Davis, Calif.: Central Valley Art Scene

Venture off I-80 for a hidden oasis of the arts, including the Mondavi Center for the performing arts, a bounty of galleries, and public art.

Davis Calif.'s E Street

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On a recent Friday night in Davis, Calif., something strange was going on at the Boy Scout Cabin, which sits on a grassy lot at the edge of downtown. Light poured from the open door of the rustic log house built in 1927, and inside a crowd had gathered beneath wooden plaques where the Scout Law had been carefully carved many years ago. But this was no troop meeting, unless Boy Scouts these days have taken to wearing stylish clothes, sipping wine, and admiring paintings.

The crowd was there, in fact, for an art opening. The cabin—now an annex of the respected John Natsoulas Gallery—has become yet another place to find art in this city of 64,000 souls, many of whom seem to be riding bikes at any given moment on Davis’s 100-plus miles of cycling paths and trails. "The arts are alive and well in Davis," says painter Temo Moreno. "And it’s not just visual arts, but performing ones, too."

Located in the Central Valley about 15 miles west of Sacramento, Davis was known for years as a farm town with a top-notch ag school and winemaker program—a reputation that did nothing to lure visitors. But the University of California-Davis, with its nearly 30,000 students, has become an academic powerhouse in other fields, including art. Seminal figures in contemporary California art such as Wayne Thiebaud, Roy De Forest, Robert Arneson, and Manuel Neri have taught here.

WHERE’S THE BEEF? You can buy campus-raised beef, lamb, and pork at the UC-Davis Meat Lab, a federally inspected meat processing plant. For sales information, call (530) 752-7410 or visit animalscience.ucdavis.edu/facilities/meat.htm.

All these big names create a spillover effect: There’s now a lively museum and gallery scene and loads of public art. To check it out, leave Interstate 80 at Richards Boulevard and head downtown. You’ll find a relaxed setting where organics rule at the Saturday morning farmers’ market and the tree-lined streets boast a charming mix of storefront businesses and student hangouts. Downtown also has ethnic restaurants, where you can get Mexican tamales and Czech dumplings, as well as several higher-end options: At Tucos, a popular café and wine store, you can pair a changing menu of small-plate dishes—like mint-spiced lamb meatballs and a kicky tomato-pepper relish—with hard-to-find wines.

Pick up a free gallery guide, available at galleries or the visitors bureau. Davis has embraced a wide range of work: paintings and sculpture by well-known artists at Natsoulas, the Pence Gallery, and the Richard L. Nelson Gallery; ceramics, photography, and jewelry at the Artery; and exhibitions on architecture and textiles at the Design Museum. As for public art, don’t miss Arneson’s Egghead Series, five large Humpty Dumpty sculptures on the UC campus.

THE DISH ON SWEETS The Konditorei Austrian Pastry Café makes old-world desserts, such as a vanilla cassis torte. 2710 E. Fifth St., 758-1331.

Performing arts in Davis moved into high gear in 2002 with the opening of the Mondavi Center, whose 1,800-seat main hall and 250-seat theater host campus drama and dance groups, plus major touring acts such as violinist Joshua Bell (February 10) and jazz legend Sonny Rollins (April 6).

Not all the beauty in and around Davis is made by artists and musicians. In the university’s 96-acre arboretum, more than 4,000 kinds of trees and plants flourish in 18 different gardens and collections. Outside of town, the Vic Fazio Yolo Wildlife Area attracts some 200 species of birds. Guided tours are offered during the annual Duck Days event in February. It’s an impressive show and a lovely complement to the human productions in Davis’s galleries, theaters, and concert venues.

Photography by Melissa Barnes

This article was first published in January 2006. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.

If You're Going: 

BASICS
Pick up AAA's Davis-Woodland map and Northern California & Nevada TourBook. For more information, contact the Yolo County Visitors Bureau, 105 E St., Ste. 300, (530) 297-1900, (877) 713-2847, www.yolocvb.org. Area code is 530 unless noted.

ART ATTACK
The Artery
207 G St., 758-8330. Design Museum UC-Davis 145 Walker Hall, 752-6150, www.designmuseum.ucdavis.edu. John Natsoulas Gallery 521 First St., 756-3938, www.natsoulas.com. Pence Gallery 212 D St., 758-3370, www.pencegallery.org. Richard L. Nelson Gallery UC-Davis, 124 Art Bldg., 752-8500, nelson.ucdavis.edu/.

SONG AND STAGE
Davis Musical Theatre Company 607 Peña Dr., 756-3682, www.dmtc.org. Delta of Venus 122 B St., 753-8639, www.deltaofvenus.org. Mondavi Center UC-Davis , 754-2787, (866) 754-2787, www.mondaviarts.org.

HOT WHEELS
B&L Bike Shop Rentals from $15 a day. 610 Third St., 756-3540, www.blbikeshop.com. Davis Bike Club Info on local cycling. 756-0186, www.davisbikeclub.org.

KID STUFF
Community Park park and playground. 1405 F St., 757-5626. Explorit Science Center 3141 Fifth St., 756-0191, www.explorit.org.

THE GREAT OUTDOORS
California Raptor Center UC-Davis, 752-6091. Davis Farmers Market Central Park, Fourth and C Sts., 756-1695, www.davisfarmersmarket.org. UC Davis Arboretum, Free public tours. 752-4880, www.arboretum.ucdavis.edu. Yolo Basin Foundation , Guided wildlife and wetlands tours. 758-1018, www.yolobasin.org.

EATS
Bistro 33 Northwest specialties. 226 F St., 756-4556. Ciocolat Dessert café. 301 B St., 753-3088. El Mariachi Taqueria Eighteen house-made salsas. 400 G St., 750-0688. Farmer's Kitchen Cafe Seasonal and organic dishes. 620 Fourth St., 756-1862. Kabul Afghan fare. 707 Second St., 756-0666. Little Prague Czech cuisine. 330 G St., 756-1107. Mishka's Café Coffeehouse. 514-B Second St., 759-0811. Redrum Burger Classic burger joint. 978 Olive Dr., 756-2142. Sudwerk German-style lagers and food. 2001 Second St., 758-8700. Tucos Wine Market & Cafe 130 G St., Ste. A, 757-6600.

SLEEPS
Best Western Palm Court Hotel 234 D St., 753-7100. Davis Inn 422 A St., 753-9611, (800) 211-4455, www.davis-inn.com.

RED-LETTER DAYS
ArtAbout Second Friday evening of each month. 758-8330. Duck Days In February. Field trips and workshops. 757-3780, www.yolobasin.org. Picnic Day In April. Campus open house with nearly 200 free public events, including a parade, robot races, and music. 752-6320, www.picnicday.ucdavis.edu.

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