Elevation Eats: Making ourselves at home at The Coachman Hotel in South Lake Tahoe | TahoeDailyTribune.com

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Elevation Eats: Making ourselves at home at The Coachman Hotel in South Lake Tahoe

The Coachman Hotel has quickly become the epicenter of cool in South Lake Tahoe. Though an increasingly popular hotel for out-of-town guests, locals have also found enough to love about The Coachman to make it a regular spot for an after-work brew, a round of cornhole or making s'mores over the fire pits.

We've been into The Coachman's vibe since it opened, but with no food service, we had little to report on. That's all changed with their new top-notch bar bites food menu. We sat down with the hotel's general manager, Kathleen Bunnage, to get the details on a distinctly new dining experience.

Bunnage gave us the rundown on how managing partner, Justin Watzka, who has worked for Marriott and lived in major cities all around the world, envisioned The Coachman. In bringing his concept to Tahoe, he wanted to offer amenities and subtle details that would appeal to tourists from the city, but place them in an unmistakably Tahoe setting.

"The idea is that if you're from the city, you can come here and not feel like you are out of place … but we continue to push the idea that this is a Tahoe hotel," Bunnage said of the concept. "It is not a piece of San Francisco plopped down in the middle of Tahoe. It is a marriage of a lot of those elements."

Watzka and his partners purchased two neighboring hotels, The Green Lantern and The Royal Coachman, in 2015, and immediately gutted both properties, redesigning The Coachman from its bones.

"It is a question of, do we want to see a new building in Tahoe, or do we want to see some of the stuff that's existing be taken over and given the love and care that it needs and given a second chance," Bunnage says. "They were looking for something like this, where they could pay homage to [Tahoe], but also create something that feels new and fresh."

Hotel renaissance

The Coachman has joined other hotels near the state line, like Basecamp Hotel, 7 Seas Inn and Hotel Becket, in a renaissance of renovation and innovation that make each location not just a check-in/check-out motel, but a complete Tahoe experience.

Guests at The Coachman are invited to make themselves at home in the lobby, which is complete with books, board games and cozy couches. While the staff is always around if needed, guests can choose to function independently in the self-serve kitchen. Bunnage finds that this kind of independence appeals to the younger, experience-seeking generation.

"One of our guests described it as 'attentive but not pushy' … once you're here you are part of this family. … There are a lot of people in this generation that are now in their 30s, early 40s, late 20s that don't necessarily want to seek out that overtly luxury experience."

Instead, The Coachman sought to blend rich and urban with comfortable and homey. But something was missing.

"One of the things we heard over and over again was that people wanted food," Bunnage said.

Learning to cook

In preparing to serve food at the hotel, Bunnage and Watzka tried something completely new. They presented the decision to their front-of-house staff to either hire new, dedicated kitchen staff, or leave food prep to them. Without hesitation the staff chose to take food-prep on themselves.

"So instead of hiring a kitchen staff, we all re-trained and we all learned how to make every item on that list, and we make it all from scratch."

This decision has not only enriched the guests' experience at The Coachman but has enriched the lives of the staff.

"A lot of my staff didn't have even the most basic knife skills and now they're learning how to chop herbs and how to use a food processor and how to properly store things," Bunnage explained. "It's been a really fun experience to watch them all gain this entirely new skill. … [For some] their experience cooking was literally heating up macaroni and cheese, and all of a sudden they're making a black tahini hummus and think this is the most delicious thing ever. … Some of them have learned that they can cook, which is something they never had exposure to doing."

It would have been easy to serve up wings and nachos, but Bunnage and company wanted the menu to match the upscale rustic/city vibe of the hotel.

"We wanted to do something that was simple enough that we could do ourselves but still had the quality level that Justin and I expect having spent so much time in big foodie cities."

Bold and distinct flavors

The food they serve is high-end, ethically-sourced and delicious, and they plan to rotate in new menu items over time. We were lucky enough to try the entire menu: black tahini hummus, smoked trout dip, baked chorizo and cheese, and both a cheese and charcuterie plate. Each dish was presented on custom stone or wood plates, in a single-serve cast iron pot or in mason jars. It would feel like camping, if it weren't so refined.

The flavors of each dish are bold and distinct. The black tahini hummus, made from fresh chickpeas and black garlic, is refreshing and tangy. The smoked trout dip blends apple wood smoked trout with Greek yogurt and dill, and is a house favorite. The baked chorizo and cheese has a bit of a kick and includes roasted garlic, idiazabal cheese (a smoky, Spanish cheese) and scallions. The cheese plate combines a pirate blue (a mild blue cheese) with a bright meadow cheddar, rocket's robiola, marcona almonds and Bing cherries. The charcuterie plate is sourced from ethically raised livestock, with a pig and fig terrine unlike anything we've ever tried — kind of a pâté of fruity pork with a dollop of whole-grain mustard. We inhaled it.

Visitors and locals alike are welcome to make The Coachman their home-away-from-home. It is indicative of the future of Tahoe: never giving up what makes this area unique, but raising the bar for what a hotel and dining experience can be. And we absolutely love that in the process of bringing food to their customers, they brought the love of cooking to their staff. As always, we'll see you there.

Elevation Eats is the brainchild of Rae and Troy Matthews: South Shore locals, internet enthusiasts, and the food-obsessed, Tahoe-loving, annoying-couple down the street. This is their second food-related project. Their first is the blog LustForCooking.com, a celebration of cooking at home. Elevation Eats is dedicated to documenting and promoting the Tahoe food scene with a focus on sustainable living and cultural advancement. Find out more at elevationeats.com.