Antiques & Avocados : A bed and breakfast, small-town shops and eateries deliver a slice of Americana

Morse is the author of several cookbooks, including "The Vegetarian Table: North Africa" (Chronicle Books, 1996)

The air was still fresh from a rainstorm and we could see for miles as we drove past hundreds of acres of citrus and avocados that blanket Morro Hill, an exclusive, rural community near Fallbrook, where my husband and I had made reservations at a bed and breakfast.

We reached our destination near dusk: The aptly named Chateau des Avocatiers (Manor of the Avocado Trees, $75 a night plus tax) sat on a hillside in the middle of a two-acre avocado grove. (With 6,000 planted acres, Fallbrook is known as the avocado capital of the world.) The gurgle of a fountain filled the still evening air as Sarah Bates, our host, guided us up the crushed rock path to her home. The guest quarters--a bedroom, bath and small sitting room--are in a secluded area of the multilevel house.

Mouth-watering aromas emanated from Sarah's open kitchen, where she had been preparing a tray of Mexican hors d'oeuvres--complimentary appetizers are a Friday evening tradition at the Chateau. Our room was furnished with a Provencal-style double bed and other antiques, including a porcelain wash basin and large pitcher that held a bouquet of garden flowers. In a small sitting room adjoining ours, bottles of wine and mineral water were cooling in a bucket of ice. Grace the cat, another member of the welcoming committee, soon appeared, purring.

On the advice of friends, we had made dinner reservations at the Garden Center Cafe in Fallbrook, 10 minutes away. A remodeled nursery, the restaurant is open daily for breakfast and lunch; dinner is served on Fridays only. Chef Julie Jones and her partner, Nancy Schillig, specialize in flavorful Mediterranean-inspired fare. My husband's shrimp and scallop scampi with garlic and fresh herbs were plump and perfectly cooked on their bed of fresh fettuccine ($14.95). A bowl of thick, creamy clam chowder had been well-prepared, as had the fork-tender roast pork loin in a hot pepper, honey and cilantro glaze ($12.95). My husband had a generous helping of bread pudding in whiskey sauce, and I, a parfait glass brimming with whipped cream and fresh strawberry trifle.

The next morning we woke to brilliant sunshine. A cascade of nasturtiums and rosemary covered the bank just outside our bedroom window. Promptly at 7:30 a.m., as she had promised, Sarah left a beautifully set tray with pots of freshly brewed coffee and tea at our door. Had the weather been a few degrees warmer, we might have considered an early morning swim in the chateau's swimming pool. Instead, we decided to stroll the peaceful grounds.

Over breakfast--baked eggs sprinkled with fresh herbs, a platter of fresh fruit, homemade muffins, freshly squeezed orange juice--we solicited suggestions from our hosts as we planned the day's activities. Fallbrook offered more attractions than we had expected, from antique stores to art galleries to a gem and mineral museum.

A few miles south of town, along busy Mission Road, we found a small complex of stores called the Stage Stop Antique Shops. At the Tin Barn, a decades-old Fallbrook landmark, we admired owner Robert Homer's large collection of wood-burning stoves, early American furniture, and turn-of-the-century antiques. Next door, Country Elegance Antiques housed an exquisite collection of multicolored glassware.

We decided to stop at the Last Straw, just up the road. This feed store-cum-petting zoo is a popular destination for busloads of schoolchildren. We drove past towering bales of hay toward large enclosures that held llamas, peacocks, goats, swans and Fatima the camel (actually a one-humped dromedary), who chewed contentedly and cast a patronizing eye on us.

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Back in Fallbrook, we veered right onto Main Street, which is anchored by the avocado-green 1930s-style warehouse that houses the Del Rey Avocado Co. Nearby, Rocky Peak Farms, Fallbrook's only health food store, occupies the site of the town's first grocery, according to Rocky Peak owner Jerry Weiss.

The more we explored Main Street, the more we felt as though we had stepped into a Norman Rockwell painting. This feeling grew stronger as we entered Juanita Walden's Westerner Department Store, which has specialized in western wear for more than 30 years. An old-fashioned cashier's cage stands at the entrance. Most importantly for the dozens of schoolchildren, however, the Westerner is the only place in town that still sells penny candy.

Some of the old buildings along Main Street are getting a face-lift. The newly restored Mission Playhouse regularly features live theater; and Harrison Drugs, a longtime fixture on the corner of Main and Alvarado streets, is now the Fallbrook Art and Cultural Center, befitting a town where scores of artists have settled. In early September, the former Wespak Packing House on Alvarado Street will reopen as the Fallbrook Art Works, a space combining a bronze foundry and glass-blowing, ceramics and stone-carving facilities, among others.

By this time, we had worked up quite an appetite for late lunch at the Victorian-style Wayside Cafe on Main.

Tables were still at a premium, even though we had arrived near the cafe's 2 p.m. closing time, and it was clear, as we eavesdropped on the conversations taking place around us, that the Wayside is a local favorite. A hamburger called the Wayside Super ($4.70) was deliciously juicy inside its fresh torpedo roll. One order of golden, home-fried potatoes--another house specialty--was large enough for both of us.

Re-energized by our lunch, we continued our exploration of Main Street. The Village Stationers is the oldest building on the street, dating back to the 1830s. We made our way to Ruthy's Antiques and Collectibles Mall, where the voluble Ruthy (whose real name is Cornelia Crandall), presides over a treasure trove of antiques, collectors' items and locally made crafts. She insisted on placing a call through to The Collector to make sure we would reach the gem store before its 5 p.m. closing time.

Following Ruthy's directions, we drove along a winding road that led us to a residential area on the outskirts of town. The Collector (and its sister store in La Jolla) has acquired an international reputation for its exquisite collection of precious gems and locally mined pink tourmaline, aquamarine, blue topaz and spessartite garnet. The store also has a stunning collection of custom-designed jewelry, a kaleidoscopic array of minerals and a display of fossilized dinosaur eggs from China. The Collector is worth a detour if you happen to be anywhere in the area.

For dinner on Saturday evening, we selected the Mesquite Broiler, another informal and popular eatery located in what used to be the town's first fire station. Flames licked at slabs of tantalizing ribs, chicken quarters and steaks grilling in the open-pit barbecue just inside the entrance to the restaurant. At the counter, Jacqueline took our order--mesquite-broiled chicken, succulent grilled sea bass, beer-batter onion rings, chicken fajitas salad and homemade peach cobbler.

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We checked out of Chateau des Avocatiers late Sunday morning, and bought several bags of fresh avocados and citrus at a local farm stand along the road. We were surprised to find macadamia nuts being sold at another. We learned from grower Tom Cooper, the owner of Rancho Nuez, that Fallbrook is a major producer of macadamia nuts. Along with some freshly toasted nuts, we bought a box of Cooper's luscious chocolate-covered macadamias.

We headed out of town via the scenic De Luz Road that links Fallbrook to Temecula. Intertwined limbs of centenary live oak trees arched over the road. In several places, we had to ford Sandia Creek, a small ribbon of water that can turn into a raging torrent during heavy rain. At the end of De Luz Road, we found ourselves on a hill overlooking the rapidly developing towns of Temecula and Rancho California. We coasted down the steep grade that led to Interstate 15 and, with a twinge of regret, merged with the heavy traffic.

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Budget for Two

Two nights at the Chateau des Avocatiers: $150.00

Dinner, Garden Center: $44.21

Lunch, Wayside Cafe: $12.25

Dinner, Mesquite Broiler: $40.53

FINAL TAB: $246.99

Chateau des Avocatiers, 670 Georgine Road, Fallbrook, CA 92028; tel. (619) 723-5132. Fallbrook Chamber of Commerce, tel. (619) 728-5845.

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