate that 700 to 1,000 degrees produced by those wood-fired stoves. 

As natural gas became more economical than coal, these restaurants switched to gas ovens, which, since they couldn’t reproduce those scorching temperatures, required a longer cooking time for the pies. 

Since the traditional mozzarella just couldn’t hold up over the longer stint in the oven, American chefs substituted shredded, low-moisture mozzarella. To make up for the altered cheese formula, American pizzas were served smothered in layers of low-moisture mozzarella, whereas Neapolitan pies are adorned with a light application of cheese.

The same Wood-Fire/Gas dichotomy plays out in the composition of  sauce as well. The sauce of a Neapolitan pizza is strictly tomato and salt (in fact, it’s the law in Italy). Again, that simple recipe doesn’t hold up under the longer cook time of a gas oven pizza. The sauce of New York-style pizza is a blending of tomato, sugar, and garlic, with a dash of oregano, perfect for a longer cooking time. 

See, those Four65’s wood-fired ovens ensure that you’re served authentic pizza, just like the individual pies that were crafted for Savoy’s Princess Margharita over 150 years ago. I promise you’ll sense the difference immediately.   

The Brussels Sprouts, surely the most humble vegetable in the Free World, were given flight by the careful application of heat, a light olive oil, and a judicious drizzling of garlic.

And since I’m supposed to be careful with word count, you might imagine that I’d pass over the Caesar Salad. Nope! This girl deserves her own moment in the sun. Again, it’s those wonderful fresh local vegetables, adorned with a remarkably light dressing and festooned with hearty slices of that bread (again, that glorious, glorious bread!) and served in a bowl that’s just this side of a bucket.

And finally, there’s that Grilled Cheese Sandwich. I know you’re thinking that there can’t be any new changes to be rung from this staple of a childhood lunch, but, well, here it is. Again, it comes down to basics – bread(!), carefully calibrated cheese, and the magic of a cast-iron pan that’s slid into a wood-fired oven. Somehow it works, and somehow it’s transcendent.

See how all of these simple foods served up with care are perfect for lively conversation? At its core, the menu is what gives Four65 its irresistible bistro charm. The place can get noisy, even raucous at times, but it’s heaps of good fun. 

  Of course, that atmosphere is curated by an attentive staff, and our server  Danielle was exceptional – competent, confident, and bursting with gentle good humor. She set the tone for the meal with our introduction, and she maintained it with the careful application of her craft. In retrospect, she was a wise conductor of what became a memorable afternoon.

Well, once again I’ve gone too long, leaving scant room for the desserts that we somehow managed to shoehorn in. I’ll just name them here and mention that they were, in their own right, showstoppers. I’m going to trust you to figure out if they should be a part of your visit to Four65 – Tiramisu in a Mason Jar, Cannolis, and an Apple Walnut Crisp that could be the Official Dessert of Autumn.

Like its  cousins, Four65 doesn’t take reservations. You show up and you take your chances! It’s located at 465 Main Street in downtown Highlands.

The American Woody:The first generation of depot hacks boasted open bodies constructed of wagon-style solid planking. But by the mid-1910s, closed station wagon bodies became more common and lighter construction was required. The rib-and-panel style that is familiar today made its first appearance on these vehicles and allowed for the first partially enclosed wooden station wagons with side curtains, two or more rows of seats, and side doors. These new wagons could still be considered depot hacks, but were now called Suburbans, Combinations and Country Clubs. (Versions of these names still appear today.) The lower halves of these wagonette bodies resembled the earlier versions and were now combined with a flat roof. These designs found favor with non-commercial customers, and an increasing number of firms began building them. Major manufacturers such as Ford started offering woodies through dealerships, although independent body builders performed the actual construction. The Martin Truck and Body Corp. in York, Pennsylvania, made so many bodies for Ford, Dodge and others during the 1910s and 1920s that they billed themselves as "The Largest Commercial Car Builder in the World." The golden age of the custom wood body maker ended during the Depression, as many of the small independent firms went out of business. Some reorganized and diversified, like the Kentucky Wagon Manufacturing Company, which stopped making wood Ford Model T and Model A bodies (and its own line of automobiles as the Dixie Motor Car Company) and started manufacturing truck trailers. The company is still in business today as Kentucky Trailer. The major automobile manufacturers acquired many others at fire-sale prices during this time. The fortunes of Martin Truck and Body, who called themselves "The Largest Commercial Car Builder in the World," changed dramatically during the Depression. After merging with failed carmaker Parry in 1919, Martin Truck and Body was acquired by Chevrolet in 1930 and became its first in-house commercial truck body division. Ford, with its vast timber operations near Lake Superior, was gaining experience in woody manufacturing. That experience would be put into practice in 1936 when a plant opened at Iron Mountain that built complete wood wagon bodies that were then shipped to Ford plants around the country for final assembly. While Ford was the only manufacturer building woodies from the ground up, there were still coachbuilt versions available based on GM, Chrysler, Packard, Willys, Hupmobile, Graham, Hudson, Studebaker and even American Bantam chassis. The trend toward luxury continued through the 1930s, although woody amenities lagged far behind those in production automobiles. Pontiac, for instance, did not offer full glazing until 1939. As the country began to recover economically, woodies were increasingly perceived as upscale vehicles and sales rose accordingly. Ford easily maintained its dominance, selling almost 10,000 redesigned Standard and DeLuxe station wagons in 1940 alone. Chrysler introduced its first truly car-quality woody, the Town & Country, in March of the following year. It boasted an all-steel roof and a white ash and mahogany body by Pekin Wood Products of Helena, Arkansas. With Willys, Buick, Pontiac and Plymouth all getting serious about passenger comfort in their woodies, things were about to heat up when the manufacturers were told to cease production of passenger cars and contribute to the war effort. A trickle of cars continued for a brief time, but all domestic automobile production had ended by March of 1942. Ford continued to produce a small number of Ford and Mercury woody sedans and ambulances used during the war. We reach Crystal Cove and its landmark Shake Shack and pull in to switch drivers. Remembering the earlier starting difficulty, we leave the Ford idling while photographer Joseph Puhy shoots some images. Little do we know, the ethanol-laced modern gas blend is busy vaporizing in the fuel line, a common Ford flathead V-8 problem. It happens on the uphill leaving the Shake Shack, the woodie chugging slower and slower, until it can’t chug anymore. Now we’re stranded beside the Coast Highway, with Audis and Acuras zipping past at speed. Bad scene. With no luck re-firing the engine, I resort to bump-starting it backward downhill. This works, and the ’34 has just enough power to get us turned around and find safe haven in a nearby park. But the woodie’s day is over. “I think this has cured me of wanting an old car!” Dean says, laughing. Oddly enough, another “Surf City” lyric has portended our current situation: “And if my woodie breaks down on me somewhere on the surf route/Surf City, here we come/I’ll strap my board to my back and hitch a ride in my wetsuit.” With the photo and video teams close behind, our rescue isn’t quite that dramatic, and we all safely return to the museum in modern cars, leaving the generous McPherson and his beautiful ’34 awaiting Hagerty Plus Roadside Service. The last great year of the woody was, by some accounts, 1949. Handcrafting complicated and maintenance-intensive wood frames and panels was becoming very difficult to justify in the red-hot, new-car market. The epochal Chrysler Town & Country switched to Dinoc vinyl (still available in aftermarket "wallpaper woody" kits today) with ornamental ash framing, and the 1949 Ford used all-steel construction with experimental plywood-like panels that underwent a dramatically high rate of failure. General Motors abandoned wood framing after 1948, and from 1948 through 1951, Packard produced station wagons with window framing and ornamental wood door trim by Briggs Manufacturing. The few coachbuilders that survived the Depression and World War II were again in jeopardy during the 1950s. Despite efforts to make the transition to more modern products such as hearses and other steel bodies, the wood-body manufacturers, steeped in old-world hand craftsmanship, were almost all gone by the end of the decade. Car design and manufacture, as well as the tastes of the car-buying public, were undergoing radical changes and the woody, redolent of 1930s and 1940s country clubs, fell from favor. The Chrysler Town & Country was discontinued in 1951, and while Fords continued to sell well, they now increasingly used vinyl and paint instead of real wood. The 1953 Buick wagons were the last real woodies from any major American manufacturer. Various wallpaper woodies or "vinylies" are still offered by Detroit to this day, but the age of the real woody ended in 1953. Fiberglass would come to substitute for ash and Dinoc for mahogany. It was a slow death, and the last real wood exterior trim of any kind on an American vehicle appeared on the Dodge Adventurer 150 "Li'l Red Express Truck" option available in 1978 and 1979.By the time I had my summer epiphany in San Diego, woodies were already in their second incarnation as an American icon. Furniture makers constructed the first of them on truck frames in the late 1920s. The car replaced the horse-drawn vehicles–jitneys or hacks–that had hauled passengers from train depots to hotels. Woodies were, literally, “station wagons,” and you’ll see them turn up. In Southern California, the place to see any style in wood cars is the annual Wavecrest meeting, held every September at Moonlight Beach near San Diego. Trophies are given for Best 1960s Surfing Woodie and Best Hot Rod Woodie. There are big-money restorations and Model A’s with rotting wood, Buick Estate Wagons with fewer than 50,000 miles on the odometer and more Town and Country wagons than Pasadena’s Rose Parade. Lovely as these ghosts are, there’s nothing that can duplicate your first time. Nearly 40 years ago, on the afternoon when I saw that first woodie in a San Diego gas station, I was just way to my part-time job in a suit and tie. What I watched from across the street was a preview of another kind of life, one that was raw and vital, one where a whole world was spread out along the coast waiting to be discovered. It was a moment that changed my life–because that day I quit my job and started surfing.