A New Hotel and Destination Restaurant Put Merced and Its Agricultural Core on Our Radar

More than a gateway.

  • Category
  • Written by
    Darren Elms
  • Photographed by
    Tanveer Badal, James O’Neil & Aubrie Pick

If you’ve ever traveled up to Yosemite, there’s a good chance you passed through Merced. About 70 miles outside the national park, this small but mighty town is referred to as the “Gateway to Yosemite.” But the allure need not end there.

Good things are happening in Merced—many of the delicious kind, helping transform the downtown area into a culinary destination worthy of a dedicated layover. Much of the buzz surrounding Merced is squarely focused on the renovated El Capitan Hotel and its signature eatery Rainbird. The beautiful melding of a lovingly restored, historic hotel and modern addition, El Capitan now boasts 114 rooms, including 12 suites. The rooms pay homage to nearby star attraction Yosemite with camp-chic style, earthy tones and local charm.

And while Yosemite certainly inspires good taste throughout the property, so do the agriculturally rich farmlands of the region. Nowhere is that harvested goodness more on display than at Rainbird. Opened in February, this upscale, tasting-menu restaurant helmed by executive chef Quentin Garcia embodies the Central Valley with a vegetable-forward program celebrating the area’s best producers. Rainbird also features a curated wine list featuring both domestic and international small producers.

Down the street, a vintage theatre received a revamp to host music performances and serve comfort food and drinks, including a variety of tap beers and local wines. Mainzer also offers a game room complete with foosball, board games and our favorite: Skee-Ball.

Yosemite is accessible via car, about a 1½-hour drive. But you can leave the car at El Capitan and take a bus arranged by the hotel. It’s a great option if you want to skip reservations, save gas and enjoy the ride. Oh, did we mention there’s free valet at El Capitan?

Speaking of the drive, there’s lots to see just outside Merced. The Blossom Trail, which bursts with fragrance in early spring, provides your route to Vista Ranch. This beautiful outpost in the heart of farmland grows fruits and vegetables all prepared for lucky visitors. In addition to wood-fired pizza and other delicious dishes, the ranch hosts tastings of its incredible wines, including chardonnay, pinot grigio, cabernet and a brut sparkling wine. Swing by the shop to take home a bottle or two.

Founder and master distiller David Souza welcomes guests to Corbin Cash, purveyors of sweet potato spirits. Since 1917, the Souza family has grown sweet potatoes and Merced rye on their farm, branching out to 100% estate-grown, farm-to-bottle, award-winning, gluten-free spirits.

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