By Chris Murphy
It is all about the lingering and the questions.
A visit to Camp 4 is so much more than a culinary taste sensation, but a walk into a space both steeped in history at the same time pointing the way to the future. In a way, this place is a metaphor for Modesto, where we have so much classic history to build on at the same time we have to be fresh and exciting for the future. At Camp 4 the legend of Royal Robbins looms large in ambience, but the vibe and the experience is all in the capable hands of Damon Robbins. This is truly an analog experience, like listening to both sides of Abbey Road on vinyl with friends.
I was born in Yosemite, so it has always been a special place for me. I remember ratting around the original Camp 4 at the base of El Capitan, Happy Isles, Indian Caves and other places as a kid. I bought one of my first racing frames from Royal Robbins sport shop that was the originally in the Camp 4 restaurant location. There is authentic history to every bit of this place and one meal, snack or sampling of wine will take you to another place. “The best meal is one that makes you ask questions, or linger for a time talking with friends” say Damon, a soft spoken, focused and naturally curious person.
Trained at culinary school, Damon received most of his experience working and operating restaurants, notably Frisson in San Francisco with long time friend and Modesto native, Joe Hagraves. Those experiences and his passion for life outdoors lead to the return to Modesto.
Growing up in the Robbins family was amazing, Royal climbing and kayaking around the world, and Liz both climbing, designing and making sure home cooked meals were a priority, no matter where the family would travel. Damon celebrates the importance of “the meal”, the time spent over food and the conversations and friendships that develop and Liz’ thoughtful influence is present in Camp 4. Recently remodeled to include large group seating, the original ambience is still there.
The food is simple and spectacular. Do not expect some showy kitchen with flames of frenetic energy, but get ready for a thoughtful experience, where food is celebrated, flavors enhanced and prepared so you can experience them all. An amazing skill Damon brings is celebrating the excellence of other makers, like Genoa Bakery Bread, Nicolau Farms Feta, Sciabica Olive Oil and other local producers. My flat out favorite thing to eat at Camp 4 is the marinated Feta, in olive oil with thyme. The charcuterie and cheese plate is a taste around the world and their Paninos are out of this world. The French Dip is seriously something to write home about. Don’t forget to order an olive sampler while you wait.
Wine and spritz drinks are alone worthy of an afternoon or evening at Camp 4. Damon and his team will introduce you to new wine flavors. I usually just put myself in their hands to choose. Europeans have long known that you can make a tasty spritz cocktail with fresh ingredients and tasty aperitifs. They are meant to be sipped and enjoyed and the Lizard and the Lion are tasty. Don’t even think about leaving without tasting the chocolate Panini.
One thing for sure, at Camp 4, every plate is handcrafted, the tastes are matched and best of all, it you don’t know what you want, please ask the questions. It just may turn into a long evening to be shared with friends, which is exactly the point. You will leave, happy, enlightened and eager to return.