Join us this season as we explore California’s celebrated wine country: the rustic ingredients, world-class destinations and passionate artisans, chef and producers who bring it to life.
At the Fremont Diner on the highway between Sonoma and Napa, Chad Harris serves American comfort classics at breakfast, lunch and dinner to locals and people passing through. Picnic tables and retro memorabilia — almost entirely from Chad’s personal collection — add to the charm of the restaurant. Here, we ask him all about fixing up the space, his idea of comfort food, and what he loves about living in wine country.
Tell us about your background and how you found your way to a career in food.
I grew up in the food business. I was raised by a single mom who worked as a waitress and then opened her own café. It was a natural step for me after school ended. When I had children in my mid-twenties, I started a catering company, which I ran for 12 years until opening the diner.
What’s the story behind the Fremont Diner? How did you find the space and decide to open a restaurant?
My mom lived in Sonoma and drove by and saw the restaurant for rent. At the time I had a catering company in St. Helena and was a little burned out. I drove down the next day to check it out and fell in love. It was pretty rough, but I had always wanted a place on the side of the road, in the middle of the country. It just seemed like the perfect fit. I was tired of packing and unpacking my kitchen every weekend and wanted a place to call home.
How did you go about fixing the space up?
We had six months of free rent to get the space up and going. We didn’t have the money for a designer or contractor, so my girlfriend, one of my cooks and I decided to start one room at a time. We put in all the tiles, paint, drywall, etc. ourselves. I had my kids sanding and staining the tables on the weekends. It was a lot of work, but there was also a great deal of pride (and a steep learning curve) that went along with it.
What about the décor — can you describe it? Were these all items from your personal collection?
At the time we were moving out of our house, so a good deal of our precious junk collection ended up at work. We enjoy collecting and junk shopping and pretty much just decorated the place like it was our clubhouse. It was important that multiple generations and people from different backgrounds felt comfortable coming here. I love when customers see things from when they were kids or stop by with random things that have been in their garage for the past 50 years. It always makes for great stories.
What’s the inspiration behind the menu? What kind of food do you serve?
I had a catering company that focused predominantly on Mediterranean-style cuisine and wanted to do something different. Having two young children, I wanted a place that was casual and accessible but also environmentally and ethically responsible. My catering company had always focused on “grandma” Italian cooking, and I felt that the grandma cooking of America deserved the same respect of execution and ingredients that were used in the past, before processed foods became so prevalent.
Our most popular dishes are fried chicken our BBQ items.
How do you source your ingredients?
We try our best to always source from local purveyors. When you source from local spots, it makes cooking seasonally much easier. At the moment we have had to put our backyard eggs on hold. We used to have more than 250 chickens, from which we got most of our eggs, but it was a little too much to take care of them and the restaurant. It was really hard to turn it into a profitable endeavor on such a small scale. It made me have a great deal of respect for all of those chicken farmers out there who raise responsible eggs. It’s a lot of work for little money. They will come back in the future.
What’s next for you and for the Fremont Diner? Any plans for the future?
I have just purchased a Klose BBQ kit and will continue to practice my smoking in hopes of opening a BBQ place someday.
What do you love about living and working in wine country?
Northern California has great weather, food, wine and especially beer. Sonoma is great because it is no more than two hours from the beach, the mountains or the city.