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Margaret Grade, Whose California Inn Was Beloved by Stars, Dies at 72

Margaret Grade, Whose California Inn Was Beloved by Stars, Dies at 72

Margaret Grade, a California neuropsychologist who made a sharp career turn to open a cozy, eclectic inn near the Point Reyes National Seashore that was known for tending to farmers and fishers with the same attentiveness it gave to the film stars and writers who sought sanctuary there, died on Feb. 28 in San Francisco. She was 72.

Ms. Grade was injured in a car accident in Marin County on Jan. 11. She spent several weeks in a hospital before she died there of complications related to her injuries, her brother Matthew Grade, a physician, said.

The introverted Ms. Grade acknowledged that she was a most unlikely innkeeper.

“If they put me in the front, I would be bad for business,” she said in a 2003 interview with The San Francisco Chronicle. She also admitted that when she opened her inn, Manka’s Inverness Lodge, she didn’t have the first idea about running an establishment. “I didn’t know the term ‘working capital,’ and as a result I had none,” she said.

Still, Manka’s, a century-old former hunting retreat tucked into the woods two hours northwest of San Francisco in Inverness, Calif., was in the vanguard of hyperlocal food, a haven for chefs and celebrities and a national media darling.

Ms. Grade (pronounced GRAH-dee) was more than an innkeeper. She had a preternatural ability to anticipate guests’ desires and sometimes had unusual ways of fulfilling them.

“She is not someone I would call warm, but you always felt the touch of her hand in every room,” the actor Frances McDormand, who for years spent holidays there with her family, said by phone. “She had an old-fashioned understanding of what true luxury is. Part of her real gift was making a fantasy that you just fell into. It was witchy.”

The fourth of 11 children, Margaret Major Grade was born on Dec. 9, 1951, in Elm Grove, Wis., a suburb of Milwaukee. Her mother, Shirley Agnes (Bothwick) Grade, worked for a time as a journalist and became renowned in international knitting circles. Her father, John Oscar Grade, was a popular family-practice doctor who hunted, fished and grew prodigious gardens.

Ms. Grade, called Peg by her family, inherited his love of fast cars and food.

“He taught me by example that eating well, and the prelude to it, is part of life lived fully,” she said in 2003.

Like many of her siblings, Ms. Grade chose to study medicine, heading first to nursing school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and then to the California School of Professional Psychology in Berkeley (now part of Alliant International University), where she graduated with a doctorate in psychology. Her dissertation, published in 1984, was about ennui.

She built a practice with lupus patients and conducted clinical brain research at the University of California, San Francisco. In the mid-1980s, she joined the San Francisco AIDS advisory board and began global AIDS-related research.

Ms. Grade was looking for a second home in 1989 when she discovered the inn, which was named after its longtime owner, Manka Prokupek. She teamed up with her brother Thomas to buy it, and their younger brother Benjamin, a chef, took over the kitchen.

Ms. Grade’s sister Johanna Perkins helped her transform the inn’s four rooms and main-floor restaurant into a quirky arts-and-crafts gem with an aesthetic favoring enormous flower arrangements, foraged tree branches and a jaunty use of taxidermy: deer hooves serving as clothes hooks, a squirrel greeting guests at the front desk, a framed tarantula hanging in a bathroom.

After her brother Ben headed back to the Midwest in 1996, Ms. Grade visited the cookbook author Marion Cunningham, who for years served as consigliere to a generation of Northern California chefs and food writers, to ask if she should devote her life to cooking. Ms. Cunningham told her to read the work of the food writers Richard Olney, Jane Grigson and M.F.K. Fisher before she decided.

Ms. Grade never looked back, but running both the kitchen and the inn was daunting. In 1998, she hired the Northern California chef Daniel DeLong. Together they elevated the cuisine, and they soon became romantically involved. The two never married, but in 2008 they became the parents of twins.

Using only food that Ms. Grade described as “within reach,” the couple built dishes from chanterelle mushrooms that local children foraged in the woods, seafood pulled from surrounding waters hours before it was served, and notable local products like bread from the star baker Chad Robertson and cheese from Cowgirl Creamery.

Descriptions on her daily menus were poetic. “Local king salmon on a throne of Bolinas shelling beans defended by a close cousin,” said one. “Another sole saved from surrounding seas,” said another.

Ms. McDormand recalled a dish called something like “a tiny raft of local sea urchin floating in a bay of creamy corn chowder,” which her son devoured when he was 10, endearing him to the notoriously prickly Ms. Grade.

Ms. Grade spoke in a voice that seemed only slightly louder than a whisper, and she was private about her personal life, which appealed to celebrities; they knew she would respect their privacy, too. Robert Redford shared the dining room with a local child celebrating a birthday. Sean Penn made chocolate chip cookies in the kitchen. The chef Thomas Keller came for his birthday dinner.

But the real stars were the people who brought the raw products to the back door.

“If a duck farmer showed up and sold us sausage, that was akin to having King Charles in our establishment,” Luc Chamberland, who cooked at Manka’s for seven years, told the newspaper The Point Reyes Light.

Ms. Grade indeed did have Charles in her establishment. In 2005, when he was still a prince, he and his wife, Camilla, traveled to the United States in part to feed his interest in organic farming. He visited the restaurateur Alice Waters at her Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley and then headed to Manka’s.

“She made the most beautiful lunch in his honor,” Ms. Waters, who attended the meal and whose Berkeley restaurant, Chez Panisse, served as a model for Ms. Grade’s, said in an interview. “I thought, when I looked at the menu, ‘Oh, my goodness, is he going to like this?’”

He did, including a dish Ms. Grade called “duck fit for a prince.”

In addition to her brother Matthew, Ms. Grade is survived by her children, Coco and Django Grade-DeLong, and six other siblings, Johanna Perkins, Mary Katherine Grade Reynolds and Benjamin, Andrew, Charles and Jean Therese Grade. She lived in Inverness.

Early on Dec. 27, 2006, the inn, made of redwood, burned down after an oak tree fell and severed a propane line during a storm. The chef Elizabeth Falkner and the actors Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal were asleep upstairs. Mr. Gyllenhaal joined the rush to salvage as much as possible from the burning building.

Zoning laws kept Ms. Grade from rebuilding. She continued to operate cabins nearby and purchased other properties, including Olema, a historic inn with a restaurant that she named Sir and Star, which opened to great reviews in 2013. But she never recaptured the magic of Manka’s, and Olema has since closed.

“Her basic modus operandi was to be willing to make laws and rigid structures evaporate,” her brother Matthew said.

That manifested once when Ms. Grade was trying to add high ceilings to a room she was remodeling. The county zoning administrator insisted that they could be only eight feet high, Jim Emmott, who worked on her building projects, told The Light. She pushed back.

“I don’t know if you realize it, but I’m in the fantasy business,” he recalled her telling the administrator. “I wonder how you would intend for me to fit fantasy under an eight-foot ceiling. Does Disney World have an eight-foot ceiling?”

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