“I drove by it for two years not seeing it for what it was,” he says. “It was kind of neighborhood-y and dark and kind of small. And then one day, I just saw it. When I saw it, I saw it. There was no roof at one point, no walls. I saw that this lumber yard, which is the iconic gateway to the town, that couldn’t be anywhere else but Mill Valley, could have had a restaurant in it.”
The subsequent discovery of rusted beer cans that likely dated back 80-plus years indicated that “it could have been where people kicked off their evening after work, and ate their lunches during the day,” Robertson adds.
He connected with Matt and Jan Matthews, who in 2012 had purchased the creek-straddling 42,500-square-foot site at 129 Miller Avenue from the Cerri family, which had owned it as a lumber yard and True Value hardware store for the previous 14 years. The property was built by lumber magnate Robert Dollar in 1892 as Dollar Lumber Company, and the Mathews family meticulously transformed it with care over the subsequent six years into a destination unto itself that features a wide array of creative, eclectic businesses.
Robertson then made what he felt was the next logical call: to Kyle Swain, the chef who’d had taken over the kitchen at Molina on Madrona Street when Todd Shoberg left in early 2016. Robertson and Swain had hit it off in working together for the year before Molina transitioned to Pizza Molina – and eventually to Bootjack Wood Fired, another Robertson project that continues to utilize the historic wood burning Alan Scott brick oven that was the focal point of his former Small Shed Flatbreads, which closed in November 2014.
“I felt that there was unfinished work for us to do together and probably was going to be better for both of us in a bigger format place,” Robertson says. “We have a lot of similarities in the way we think about cooking, and we work really well together. I know not to interfere with the way his artistic mind works, and he’s accepting of my ideas about how people like to eat.”
Swain convinced Robertson to embrace the history of the property within the kitchen itself, making a wood-burning grill the centerpiece of the kitchen.
“It feels really personal,” says Swain, who grew up in Poway just north of San Diego and worked at the renowned Jardiniere, Zuni Cafe and Saison over a 10-year span. “I feel like I’ve been able to put a lot of touches on the place.”
“And that choice really drove the menu,” adds Robertson. “It doesn’t take a lot of wood if you’re cooking for 150 or so people a night like we are, it’s sustainable almond wood and it burns super efficiently and hot. And it adds texture and flavor.”
Once they agreed to dive into together, they had to wait out an extensive renovation of the old sawmill building featuring a design via Robertson’s collaboration with Dorman Associates in Tam Junction.
“We just stuck it out,” says Swain, who worked at the acclaimed Madcap in San Anselmo for six months and then took the helm in the kitchen at Bootjack in February, refining its menu and processes while laying the groundwork for Watershed.
Robertson says there were plenty of bumps along the way, and that he’s incredibly grateful to the myriad friends, neighbors and partners who stepped up to invest in ways big and small to give the venture a solid foundation.
“There are people here who really care about the town who saw the vision and wanted to be part of it,” he says.
“Everybody’s been super understanding that it’s a new restaurant,” says Robertson adds about the opening week. “The food is coming out spectacular and that’s all Kyle. All the other opening bumbles – all that’s forgiven once the plate hits the table. And most people in this town are appreciative of the journey of it.”
“In a sense we’re kind of building this airplane still while we’re flying it,” Swain says.
Swain and Robertson say there will always be house favorites like the burger featuring beef from Stemple Creek Ranch in Tomales, as well as staples like produce from Green Gulch Farm and breads from Parkside in Stinson Beach. But the menu will evolve more than at most restaurants.
“There is a passion for experimentation,” Robertson says. “We are actually true followers of the market and what’s available. It’s about playing with the different proteins and vegetables.”
“At the end of the day I try to cook food that I would want to eat,” says Swain. “We want to provide a great product and serve it in a way that’s fresh and lively and well rounded with meats, seafoods and vegetables.”
As Robertson surveyed Watershed’s opening week, he returned to the next chapter of a sawmill building within a 127-year-old property.
“This town was originally a lumber town and then a weekend camp town for people in San Francisco, and it all fits into how people would have been cooking, looking up at the mountain,” he says. “It feels authentic to be cooking on the creek, to have that California type of food from a grill.”
“I’m not sure they would have been cooking octopus,” he adds with a laugh.
The 411: Watershed is currently open for lunch seven days a week from 11am-3pm and for dinner Wednesday through Sunday 5pm-9:30pm. Reservations for dinner are available online through Resy and watershedmv.com. MORE INFO.